To those of us who grew up in a New York City housing project, the word “court” has very special connotations. Physically, the court was defined by the area encircled by several apartment buildings. It usually had a set of benches, an open concrete play area, and lawns, with some variations on that layout.
More importantly, the court was a state of mind. It was a smaller, more tightly knit community within the larger housing project. And for us baby-boomers who grew up in those developments, the court was our whole world, insular, protected, and populated by dozens of our friends, a place where we could always choose up a game of stoop ball or punchball, or even find our first loves.
On balmy summer evenings, adults took over the benches, if they were lucky enough to find a vacancy. Otherwise, they’d bring out their lawn chairs and gather round in batches to gossip or simply escape their stuffy apartments. Meanwhile, us kids would be running around, working up a sweat playing tag, hide and seek, or ringalevio. Until the ice cream man arrived, of course. Then, at the sound of the bell, we’d immediately abandon our play and rush back to our parents for money. My favorites on a hot summer night were root beer and Coca Cola ices.
As a kid, we had no clue what the adults talked about in their klatches. Nor did we care. We were too busy with our own games. My favorite game in the court was stoop ball. Each apartment entrance had one concrete step, the stoop, leading to the front door, and each front door faced the open court itself, which became the field.
The object of the game, best played one on one well before anyone else was out to play that morning, was to hurl the ball with all your might against the stoop, aiming for the point of the step. If you hit the point, the ball would go flying far into the court. A grounder or pop fly caught cleanly was an out, but a pointer which traveled beyond the reach of the fielder was an extra base hit depending on how many concrete boxes it traveled. What a thrill it was to hit that pointer and watch the ball sail way over your opponent’s head. Home run!
After we outgrew childhood games, the stoop took on a different meaning. It became a teen hang out, a crucible for intense friendship and romance. We would gather on sultry nights after dinner with a transistor radio that could barely pick up a signal. We all had our roles: the playboy, the jock, the jester, the flirt. We’d laugh so long and hard at each other’s expense, that it would hurt. Sometimes we’d argue or get jealous, but there was a special closeness that helped us survive adolescence. We’d talk, laugh and flirt through the dwindling light and then reluctantly go our separate ways when the court emptied out. Unless, of course, you ended up sneaking off into the stairway to give your very first love a goodnight kiss.
Eventually, most of us went our separate ways, but ask any of us about the court we grew up in and you’ll hear similar stories illustrating the shared experience of close-knit communities within a community. I remember, when I was very young, that we’d cut through the housing development to go shopping and we’d have to pass through other courts. These courts all seemed foreign to me. Basically, each had the same brick towers, the same benches, and the same lawns, but they were still very strange and forbidding. Of course, they were courts too, but there was one big difference: they weren’t our court.