Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Life on the Courts
The rare meritocracy you'll find
You don’t need any friends to play handball. You show up at a court, ball or no ball, and wait to break into a game. If you’re new, you’ll wait, and eventually you’ll have next and that will be that, your shot to shine, to impress. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you came from as long as you win.
I didn’t go to my high school prom. Fourteen years later, I can admit this freely, but it was a secret I carried with me for a long time. You could imagine, maybe, I shuffled off to drink beers at an alt-prom or huddled with friends who wanted to give a middle-finger to conformity. We don’t need prom, we have our own prom.
But no, not at all. I didn’t have any friends at Poly Prep Country Day School. I had one very good friend who did not go there anymore. On prom night, I didn’t hang out with him, or anyone else. I walked down to a handball court near where I grew up, in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, and smacked the large blue rubber ball against the wall. I did it for a half hour, an hour, maybe more. The callouses on my hands were hard, I was seventeen, and I wasn’t enjoying myself so much as grimly determined to make use of my time.
I was there because I didn’t ask anyone out. I was there because I was terrified of rejection, to such a degree that I didn’t pursue relationships until I had left high school, until I felt, somehow, worthy of them. High school is a tough time and I don’t have a particularly haunting experience to relate to you. I was bullied, but only sporadically, and though I was smaller then, I was feisty. You grow up a city kid and self-defense becomes a reflex.
What made the era so challenging, as I look back, was how irrelevant I was to my classmates, to the school. I belonged to no social circles, no cliques. I didn’t go to parties, drink, smoke, or violate curfew because a curfew wasn’t needed to contain me. No one invited me anywhere. I attended enough bar mitzvahs but no sweet sixteens. I was smart, but not smart enough for the Ivy League, or any of the banner institutions Poly Prep was pumping its students into. I was not getting into Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, the University of Chicago, Amherst, or wherever else I was once expected to go. I couldn’t get the straight As in English, only History, and my mathematics skills were terribly deficient. I belonged to the school newspaper, the Polygon, and you can stop and imagine the junior aspiring journalist racing around the school, preparing for a career ahead. Instead, I wrote only opinion pieces because I was too frightened to interview anyone. I did not want to be turned down.
I progressively faded from view. Academic stars had social capital, as did jocks. I was a good athlete—for a brief period, as a pre-teen, I competed in tennis tournaments and they gave me some kind of junior ranking—but not nearly good enough, and not built like one, to matter. I played for a lousy boys’ varsity tennis team. When I told the tennis coach was headed to SUNY Stony Brook, he shook his head and smiled. I thought you were a smart kid. I was a fine baseball player on summer travel teams, which meant little when the high school season came around and the pressure broke me. I came to dread at-bats.
Poly was a rough school for a middle-class kid from Bay Ridge. It was, and is, a bastion of the elite, particularly the children of the elite. When my father went to pick me up from school, he’d routinely see Meryl Streep waiting for her kids. Al Sharpton usually sent someone else to get his daughters. John Franco, the Mets pitcher, had a son on the baseball team and showed up at a few practices. He told me I had a lazy throwing motion. There was a short period when Art Garfunkel’s kid roamed the halls, a little clone of Art, and I’d tell my parents about all the sightings.
In addition to the celebrity children, there were the ordinary rich, the offspring of investment bankers, surgeons, and old-money dynasties. There were Staten Island contingents, Manhattan contingents, Park Slope contingents. Poly pulled from the five boroughs. I was at the school thanks to the generosity of a family member. On federal salaries alone, my parents weren’t paying the tuition.
Don’t get the impression, though, my childhood was dire. I was loved at home. I loved the summers, summer camp and then summer baseball, and the afternoons, when school was done, were blissful. Dragon Ball Z and a heated-up Shepherd’s pie completed the day. My mother and father supported me in every way. They were the best parents you could ask for.
Why was I smacking a big blue rubber ball against a 25-foot cement wall in the playground next to Ft. Hamilton High School on the night of prom? I was there because handball was my game. I was there because I was getting ready to compete again, on the weekend, where life counted. I was there because I was seventeen and soon, I was sure, I’d be on my way.
Handball is not a sport you’ll encounter much outside of New York City. Don’t confuse it with European handball, the Olympic sport. They have nothing to do with each other. In the city, when you talk handball, you mean one-wall handball. If you’ve been around playgrounds, particularly in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx, you’ve seen a handball court. High walls, chipped paint, the metronomic thwack of rubber. Handball is tennis without decorum, boxing without the native violence. The goal is rather simple: hit the ball on a fly to the wall and have it bounce back within the lines. Your opponent, then, has one bounce to retrieve it. Serves are hit off the wall and over a service line. Lines on the side, and at the back of the court, form the boundaries. Games are typically played to twenty-one. Like in tennis, the custom is win by two.
There is “big blue,” played with a larger rubber ball, and it’s the type of handball you’re most likely to encounter. In the top tournaments, a much smaller and harder ball is used. “Small ball,” as it’s called on the courts, is very difficult, and must be played with gloves. The hyper-regionality of the sport has frustrated its greatest champions. Even the best handball players need day jobs. “My talent is almost like a curse. I achieved greatness in something that the world can’t appreciate,” Joe Durso, one of the sport’s titans, once lamented to Sports Illustrated. “Does McEnroe play pickup games in the park? Did Ali have street fights?”
Handball offers the blue-collar ethos and physicality of a boxing match, the singles games in particular. Unlike tennis, you can be shouted at, jeered at, taunted. Your hand is your racquet. All of it is elemental, the flesh of the palm and the stinging rubber, the furious dash for a ball before second bounce. You can’t intentionally run into your opponent, but in a game, collisions happen, the elbows out, legs shooting across the cement. You dive because you have to and worry about the blood later. Doubles games are intimate, four players crammed into a box, usually near the service line. When you hit an unreturnable shot you hit a kill. I used to dream, with my eyes closed, about hitting the perfect kill.
Permit me to brag—I was a very good handball player. I was not an A player, the very best, not up to the level of winning tournaments and cultivating a playground legend. But at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty—the years I took it all deadly seriously—I was tough to beat in a singles game. In the latter years, when I had finally gone through puberty, I was fast, my stamina enhanced from the jogging habit I had taken up in my early college years. I had the gift of being ambidextrous, my left and right hands striking with equal power and accuracy, no need to run around a weaker side, like many of my opponents did. I play tennis right-handed but throw, bat, and write left-handed. Favoring my left, I could hit a hard whip serve, driving my opponent deep into the right corner of the court, where they would flail for the ball and hit it weakly to the center of the wall where it made for an easy kill. If I got tired serving lefty, I could use my right hand. I did not give up on points very easily. I was something of a handball John McEnroe, raging through games, cursing myself and others, burning for victory, for respect. And there, I got it.
I played through the depths of winter, the heights of summer, fighting through sunstroke and the numbing of my toes. At Coney Island, where the best players went, a few courts could be cleared after the snowstorms and you’d go there as long as it wasn’t snowing again. I played Saturday, I played Sunday, and when school was finally out, I rode my bike alongside the Belt Parkway to Coney Island or wherever I could get to, hunting up games. My best friend Lawson, equally good (he’s pictured at the top), came often to play too, and we waged war in singles and teamed up to make a powerful doubles team. If I had the edge in singles, he had it in doubles. We entered into occasional tournaments and won our share of games.
Today, as a journalist and writer, I traffic in far wealthier, whiter circles than I did then, navigating a self-righteous professional managerial class that believes a sufficient mastery of obscure jargon and DEI seminars can deliver enlightenment. Meanwhile, the multiracial, working-class of America lives on the handball court. White, Black, Asian, Latino—all of them play, in near-equal numbers, in the five boroughs. Your opponent might be a construction worker, a high school teacher, or homeless. You could be matched up against a teenager or a retiree. Entry is free and the balls are $1 at a bodega. A long afternoon on the handball court is, really, what is best about this country. Tribalism crumbles against a great game.
Handball, for me, was an escape. In high school, I was a nonentity, but I could be much more than that on the court if I won. And if I lost, there would always be another game. I derived a small thrill out of being underrated if I showed up at a court for the first time or faced an opponent who didn’t know me. I was shorter than I am now, more baby-faced, my cheeks reddened in the winter months. My hair, at times, was a tangle of curls. I did not look terribly tough or hard; if I had any facial hair, it was wispy, and my muscle wouldn’t come until a later churn through puberty. A bearded guy in his late twenties wouldn’t think much of a pudgy teen but a game was a game and if we played for cash, he would think he could make some quick money. I was not a regular money player but if I did have cash in my pocket, I played well enough not to lose it.
There is much made these days about the meritocracy. This is still the aspiration of Left and Right alike. Both sides are attached to the idea that anyone can get anywhere with the right amount of hard work and opportunity. What does that mean, though, for those who don’t make it? Are they bad people? Fallen in some way? The logic of the meritocracy says yes, in some sense, they are. And professional managerial class liberals, deep down, relish in this, that they achieved their station through hard work. Yet they’re not so special, just lucky, manor-born like the aristocrats of old. Unlike the aristocrats, they have the myth of merit to fall back on, instead of God and family. A humane society builds the sort of welfare state where it’s irrelevant whether you have good genes or luck.
If meritocracy should have one place in this world, it’s in sports. For the most part, it does, though certain pursuits require family wealth. Tennis, golf, and skiing can’t be trained for on a budget. Expensive travel teams increasingly consume amateur baseball. Still, talent usually wins out. Opportunity and success is less capricious. Having a pal in power or a well-connected uncle doesn’t matter if you can’t hit a curveball. A failure in athletics has the recourse of a life beyond athletics. A failure in life itself—under our current system—has no recourse at all.
High school can seem fickle. In-groups harden before you blink an eye. Invites don’t reach your inbox. Teachers don’t single you out and you aren’t sure why. You freeze up in terror at lunch hour because you don’t want to be the first one to a table—you’re not popular enough to lure people to sit with you so you hover, hoping to glom onto another group of students. You’ll make halting conversation or none at all. After it’s done, you’ll head outside and wait for time to pass, smacking a blue rubber ball off the side of the school building.
The handball court was one of the first places, I realize now, where I felt ascent was possible. I was never an outcast there because I won. I was never weak there because when the game began, I could hit a ball low and hard against the wall, low and hard enough to not be returned. It was simple and it was everything. I made friends and I made rivals. At some point in my mid-twenties, I began to play less, some of that old ardor and fury leaking out of me. The last time I walked on a court, there was no pandemic. I might go back or I might not. My callouses are gone and I’d need a few games just to warm up.
What stays with me are the times when I was at my very best, one foot off the cement, rushing for the ball. When I swing, I know exactly where it’s going, the furious geometry of the moment all my own. It strikes my palm perfectly or rolls off the upper reaches of my sweat-flecked fingers. In Zen Buddhism, satori is an awakening to the true nature of reality—an unexplainable inner enlightenment, transcending the old logic of this world—and I am sure, at some point in the last sixteen years or so, I found it on a handball court. I may yet get it again. There are always more games to play.