2005.11.23 Punchball in the Bronx

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

THE NOV. 14 “New Yorker” magazine has a story by John Lahr called “The Thin Man.” This particular thin man is John Buscemi, a rather odd-looking actor whom I remember most clearly from “Fargo” (the guy who went through the wood chipper) and “The Big Lebowski” (the skinny little bowler) and “Trees Lounge,” a movie that Buscemi wrote and directed.

He’s memorable, that’s for sure. His dentist wanted to fix his teeth, but Buscemi  knew he’d lose work if he looked good.

Oh, I forgot “Ghost World” where he played a reclusive record collector. There are probably others I’m forgetting, since I learned in the story that he’s been in more than 80 movies.

The story was chock-full of interesting tidbits, such as Buscemi’s story that he once kissed a girl in high school and she threw up on his shoes.

The author drove around Brooklyn, NY, while Buscemi pointed out some highlights from his youth.

“This is one of the more neglected neighborhoods,” he said as we rolled up Liberty Avenue where he used to play punchball and which was now littered with glass and garbage. As we got out of the car, a posse of Latina girls in toreador pants passed by.

That stopped me short. Not the toreador pants but the punchball. I had to ask my New York City contact—my wife from the Bronx—what punchball was all about.

“You take a Spaldeen...” Hold it there. She’s talking about a little pink ball made by the Spaulding company. It’s probably a handball, but in N.Y.C. it’s known simply as a Spaldeen.

So, you take a Spaldeen, you throw it up in the air and you punch it with your hand if you’re the batter and you run the bases like a game of baseball. Sometimes there’s a pitcher, but in her neighborhood the ball was usually tossed up by the batter.

Back to the story. Lahr and Buscemi drove on past St. Michael’s Church, now surrounded by barbed wire.

“The church was locked; part of the playground where Buscemi had flipped cards was now a parking lot.”

I had to consult my wife again. Flipping cards?

Colleen was a little hazy on this one. Something about flipping baseball cards. She said to call her sister, Linda, who lives in Brooklyn. Linda was less hazy, but her friend, Liz, was the one who was clear. Liz grew up in Brooklyn and here’s what they did.

Each player brings a stack of baseball cards to the game. Player A would flip over five cards, one at a time, and see how they land—either face up or face down. Player B had to match the number of face-up, face-down cards. If it was a match, Player B won all the cards. You kept flipping until the cards were gone and the winner had them all.

There’s something in the flip that I can’t put into  words. I’ve seen my wife do it, but I can’t really describe it.

WHEN I hear stories of punchball, card flipping and others (Skullsey, Hot Peas & Butter, Johnny on the Pony) I feel that I had a game-deprived youth. I played War and Hide-and-Seek and Freeze Tag, along with army games and home-made games such as Make Me Laugh.

Hide-and-Seek took on an extra element of excitement due to Susan Webster’s dog that would chase us from the front porch to the back porch. I was really afraid of that little mutt.

None of my games stand up to those of the New York City kids. They knew how to have a good time. And for my wife, it was an important part of her social development.

She’s mentioned several times how she had a socially-deprived childhood. I recall her saying that she never had a date in high school, but when I ask her now, she claims that she went to see “Billy Jack” with some guy and then went back to his bedroom to converse and stuff. It sounds like that was about the extent of her dating days.

But punchball was a glorious time. In fifth grade, she was the only girl the boys allowed to play, but that was only at recess.

I wasn’t all that impressed. “So what did that do for you?” I asked.

“It got me to first base.”

   - Nov. 23, 2005

 

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