OOD MORNING, EVERYBODY! It's a beautiful New York autumn day, on this Saturday, the 25th of September in the year of 1965. It's light-jacket weather up here in this peculiarly sealed-off section of The Bronx, just across from the "mainland" of Manhattan, which is directly due South. We're here underneath the rolling hills of Riverdale to our West. Kingsbridge Road borders us to the East, rising way up that hill past the end of West 225th Street, running along the trail where Revolutionary War soldiers fought. Directly to the North lies West 228th and 230th Streets, bordering the last two buildings on the west side of Broadway, separated from Buildings 1 through 9, which form a giant circle along the inside of three rather huge city blocks. Sounds funny, but that's how the circle of buildings is laid out, as the three big blocks have bends and curls to them.
Welcome to the MARBLE HILL HOUSING PROJECTS, fully erected in 1952. The Projects consist of 11 buildings, each having 15 floors. There are ten separate apartments on each floor. What a great laboratory in which the sons and daughters of the World War II generation can learn the ways of the world, both fair and unfair.
Yes, we're here today to broadcast the much ballyhooed race between the powerfully built 15 year-old Paula Poundash, representing Playground 2, and the diminutive, 12 year-old nice-guy, Robbie Keltner; today the symbol of pride for Playground 1. The two playgrounds have had ongoing sporting rivalries in the past: tackle football at Inwood Park; softball played on the odd-shaped field down at the Seaman Brother's loading dock/parking lot by the New York Central Railroad tracks, bordering the Harlem River; punch ball on each playground's makeshift concrete fields; and stoopball-off-the-logs in Playground 1 and off-the-concrete steps in Playground 2.
Yet this impending contest seems to have intensified the rivalry in an even more vigorous way than any sporting event which has come before. Perhaps this is because each individual participant seems to embody such a different type of personality or philosophy of life. And, somehow, those adhering to one way of seeing the world, hang out in one playground, and those seeing it another way, hang out in the other playground. These intangible elements seem to determine playground allegiance more than does the geography of which building one lives in. Now, of course, there are going to be exceptions, exclusions, and exaggerations when defining an entire sub-population , such as I'm trying to convey here, but there's also more than a kernel of truth to the points made by the teens and latency-aged children I've spoken to from both playgrounds in regards to their differences. Please bear with me as I attempt to elaborate.
Playground 2 inhabitants are more physical. There's a swagger to their walk. They seem more impulsive; not adverse to the potential of trouble. Conversely, Playground 1 kids are more likely to maintain a low profile, to delay gratification, to play within the rules of the system. Parents of the children from each playground also seem to discipline differently.
Trouble for a kid from Playground 1 would resemble the mild daring Elliott Mertz embarked upon when he and his friend, David Stetson, went to Alexander's Department Store on Fordham Road and The Grand Concourse on a school day. Elliott determined the day before that he just had to have the Help! album by the Beatles. Though he could have borrowed it from friends, and could even have make use of his dad's Wollensak tape recorder to make a 4-channel stereo reproduction - clicks, pops, crackle sounds and all - he still found not having his own clean LP copy unbearable. He plotted with David to meet him by the #20 bus stop on 225th and Exterior Street the next morning. Bounding down the steps of the bus and walking from Kingsbridge to Fordham Road, they pondered the foolhardiness of the decision. Despite evidence of a cold sweat about to break over both, they now had no choice but to forge ahead.
David used the money earned from working at his parents' pizza place to buy two 45's for one dollar: Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds and Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire. After buying Help! for the discounted price of $2.74, indicated by the album's sticker code,"C", Elliott also bought a monkey-on-a-stick from the third floor toy department for his youngest sister. Part of the purchase price was raised with the money saved from not buying the regular lunches at Tetard Junior High School 143 . The lunches offered there were often like the infamous, not-particularly cooked-through "pizza": a slice of white bread, with a cold slice of American cheese flung upon it, and a red circular splotch of ketchup in the middle of the cheese, cyclops-like. You look down at your lunch. Your lunch looks back up at you. You wonder what you did to deserve this. So, instead of spending 35 cents on the likes of that, Elliott downed only milk (four cents) and a Scooter Pie (a nickel) each day.
Upon return home, Elliott immediately confessed to his mom about the adventure. He would need a note from a parent to get his absence excused by the school. Mom figured as follows: basically good kid, telling me the truth, undertook his Bar-Mitzvah without a problem, got his sister something, and only ditched this one time. Okay. So she wrote from the basic parent template, "Please excuse my son, Elliott, for his absence yesterday, as he had a sore throat." Playground 1 mischief: relatively safe (even "giving").
Brett Garbowski, more typical of a Playground Two teen, has a much more cavalier attitude toward mischief. Brett is lanky, all elbows and knees. Lean face, pale, quiet, on the outside; a seething cauldron of bombastic daring, and a nothing-to-lose attitude on the inside. He is as reckless as the day is long in summer. To illustrate... Brett climbed out his bedroom window on the 14th floor; dangled above the ground some 250 feet in the air, fingernails holding on to the brick facing outside of the building. He then stretched to climb back into the apartment through the living room window, balancing along the very narrow ledge between the two windows. Asking him about his death-defying stunt, observed from his own living room window in another building, Marty Epstein, from Playground One asked, "Why did you do that, Brett?" to which Brett responded, "Why not?" Playground 2 mischief: impulsive, dangerous, purposeless.
Concerning parental responses, like with Elliott's mom, Playground 1 parents believe in a little more talk, a little more Dr. Benjamin Spock processing; while parents in Playground 2 believe in the more old-style "spare the rod, spoil the child" credo. Let's take the following two examples of parental encouragement to do the right thing, like coming upstairs on time.
Playground 1 mom: When its time to come up for supper, Carol Levy's mom leans out the window as dusk approaches and gently rings a dinner bell as a reminder. Carol has five minutes to disengage from the latest debate about who sings which lines on Sonny and Cher's I GOT YOU BABE, or to argue the relative talents of Herman's Hermits versus The Dave Clark Five before proceeding upstairs.
Playground 2 mom: Billy Metzger's mom is a little more confrontive. At four feet, three inches tall, in excess of 200 pounds, with kinky red hair and freckles, she resembles a compressed and severely overweight Howdy Doody. Sticking her frizzled head out of the window she yells, "Come up NOW, Billy!" If this does not produce desired results, she comes downstairs, garbed only in a muumuu, grabs him by the ear, and yanks him upstairs.
One night last week, though, Billy got sick of it and decided to challenge her authority. After Ma Metzger screamed her usual "Come up NOW, Billy," Billy cupped his hands on both sides of his mouth, threw his head back as far as he could, gazed up to the Heavens (which insisted on poking through the urban haze created from the blackened flames from the incinerator on the roof) and let out his blood-curdling response, "FUCK YOU, MA!" This exhortation to his mom, during the quiet of sunset, ricocheted through the Projects with an echo so clear, you would have thought it was reproduced in the Abbey Road sound studio. As Billy accepted congratulations from some of his his misguided Playground 2 peers, who were clearly evidencing a "groupthink" moment, somehow interpreted as "good" and "liberating," Ma Metzger was on her way downstairs with the sounds and visions of "Your Funeral, My Trial" playing in her head. She had grabbed the nearest available weapon, an oak-handled mop from behind the refrigerator. Finding it too big to effectively wield, she took out one of Billy's dad's hand saws. A 30 inch, 40 ounch, sawed-off, oak-handled, Made-in-the-USA, hard-wood, jagged mop handle was on its way down in an elevator, clutched tightly by the tightly wound mom, to meet its intended target. Out of the front door of Building 2, she flew. What looked to be an out-of-control red-crowned Bigfoot with "Missing Link" primitive bipedal locomotion, rocketed towards Billy at a speed that seemed incongruent to its body mass. One of the revelers spotted the enraged mom hurtling towards the hangout wall with what appeared to be a weapon designed for torture from the Middle Ages. Scattering like roaches after the light has been turned on at midnight in a project apartment's kitchen, the other teens left Billy to be pummeled into submission by the raging bull, this time garbed in a flannel nightgown, some buttons missed, and fuzzy slippers. Sure Billy could have outrun his mom, but he must have figured that this would only enrage the Troglodyte-appearing organism even more, so he opted to take his beating then and there.
Well, friends, it's just about time for the race to begin and you can just feel the tension swelling in the air around us. It's no secret that the Playground 1 kids feel a bit intimidated by the Playground 2 kids; if you can believe accounts told to this reporter on the condition of anonymity. They will not be celebrating openly should Robbie pull off the upset. The reason is obvious: fear of retaliation in the form of a very powerful punch from Paula. The Robbie-rooting contingent and their younger siblings have even gone to the elaborate extent of planning a variety of "escape routes" to ensure their safety. These are:
The race will be run on the narrow concrete-paved strip between the two playgrounds, so as to offer neither contestant a home-field advantage. On one side of the make-shift track, which is normally a walkway for tenants, usually moms wheeling baby carriages, there are chained-off patches of grass. On the other side, there are slat-benches painted a dark green, which sit atop concrete foundations jack-hammered through cobble-stone foundations, remnants of a long-gone Bronx. The runners will not have much room to maneuver along this thin stretch of track. Any variation from their assigned narrow lane will surely result in disqualification.
The starting gun is set to go off in about five minutes. A mild breeze is blowing from East to West, swirling lightly, gusting to maybe ten miles per hour, from Exterior Street to Broadway. The runners may get an additional boost out of the starting block with this wind at their back.
The race came about as a challenge issued from Paula to Robbie. As soon as she heard some Playground 2 denizens rave about how fast Robbie looked after beating Barry Miles, three years his elder, in a 50 yard dash, Paula sought to quickly stifle any possible thought that this "little kid" may be faster than herself. She ran over to where Robbie was shooting the breeze with his friends, Ronnie "Roonded" Kappock and Alan "Tubby" Gordon. The boys were stunned to see her so up-close and personal, for very few in Playground 1 had laid eyes on her from such a short distance without being left with a black and blue shoulder that would turn to a purple two days later and finally, a sickly yellow-green after that. Increments of pain would match the changing color scheme. First the stinging sensation, like sharp needles; then the horrible soreness in which the arm couldn't be lifted without pain, then finally the lingering dull ache for another several days until it passed, at which time throws could again be made across the infield or in from the outfield with premorbid strength and accuracy.
Adding to the drama of today's race is its unequivocal David and Goliath aspect. Paula stands about 5' 9" tall and weighs about 170 pounds. Robbie weighs in at 95 pounds and stands 4' 7" tall. Her legs look like tree trunks; her arms, sledgehammers. His legs look like those of a stick-figure in comparison, while his arms have that Popeye-before-the-spinach-look. Each runner's distinct style also adds to the unmistakeable contrast between the two competitors. Paula gobbles up chunks of earth, a veritable bulldozer in motion. Robbie glides, slicing through the air; Beatle-haircut bouncing across his forehead, shoelaces loosely tied, flopping lazily against the tops of his sneakers as part of his effortless motion.
The contestants are about to toe the starting line. Most of Robbie's friends are to his right. Mark Forsberg, the leading intellectual of the crowd, is sitting over the top of the bench, facing backwards so as to have a clear view. As soon as Barry Raines, ex-Teenager, and the honorary referee of the race, begins his sequence of "On your mark, get set, go," Mark will surely have laid down his political treatise by William F. Buckley, Jr. to cheer Robbie on; in a discreet sort of way of course. Behind the bench, Elliott and Marty, toss a spaldeen back and forth, wearing their baseball gloves with Yankee hats firmly in place, despite the team's horrid showing this year. Paula's friends are directly behind her, and a little off to the left. Hoots, hollers and more rowdy encouragement accompany her getting loose.
It will only take about five seconds or so for the completion of the race. But, ladies and gentlemen, the bragging rights based on its result are sure to last for quite some time. Caryn and her best-friend Ruthie-Boy, both big Robbie fans, are off to the very far left, up towards the finish line. They stand just at the edge of the dirt by the chained-off grass. They kick up some loose sandy gravel as they hop back and forth in excited anticipation. They have also apparently decided to "initiate" each other's new white sneakers, and, so, a bit more sandy dirt spills on to the concrete running surface.
Robbie is considered a slight underdog in the race today, mostly for intangible reasons. Under pure laboratory, non-pressurized conditions, he may be a bit faster than Paula. However, Paula has never really lost a one-on-one competition. In fact, the only sporting event in which she came out on the loosing end, was when she and Ira Cragin of Playground 2 challenged Elliott and Marty of Playground 1 to a game of stoop ball on the Playground 1 field. Paula and Ira thought they would display an awesome show of brute power and went for "autos" (automatic home runs clearing the benches) every time up, resulting in more pop-ups and foul-outs than they would have liked. Meanwhile, Elliott and Marty demoralized them via great defense and the use of "small-ball" to make sure there were plenty of runners aboard when they would try for the long ball off the logs. With the score soaring out of control, Paula and Ira quit by the third inning, after the fighting between themselves escalated until it proved intolerable. They quickly paid up on their dollar bet and made their way back quietly to their home playground, but only after Paula offered up some suspect rationalizations - some would say "excuses" - as to why they lost and how they were really better than the Playground 1 guys. But this is a truly one-on-one situation, and given Paula's intensity and overall sporting savvy, she is expected to overcome the slight edge in speed on the part of the young upstart, Robbie.
Let's go down to the call by Barry. "Okay," Barry shouts out to the racers. He is holding out his arms from his sides. Each racer is supposed to slap his palm as they fly by. Robbie, his left; Paula his right, as he is facing them.
"I want a good, clean race. ON YOUR MARK." Paula is down in a sprinter's crouch. Robbie is bent at the waist, like he's getting ready to steal a base in baseball. He's closer to the bench side. Paula's legs appear rooted to the ground, muscles tensed. She's closer to the chained-in grass side.
"GET SET." Robbie bites his lower lip, places more weight on his back foot. Paula raises her haunches, ready to rumble forward.
"GO!" They both get off the line cleanly. Robbie takes almost no time in getting up to full speed. He looks like a zooming pogo stick, a blur with a Beatles wig on top. Paula comes out of her crouch with more effort, in stages, as she must uncoil from beneath her thick armour, like a big bear emerging from hibernation. Those who have seen her run are amazed at the speed she can attain, given her girth. At the half-way point Paula is clearly closing in on Robbie. Robbie remains in the lead, but barely. She digs down further seeming to access a new gear, with jaw protruding, eye glasses pressed back over the thick, flattened bridge across her nose. She's almost upon him.
CRACK! The unmistakable sound of something having gone very wrong! Paula falls to the ground in a heap.
"Oh, my," the shocked announcer spouts, "Paula has crumbled to the ground." She's lying there in agony, screaming. Robbie slaps Barry's hand. Barry races over to the fallen Paula who is already being surrounded by some friends. Curious onlookers crane their necks to see her femur protruding through the skin, poking through the scraped off hole in her pants. Barry alights to the front office where he is sure to inform housing authority officials to call for an ambulance. The screams are more muffled now, as Paula bites down at the edges of her sweatshirt.
"Ladies and gentlemen, there's a whole lot of emotion and drama being played out on that track and the surrounding rooting sections right now. There's a mix of terror, a sense of defeat, a sense of unfairness, and a sense of victory, however tainted. There will be no ceremony proclaiming Robbie the winner. That may come on another day, or not at all. There may be a rematch, should all go well in the healing process for Paula. For right now, though, Robbie and his crowd from Playground 1 depart in victory, but rather respectfully, as they leave the Playground 2 crowd to attend to their wounded warrior. Despite its tragic ending, we must recognize Robbie as the winner."
We're heading closer to the track. There seems to be some slippery material right near the place where Paula fell. She may have been undone by reaching back for that little bit of extra, as well as a quirk in the track surface. Elliott can be seen pumping his right fist, into the glove on his left hand, celebrating unobtrusively. Robbie has brought home a victory for the Playground 1 crowd. I wonder if they feel a combination of pride, as well a sense that this rivalry is far from over.
"And so, sports fans, for now, we bid you a fond adieu from the Marble Hill Projects, site of the Championship Race between the Playgrounds. Our best wishes go out to the participants and their fans."