For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

The Day Arnie's Mom Went Crazy

by Ken Thompson


n my part of Brooklyn in the mid-50's, you played street ball with a pure and gen-u-wine Spaldeen. You did not use any of the following:

  • A pensy or Pennsylvania Pink. These were viewed as markedly inferior to a Spaldeen and demonstrated a distinct absence of class. There was serious doubt that they were even "Made in America" back then.
  • The white pimple balls that were more grey than white and which felt mushy and funny but not "ha-ha" funny. Kids in Joisey used these. Besides, pimples would be something we would have to contend with later on in life and were not logically part of ball-playing.
  • Sponge balls, no matter what size or color. These were only good to give to a dog to chew-up and possibly eat. Under no circumstances would you ever play stickball with one of these 'cause they didn't go far and they were stupid.
  • Tennis balls. While being unacceptable in a money game, they could be used fooling around in stickball since they had markings similar to a real baseball. In my time tennis balls only came in white and were pretty rare.
  • Wiffle balls, for the simple reason that they probably hadn't been invented yet and if they were invented they weren't widely available. Besides, only sissies would say "You wanna come out and play with my wiffle?" Think about it.

As street kids, we knew these non-Spaldeens existed and that some kids in some neighborhoods might actually use then but they weren't gonna be used in our neighborhood. Nor were we gonna use store-bought stickball bats.

Three things could happen to a good Spaldeen: lose its high bounce and be given to your younger sister or brother; split in half and the parts mailed to cousins in Philadelphia who actually could use them in some sort of their own street game; or they could wind up down a sewer, as common a fate as next week's weather. Spaldeens that wound up down a sewer were affectionately known as sewerballs, but were not necessarily gone forever, particularly with them costing a dime or fifteen cents. Staying in the sewer for any length of time caused the half in the muck to become stained so it could forever after be identified as a sewerball. Sewerballs seemed to lose some bounce from the experience. Jeff claimed they lost heart from being in the sewer.

If there was sufficient water in the sewer it was possible to fish the ball out with a bent wire hanger, reasonably called a "ball-puller-outer." If the ball was unreachable there was a possibility that a rain storm would temporarily flood the sewer system and the balls would float up to the sewer opening where they could be fished out or simply grabbed, even in the rain. This was pretty rare.

We were usually out of luck if the sewers were dry. So was Arnie.

Arnie was my age, thirteenish in 1955, and lived in the next apartment building. We did a lot of things together including playing stickball - a lot of stickball. Arnie was constantly wearing out the toe part of his right sneaker by dragging his foot as he either pitched, practiced pitching, or faked pitching. He had an older brother, David, who was much more scholarly and actually used the Public Library to get educational books rather than to just look at the National Geographic magazine pictures. David was a little strange.

Their Dad worked in the Post Office and seemed real nice. Their Mom was also a bit strange and what we would call a super-worrier. She had three primary concerns: cleanliness of her house and her kids so they'd be free from illness; her kids' education and grades so they could get scholarships to college; and money for everyday expenses that included doctors, medicines, and Arnie's right sneaker but did not include Spaldeens. She was also concerned about communists, nuclear attacks, constipation and regularity, Republicans, race riots, and Israel. She had a lot to worry about and took it all very seriously.

One July afternoon, while we were playing a three against three stickball game, Billy whacked a Spaldeen that was bobbled and inadvertently became a statistic as a sewerball. While we had a ball-puller-outer stashed away in case of such an eventuality, we were out of luck since the sewer was dry and the ball was in a spot where we couldn't get the hanger's ball-scoop under it. We flipped up the iron sewer grate and had a good look, and spotted not only our newly dubbed sewerball, but also two other balls in similar positions. We felt particularly motivated because there were three balls to be rescued and returned to active duty.

We concluded that if one of us would go down into the sewer we could get the balls and our game could continue. Arnie was the logical choice since he was the slightest and lightest, and because Billy and Stanley were strong enough to lower him in and pull him out afterward. A victim of some heavy duty persuading, Arnie gave in and we lowered him down. After telling us how terrible it smelled and how it was spongy under his feet, he got the three balls and tossed them up. But just as he was about to get hoisted up, his brother David came along and saw Arnie down the sewer. Not good!

Without a moment's hesitation David announced "I'm gonna tell Ma that you're stuck in the sewer and that you're gonna get Polio and have to be put in a far away hospital and we're gonna be in the poor house with all the doctor expenses and I'm not going to be able to go to college and you're gonna die."

David stood there for two seconds with everyone's eyes on him. He then flashed a sinister grin, turned, and ran off to his apartment house to tell his Mom his observations.

None of David's predictions had occurred to any of us, least of all to Arnie. But as David disappeared into his building and out of sight, Arnie let out a scream that seemed to reverberate throughout the entire Brooklyn sewer system. "Get me out. My Ma is gonna kill me." His fear of his Mom was far greater than his fear of Polio.

In no time he was out and took off for his building but he was pretty far behind David who was probably practicing his maliciously formed pronouncement while darting up the stairs.

Meanwhile, we were down a player, so we chose up new sides and made Jerry the permanent mid-fielder or second-baseman. This was totally logical since he had bobbled the hit that led to the sewerball.

We hadn't gotten two at-bats when a police car came careening along Avenue C and stopped at our intersection. Both cops jumped out and checked the sewers and saw nothing, least of all Arnie. We're all gathered around looking down the sewer when one of the Cops says "We got a report of a kid trapped in a sewer here."

Stanley, being the most outspoken and the least experienced with cops said, "That was Arnie but he got out and went home to tell his Mom that he ain't got Polio."

"What was he doing down there?"

"We put him in to get some sewerballs."

"Are you kids crazy? He could have gotten killed. Give me that bat," the cop said as he stretched out his hand.

He took it from me, broke it over his knee, and chucked the pieces down the sewer. All we could do was watch.

The other cop said, "We better get to the apartment." And then to us, "Get outta here, don't let me find you playing here again". This announcement was standard for cops to kids. We gave it the level of adherence it deserved.

When they got to Arnie's apartment house, an ambulance pulled up from the other direction. The cops spoke quickly to them and then pointed to the corner and then at us. The four of them shook their heads and headed up to Arnie's apartment.

We stood around for about a half-hour as the crowd got larger, attracted by the revolving lights of top of the police car and on the ambulance. The crowd was primarily made up of the women from the four stoops on the block and some nosey passersby. Finally, everyone came out: the cops; the ambulance people walking with Arnie in his bathrobe and sneakers; his Mom, crying like mad, arms flailing about and then almost fainting, yelling at Arnie and then at us. She was being walked by her neighbor, Mrs. Friedman, and her sister-in-law who looked so somber as if contemplating a family funeral. Finally, David came out feigning fright and worry but who gave us his now famous sinister grin. I think David secretly wanted to be an only child.

The ambulance took off and the cops were standing there, looking at some paperwork. Stanley went up to them and asked "Is he gonna be alright? Is he gonna get Polio?"

Without looking up the cop said, "They took Arnie to the hospital for observation and some treatment. When we got up to the apartment, Mrs. Mendel had Arnie in the bathtub and was washing him with hot water and Bon-Ami cleanser. He should be okay except for the scrubbing."

They got in their car and took off. We decided to play stoopball since we no longer had a bat, at least for the time being.

The next day Arnie came home from the hospital but his Mom wouldn't let him out. Only Stanley and I were willing to go up to his apartment for fear of his Mom. Stanley said we shouldn't worry because Arnie was well enough to come home and his Mom would be happy. We rang the doorbell, and David let us in and sat us on the couch with the plastic slipcovers and told us not to touch anything. Stanley went to take a candy out of the candy dish but David yelled, "Don't touch it. You an idiot?" David still had that look. When his Mom saw us she went into a long lecture, almost a scream, about her three favorite subjects: health; education (as opposed to wasting time with ball, much less Spaldeen sewerballs; and the expense of yesterday's escapade. I was coming to feel that visiting Arnie might not be worth the ordeal. When she finished her harangue and calmed down, she let us go into see Arnie.

He really looked like a hospital patient with his pajamas, big glass of water with a straw, small radio, flowers on the nightstand, comic books, and white cream all over his Pepto-Bismol colored bright skin. We asked what the white stuff was and he said it was an ointment to ease the sting and rash from the hot water and the Bon-Ami cleanser.

By the weekend, Arnie was out of the house but had to wear dress shoes to prevent him from playing ball. This was his Mom's idea. Before he went home that night he had worked a scrape hole in the toe cap of his right shoe.

After another couple of days he was out playing with us but had instructions to not even go near or touch a sewerball.

Some rules are just meant to be broken.

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