Way, way back yonder when I was a mere lad in my twenties (watch out for those Perspective ‘Mere Lads’ they can skew your view and make you feel mighty old), I used to hang out in L.A. several weeks a year in between my contract consulting gigs.
I usually crashed on the scary back-breaking, cat-eating fold-out sofa at my buddy Mike’s apartment that he shared with his friend Andrew. OK, the sofa only ate the cat once, but luckily Star Kitty was not too bright so she just thought she went on a short little vacation in Smushy Cushion World. Believe me, I had it worse than the cat as I tried nightly to find angles and positions on that thing dodging the spine piercing bar. Eventually, Mike got a mattress size piece of foam for Smushy Cushion World to better comfort all its entrapped feline and human visitors.
Routines quickly developed and it was not uncommon for me to grab some dinner then make my way over to the live-jazz pub where Andrew tended bar. Over the course of the evening, he would serve me all sorts of crazy, sometimes experimental, concoctions including some with drippy separated stalactite-looking layered liquors served atop a large flashlight for extra effect. No matter how scary I never complained about a liquid refreshment, even when he served me the mat, especially since most every drink was comped.
In those days Mike worked as a waiter a few blocks away and after pulling a full shift he would wander down for a nightcap with me. Usually, we then headed over to a local schoolyard, scaled the tall fence and played three to five games of one-on-one moon-lit ‘midnight basketball’. I used to wonder if Andrew was in cahoots with Mike to sabotage my game by serving me the scariest gut-busting drinks known to man just prior to our games. The truth was, my game needed no assistance to stink and I probably only stayed close because Mike had just been working on his feet for the past six hours.
My first game of the night was usually pretty sloppy but I would run and sweat so much I was dead sober and way more focused by the second. The middle games usually became a slugfest giving me an edge as I repeatedly pounded downcourt for my inside shot. Eventually, Mike’s speed and well-practiced outside shots would wear me down and give him the edge the later games of the series.
This became a tacit common occurrence we both enjoyed for years. Unfortunately, my brain might still want to relive the routine but at my current age, my body might have a differing opinion. The stamina of youth is a very fleeting thing and typically not appreciated till it’s gone.
As we got older with real jobs, wives and families, our midnight basketball games grew less frequent. Originally, each game ended at 21 and since you had to win by two, it was not uncommon for our scores to approach 30. A few years later we lowered the winning score to 15. By the time we were knee-deep into our thirties we had dropped it to 11. Images of us in our 80s playing a single game to 3 always filled our conversations, wheelchairs clanking against each other way down under the hoop in repeated fouling ‘chair check’ moves.
I miss the simpler times of my younger days. Out there at 2:00 am competitively playing our hearts out while the rest of the world slept. We did not worry about the time, about being out there alone in the middle of the night, about sneaking onto school property, about working all day, about drinking all night, about aches and pains, about who is waiting at home and everything else that creates mental roadblock paranoias. The only worry back then was finding a way to win those games.
I can’t even remember the last time Mike and I played basketball. Life gets busy. I don’t get out to California much anymore. Time passes. While busy running in life’s little circles, I occasionally look up and realize I’ve gotten older than I ever imagined. Those wheelchair games to 3 seem frighteningly close. I have way more responsibilities, a regular 9-5, people counting on me and right now there is a lot of heavy serious stuff going on that weighs on my brain. Does this mean that despite my best efforts to fight it, I might have accidentally grown-up?
I can wax nostalgic and long for the carefree days of midnight basketball but I have to keep a check on the reality of my memories. My brain tinkers with history and works like a sports recap highlight reel just showing the peaks and valleys while dismissing the minutiae of my life. During those years, for every night of wacky worry-free 12:00 AM hoops, there were a hundred other less memorable nights of going asleep lonely and isolated craving the rewards of the type of life I have now. The comforts of a good marriage to not only a wife but an amazing friend. A steady job. A comfortable house. A grounded life.
Memories are like a photo album or a FACEBOOK feed presenting a warped skewed view of life featuring only selected highs and rare occasional lows. It’s not the full picture of the more frequent average days and it hides the fact that with all good there is an awful lot of bad. The fact is, the most amazing meal in the world still eventually becomes flushed shit. I try to integrate the best parts of my old lifestyle with my current but it is not easy.
When I am struggling with the balance, I need to sometimes remind myself not to dwell on missing past good times but to celebrate them. Enjoy the memories but continue to set myself up to create new good times. Ones that 20 years from now I can look back on with the same dumb grin as I get to thinking about Midnight Basketball. Then maybe a decade or so after that, I can polish up the old wheelchair for the big game to 3.