Big John barely fit his belly through the opening as he emerged from the manhole in the middle of Ridgewood Avenue. In his bright orange jumpsuit he resembled the sun rising out of a dark-hued sea.
“Hey, Stu,” he shouted in a surprisingly high-pitched tone. “Ya gonna play some ball tonight?”
It struck people in Ridgewood as incongruous when a suit-clad attorney was seemingly accosted on the street by the most conspicuous representative of the sewer department. But after fifteen years of playing softball on Big John’s team, I was not alarmed.
It all began in the summer of ’83 when I was new to town. I took a walk in the municipal park one weekend, tidy in my white alligator shirt and tennis shoes. A bear of a man dressed insanely in black, given the heat, shouted in my direction from the middle of a softball diamond.
“Hey, you!”
I turned around to see who he meant.
“Yeah, you, in da white shirt,” he continued. “Ya wanna play some ball?”
I indicated my lack of proper clothing and that I had no glove, but the man was undeterred.
“We got equipment,” he said. “We need a right-fielder.” He strode closer, looming as a mass of black-clad belly and beard and handed me a glove.
“Go stand over dere.” He pointed to right field. “You won’t have to do much in right field.”
I started to move towards my designated position while he returned to the infield.
“Uh,” he turned around to face me again, apparently aware of having committed a faux pas. “I’m Big John.”
He was right about being big but he was wrong about there being no action in right field. I made two diving catches that day, ruining a new LaCoste and bloodying both knees. I also hit a double and a triple. My new teammates looked at me as if I were from Mars, little suspecting that I had played shortstop for four years of college.
At the end of the game, Big John approached and grabbed my hand in his paw. “Well,” he said. “Ya gonna be a member of da Mafia?”
“Hunh?” I responded.
“Da Mafia. Dat’s what da team is called,” he said.
The black uniforms with a yellow pistol across the chest now made sense. Or, if they still did not make sense, at least they were explained.
Professionally, my teammates ran the gamut from trash truck driver to garbage separator, from short-order cook to carpet installer; it was a veritable potpourri of blue collar occupations. Most, however, were employed by the sanitation department. Over the ensuing fifteen years, I became “one of the guys,” though I was always looked at askance as the one who had gone to college. I do not think any of them had considered that a lawyer attends several years of school beyond college.
Big John, it turned out, was a recovering alcoholic. Our team’s cooler was filled with soda, not the beer that lubricated most of our opponents. This, too, helped me to fit in, to the extent I did, since I could not possibly have imbibed with the enthusiasm of my teammates if that were part of the experience.
My play over the years was rarely as spectacular as that first day, but I became a solid contributor to the Mafia. It was not long before I was promoted to my accustomed spot at shortstop.
Big John used to stop by my office unannounced when he was working nearby. He never failed to startle my secretary and any client that might happen to be present. I never did get a client from the team over the years, though they were not strangers to legal entanglements. I looked at softball as a pleasant break from work and was relieved to explain that I only knew about real estate and mortgage issues, not the DUI, bankruptcy, divorce and immigration issues that beset them.
One day, Big John appeared in my office beside himself with joy. His youngest son, JJ, whom I had first seen at age four when he would practice shouting his impressive command of curse words from the top of a jungle gym, had graduated from high school. Thanks to his inherited girth, he was offered a scholarship to play football at a Division-2 college. At six-foot-six and three hundred pounds, only the fact that he also shared his father’s amiable personality prevented him from being pursued by a larger program.
“That’s great!” I enthused.
“He’s da first in da family to go to college,” said Big John, tearing up.
I was so amazed to see him start to cry that I offered him a hug though it was impossible to get my arms around him. “That’s really wonderful, Big John,” I said, touched.
I was delighted for Big John that day, and proud of JJ. I’d heard or read about students who were “first in the family” so many times that I considered the concept somewhat trite. In my milieu, I was always surrounded by professional and educational success and I had lost sight of what a major accomplishment that could be. But here he was, standing before me in actual time, the real deal, the embodiment of the American dream, the proud father.
JJ was destined to break his Dad’s heart, and many others, before he wrapped his Trans Am around a telephone pole on the way home from a bar one night, six years later. His funeral was attended by so many friends and admirers, mostly Big John’s, that a line snaked hundreds of yards around the corner outside the funeral home.
The college experience had lasted only one year. The coaches did not like JJ, according to Big John, quoting JJ, at the time. JJ returned home, and failed repeatedly in the interim years, trying to start an auto repair shop or a restaurant or a laundromat. He was good at one thing, however. Though he never married, JJ was the father of four children, with three women, at the time of his death.
Big John is retired from work now, but not from parenting. Two of JJ’s kids live with him and his wife full-time, the whereabouts of their mothers unknown. The other two are left off most weekends for baby-sitting. The oldest child, now six, is named Junior. He shares his family’s precocious size and energy. Big John brought him up to the office to show him off. “Wait’ll you see dis one all grown up! He’ll play for Rutgers, for sure, and we’ll have a college graduate in da family!”