The Rec

“How did you feel in God’s house?!” a familiar face asked me this evening, as I bounded into the Rec, basketball under my arm.United House

“Good, man! Like always,” I said, as we clasped hands and pounded. He pointed out a tall man behind us, who had also been in attendance at the Easter Sunday service at which he’d happened to sit next to me. At first, he had asked me if I work for the government. When I realized he was referring to bumping into me at the Rec, it became apparent he was just working out who I was.

But after stepping through the main hall and on to the court, I realized this was going to be a different evening from the quiet post-winter warm-ups I’d engaged in since Spring had returned, and intrinsically, my desire to ball. Tonight, the court was packed with ballers on one side, and busy with an organized dance club of young women on the other.

I had to wait for ‘Next after Next’ before I got into a game, and the competition was tough. This was classic indoor streetball, played at a deceptively quick pace and filled with miniature bouts of comedy, brilliance, and masculine intensity. The first real pick-up for me this season, my shot was off and my defense a step slow. But worst of all, (or perhaps for the better), I got clocked in the face twice. Not intentionally mind you, but both times by the ball, on the receiving end of deflected or mis-thrown passes. The blood against my upper lip made it hard to concentrate, but as the game has taught me to do, I pressed the red bile against my shirt and played on.

Most impressive of all the young men on the court, not for his flash but his control, was E. A familiar face from last summer, he is a powerfully built man several inches shorter than myself, but dramatically stronger and quicker. His jump shot is butter soft, his handle rock solid. But the one skill that lifts him beyond the level of his talented but erratic peers is his decision-making: for every funky ‘And 1 mixtape’ move the others make, E rarely dribbles the ball any more than necessary. And when the turnovers flare and the fast breaking turns sloppy, E will put a stop to it, with the percentage pass or the open jumper. If only most CEOs could run their organizations with such cool-headed mastery, the corporate world would be turned upside down.

After the game, I cooled down out by the ping pong tables. As the game I was watching wound down, in stepped E–now wearing jeans over his mesh shorts. His blonde-tipped dreads and calm persona offered no hint of the exertion with which my sweat-drenched face betrayed. Perhaps that’s because he hadn’t had to try. In all the games, I’ve seen him play, as with some of the other more skilled ballers, he never seems to break a sweat: shorts, jeans, parka–regardless. And now, here he was, serving up beautifully weighed backhand serves and punishing smashes before effortlessly dispatching with the previous round’s winner.

“You play table tennis too?” I’d asked him, earlier.

“I play pretty much everything, man,” he’d replied, with neither over-arrogance nor false humility.

And I don’t doubt him. The city–these troubled streets of Shaw–with its problems and pain and jubilation, is filled with supremely talented young people, boys and girls alike. I sincerely hope, but am sadly skeptical, that E has the opportunity to translate such skill and intelligence from this recreational facility into the economic architecture of his polarized city.

Shaw men
Jati Lindsay. From Shaw and Tell, a photo essay published in the Washington City Paper, April 2007.

There’s been several shootings in Shaw in the past several weeks, as some of the more consistent Shaw bloggers have noted.

There’s also been an increase in use of the spotlight, right outside of my house. Though not certain, I’m quite sure that the abandoned building across the street from my house is a hotspot for crack dealing, and things have been picking up lately.

The first time I saw it, it was quite surreal, almost like going to bed in the middle of the day, except where the sunshine is replaced by artificial, flashing light. After a while, as with anything else, you get used to sleeping when it’s bright out.

I often hear about how Leroy Thorpe, the former commissioner for my ward, really turned things around for this neighborhood in terms of chasing out drug elements and reducing crime significantly. That being said, I suppose what I see in my brief moments rushing along outside is practically suburban humdrum quiet compared to years past.

I had another meeting at Kennedy today, this time regarding a capoeira performance I’m hoping to organize. I’m looking forward to holding an event at my local rec, if only because these are the same kids I see as I ride along 7th, or walking to Giant on P Street.

One of them asked me for change last weekend; a stocky middle-school age chap I see at Kennedy often. I was on my bike, so I didn’t stop and carried on. But I wonder if he recognized me as the guy who was trying to convince him to play 2 on 2 not so long ago? We’re from different worlds and asking for different favors, just hanging in the same places.

PS: Crime map is handy, for those with a self-interested, or simply curious–if perhaps slightly morbid–interest in the city.

I’m semi-psyched tonight.

I finally managed to make the time to talk to the folks at the Rec in a more official manner about holding a spoken word poetry workshop. Previously, I’d mentioned the idea to some staff in passing, but this time I spelled it out thoroughly. After some initial suspicions at this Asian boy with one jean leg rolled to his knee (a byproduct of biking and unraveller inertia), they quickly warmed to the idea. We even concocted a new vision, starting with a small performance by the poets and a workshop, with an end goal of getting young workshop participants to perform their own pieces during a grand full-scale slam to serve as a major event for the season.

I’ve been in contact with one helpful poet, a prominent figure in the DC slam scene, and she’s told me she’d get back to me with poets willing to lead a workshop.

I focused on the “positive messages” aspect, also selling the Rec staffmember on the need for youth HIV prevention ideas. She seemed a little surprised at my familiarity with DC’s AIDS statistics. They certainly seemed to help, because she called in the acting manager—who I’d previously discussed the slam with—and he assured me he’s take it to the building manager to be authorized by the Department of Parks and Recreation. I don’t see why they’d be opposed.

Since I first started balling at the rec, I’d been constantly considering ways to contribute to youth activities in Shaw. There were drama club sessions I kept missing, the half-serious notion of an Amnesty International-sponsored human rights high school course…but for various reasons, such as my work hours, things failed to come together. Well this is my chance.

It feels good to be organizing these sorts of things again, after a good little break post-AIDS activist burn-out during my college organizing days.

“Wanna play one-on-one?”

Her name is Janine, but the first time I saw her, I might have guessed it would be something closer to “John.” Constructed of all wiry muscle, in a loose white t, dark mesh shorts and a closely shaven head, it was only the pitch of her voice which gave her gender away.

“Alright,” I reply, quickly realizing that this is the suss-out game. As I do with everyone else I’ve played at Kennedy Rec individually, I start with the same line:

“So where you from?”
“Around here…you?”
“I’m from Australia.”

Immediately distancing myself from any frame of reference, I set the sheet as clean as I can. ‘Tabula rasa’, ‘take it from the top’…whatever euphemism you want to use, I shove my background as far outwards as I possibly can in order to let my game speak for me as wholly as it can. This is the way I played when I was nine in a friday night school league at the leisure centre in Australia; when I was 16, trading baskets after school with the juniors in Maryland; and now, at 22 and a suit (but still rockin’ the Jordans), I’m still trading the shakes and step-back Js, only with a different crew.

Janine moves fluidly, smoothly, displaying a solid handle and great first step. Like some of the other Black girls I’ve balled with, it’s her pure athleticism which stands out most clearly. The White girls at College Park had solid fundamentals, but physically, they had trouble keeping up or playing strong with the guys. Now Janine may not be able to wrestle on the boards, but she’s lightning to the basket, and I found her draining floaters on me every time I gave her the right. But even beyond the speed, her game has a flash and style that speaks playground-ball all over those seasoned shakes. Alas, she’s too in love with her fall-back jumper – shot with a gorgeous (if oft-inaccurate) behind-the-back release—but being a sucker for style I’m too busy admiring her moves to really notice. She’s friendly, and cracks a wide smile during our playful trash talk exchanges, letting her guard down much more quickly than many of the others I’ve run with on this court.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, my ‘next’ is up and I form my team, selecting Janine. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a girl run with the guys, and she holds her own. What impresses me most is the way the men don’t even hesitate to defend her as they would anyone else; likewise, Janine expects nothing less than the regular, full-bodied treatment. Our team is under-sized on the whole, but I feel rewarded for putting my faith in her, as she bumps and struggles in the paint alongside these powerful young men, some of whom must be over three times her weight.

This is pick-up ball, raw and furious, where squabbling over calls is never far away and something far bigger than simply a ‘good workout’ is on the line. I’ve still got a ways to go before I fully adjust to the style they play here, compared to the tighter rules and pace of rec ball in college. But I’m willing to make the adjustments, and am buoyed with optimism that the more times I show up on these sweaty, humid summer nights, the more sparks such as Janine I’ll discover.