It is my probably faulty recollection that parents simply did not exist when I was a teenager. Sure, someone must have paid the bills on our five-room, one-bath, split-level on Colorado Avenue on Bridgeport’s west side. A person of the feminine persuasion provided us with relatively healthy meals (I could have done with a lot less canned Le Sueur Peas, though.) And my grandparents did technically live directly upstairs from us (my grandma watching General Hospital, and my grandpa reading his Slovak edition of Pravda.)
Yet, in a very real sense, my younger brother and I spent most of our days very much unsupervised. We could have been famous serial arsonists, but as long as we were home by around 9:00 p.m., that’s all that mattered.
Make no mistake, I hold no grudge against my parents or grandparents. My parents worked hard all day, and my grandparents had worked perhaps even harder for tens of decades before that. My grandparents still used the very same salt and pepper shakers they’d received back on their wedding day in the heart of the Great Depression in the early ’30′s. My dad still took the Barnum & State bus to work. No one in my immediate family could be accused of flaunting their wealth.
I bought my first baseball glove in the late spring of ’76, the Bicentennial year, with money I’d earned from household chores, or had saved from my First Communion and most recent birthday. I don’t remember the model, but it was mostly tan with dark brown trim. Perfect for grabbing hard-hit ground-balls off the sweltering summer pavement, it was clearly an infielder’s glove. No Mark Belanger, but Buddy Harrelson might have met his match. Shea Stadium was just about 90 minutes from my house. Surely, a roving Mets scout would someday spot me accidentally while driving through town.
Those honey-hued summer days were sticky and sweet as the peanut brittle in my grandma’s pantry, and time was a distant concept that smelled vaguely of rubbing alcohol and Tuesday afternoon Catechism classes. The ship I floated on was devoid of sail, and I would gladly have remained drifting on the current for eternity in those empty lots where sweaty boys in close companionship would induce grounders, line-drives and a form of self-hypnosis broken only by the Earth folding into itself, abandoning orphan Night to fend for herself.
My baseball glove was always the last thing I put away before bed, and first thing I’d take off my closet shelf once I got home from school. Let me make it clear that football and even basketball, like unannounced visits from cousins, would occasionally spend a day or two with us. Those events, while not unpleasant, only served to make us appreciate the utter seriousness of our relationship with baseball. Nothing could come between us and our bats and gloves. Until it did.
I was invited to my first pool party in July, 1978, when I was 15-years old. My friend Danny, in his usual fashion, simply showed up one mid-day at my house and told me that some of the girls from our class were having a pool party at their place, and that I should come along. I had no idea where these girls lived, and if you were raised in Bridgeport in the ’70′s, just going three or four blocks away from home constituted an expedition worthy of Marco Polo.
Danny drove me in his mom’s tan Buick up the interstate and on over to near the Trumbull line. There were few actual sidewalks out here, and certainly no corner stores. The mall was nearby, however, and everyone seemed to own at least three lawnmowers. I even saw a couple of kids kicking around what looked like a soccer ball on their front lawn. Christ, was I still even in America?
The pool was one of those above-ground jobs that you had to climb a ladder up, and then down, into the over-chlorinated water below. I’d only been in one like this a couple of times before, and, since I couldn’t swim, I’d had little incentive to seek opportunities to partake of this particular form of recreation very often. Skinny and self-conscious, I did slowly sink into the chest-high cool soup, and instantly noticed Janice’s butt around eight inches from my face, as she climbed into the pool directly after I’d made a relatively safe landing. Though not previously a big fan of Janice, she did now hold a certain biological sway over me that no evolutionary chain could break.
The tinny F.M. radio on the picnic table under the back upstairs deck over the driveway churned out tunes of the day, mostly just pop noise designed to hold your attention long enough to sell you that one missing item that would make you, if not quite cool, then at least not as big a loser as that other guy over there by himself with that bad haircut and that awful shirt.
Still, one or two songs (“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick, for example) happened to carve out an odd moment for themselves, to be frozen in time for no reason other than a fortuitous confluence of circumstance heightened by youthful sexual energy, and no obvious alternative to what for me was a pretty damned unique experience.
Chasing the girls around, one of them later stepped in dog-shit in the backyard, and the pool games weren’t quite going anywhere. One of the moms or dads came over and said something or other that I blocked out while their mouth was still forming the syllables, and the false jauntiness of their eyes signaled an end to our nearly nude mirth and merriment. Screw’em.
I slept over my friend’s house that night, the last night I would ever do so. Within a year, he’d become a loud, obnoxious bore, and I’d grown my hair longer while finally landing a job at Carvel Ice Cream on Park Ave. None of the girls from the pool party became a significant part of my life, though I think of them from time to time, and doubt I’ll ever hear the term “pool party” without thinking of that long ago afternoon.
When Danny dropped me off at my house the next day, I returned a changed young man. Baseball was no longer the Big Thing in my life. Within a few days, I sold my baseball glove to a younger kid in my neighborhood for six dollars. It didn’t have much life left in it anyway, and sure enough, Johnny got mad at me (but didn’t stay mad for long), when the webbing broke a few weeks later.
I no longer owned a baseball glove, and wouldn’t again for a few more years. And certainly, none of the gloves that I’ve owned in all those years since have logged nearly as many kid-hours as that first glove did in the streets and sandlots of Bridgeport.
This afternoon, after some deliberation, I bought a baseball glove for a friend of mine as a Christmas present. A few years older than me, and a serious baseball fan, he told me he hasn’t owned a glove in many years. It’s not for me to know why he has gone so long without one, or to inquire as to whatever happened to the mitts he’s owned in the past. Such questions might be too personal.
But I’m hoping that with his new glove, he might casually put to closure whatever experience he may have had regarding the end of his last glove. Unlikely that either of us will be invited over to a pool party anytime soon, perhaps we can, in the near future, simply enjoy a calm, hypnotic game of catch.