We moved the summer I turned ten, leaving midtown for downtown. My parents bought an old, weather-beaten, single family house, two miles to the south. Two miles was no different than two thousand. Downtown was a foreign land, much like Portugal or Brooklyn, one I knew nothing about, with weird stores, odd smells, and strange kids. I left the familiarity of a quiet neighborhood with a few friends for a raucous one with a dozen boys stalking about like a sanitized version of The Sharks.
In those days the social rituals of ten year old boys were uncomplicated. I suspect they still are. Everything revolved around sports. Athletic skill was the foundation upon which friendships were built. The first day I showed my face on the street I was quickly surrounded, brief introductions were garbled, and a series of mettle gauging physical tests abruptly commenced, a sort of Olympics trials for the newbie.
It started with a block-long footrace. We lined up, spanning the street from curb-to-curb like a twitchy marching band. Someone shouted “Go!” and off we went. Separation occurred immediately as one kid burst to the front and rapidly put distance between him and the rest of us. His name was Paul and he won, as they say, going away. I finished third, respectable enough to merit further evaluation and, more importantly, avoid withering disapproval.
The football toss actually gauged two things – arm strength and accuracy. Touch football was a staple of the fall/winter street gaming regimen and quarterbacks were as prized then as now. If a kid could thread a tight spiral between two parked cars without clipping an antenna…well, that was noteworthy. Although I had the accuracy of a sniper my arm strength was wholly unimpressive, more Joe Mannix than Joe Namath. But I didn’t embarrass myself. Mediocrity is common for a reason. Only one kid nailed both strength and accuracy, that speedster named Paul.
The objective of the free kick was pure distance. Skinny legs are the enemy of any kicker and I was pathetic, but so were most of the others with their normal legs. Paul, however, stood majestic. It was as if Thor’s hammer powered his right leg. The football climbed end-over-end and landed further than reason allowed. Thankfully, nobody cared about comparisons as we silently watched it sail far over the power lines.
Someone produced a Spaulding rubber ball, that small, pink thing of beauty, the centerpiece of many street games. Three skills were tested: How fast could you throw (or “whip”) it? How well could you catch it? And, of course, how far could you throw it? We didn’t have a radar gun, so we used sound to judge whipping success, the hard *smack* of the ball when it hit the hands catching it. I did much better catching the ball. The Spaulding was thrown at me from a criminally short distance, jettisoned by equal measures of bravado and sadism. It honed in on my right eye like a round, deadly missile. I’ve always believed in the adage that the best offense is a good defense. Quick defensive instincts prevented my eye from being violently relocated to the back of my skull. In contrast, the distance throw was boring and anti-climactic. And, since it was easy to quantify, Paul triumphed again.
The final test was the running jump, more commonly known as the long jump. We had no sandboxes, no measuring tape, no complex regulations. A chalk line was drawn on the pavement. You could start running as far behind that line as you wanted. The only hard rule: you had to start jumping before stepping over it. As you might imagine, a person who runs like The Flash with the vitality of Thor’s hammer in his legs might hold an advantage. Not surprisingly, Paul dominated like Bob Beamon.
Overall, I did enough to be welcomed into the group. I didn’t beat Paul at anything, but nobody did. Even though every boy participated in each event I wondered if the real test was seeing how I compared to Paul. He was the barometer by which everyone was judged. Beating him would have upset the established order and, let’s face it, social revolution is never pretty. Doing okay – but not winning – probably gained me more favor than any victory would have.
These memories shook loose when I recently learned Paul passed away last year. The truth is we were only friends for a few years. Once high school rolled around I splintered off to a different school and a new group of people. The last time we met was sometime in our early 20’s. He had obviously extended his physical prowess to weight training. We chatted for a few minutes in the stilted manner of people who drifted apart. I don’t remember any specifics of that conversation. It was simply a chance encounter with a childhood friend. But today I recall with absolute clarity those first impressions he made. Looking back I realize the “tests” on that warm June morning were more than a way to see how I would fit in. They also gave Paul’s friends another chance to watch him do his thing. I hope life treated Paul with kindness, laughter and dignity. I hope he was happy. And I hope he is now in a place where he can once again display those marvelous gifts; where he can throw like Hyacinth, run like Achilles, and jump like Chionis; where footballs soar above the clouds, forever on the rise.