Sparks in the Park

      The time was about 5:30 PM on Sunday April 27th 2014.  My wife and I went to the Hudson County Park basketball court after I had spoken with my father.  She and I sat on the first bench on the northern court.  We were seated next to a kid wearing a hooded sweatshirt who yelled to someone playing, “You all suck, nigger!”  I remember slightly turning my head toward him and telling him, “Don’t do that.”  I didn’t want to embarrass him too much, so I spoke in such a low volume that my wife who was seated to the right of me didn’t even notice.  She just kept talking. 

       I’m not sure if the rude kid next to me heard me because he didn’t respond.  However, less than a minute later he stood up and left the court.  He might have been embarrassed.  I didn’t even look at him, so I’m not sure if the message from me was received by him at all.  About 5 minutes later at 5:30 PM, I asked everyone around the court if they had intended to play in the next game on that court that we stood beside.  There was a team that said that they had already claimed the next game.  I accepted that by saying, “OK.” and then I asked if anyone claimed the next game after that.  No one spoke up, and I hollered it out once more.  I heard a couple of kids say, “No.”  and then one else responded afterward.  Then, I began to assemble my team with the intention of playing in the following game which was two games after the one that was presently being played.  To make the time go better and perhaps build some friendly relations I talked a little with the kids on my team.  We mostly were just familiarizing with each other, and this was good because I wanted to make sure that I was welcome to play with them in the future.

      As I stood around them and heard them talk to each other they didn’t really talk about school or anything intellectual.  They just had a hard enough time organizing who would be playing next, and they talked about other people that they knew.  One of the strange things that I noticed is that they just kept calling each other “nigger.”  I didn’t understand why they didn’t get offended or outraged.  They regularly insulted each other and just accepted it and continued to talk like the word could have just meant “guy” or “fella”.  All I heard was “…this nigger, and that nigger.”  It was a word without meaning to them.  It had lost it’s value. 

      As we were getting ready to play there was a pause and then someone that was near us said, “That guy over there said that he already called next.”  The guy was about 5’11”, and he appeared to be Hispanic. He had short hair that was fashioned in an old high-faded dark hairstyle. His skin was a little dark and he was a little chubby. He also had braces and was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The kids from the team that I assembled knew him and I asked one of them who had glasses on and long curly hair on the top of his head, “What’s that kid’s name?” as I pointed to kid that I disagreed with about the next game.  My teammate replied, “His name is Julio.” Julio must have been about 16 years old.  I considered that kids can be dishonest and greedy.  I thought that he might just be trying to deceive me. Plus, I didn’t hear him claim the next game when I asked repeatedly. Then he said that he was the kid that was sitting on the bench when my wife and I had entered the basketball area.  He didn’t admit it, but he was the one that I wanted to correct earlier when my wife and I sat next to him.  He had left the courts afterward and I’m pretty sure that he didn’t call next, but I wasn’t fully sure. 

      So, then I asked him who is on his team, and who heard him call next. No one could vouch for him, and he didn’t have an answer either.  Now, I knew that he was lying, but I didn’t bluntly call him a liar.  I just wanted to be fair to people that were waiting to play.  Those people included me, and the team that I created. 

      I tried to explain to him that no one heard him claim the next game, and that if he wanted to play on my team then he could be a substitute or that maybe one of the kids would share some of the game time.  I felt bad for him, and I know that sometimes the people that are hardest to love usually need it the most.  It’s just hard to show acceptance to a guy that is insulting people.  I acknowledged that he was sitting there on the bench before I came and sat down, and that he had also left the basketball courts for awhile. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore and he kept saying, “I called next, that’s it.”

      I thought of an analogy.  I said, “Listen, if you go to a shopping mall and wait on line, you have claimed that spot in the order of the line, right? Well, no one heard you claim that spot, and you left, so I’m just trying to compromise and say we already had a team, but we’ll let you play with us. I’m being nice enough to let you play with us.”

      He didn’t seem to be attentive to what I was saying and I was speaking pretty loudly. He wasn’t saying anything new.  There is a chance that my instincts were wrong and that no one had heard him, or maybe they just didn’t want him to play because he was mean.  Even though he probably lied, I knew that he just wanted to be accepted.  In my mind, he had never called next at all. He seemed to be a soft spoken kid and maybe he thought that he had to be tough to get respect around this bunch of teenagers.  This seemed plausible because they were constantly pretending that they weren’t afraid to fight, but they never really hurt each other.  It was like a big act to get someone to feel sensitive first, kind of like a behavioral gargoyle.  He thought that fear would bring respect.  I thought that my offer to put him on our team was a nice offer and a fair compromise, but he was stuck in this idea of proving himself to his peers. 

       After I spoke, he said, “If this guy says anything else to me then I’m going to punch him in the mouth.”  He didn’t really think this one through.  I could’ve ruined this kid, and I didn’t want to, so I considered a threat that is more acceptable.  I yelled, “Julio is going to punch me in the mouth!  Call the cops, this kid just threatened me!” 

      No one called the cops, but some people were alarmed by my statement.  He had said his threat with low volume, but a few of the teens heard.  He began to approach me with one hand clenched into a fist and the other hand in an open palm as if he’s making a symbol that is made in karate.  I’ve actually been a student of karate, but this kid was just causing trouble.   He was coming at me with his hand like in that position so I yelled, “Oh!  Julio is going to hit me!”  I wasn’t really alarmed, but I wanted to alert the people around us that I wasn’t the aggressor.  If I hurt that kid in self defense then it should be known that I didn’t approach him to fight.  As I was saying this, I was stepping backward while bending at the waist from side to side so I could avoid a potential strike from him.  My arms were folded across my chest.  Then his shyness took over.  He stopped coming toward me and then walked a few steps away while saying, “I’m not going to hit you.”  People had already heard him threaten me.  Maybe my command to call the police caused his aggression to subside as he was deterred, or perhaps it was my readiness to defend myself.  Some might say that it was just plain fear.  I probably should’ve guarded my face, but still, he didn’t attack. 

      Afterward, I said that it was my intention to stay and play, but he resiliently restated that he has next which was beginning to become annoying because I had used of this careful rhetoric to show what was fair, but his simple-minded stubbornness would not compromise.  He admitted nothing and wanted everything.  He was unreasonable!  Although I was outraged I still didn’t attack or yell.  I didn’t like being lied to, and threatened by his bullying (even if he was only 16), but after shooting the ball a couple of times to warm up, I left the courts.  It was getting cold and I didn’t want my wife to stay outside in the blustery weather to wait for us to play any longer.  Plus, I didn’t think that staying to play with these kids that didn’t know how to refer to each other as anything else but “nigger” or their first names was going to be very enjoyable.  They didn’t deserve to play with me.

     One of the kids who wanted to play in the next game with me asked, “What should we do?”  It was as if he wanted fairness too, but he didn’t know how to regulate the scenario.  I had yelled for people to call the police, and no one did.  It seemed ridiculous that no one thought that his threat was a reason to call.  This is how crime happens.  I ended up just walking off of the court and saying, “Have fun kids.”

      Looking back at it, I should’ve just said that the first 10 people to make foul shots get to play and the madness might have ended, but would I really be happy to play with a bunch of hooligans that needed to be regulated constantly.  This is pick up basketball.  It isn’t fair, it isn’t always fun, and it’s too aggressive.  The only referee is your wits and your fighting ability.  The players snarl like animals and pretend that they want to hurt each other enough just to prove that they demand respect, but what they really need is a system so they know their limits.  These kids need structure so they don’t cause another tragedy.  We all need structure so we have order and peace even if our desires, doctrines and manifesto’s state that we must win.  Victory isn’t a vengeful act of malice.  Victory is a fair game of competition among respected parties.  The rest is savagery. 

     This is one of the things that is wrong with our neighborhood.  It’s not just about basketball, or fairness, or a shy kid who thinks that violent threats would earn him respect.  It’s about the lack of organization that should regulate this kind of event, and the compromise that could’ve created a satisfyingly fair game to nicer, more meritable people who play a friendly game of basketball.  Outdoor basketball games need a referee like a man stranded in the desert needs water.  I tried to regulate this messy game and teach these kids a few things, but my efforts may have been fruitless.

     I didn’t even mention that I had to correct one of my teammates who referred to me as “This nigga”.  The word “nigger” represents a low class person who is uneducated or inferior.  While I might be a student that owes money for my loans, I’ll have earned my Bachelor of Arts Degree as a Liberal arts student who studies English as a major and Psychology as a minor.  I’m also an experienced professional in the industry of health and fitness who retains his certification as a master personal trainer.  These boys that I mentioned misbehaved by insulting each other regularly while thinking that it was a normal or acceptable form of treatment.  What did they expect from any person who knew what the word “nigger” meant?  Did they think that they were changing it by mispronouncing it?  The insult was foolish.  If meaning wasn’t the problem, then they need to learn that the consequences for violently threatening people aren’t enjoyable. 

      Words lead us to understand a message that can represent something of platitude and respect, or they can cause an offense with an insult.  There are unmentionables which can be treated with grace after being mentioned, or they can cause a riot.  When we learn about an intention of mutual respect through formal introduction, banter, and discussion of courtesy and intellect, then we begin to engage in the permissive and honorable customs of socialization. Many of us are still creating ourselves each day.  I’m a person who treats others respectfully, but it’s aggravating to be defied when an agreement is made. 

            Lastly, I don’t encourage violence as an offense, but it can be used well when defend the well being of yourself and other people that you love.  Otherwise, escaping the situation can be a peaceful compromise.  I understand that people have desires and values.  They also have varying ideas of respect, and normalcy.  Studying these concepts is strange, because many of us have freedom of speech, and in a civilized world, the laws really have superiority about the way that we should treat each other.  Here in NJ, we don’t have freedom to insult or threaten each other.  That’s a freedom that none of us wish upon each other, and is therefore considered an affliction.  Legally, these offensive acts are normally considered to be harassment, and they are troublesome actions of a menace.  Furthermore, menacing and harassment are both criminal offenses that are punishable by law.