I think I was five or six. It was definitely before my first day of first grade. I had already attended kindergarten where I learned the brutal lesson, coming to and fro in the car of the woman my mother carpooled with, that if one were the last to see a Volkswagon beetle car that a punch in the leg or shoulder was due from the hand of whichever person first said, “Punch buggy blue” or “punch buggy red.” One must always name the color. I was stunned, hurt at first, but came to appreciate this as a contest, however unfair, as I was ganged up upon. In any case, I at least had the chance to participate and dish out the hurt, to laugh at the pain of others. I did not find this demeaning or belittling, although it always struck me as odd. Really, wouldn’t it have made more sense to bring slingshots and shoot the punch buggies?
We lived on Aberdeen and our little lives were mostly lived in the I-shaped alleys that served the backs of the row homes that faced on Aberdeen, Loch Ness, up the hill, and the two parallel streets, the names of which I cannot recall. The younger children played with our toys, rode our bikes, played ball and played tag and Kick the Can in this fenced in, I-shaped world of concrete, bordered by nice, well kept yards where adults spent their leisure hours in fine weather.
Our father used to take my brother and I to the ballgame, to see the orioles at Memorial Stadium. These were good, positive outings, but left one wanting to do something, like play wiffle ball in the alley. I was a pudgy, freckle-faced boy who was not half as aggressive as he should have been. My athletic brother, 11 months younger, but my better in everything, made up for this with his outgoing, troublemaking ways and I tagged along.
One day I was alone with two boys from up the alley, who lived on Loch Ness, where the houses were a cut above ours and where one had easy access to the church grounds, where the green fields could be played upon. However, at my young age, I had yet to get blanket authorization for excursions beyond the alley zone. I recall describing the ball game to one of these boys whose favorite player was Mark Belanger,  the short stop. My favorite player was Boog Powell,  the big first baseman. [Ironically, a year or two later, when I joined a little league team, the big first baseman used to beat me up every day after practice!] The Belanger fan and the other fellow, who had yellow-blonde hair and even more freckles than I, showed me their baseball cards, bought in packs, which had a stick of pink gum. These cards had the photo and stats of each player and could be collected, permitting a kid to make up his own team.
I told my parents about this and my father came home one day with a pack of baseball cards, not one card, but an entire team—only they weren’t all Orioles, not even mostly Orioles. I was thrilled, though, to find out there were so many teams, meaning that the number of players one could collect was vast. Excitedly, I brought this pack of cards out into the alley to show my friends. They both told me that I should come up to the yellow-headed boy’s yard, where his brother or cousin [some older relative] was playing step ball [bouncing tennis ball off a concrete stair and catching it].
All of this I have related crowds murkily in my 53-year-old mind’s eye. But, the scene ahead glares brightly. The green of the yard I remember as Christmas garden green. The willow tree was whipping in the early spring wind. This was not a crowded weekend day, but an afternoon after school time when kids would gather in small groups and engage in activities. I remember wondering if this would get me in trouble for being away at dinner time, so I can place this as probably 4:30 p.m. in April. The wind was almost chilly and was blowing the tennis ball around.
This older boy was a young teenager, more than twice my age, giant and wide as he towered over me. His back was to the house, my back to the alley. They lived in a nice corner house, so you could see through the fence between the two houses to the church lot beyond, the willow tree whipping in the wind behind his right shoulder, the brick house rising behind his left shoulder. His smaller relative and the other boy stood to his either side. I stood before him as I handed over my first pack of cards, the wrapper still loosely around them.
I stood in anticipation, wondering what things he’d be able to tell me about these players from other teams. He held the cards in his left hand, the boys peering around his elbows to see the cards as he pushed one out and viewed it. Without looking down at me, just keeping his eyes on the card, he said, “Sucks,” and tossed that card spinning over his shoulder to be caught by the wind and pinned against the fence to the next yard.
One-by-one, he examined each card with a disapproving frown, said, “Sucks,” without looking up and tossed that card with a flick of the wrist into the wind.
And so I stood, evermore deflated, watching my entire collection of baseball cards, valued, found wanting and tossed into the wind.
Finally, without a baseball card left, the teen looked down at me, fighting back tears, and looked down at the wrapper, which I had wanted to keep to protect the cards, and said, “Only losers keep the wrapper,” and crumbled it up into a ball and tossed it back over his shoulder.
He then turned to examine the cards in the other boys’ hands, the three of them ignoring me, as he made various moderate declarations of value, never saying a card sucked, but never unequivocally stating that it did not suck, keeping them close and on edge, arranging the cards in value order according to some alchemy beyond my ken.
I gathered my baseball cards, for they were something my father had gotten me, even retrieved the wrapper and restored it as best I could, recalling that the gum was not all that good anyhow. As I write this and fail to recall whatever became of my baseball cards or what I did on the way home, I experience the tightness in my chest and the slight gag reflex that built in my throat. By age 11 I had cured myself of tears by standing in the bathroom mirror and punching myself in the face, so the impulse to cry is dead and gone. However, the sick feeling of being beneath the consideration of others remains, utterly blotting out any memory of baseball cards thenceforth, only that I chewed more than one stick [a strip really] of pink baseball card gum.
I can clearly remember the face of the teenage judge that found my cards—and hence me—beneath recognition. I can find no anger for the face, only a sense of remoteness, a prophetic emptiness, as he was my prophet. Everywhere life took me, up until yesterday when I saw Crazy Carroll freezing in the morning dark on her park bench, I see rejection, more erasure of identity than there are individuals to apply it to. The only places where invalidation of my person and the persons of all but the judges among us has not been the norm, is in combat arts fraternities, in gyms, dressing rooms at fight venues and martial art schools.
To this day, white men will shake their head and wave me off, denying further conversation with me on the grounds that I am insane for using mass transit in Baltimore City. If I want to end a conversation with a white man in Baltimore, I just start the conversation with, “When I got on the bus today.” Literally, as soon as most white men discover that I am willing to stoop so low as to step on the bus with blacks, they halt the conversation and seek to distance themselves from me—including my relatives. And the very next day at least one black person will glare at me hatefully for stepping on their bus. A full third of black bus drivers will refuse to stop unless I stand in front of the bus. This happened this past Friday night, as Carroll froze in the park I would walk past. Then they either advise I not take the bus or hatefully glare straight ahead, refusing to meet my gaze as I say, ‘Thank you.”
I too invalidate people as a survival measure, wearing a callous exterior, ignoring Carroll’s suffering on the tactical premise that helping her will mark me as a target for attack by others [she has been used as bait by stickup boys] and the butchering of those others will end my life as a writer, which is all I really am right now, other than an unloved mass transit phantom.
To the child that I was, the teenage judge of baseball cards was cruel, but to the man that emerged from the child that my teenage self killed in the mirror, he is something of a guardian angel, a reminder that I was meant to be the enemy of the world. For a child’s tears I was spared the torrent of rage that many men in their thirties are now feeling as they wake up to the fact that they’re just food and the hungry world does not even care how they taste.
Thank you, Baseball Card Kid.