Hoops and Hustlers, Part 1
Please note: names have been changed to protect anonymity.
When I was in sixth grade, the boys in my grade school class challenged the fifth graders to a soccer match, and shockingly enough, I was the hero of the game. With less than a minute left, the fifth graders were beating us 2-1, and losing to kids a year younger than we were would have been a shame too painful to bear—kind’ve like Kansas losing to Northern Iowa. (Oh wait. That happened.)
But with about 37 seconds left in regulation, the ball was moved up to my corner of the field.
For no reason that involved my own skill or savvy, I streaked to the goal at the perfect time. I wildly kicked a kick that should have had no chance to go in at all, but—mercifully, miraculously, magnificently—it connected. Goal: 6th graders! The clock expired in regulation. We went into overtime, where we defeated them in sudden death. Pride salvaged.
I mention that instance because it is the only time in the history of my life—at least that I can remember—that I scored a goal in a soccer game. It is also the only time that I was a sports hero.
But that wouldn’t happen until sixth grade. In fourth grade, the title of “bench warmer” would have applied, except that “warmer” implies that there was at least a little heat in my game.
In the transitional hour after the end of the school day and before the beginning of practice for the Morgan Monsters 4th grade basketball team, I stood at the corner of Adams and Main, wearing the bright neon orange belt-and-strap that identified me as an officer of the Safety Patrol. Jake Manly was my patrol partner, a stout boy with sandy blonde hair whose NFL lineman-like extra pounds inspired respect, not ridicule. At the moment, he was berating me for my lack of skills on the court, since on the previous night, I had kept everyone at practice because I could not make ten consecutive free throws—which , to this day, I find difficult. The other boys were getting tired of my failure and I didn’t blame them. But Jake was cruel.
“You suck at basketball,” he said.
“You told me before that I sucked at soccer,” I responded.
“Do the math: you suck at both.”
Do the math?
“Oh,” I replied docilely, like a puppy that had just been neutered.
For the next five to ten minutes or so, the two of us just stood there in the kind of silence that rests like a piano on your back. I tried to avoid the feeling of awkwardness by pretending to be interested in a crow perched in a nearby oak tree, or by following the trajectory of an empty can of Shasta soda pop as the wind blew it down Adams street. Finally, Jake broke the silence with a question I did not expect.
“You want to buy some porn?”
I didn’t see that one coming and, to be honest, at that time in my life—thankfully—the idea of buying (or looking at) porn, while vaguely tempting and exciting, was both foreign and frightening to me.
You see, I had gotten my adenoids removed a year or so earlier and actually remembered briefly waking up during the operation. I heared myself breathing heavy. I felt the cut of the doctor’s instruments. I saw the blood on his hands. The whole experience felt all fleshy and jarring and it overloaded my senses. And that’s what I thought (from what I had heard) porn would be like. So, at that point, I wasn’t tempted. I was terrified.
But I wanted Jake Manly to like me. So I asked, “What are you selling?” and “How much?”
Jake lowered his chin a bit, shifted his eyes from side-to-side, did a quick scan of our environment to check for teachers or other adults, and then nodded in the direction of his belly button. He was wearing a maroon, zip-down Izod jacket. He had stuck his hands in his pockets and had used them to shift something under his jacket so I could see it. The shape under the jacket was wide and round and it didn’t take a lot of imagination on my part to conclude that it was a rolled up magazine. But concealed under Jake’s jacket, it looked like he had something the shape of a gun pointed at me.
“Playboy,” he said. “March 1981. Nearly mint condition.”
Then he added: “3 dollars.”
Playboy?! I felt like my whole chest cavity had hollowed out and was as wide and empty as the sky over my home state of Kansas. In the middle of it, my heart was pounding.
Nowadays, in our overly sexualized culture, I know that many fourth graders regularly abuse pornography on the Internet and even carry condoms in their pockets. Well, that wasn’t the situation back then—at least, not for me.
But at nine years old, I wasn’t entirely asexual. I felt strangely drawn to the women’s undergarment section of the Sears catalog, was often transfixed on Blair and Jo of Facts of Life fame, and Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes, and would even—during church—flip to Song of Solomon and read with fascination the love poetry between the King and his beloved. Why, I wondered, did my illustrated Bible not include selections from this poetic book of the Old Testament? Certainly, the flannelgraph lessons could have kept my attention!
But Playboy. Playboy would have been a step into another dimension, the crossing of a threshold, a newfound country, landing on the shores of a new America.
But—mercifully—I wasn’t ready for that.
“Thanks,” I said. “But I don’t have any money.”
“I’ll divide up the payments,” Jake countered with his best salesmanship. “Might have to tack on extra for interest. And if you don’t pay up, I’ll beat the s#@! out of you.”
I didn’t doubt that.
“Um, thanks,” I said. “But—“
I was searching for any way out.
“But—hey!” I countered. “Don’t you want to keep it? I don’t want to take something that you like.”
Jake shook his head.
“This is minor league s#@!” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ve moving on to bigger and better things,” he said.
I was clueless. I had no idea what he meant.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll explain it to you. Porn’s got different levels, see? Like baseball.”
“I don’t know a lot about baseball.”
“Well, baseball’s got different levels, you know?”
“Playboy and Penthouse. You’ve heard of Penthouse, right?”
“Well, they’re like the minor leagues and stuff.”
“They’re good. They’re entertaining. But they ain’t the major leagues.”
“I’m moving up to the major leagues.”
I looked at him with a blank stare.
“Hustler, man! Hustler!”
I had never heard of the magazine to which Jake was referring. But whatever it was, I remember thinking that it put a look on his face that landed somewhere between a saint beholding the glory of God and a serial killer ready to slit someone’s throat.
It freaked me out. And I didn’t want anything to do with it.
“So, you can have the Playboy,” he said. “Me, I’m a Hustler man.”
“Um, thanks,” I said. “But I really don’t have any money. And I might not be able to pay you back.”
Jake looked at me with a disapproval and disdain that dropped my heart into my stomach. I self-consciously looked back at the crow in the oak tree—not registering that he was already gone—and I tried to think of another topic of conversation. Mercifully, a voice called from a block away and saved me.
“All in! All in!”
That was the signal that our responsibilities with the Safety Patrol were over. We were allowed to return to the front office, turn in our bright neon orange belt-and-strap, and finish for the day.
But for me—and for Jake—it wasn’t yet time to go home. We still had basketball practice. I still had to make ten straight free throws.
My experience with Jake had been unsettling to me. Enough that I was actually looking forward to practice, even if it meant the disapproval of my teammates and the stress of making those shots.
What I didn’t know was that, before the night was over, I would once again be confronted with the word hustler .
TO BE CONTINUED