In the early 80s, my family moved to a new neighborhood on the other side of town. It was a brand new development, with brand new houses and brand new neighbors.
It didn’t take long for me to see, during that first summer, that we had diverse neighbors.
There were the Stadlers, from upper state New York, with that distinct accent and, yes, that unique New York attitude.
There was the Cunninghams. I don’t know where they came from, but they were bold and brash, a lively bunch.
Then, on the other end of the block was Naveen’s family. I don’t remember their last name, but I remember they were from India, and they celebrated their heritage through their dress and food. It was rad (80s lingo for “cool”) watching them walk the neighborhood at night in their traditional Indian clothes, bright reds and oranges, the scent of curry filling the air around them. They were so unlike anyone I had ever met, especially Naveen, the only child in the family. He was eight years old and as tall as his father—nearly 5’10”. He was a man-child, towering over me and every other eight-year-old kid on the block. But he didn’t take advantage of the size differential. Naveen was bright and funny, awkward and inventive; he became a good friend overnight.
Naveen was not into sports, but he loved movies and T.V. Shows like Knight Rider, and Magnum P.I. were common ground for us, things we could talk about incessantly. However, I soon discovered that Naveen’s passion was a T.V. show that I didn’t watch for whatever reason: V.
If you don’t remember or were too young, V was about humanity being invaded by lizard aliens dressed as people. That is a simplified version, but that’s less important than what the show did for our friendship. The show filled Naveen’s imagination, gave us plenty of material to work with, and was a centerpiece to our times after school and on the weekends.
My front yard was all dirt then, and my dad had crafted two mounds with a riverbed running between them in one part of the yard. That area, covered with two coral bushes, became our battleground. Naveen and I could crouch down behind the mounds and fight it with the V invaders, using Naveen’s custom-built Battlestar Galactica lasers as our weapons. Laughter and imagination, story, and physical play formed a friendship between two very different people.
As this was almost forty years ago, I don’t remember when he and his family moved, but at some point, one summer, Naveen’s family moved out of the neighborhood. It sucked; I’d lost a good friend. But by then, more kids had moved onto the street, and a new obsession had taken over for the community of kids: baseball.
Two of the neighborhood yards were the sight of epic pitching duels and homer run contests: my yard and the Stadlers.
Because of the stretch at the front free of trees and bushes, my yard was the sight of home run derbies. The pitcher stood at one end of the driveway, and the batter would hit from the far end of the yard, smashing brand-new tennis balls with metal bats all over the street and yards for hours at a time. In the middle of summer, June through August, during the heat of the day. We didn’t care. We mashed tennis balls over the neighbor’s yards, into their pools, onto their rooves, and more.
One yard, two houses down and across the street, had an immense Eucalyptus tree in the front. To us, as kids, it towered as high as Fenway’s Green Monster. So we used it as such. You knew you were swinging good that day if you were smashing the ball over the tree and into obscurity.
Hour after hour, day after day, we smashed home runs, copying the stances of our favorite players: Don Mattingly, Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Kirby Puckett, Matt Williams, and more. There was never a dull moment as long as we had a canister of tennis balls and some time.
Unlike my yard, Stadler’s yard was full of grass. So, it was naturally the place to have infield practice. We’d sling the ball around—a real baseball—turning double plays, getting into run downs, and pretending we were Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan. Despite the hundreds of hours being a catcher, I never did develop at that position. I couldn’t keep my eyes open when someone was hitting me.
Those days only lasted for a few years–but they were meaningful years. It was a time when kids from New York, India, Glendale, and elsewhere came together and became a community around art and sports. Baseball and T.V. shows provided common ground for us to share.
They kept us from being bored and getting into trouble. They kept us outside and in fresh air. They kept us moving and healthy. And they formed lifelong memories for me.
I’m not alone. I’m sure you have similar stories. Maybe you played tackle football in the park every day after school. Maybe you met friends at the local convenience store and talked about books, comics, or movies.
Maybe you skated on your street with other kids from the block.
Whatever bonded you and your friends, I’ll bet it revolved around sports, art, film, books, and T.V. shows.
Sports and art will always be important elements in our lives. And through the last few years, they are the two things that have held many of us together. Baseball and comic books, skateboarding and film, pick your two preferences; they unite families and neighborhoods even today. They are common, safe, and awe-inspiring grounds for many reasons that we will look at next week.
See you then,