Monday, February 7, 2011

Knickception: Episode 1

Scene 1: Exterior urban street, day

On a Saturday toward the end of his sixth year of grade school, a boy nabbed himself a forearm's length of fishing wire from the hardware store at the corner of 239th Street and Broadway. He'd clipped the piece off a long roll with a pair of stainless steal sheers he found on an seemingly untouched gardening display at the end of the narrow aisle and then tucked the wire up the right sleeve of the ill-fitting charcoal blazer that he wore every day to Catholic School. As he exited the store, the boy nodded as nonchalantly as he could seem at the wife of the owner as she swept the sidewalk out front. Her broom was a homemade besom broom rather than one of the push brooms for sale inside.

The gawky 12-year-old walked home briskly, but not too fast, limiting himself to just one look over his shoulder as he made his way through the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. He had never set foot in a boat, and his father's idea of fishing involved reaching around in a barrel full of icy water for the last cold Pabst, but that piece of fishing wire represented freedom. It's nine inches were the distance between his small life and the rest of the world.

When he got home, the boy slid off his well-oiled but penniless size 10.5 loafers and placed them in line with his grandfather's smaller dusty, cardboard soled oxfords just inside the front door of the clapboard row house. He walked on tipped toes down the darkened corridor, past the kitchen where his mother's ample posterior was sticking out from under the sink as she presumably dealt with another leak, to the bedroom he shared with two younger brothers. The youngest was sleeping fitfully in a a crib when he entered. Quieter still, the boy knelt at the side of his own bed and reached an arm under the mattress. He pulled out a cardboard cigar box which he had rescued from the trash on the day that his grandfather had moved in with them. His grandmother had just died, but the day seemed unusually festive.

The cigar box had a picture of the biblical character Samson on the front, whom he'd learned about in school. Inside was a pair of dice, an affectionate note he'd once gotten from a girl at school who had since moved to Long Island, a stack of baseball cards featuring local heroes like Joe Collins, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Joe DiMaggio and his favorite New York Yankee, pitcher Eddie Lopat who grew up in the Bronx and starred at nearby Clinton High School. Beneath all these possessions in that box was the object that had inspired him to break the law for the first time. To that point, the worst thing he had done was to covet the bicycle of his neighbor. The object that pushed him to crime was a round brass disc less than an inch in diameter. It was an IRT token he'd won off a schoolmate rolling that pair of dice in the corner of the classroom while his teacher, Sister Mary Clarence, scolded a student in the hallway for blaspheming Casey Stengel.

The Interborough Rapid Transit had extended into the Bronx for his whole life, but just recently had the boy ventured up to the platform at the station at 241st and Broadway, just north of the hardware store and across from Van Cortland Park. Although the elevated tracks abruptly stopped in Riverdale, a map on the platform showed that passengers on the train could travel south across the river into Harlem and eventually Manhattan. One could even connect to other trains and go as far as Brooklyn and Queens, places he'd traveled to mostly for funerals and christenings. By taking that train it might even be possible to visit that girl who had moved out to Long Island after her father returned from the War.

Which is where the stolen goods came into it. After filing down the raised markings on the side of the coin that read GOOD FOR ONE FARE, he looped the fishing wire through the Y-shaped cutout in the center of the token, tying a small knot to keep the coin on his thin but strong string so that he could drop it into the coin slot on the IRT turnstile and then pull it back out so that he could re-use it for his next journey.

To be honest, he'd hardly noticed the mousy brunette before that note had landed near the inkwell at the top right edge of his desk two years earlier. And, it wasn't so much her that he missed as it was the notion that somebody was paying attention to him, that somebody was approving. Since she'd departed, the boy had endured an unwanted growth spurt which had initially left his confidence in tatters. Assuredly, no girl, mousy or otherwise, could be sweet on a skinny, beanpole like him. Especially one without a nice bicycle.

Eventually, though, his height helped him find another way to garner attention: basketball. Playing at first with a lace-up ball he'd found in a janitorial closet at school, he'd found his newfound height, although it embarrassed him in just about every other situation, made him nearly unstoppable in the gymnasium. Soon enough he was playing with seventh graders. Then eighth graders. His dexterity and fluidity slowly gained on his size as the winter thawed. Before long, he had been asked by some high school boys to play. It was the second Saturday afternoon in March when he first played with a about two dozen high school kids at a hoop tied up on a light post at Van Cortland Park. They were so much stronger than he was and pushed him around beneath the rim, but he could keep his dribble seemingly as long as he wanted. A group of boys whose parents could afford to send them to Fordham Prep adopted him as their point guard. Soon enough they were filling his head with stories about their own travels by bus and even train to play against the best players that New York City had to offer. If he kept improving, they said, maybe he too could play in such games.

The boy was immediately smitten. He returned to that makeshift court every Saturday morning whether he'd been explicitly invited or not. And by the last weekend in April he'd stolen that line of fishing wire. He also wanted to match his game against the lithe, artful blacks in Harlem, the stout, tenacious Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the lean and mean Irish out in Brooklyn. He wanted to improve enough to make the basketball team at Fordham Preparatory School. And then he wanted to find a way out farther from Riverdale than a forearm's length of fishing wire and one IRT token could take him.

Decades later when he was approached while he thought he was eating the signature bone-in ribeye steak at Mo's in Indianapolis by NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver with the opportunity to travel places that he'd only dreamed of, literally, it took him just a moment to agree to the scheme. A short while later, when told he'd need to pick some sort of totem to carry at all times, he decided just as quickly.

Donnie Walsh's totem would be that jerry-rigged 1950s subway token.

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