I just spent seven jam-packed days of nostalgia and appreciation of the ever-evolving city of New York. The weather was perfect, the spring blooms at their peak and that dazzling mix of old world and high tech chic on display everywhere.
I try to make it back to New York at least once a year, usually for events, this time my epic High School reunion. I often travel solo but this time my companion was my nine-year-old. There was so much I wanted to share with him and narrowing down our plans was painful…and true to how I roll, the best things happened serendipitously.
We walked by the West 4th Street Courts just a block from my mom’s apartment, a famous spot where Lew Alcindor played before becoming the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an iconic public court where legions of other basketball greats have shot hoops over the years. Tucked in the the back are handball courts — I had forgotten about the New York obsession with the game. A tiny pinky ball, perhaps a glove and a wall, that’s all that’s needed. The sport, now called “American Handball”, is a big draw for beach goers, but as I traveled the city I was surprised to see so many courts in every borough. My son was fascinated and wanted to play. A player at W. 4 Street let him on the court to give it a try and he was smitten. The guy even gave him a ball — I LOVE NY.
He promptly lost it and I promised to buy him a ball and play with him, as I have fond memories of playing at Jones Beach, Florida and around town as a kid. In fact, we used to just play against the wall next to my mom’s apartment, which is now a a deluxe condo.
We didn’t seem to pass any sporting goods stores and the Woolworths and Lamstons of my youth have been taken over by Duane Reade drugstores and Chase Bank buildings. So the next day, as we came up from the subway, I decided, on a whim, to see if the local newsstand next to the courts might, per chance, sell them. I’m not sure what inspired me to think that was possible, but for two-dollars, the kid got a handball and thus the highlight of his trip began. We checked out a few courts and he carried his ball with him each day.
A visit to Coney Island with the cousins and a glorious walk on the boardwalk found this handball hotspot in Brighton Beach, perfect with the pink flowers framing the gritty urban court. I reveled in the moment remembering all those years ago, a time when NYC was hurting, crime was out of control and yet people congregated on stoops, listened to music together on boom boxes and the hardcore handball fanatics were part of the pulse of the city.
We stopped at Tatiana’s, a Russian cafe in Brighton Beach. The Nathans of my youth was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, but after losing everything in the storm, Tatiana’s was up and running again. It felt like we were on the Black Sea or somewhere in Europe, not much English spoken and many families out for a Sunday stroll. We parked ourselves in the cafe and ordered strudel and tea and studied the crowd. We were clearly outsiders, despite my part Russian heritage, but once the piping hot tea and scrumptious cherry strudel arrived I was in heaven. The less than stellar Soviet style service was part of the experience. A walk down the High Street of Surf Avenue unveiled more treasures, a terrific little shop where I bought Armenian sour cherry jam, Hungarian salami and the Russian bread I love. On the street, a vendor sold what looked like Russian pirozhki, but when I tried to confirm the name I was met with much sourness. We bought cabbage, pork, spinach and cherry; it’s great how the sweet and savory co-mingle. They were a tad greasy, but for $1.50 each was a meal.
We climbed onto the elevated subway track laden with our purchases as the stunning spring light made the grimiest steel sparkle. The ride back was quick and edifying. I was captivated by the multi-ethnic faces and so many languages filling the car. It made me want to move back to New York.