It was hot and humid all up and down the east coast. It was hotter and more humid in Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 90s and stagnant. The heat was trapping the humidity in the air. It didn’t matter. Dottie was playing stickball in the street.
The street wasn’t West 56th. She wasn’t about to break a sweat about that. Her father had told her to never play stickball on their own street. The fronts and windows of buildings were ruled home runs. Stan didn’t want any broken windows near where they lived. Dottie and her friends always played on West 55th or West 57th.
A boy bigger than her teased her about it, pushing her to the ground.
“You always do everything your old man tells you to do, squirt?” he said, curling his lip, looking down and straddling her.
She had a broom handle stick her hands. Looking up from the gutter she whacked him as hard as she could between his legs. When the boy’s father showed up at their apartment that night to complain that his son might never grow up to be a father, Stan threw the man out, dragging him down the stairs by his collar, threatening him and all of his family and friends with harm if they ever laid hands on his daughter again.
“You think I’m fooling, look up my police record,” he yelled gone deliberately red in the face in the ashy face of the man when they were on the sidewalk. He calmed down in an instant the instant he was back in the house. He jogged upstairs.
“You did the right thing Dottie,” he told his daughter. “If somebody says something rotten to you, be a lady about it. But if somebody pushes you, or grabs you, or hits you, you hit them back as hard as you can. You always do that. That’s so they won’t push you down again.”
“OK, dad,” she said.
It was a good day for stickball. Eight kids showed up, they picked their teams, and Willy, her friend from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, brought a new pinky ball. It wasn’t a Pensy, either. It was the cream of the crop, a Spalding Hi-Bounce.
They drew a square rectangle in chalk on the brick wall at the back of a vacant lot on West 55th to represent the strike zone. The buildings on both sides were the foul lines. They chalked first and third base on the building walls and second base was a manhole on the sidewalk. If a batted ball hit any of the buildings across the street, it was a home run. If it hit a roof it was a home run-and-a-half. If it hit a window they ran like hell.
“There ain’t no runs-and-a-half,” a snot-nosed kid from Chelsea, who was visiting his cousins, sneered and leered.
“If you’re going to play stickball on West 55th, you better learn Hell’s Kitchen rules,” gibed Willy.
Dottie was batter up. She smacked a hot grounder, but it was caught on the first bounce, and she was out. Willy got as far as third base, but three strikes and you’re out finished their inning. By the time they came back up in the second they were behind by five runs. It wasn’t looking good for the home team.
“All right, all right, let’s pick it up, let’s get some roofies,” yelled Willy, urging his team on. “But chips on the ball. I mean it.” He meant that if his new Spaldeen was roofed, and couldn’t be found, everyone would chip in to pay for a new ball.
Hal came up to the plate, wagged the broom handle menacingly, and planted his high-top rubber soled Keds firmly in the squishy unravelling asphalt. They were new and felt like Saturday shoes. His batted ball hit the side wall at third base where the wall met the ground and bounced back to home plate in a high slow arc.
“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.
“No, that ain’t a do-over, it’s a foul ball, so it’s a strike,” shouted back Dave Carter, who everyone called Rusty because his hair was red.
“What do you know?”
“I know what I gotta know.”
“Go see where you gotta go,” said Hal.
“No, you stop wasting my time,” said Rusty. “It was a foul ball.”
“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.
Stoopball was throwing a pinky against the steps of a stoop, and then catching it, either on the fly or on a bounce. Catching the ball was worth 10 points. Catching a pointer on the fly was worth 100 points. A pointer was when the ball hit the edge of a step and flew back like a line drive, threatening to take your eye out. When you played stoopball, you played against yourself.
“You got a lotta skeeve wichoo,” Rusty shouted back at Hal.
“All right, already, strike one,” said Willy, exasperated.
He knew Rusty would never give in. He was a weisenheimer. He was someone you had to keep your eyes on, too, or your Spaldeen might grow legs. It wasn’t that Rusty was a thief. He just kept his nickels in his pocket, and everything else, too. Willy had heard he was such a tightwad he still had his communion money from two years ago.
Rusty had been born in Philadelphia. That was his problem. Willy sympathized, slightly.
Hal hit a cheap on the next pitch, a slow roller, but when Rusty let his guard down, reaching leisurely down for the Spaldeen, it went between his legs, and the next instant Hal was standing at first base, smirking.
“Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself. “Our game.”
Eleven batters later Dottie’s team was on the plus side of the scoreboard, nine to five.
The woman sitting on the stoop across the street watching her windows watched Dottie and her friends walk down the sidewalk, when the game was over, one of them bouncing his pinky, all of them talking happily.
“We killed them, just killed them,” said Willy.
“We sure did,” said Hal.
“What a game!” said Dottie.
“Yeah, first we were down, came back big, you put some Chinese on that ball between Rusty’s legs, they slipped ahead, and then we score fourteen just like that, and it’s all over.”
“Did you see him, the putz, pulling that long face?” asked Hal.
“Oh, he’ll be back, no biggie, he loves playing on the street,” said Dottie.
Dottie was so glad her team had fought and won. They scrapped for every run. It was worth it. She didn’t mind losing once in a while, but she liked winning better. She stripped off her hot sweaty clothes, rubbed down with a cool sponge, and put on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
She put her stick away in a corner beside her bedroom window. In the summer she loved her friends, no matter what team they were on, and loved playing stickball with them more than anything in the world. When it was wet and windy, the pinky and chalk and sticks stashed, and they were clambaking the grapevine, it always flipped its way back to playing ball.