Welcome to the Icebox
The first time I ever talked to someone of another race was at a baseball game. I was eleven years old and he was probably a grandfather, or rather, I tried to think of him as a grandfather, because he was grandfatherly on and off and when he wasn’t I wouldn’t have known what to call him. He was clearly old enough to be a grandfather and assured and kind like one most of the time. Sometimes though he treated me and my friend like equals, becoming caustic about exactly what we weren’t sure or calling upon us to do something not because it was for our own good, but as though there was an important project that had to be completed. I understand race relations enough these days to have a grasp of why he was talking to two young white boys, but my grasp pulls and slips when I think back to all he said.
There were many firsts this day. I was at an age for firsts, on the watch out for them everywhere, because maybe I could understand how everything worked, because maybe the world was mine. At eleven you are just timid enough and just strong enough to want to figure it all out.
I was with a friend whose father had dropped us off at the bleachers while he and another man, who had season-tickets along the third base line, continued on around the stadium. My father’s company also had season tickets that we used regularly, so going to the ballpark was no big deal. However, this day I felt I had been dropped off in another city, or even another country considering that I had never been around so many people of color all at once—the first first of the day. A crowd is one thing when you’re walking with your parents and quite another when you’re walking through it alone: it’s much more thickly packed and faster moving and you have move with it and watch your step, and then you’re a part of it as jostled and jostler, and the sense of danger vanishes—the second first.
The words his father used were —You boys are old enough to take care of yourselves, aren't you?
Sure we were.
The day was very hot, a Los Angeles hot, dry and glaringly bright. We climbed a grey metal staircase with a dirty blue handrail, and as we surfaced at the bottom row, the sun hit us from every direction as though the stadium were a glass bowl.
The rear section of the bleachers stood in the shade of a broad cantilever. We climbed the steps towards it and just before the shadow fell across our faces a man a few rows up stood up with arms wide, smiling down at us.
—Welcome to the icebox, boys, where the air is cool and sweet.
Under canopy’s shadow there was relief as the sun didn’t beat down on us, but it wasn’t cool by a long shot. As far as being sweet, I couldn’t put shade and sweet together.
The man, soon to be a gentleman to me, raised up his arms and twirled his wrists and hands. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie, brown slacks and a blue and white Dodger cap. The shirtsleeves were rolled up neatly and evenly and the pants and shirt had sharp creases. As we got closer, the clothes seemed to stand out from him, crisp but roomy. From his smile as much as his dress I thought of him as a gentleman, a man who might work with my father. His white shirt billowed in a breezy gust and he really did look cool and comfortable on this oven-like day.
We climbed further into the shade of the canopy, ending up at the steps just below his row. Everyone in the bleachers was either in the shade or in the rows closest to the field, two bands of clothing and heads, one in shadow and one in sun, all the way to the gap at centerfield. The bulk of the seats in the middle were empty and about half of the seats were occupied in both bands: people were spread out as best they could—better to catch whatever breeze came your way.
—The pleasure of your company, boys. There’s always room in the icebox. Right then it did feel cooler, in the sense of being refreshing, and I became aware of how my clothing hung on me, especially the way my t-shirt felt thick now that it was keeping in the heat instead of keeping it off me. I flapped it to try to even things out.
We sat down in the row in front of the old gentleman, thoroughly convinced that we had the coolest possible seats in the stadium—the word sweet came to mind.
We exchanged a look: we were not afraid of this strange man at all.
—I'm looking forward to a great game, boys. It's always a good game in the icebox, but I’m looking forward to a great game.
We didn’t turn back to face left field until he nodded that he had finished. However, we exchanged another look of tough worldliness.
I opened a bag of potato chips, stopped myself from pulling any out and instead turned round to offer the bag to the old gentlemen. He told me that I was a well-mannered young man and stepped over the back of seat next to me to come down to our row. I told him to help himself, for which he thanked me. I had never before offered anything to a stranger or talked to one and the hand that had been holding the chips had seemed to move on its own accord while I followed it. He cleared things up for me: I was being polite. He ate three or four chips very slowly, showing me that he enjoyed them. My friend and I imitated him, eating potato chips more slowly than we had ever thought possible.
With a good quarter hour before the game would begin, the old gentleman pointed out a player loosening up along the third base line. He then sat back and his clear words carried easily about the bleachers. He wasn’t looking at us as he spoke, perhaps that’s why he made his voice carry.
—They took a real chance when they acquired this man, a moody man, hero one day and washout the next. He was very young when he arrived in my old hometown and was supposed to settle down someday and become an all-star, but he's been at it, really at it, too long to change: women, booze, fighting, gambling. I waited years for him to settle down, and then he arrived here in my new town and still kept at it. But I know now that if he did settle down he would lose his edge and might even be a good player but never again the hero, never that stolen base in the ninth, never that impossible catch. What he is is a moody man, a talented man, a man that you want to watch but a man who can make you close your eyes and shake your head.
My friend and I were silent . . . moody men, heroes, booze, gambling, all these had been words before but never attached to a real person . . . and the way he said women didn’t fit the women I knew: moms, aunts, teachers, neighbors . . . and come to think of it, gambling was legal in Nevada, perfectly fine thing to do there, so why did he talk about this man’s gambling as if it were wrong? The things were wrong because he made them sound wrong—I didn’t see why.
What I had first seen under the bleachers was confirmed: worlds I had only had hints of before existed.
He was silent for a while, moody himself it seemed. He was finished with the story, but we were still listening for the end, the moral, the explanation. And the guy had just been traded to Los Angeles—he was scarcely a Dodger! We exchanged another look, but it wasn’t one of confidence. From this moment I was on guard until I realized that all old gentleman’s comments finished in the same way, without an ending.
The game began with a single. He explained to us how the pitcher, catcher, first and second basemen worked together to play a runner at first. It was partly second guessing but mostly throwing off the runner’s timing while the catcher and the pitcher kept theirs. And just when I thought the he was going to explain how to throw off a runner’s timing, teach me something I could take back to little league, he spoke to the left field, the field itself.
—They throw off your timing and that’s the end of that. You got to get on base to find it again, if you can. It can take years.
Years? Get on what base? No ending again! I was glad he had spoken to the field, because I would have had no response of any type, even of sitting still. He turned to smile at us, the smile lasting long enough to be an apology, explanation, reassurance. He smiled very much with his eyes, something I had always trusted in people. Be tough, I said to myself, the man doesn’t like endings. He’s still a gentleman.
Through the next three innings he cheered a bit, laughed often and joked with several of the other adults around us. The only difference between these folks in the bleachers and my parents when they were joking with their friends, talk I had learned not to listen to, was that these adults seemed to be strangers though they laughed as easily, about whatever it was, as at any a backyard barbeque. I thought he might have forgotten about us, until we all bought drinks from a vendor and he insisted on buying peanuts for all three of us from another. He couldn’t have known that it was the first time I had accepted anything from a stranger, but he seemed to from the way he the told us that these would be the best peanuts we had ever eaten. And they did seem more peanutty than usual.
Suddenly he was straining his eyes and asked to borrow binoculars from a man behind us with whom he had been joking earlier.
—Just this once— the owner said seriously.
The old gentleman used them for one pitch and one swing.
—That man has a hitch in his swing. He’s going to strike out. The harder he tries, the worse the hitch’ll get. Young men, let me tell something, never try too hard, because trying and trying and then failing again and again means something is fundamentally wrong. Change the fundamentals, change your thinking, then everything else follows.
—Who are you to talk about fundamentals?— said a woman a row down —Why don’t you leave these boys alone, they don’t understand a thing you’re saying.
The batter had stepped out of the batter’s box and was flexing; when he stepped back in the pitcher stepped off the mound, alternately looking at the catcher and away.
—He had better look to walk. If he swings he’s going to miss.
And he did, twice, strike two and strike three. The old gentleman handed back the binoculars and the owner beamed at him, proud of him and, from the way he caressed the binoculars, proud of them too. Nonetheless, he held them up and said again —Just this once.
His hands were huge. He threw the strap over his head and one of his hands held the binoculars to his chest, making the large, military binoculars look small.
In the fifth the Dodgers had two men on and two outs, and then after an intentional walk, three men were on. It was exciting, the go-ahead runs were on base; they were down by one.
—It’s tough being a Dodger fan because this is where they usually blow it.
The ball was hit on the second pitch and the left fielder scarcely had to move to catch it.
—I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. They blew it, they blew it, they blew it.
He got up and walked around, talking to others who were moaning in their seats.
—There is nothing worse than a lazy fly with three men on. Even striking out’s got dignity.
—Yes, there’s some dignity in striking out—the man with binoculars called over our heads. The woman who had chastised the old gentleman turned to us, smiling, happy to agree.
—The pitcher played him for a fool and there ain’t nothing worse than that. You don’t let people play you for fools, do you boys? You can’t even begin to think straight when that happens.
We shook our heads. Absolutely not. Being played for a fool had no dignity . . . we knew that . . . now.
My friend whispered to me —What’s this fool business? What does he mean?
We faked it, nodding at each other knowingly. Fool, foo l. . . a fool, a fool . . . being fooled was not what he meant. . . again it was the way he said it: fool was a big thing. . . . Dignity was good, I knew that . . . something about holding your head up. . . .
He came back to sit down next to me. I expected him to go on about fools and dignity . . . I was starting to get it . . . but the emotion that had lifted him out of his seat and made him tilt back his head to speak to the sky was over. He was as he had been talking about the hitch in the batter’s swing.
—Have you been watching the two center fielders?
Our heads snapped back to the baseball diamond.
—One is running out and the other is strolling back in, banging his mitt on his leg. He’s always banging his mitt—the mitt’s not done anything wrong.
We recognized the Dodger fielder coming out in a trot, and could just barely make out a player on the visiting team walking across the first base line, bagging his mitt on his leg. He wasn’t anybody famous and we didn’t recognize him.
During the first part of the inning, there was a man on first base and then a long single into centerfield. The Dodger center fielder bobbled the ball on the one hop and had to throw it to the shortstop as the cut-off man so that the player who had been on first and was bearing down on third wouldn’t be able to get to home. This let the batter come into second. The centerfielder ran into the infield to back up the second baseman who was taking the throw from the shortstop. This was a bad situation, one out and runners on second and third. The centerfielder ran back out to his position.
—No leg banging, you see, no leg banging, no head shaking, no fist shaking. You make a mistake, you deal with it, you do your job. You keep on.
The next man was walked to load up the bases. The old gentleman pointed at the next batter and kept his arm raised the whole time he was up. It had to be the leg banger, but I wasn’t sure. I memorized his number.
There were a couple of swinging strikes, balls, fouls, words between the batter and catcher and words at the umpire who remained silent. Then a grounder to the shortstop and a double play, home to first. The Dodgers were still behind but only by one run, making this double play an important victory of an unimportant game. There was more cheering and clapping in the icebox than there had been for the two runs the Dodgers had scored in the second inning.
The visiting team was taking the field and were all in position when the old gentleman raised his arm again, pointing at a player—from the number I recognized the batter who had hit into the double play. He was walking out through the infield banging his leg with his mitt, very hard this time. A teammate spoke to him and leg-banger ignored him.
The Dodgers went scoreless again. Leg-banger banged away all the way back through the infield. My attention shifted over to where hotdogs were being sold along the third base line—we weren’t getting any more vendors in the bleachers—when the old gentleman’s arm went up again. There was a furious argument between leg-banger and someone on the Dodgers. They were pulled away by teammates, though it took two to hold back leg-banger, who was still struggling while the Dodger, in fact the moody man, had already turned away. After leg-banger was released, he began shouting and had to be pulled back again. Fans were yelling, cheering, booing, and then it all settled down.
—Baseball is a game of failure: more strikeouts than homeruns, more outs than hits. Outs in the infield, outs in the outfield, out, out, out. Life’s like that. Failure, mistakes and lost opportunities. That’s why any home run is so sweet. That’s why they allow stealing here so you won’t do it out there.
A man two rows down said,
—I don’t even understand what you’re talking about! Like the lady said, you’re bothering these boys, they don’t understand a thing or they’re going to get the wrong idea.
This man had seemed one of the most jovial around up to this point. He was angry now.
—I don’t hear this lady saying anything. I know what he’s talking about it.
—He’s wasting his breath, bothering and scaring them.
—They have a right to be here— said the lady.
—I’m not saying they don’t. I’m saying that they have a right to be left alone, that’s all I’m saying.
—I’m scaring somebody? said the old gentleman —Maybe, I’m scaring you?
He and the other man stared hard at each other, and the old gentleman won, because the other turned around and shrugged too much. I had seen my father act with the same authority when he dealt with one of his workers who was younger and bigger.
—Baseball teaches you patience, dignity, and if the moment comes, exhilaration. We’ll have none of that today: the Dodgers are going to lose.
The angry man turned around, and was stared down again.
—The Dodgers are going to lose— said the old gentleman as he stared at the back of the other, who didn’t move.
—That is a little scary, considering where we are in the standings— said the man with binoculars.
The lady turned around and laughed loudly, and then even more loudly, laughing at her own laughing. The angry man turned around to laugh too while the old gentleman smiled and nodded.
My friend and I were amazed that the argument had ended as though it had never begun. We hadn’t been scared amongst these loud adults until that moment when the angry man had singled us out, and then not much, but we had been intimidated for much of the game listening to the old gentleman, in student-teacher sort of way, and that intimidation left now too. Ease and harmony reigned in the bleachers. The old gentleman was staring into the game, seeing more than anyone else, the man with binoculars was using them like a second pair of eyes, and the lady was talking with another lady sitting next to her, keeping one eye on the game—she never missed anything. I felt relief and then hunger. I mentioned to my friend that a hotdog sure would be nice and we agreed to go below to the stands for some food.
We found the bathrooms first after a short search and then decided that even though we were missing more of the game than we had intended that we had to have a hotdog and a drink. And we would buy the old gentleman a bag of potato chips. Standing in line, we heard an explosion of cheering from the stadium and a few men rushed up the staircase to see what was happening. Then it became quiet. People with radios to their ears where shaking their heads.
A man came down from the staircase to the food line and stopped along the side of it, talking to no one in particular.
—Another missed opportunity. I could have stayed down here the whole game. When am I going to see Dodgers winning? One run, one measly run behind and we can’t get even that.
He had a Dodger cap full of pins. There was more of the cap covered in pins then there was blue showing between them. He walked to a point in the line, but then jumped back.
—This was my place. Come on, you remember me.
He pointed to his hat, smiled and moved towards the line again but another man stepped slightly out of it to stand in his way.
—Everybody, you remember me— pointing to his hat again, looking past the man blocking him
—You’re supposed to save a place in line when something’s happening on the field. Come on, I was gone two seconds.
He moved towards the line. This time the man shouldered Dodger cap out, who stood there looking shocked. He was tall, thin and slouched and was now hunching over more and more as his mouth gapped more and more. The man blocking him was a head shorter but very broad-shouldered, with a broad nose on a large face and wavy reddish hair combed straight back. Dodger cap looked around for help. He dropped his head onto his chest and tried to shuffle into his old spot in the line. This time the broad shouldered man shoved him away with a forearm and told him to get out. Dodger cap made fists but didn’t move forward. The other walked at him with open hands: What Are You Going To Do? was written all over him, no different than a playground bully. Dodger cap jerked back as though pushed again.
—I thought you were white.
Dodger cap bent at the knees and left, the broad-shouldered man watching. When he stepped back towards his spot in line he found himself looking at a man almost as broad-shouldered but much taller, a man cradling in one huge hand a pair of binoculars hanging down on his chest. The broad-shouldered man’s place had been behind that of the man with the binoculars, so he wasn’t being blocked, but the other man was not quite in line either, making himself something to be maneuvered past.
—Was this your place?
The broad-shouldered man took his former spot, neither answering nor looking at the man with binoculars, who asked again,
—This was your place, wasn’t it?
Again there was no answer, but an angry glare from one and a smile from the other. The man with the binoculars turned towards the counter and stepped in front of the broad-shouldered man, saying,
Another counterman appeared and my friend and I ended up moving from the back of the old line to near the front of the new one. When we got our food the area under the bleachers seemed deserted and we rushed upstairs to see what was left of the game. All the way up the steps to the icebox, we exchanged looks: it had been scarier than it seemed at the time: grown men about to fight—exciting but scary: we were glad that was over.
Two outs into the top of the ninth, the Dodgers only one out away from their last stand. The old gentleman was staring into the game so intently that I had to speak to him twice, though I was speaking in loud voice:
—We brought you some potato chips.
He heard words from me but not what I was saying and understood only when he saw the bag being offered.
—Thank you. You are well-mannered young men.
He proceeded to eat each chip slowly, as he had done at the beginning of the day, and didn’t take his eyes off the game.
It ended with a grounder to the visiting team shortstop. No one had got on base, no batter had even connected solidly. Three up, three down—the Dodgers went out with a whisper, one run down. It was disappointing, everyone said so except the old gentleman, who was nodding to himself as he listened to the griping circulating the icebox. I was disappointed too but had enjoyed the game, this last pokey grounder included, because I realized—even then I knew it was due to the old gentleman—how often games end just like this, in defense, which is just as important as offense.
We offered our hands to the old gentleman. He was silent during the shaking, unsmiling expect for a flicker the moment our hands touched. He had shown me a new way to look at baseball but his silence stopped me from telling him that it was best game I had ever seen. He turned away to watch the groundskeepers. As we descended, he stood erect, stern faced with his arms at his side, so different from his open-armed welcome, his tie as tight and neat as it had been the entire game. We moved in front his line of sight at the stairs and I waved to him just before descending. He was looking at me but didn’t wave back and I cut my waving short.
We met my friend’s father and his friend at a designated place outside the gates. My friend's father asked us how we liked the game and we said that it was the best game we had ever been to. We told him we had sat with an old gentleman and he had told us everything about baseball. The man became stiff and leaned his stooped posture over us. He halted us on the sidewalk.
—A gentleman, a real gentleman. I see.
—He knew everything about baseball, about the players and all the tricks of the game. Everything— I said —It's more fun sitting in the bleachers because you can see the game more clearly.
—But the bleachers are the cheapest seats. You're very far from the action which is mostly in the infield at the other end of the stadium. Baseball’s a pitcher’s game, everyone knows that. He’s the one to watch, and you can hardly see him from the bleachers.
He was right. Yes, he was. I remembered seeing the force a pitcher put into a pitch from my father’s seats. From the bleachers the pitcher was only a series of actions when he threw.
We were walking again, crossing the lake of asphalt that surrounds Dodger Stadium. My friend spoke to his father.
—He called the bleachers 'the icebox', because it is cool under the canopy. The icebox— he repeated, but still no laughter.
—What color was this man?— the father said to his son.
We told him and the two men exchanged a stony-faced look, and then they glanced about pretending they hadn't exchanged one.
We got into the car and began crawling bumper to bumper out of Chaves Ravine. I tried again.
—I think you can see the game more clearly though you are further away because there’s more sunlight on a game from the bleachers, the outfields are so open. The sky is . . . ‘bigger’, I wanted to say, but stopped myself. I could tell no one was going to respond to me, and my friend wasn’t even looking my way. The outfields had never looked so green, so bright, true, the sky never higher, but my words were not convincing to me either. Far away is far away. In the icebox, at the top of the bleachers, even the left fielder was small.
—A hot day and a loss is not the best day at the ballpark— the other man was saying. —Did you boys enjoy the game at all? You said you found seats under the canopy, that can be a problem at times.
We had already answered these questions—adults were always repeating themselves. We both mumbled something along the lines of: it wasn’t hard at all.
And then my friend said the words on my lips.
—There’s always room in the icebox.
—What are you talking about, son? Icebox! Iceboxes don’t exist anymore. We have refrigerators these days, remember? Take this as a lesson that there are people who don’t think like we do. Don’t pay attention to what they say, just remember who they are. I’m talking to both of you now. You don’t understand about these people. Someday you will—today was a good start with this nonsense about iceboxes.
This had been a day of firsts. First time on my own in the stadium, first conversation with a person of another race, first time I had seen a ballgame as part of life instead something separate from it, first time I had seen grown men threatening to fight and now the first time I was told to ignore what I had seen and heard. There was little chance of that, because today was the first time I had been awed by words.