By John W. Fountain
I was jingling coins in my pocket the other day, chump change to be transferred to the bedroom dresser, the ashtray in my car or an extra large apple juice bottle my wife dumps all the stray currency in. I've grown more fond of dollars than cents. Lost some respect for change.
I used to love the pocket symphony. Thirty-two was the magic number. Thirty-two cents was enough to buy a bright white rubber baseball at Mr. Penny's grocery store on West 16th Street on Chicago's West Side. A thin, dark chocolate man, he kept the balls—white ones and red ones—in a glass case behind the counter, surrounded by candy. We'd walk into the store, a couple of us,beaming with coins in hand.
"Rubber ball," we'd say, not swayed in the least by the sea of candy, "a white one."
He'd count out the change on the glass counter top, then hand over the ball. I'd hold it with two hands, squeeze it in my palms, then caress it with my curve-ball fingers and thumb, tickle its ridges, and hold it up to my nose so I could breathe the new rubber.
We'd pooled our money. We couldn't afford a real major leaguer, which cost more than a buck. Plus we didn't all have baseball gloves all the time. Sometimes we'd borrow one or two from somebody's dad or older brother. Somebody always had a bat.
We never really had a diamond, though. Usually we'd play in the narrow alley out of the range of windows and cars that were vulnerable even to hard-hit rubber balls. At other times, when there were just a few of us, we'd find a building adjacent to a barren vacant lot and use a piece of white chalk to draw a large square on the building, right where the strike zone was, and cross the box with a large X. The building was our catcher—for as long as our parents could take the wall-pounding—which meant we could have a pitcher and a fielder on each of the two teams, even if there were just four of us.
We'd start playing in the afternoon and go until the sun went down, unless Horse Head or Mercury or Hucky hit a home run and the ball landed on top of a roof or in somebody's yard with a big bad dog or until somebody got mad over a call and a fight broke out.
Sometimes somebody's little brother would show up saying, "Mama said come home! Nowwww!" My mama would occasionally yell, half-singing from our second-floor apartment window, "Joh-honnnn!" My name suddenly acquiring a second syllable. I hated leaving the game.
Everywhere in our neighborhood, the sounds of wood slapping rubber or rubber popping leather were as common as the train whistle and rickety-steel noise of wheel over track that echoed from blocks away sometime after midnight, trailing off into the darkness. You could count on that train. You could count on baseball.
Things have changed. Back in my old neighborhood, the bats have stopped. Mr. Penny's is gone, replaced by a liquor store, the vacant lot strewn with garbage and debris. The concrete alleys are idle and forlorn places where folks used to occasionally find a dead dog and now occasionally find a dead body.
Boys in my 'hood these days sell crack cocaine, hang out on street corners and "hit" blunts—marijuana rolled in cigar paper. I hear them yell "blow!" when cars drive by. They hide their stash in people's front yards and run across the vacant lot we used to play baseball in, shooting at one another. What happened? Drugs. When? Sometime between today and yesterday. Yesterday we dreamed of making the majors. Hucky planned to take that lefty pitching arm all the way to the World Series. Lonnie, a pint-size second baseman-shortstop who could rattle off baseball stats faster than Harry Carey, figured he'd win a Golden Glove some day.
We never talked about our absentee fathers and how long it had been since the last time we saw them. Or the abuse that some of our mothers took from the new men in their lives. We didn't talk about how poor we were, or whose lights or gas or telephone had been disconnected.
Back then, you didn't curse within earshot of grown-ups. When you saw an old lady coming down the street, you held the ball or stopped the game until she had passed. The lines were less hazy. Dealing drugs was wrong. Baseball was right.
We were driving through my old neighborhood the other day, my wife and I. We drove down 16th Street past the stretch of liquor stores and abandoned houses, past staggering drunks and pipeheads, up to Pulaski Road, the route I took as a boy on the way to Mr. Penny's. We drove on, down Pulaski, past the drug boys manning their posts at 18th Street, eyeing passing motorists like roving peanut vendors at a baseball game, past the old bedding store where the owner was robbed and killed a few years ago, past the vacant lot where the A & P used to be.
Hope seemed to have disappeared, like most of the old faces in my old neighborhood. Like many of the buildings that have been reduced to ash and empty space. Wiped away, like white chalk on a brick wall.
Then, we turned a corner, and there they were: about a dozen boys, 10 or 12 years old, in a vacant lot, on a summer day, playing baseball. It sounded like music. Like a pocket full of change.
Originally published in the Washington Post Aug. 1997.