Every day at P.S.114 carried with it a fair amount of dread for this undersized, underweight, fourth-grader, but a certain day in the late winter of 1962 raised my terror to previously unimagined heights. It started with an innocuous bulletin board posting a week or so earlier.
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I knew I was not cut out for baseball. My hand-eye coordination was unfit for the complexity of hitting a fastball. The delicate, stubby fingers I inherited from my mother didn’t help me at all in the field. They didn’t reach halfway into a glove’s fingers. Softball wasn’t a better option. By whose definition was “soft” applicable to those balls? Still I had aspirations of being like the other guys, so I wanted to be a ballplayer of some sort. Wiffle would do, right?
I signed the sheet, took home the requisite permission slip for Mom to sign—relieving the Board of Education of responsibly in the event of my death—and waited for the league meeting to take place. The wait provided its own kind of anguish.
The league meeting was the place where the teacher in charge of after school activities would create teams to compete for the Wiffleball Trophy. I was no stranger to team creation, a special kind of heartache for kids like me.
Most of the time, teams on the street and in the schoolyard were chosen by the big, strong natural leaders among the kids. Schoolyard team captains picked me last every time except when they didn’t pick me at all. When that happened, the teacher would assign me to an unlucky team. I hoped the wiffleball league would see me assigned to a team, resulting in their disappointment, rather than having team captains make the choices, resulting in my disappointment.
I was lucky—for a moment—that afternoon. The teacher came to the meeting with team rosters already decided. Atop each team’s roster was the name of an older student who would be their captain. My name, beginning with a B, sat directly beneath that of my new captain, Fuzzy Porcaro. I wanted to run home to Mom’s lap. I almost puked. I wondered if a nine-year-old facing certain death should have a will. Please, God, not Fuzzy.
Every school has its bullies. There’s a pecking order. You have the kids who are quick to take advantage of any shortcomings they observe in other kids. If you are too short or too tall, too slim or a bit overweight, wear braces or last year’s clothes, or have the slightest inkling of sensitivity toward criticism, you are fair game for these bullies. They, in turn, are the prey of bigger bullies.
Bigger bullies are the ones who not only harass us little kids, usually extorting from us milk money or homework production, but they include regular bullies in their threats. But even these bullies have their ultimate bully. At P.S. 114 it was Fuzzy.
Fuzzy was perpetually in sixth grade. Rumor had it he was in his twenties. I suspect he was maybe 13, having been held back a grade or two. He certainly was big enough to have been a teenager.
Fuzzy never smiled. His coal black eyes could penetrate steel, and he was rumored to have put dozens of kids in the hospital. Of course, no one knew who those kids were. We did know, however, that life was a lot easier when Fuzzy wasn’t around. For the duration of wiffleball season, or until he chose to terminate me, I would be Fuzzy’s teammate.
Wiffleball league games were played in the school basement, where I would always be reminded of one of my most embarrassing moments. That basement consisted of two cavernous rooms separated by a long hallway. At one end of the hallway sat the music room, and at the other end the cafeteria and lunchroom.
Public schools in the early sixties served lunches prepared on site mostly from scratch. The food may not have tasted much better than it does now, but I think it was healthier. We even had homemade soup, and that was my downfall.
During the winter of second grade, Mom made me wear a tweed coat with matching cap. My God, it felt ugly even then, but I never questioned wearing it, even in the chilly basement lunchroom of P.S.114. One day, as I was ladling vegetable soup from the big pot at the beginning of the line, the unthinkable happened; my tweed cap leapt from my head and into the soup.
I took in the scene as if it were an out-of-body experience. I saw a small boy staring into a steaming pot; in the pot swam diced carrots, sliced green beans, and a speckled cap whose shades of brown and gray had already begun to turn red from the broth. The hat bobbed. The boy’s eyes began to blur. The hat he hated became the object of his fiercest love. How he longed for it to be back on his head. And then he cried. He wailed. This brought the lunch lady to investigate.
With her bare hand, the lunch lady reached into the cauldron, risking certain second-degree burns, and retrieved the cap, bits of potato still clinging to its brim. She handed it to the boy.
That is when it hit me that this was real. I held the dripping cap while the entire lunchroom laughed at me. Then, sobbing violently, I ran to the boys’ room, soaked the cap with water, dried it as best I could with industrial brown paper towels, and placed it on my head. Returning to the lunchroom, still with tears glistening my eyes, I asked the lunch lady to help me get some soup.
For some reason, after the laughter died down, nobody made a special effort to make fun of me. I guess no words could top the image in everyone’s brain, especially mine.
In that same basement, the masking tape outline of home plate was near the kitchen. The bases intermingled with the pillars that supported the superstructure of P.S.114. The far wall of the dining area formed the outfield fence, except for the hallway leading to the music room. That hallway was the only place a guaranteed home run was possible; once a well-struck wiffleball reached that point, nothing remained to stop its progress.
Now that I’d been assigned to Fuzzy’s team, the pressure to perform, under penalty of death, overwhelmed me and took away any chance I might have had at being a successful ballplayer. I showed up for the first game paler than usual, a little sick to my stomach, and prepared for the worst.
On the bright side, my team was amazing. Fuzzy was a thoroughly capable leader. He drew up each game’s lineup according to our batting ability. I secured the bottom of the lineup card, and never once did I disappoint; no hits were expected and none were achieved. I think I walked once and scored a run, becoming a solid asterisk in the record books.
Fuzzy also positioned us defensively according to our ability, himself being the pitcher and everyone holding down the position that best suited their catching and throwing skills. Each game found me in the one spot where I could do the least amount of harm: guarding the hallway in deep left field. Generally, if a ball got that far, the fielder’s only responsibilities included stopping it from rolling down the hall and throwing it to someone else who might throw it home for a miraculous play at the plate.
Thanks to Fuzzy’s all-around athleticism, our team only lost one game, tying us for first place and forcing a playoff for the league championship. Thanks to Fuzzy’s managerial skills, I never had the opportunity to contribute to or detract from the team. Thanks to good fortune, only one ball ever got near me. I stopped it with my foot, nervously picked it up, and threw it about 20 feet to the real left fielder.
The playoff started well, with my team—that is, Fuzzy’s team—taking a big early lead. The other team whittled away at that lead until we were barely hanging on by two runs going into the bottom of the last inning. Fuzzy got a couple of outs, but our opponents got a couple of hits. Then the unthinkable happened.
The next batter slammed the first pitch to deep left field. No one in the league had ever hit a ball that far on the fly, let alone a line drive. Fuzzy spun around to watch the carnage and, probably, to plot his revenge. I barely saw the white sphere coming. I stuck up my right hand, the one on which I’d have a glove if we were playing real baseball, not wiffleball.
Holes. Wiffle balls have holes. Lots of them. Holes make wiffle balls dance in the air, the basic challenge of the game.
My middle finger moved toward its destiny as the line drive raced at it. I could hear the expletives gushing from Fuzzy’s lips. I couldn’t see the broad smiles on the faces of the other team. I couldn’t even see the ball as it hit that stubby finger—and stuck fast, finger firmly embedded in a hole.
Game over. Fuzzy’s team wins by two. League champions, 1962.
Fuzzy, the meanest, toughest kid in P.S.114, ran toward me, his eyes glistening. He scooped up my diminutive body and he—not the team, he--carried me to the school kitchen for the award ceremony. That would have been great enough, but then he did more. As we walked out of P.S.114 into the late afternoon sun, he said,
“Do you need a ride home?”
“I can walk.”
“The hell you will,” Fuzzy answered.
He set me on the handlebars of his big black Schwinn and rode me home like I was the hero in my own parade. From then on, Fuzzy and I were... no, not friends, but acquaintances; no longer predator and prey.
My Fuzzy parade changed my life. No one messed with me anymore, just in case Fuzzy was watching. Later that year Fuzzy finally passed sixth grade and presumably went on to junior high. I never saw him again. The next year, with a confidence I’d never known before, I volunteered as a school patrol guard, assigned to protect littler kids from bullies. In sixth grade I was promoted to main entrance guard. Before locked doors with buzzers, before metal detectors and resource officers, P.S.114 had me and Robert Singleton, a fellow sixth grader, keeping uninvited guests out of the hallowed halls. Thank you, Fuzzy.
P.S.114’s main entrance in 2019
When you think of a New York City street gang what comes to mind? West Side Story’s Sharks and Jets? The Bowery Boys? The Dead End Kids? You’ll hear more about the 93rd Street Gang in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.