By Stefanos Chen
It’s 4 pm on possibly the last warm Sunday of the calendar year and the handball courts in Sunset Park are packed. A motley crew of teens, ‘tweens and indeterminate youths squat around the edges of the fenced-in perimeter as they wait for one last showdown at sundown—one last game to carry them through the shut-in months of winter. No one is watching the sunset.
The wall is a massive slab of poured concrete, divided into three separate courts by broad swipes of orange paint, like an unfinished triptych. There are three doubles games in play, side by side, four kids per court. Each game has its own row of spectator/challengers who switch off between calling the shots and shouting obscenities.
“It’s been, like, point-game for the longest time,” says an older boy who’s been waiting to play for close to an hour. He wears black and blue from head to toe, his growing beard is landscaped into a pencil thin line and his hair is cropped into neat cornrows. The ends of his braids stick out from his Yankees cap as he sighs and stares down at his impeccable Pumas.
“Nah, we’re gonna push!” comes a higher pitched voice from the far right court. “Relax, I got this.”
Most games end at 21, but when the game is tied at 20, the players can agree to “push” the score until they reach a decisive victory. If the players need another tiebreaker, they “push” the game again. And again, as 10, then 20 minutes elapse. It’s too late to challenge the winners of the middle court; a new game has already started. And on the far left court, an older man rifles through a small stack of singles with a five in the middle—money game; no hope of playing there. Black and blue grumbles to himself as he presses up against the fence, staring daggers into the players.
Just outside the chain-link fence, a police car drives by at a crawl, signaling the start of the evening patrol. Black and Blue strikes up a conversation with a new kid, who isn’t looking to play at all. They talk for a few minutes, but their words are unclear. “Yesterday…f..ked my whole day,” he says to the new kid. Between words, he occasionally looks up at the handball game and listens for the score. It’s getting harder to spot the tiny rubber ball as it whizzes back and forth.
“Man, what is this push shit?” Black and Blue grumbles aloud. One of the players, a youngish boy the others call “Dragon” volunteers an answer.
“Was I talking to you?” Black and Blue asks. “Inevertalk to you.”
“You’re talking to me right now.”
The game continues at a snail’s pace. One of the players announces the handball equivalent of double over-time: “Game 31!” he says. It’s just after 5 o’clock and the park lights have come on. The court on the left has emptied and the middle court players are getting ready to leave. Black and Blue plugs in his earbuds and walks away.