In the summer of 2007, I had one goal in mind: hit .300 for the summer. It was the first summer I played travel baseball. My team had just returned home from a road trip, where I went hitless that weekend. Since money tightened at home, my parents stayed at work later. My dad, who usually traveled with the team each weekend, came less often. I needed a win.
Then, I met Noel. He was a short but brawny, light-skinned Puerto Rican man who held an undying passion for the Yankees. When I first told him I played baseball, his eyes lit. He too played when he was my age. A rising star at around 20, Noel boasted about playing alongside the likes of Manny Ramirez at his prime. His party habits and early injuries, however, led him astray. For a man in his mid-30s, he had no job, just his wife and baby boy. The streets were his home, and that's where we first met.
He took me under his wing. While my parents were away at work, Noel and I grabbed our gloves and played catch in the middle of our busy street. We reminisced about the Yankees of old. During these sessions, we would play Frogger, avoiding the constant flow of traffic. He was my coach on the off-days, challenging me to become the best person I could become.
"Make your dad proud," he would often say.
One day, he took me to the batting cages on the Boardwalk. He threw me in the 100+ mph cage and told me to focus. Usually, foolish guys entered the cage to achieve bragging rights. Sometimes, minor leaguers visited the cages and took cracks, barely engaged by others. Today, however, was a day for leaping a hurdle. Noel stepped into the cage. He latched his worn batting gloves and slipped the aluminum bat between his fingers. After placing tokens into the machine, he crouched into his stance. The first pitch came. A thundering sound jumped off the bat and echoed throughout the park. It was my turn. I entered the cage, shaking.
“You can do it, kid,” Noel shouted.
Two years later, the batting cage, one of the few left in Brooklyn, closed. Noel moved away deeper into Brooklyn. Here I was, left at the precipice of change not only in my own life, but also in the neighborhood I grew to love.
I’ve lived in Coney Island, renowned for its juicy hot dogs and rickety boardwalk, since I was in the sixth grade. Every time I return home, however, something changes. My pizza guy expanded his hole-in-the-wall franchise. My street switched directions, and then switched back. Part of the Boardwalk turned into concrete. It was all part of Coney Island's attempt to become an extravagant place it could never become, since the will of its people refused to allow it. My uncle John, who knew the latest neighborhood gossip before anyone else, heard Disney wanted to convert the boardwalk to a year-round indoor waterpark. As talks intensified, my worries grew.
Unlike Disneyland, no mascots roam its concrete playground, greeting children at its gates. Roller coasters make up a fraction of the Boardwalk's piazza, where grown men sell 25 cent containers of some fruity, alcoholic concoction to minors and grown women pull their children away from food carts loaded with fried delicacies. Floods of tourists, attracted to bright summer lights and a free firework display every Friday night, scurry along the wooden planks, carrying DSLRs around their necks and snapping memories that last a lifetime. I could hear last year’s shouts resonate into this past summer, from Brighton Beach to Seagate and every block in between.
Advertisements for the new Luna Park loomed over my head on the train ride home. I felt the place I once knew is gone, just as Noel had.
As I left home more and more frequently, those appreciative moments were lost. The boys from the block became parents, fools who dealt drugs and even young men struggling to make a decent living. Every time I heard the Friday night fireworks from my home blocks away, sorrow filled my heart. I longed for the times when everyone was together, when things remained constant.
The flashes, the bangs, the thrills — these noises tickled my senses and sparked the memories of the good old days. The leisurely tosses, the times in the cages, the hours upon hours spent inside my house playing video games with the boys. These moments defined bliss and exhilaration wrapped in simplicity.
When I returned home this summer, though, my doubts banished. While on assignment, I spoke to a few kids about their reckless escapades. They carelessly leapt from the edge of Steeplechase Pier into shallow water. At first, I wore my reporter's cap and asked biting questions. Why are you here? What were you thinking? When I looked into their eyes, however, I remembered when I was their age, when I was that careless. I saw passion. I saw fear. I saw, well, my childhood. No one cared; they soared 20 feet into the shallow water, and proclaimed they would keep doing it until someone closes the pier — or had a lifeguard present so everyone else could partake.
It wasn't just that Coney Island had changed. It was me returning home with cluttered perspective.
Noel called my father toward the end of the summer one weekend. He wasn't doing too well. His father had fallen ill with cancer, and the vivacious man I once knew sounded sorrowful. I answered my father's phone. Noel spoke to me, not knowing that the person who had answered the phone was the same kid who befriended him years ago. He barely recognized my voice. He mistook me for my father. He wanted to hang out that night and chat about the past.
I said, "Sorry, I can't make it tonight. Maybe, sometime soon."
I haven't called him back since.