As I shouldered my way through the kitchen door, serving tray in tow, the first person I saw, standing behind the near table, was Ben. He was ladling out borsht, telling us to push the schav, and lamenting the high cost of tomatoes, in an ongoing and irritating monologue. He often spoke like this during mealtime, probably because he believed such pepper-talk stimulated us to work faster. And maybe it did, as we were all eager pick up our orders and be out of earshot of his insipid rantings as quickly as possible.
I slipped into line between Brad Cutler and Danny Pion. Roger was at the head of the line, meticulously arranging cups on his tray. Kenny waited impatiently behind Danny, juggling oranges to keep himself entertained.
Danny Pion was the Station Four waiter. He allowed his tightly curled hair to grow into a spherical "Isro." This was quite fashionable at the time. Often, Danny left his shirt purposefully unbuttoned to exposed a muscular chest. A golden ornament, a strenalmezuza of some type, hung around his neck. So attired, he reminded me more of Bob Guccione than Duddy Kravitz.
This was the second summer that Danny and I had worked together. Our relationship was strained, our interactions always tense (at least for me). Was this because we competed to see who could project the most non-chalant, devil-may-care attitude? Because I thought he valued style over substance? Because he presumed to be a BMOC without ever having paid his dues as a camper? Maybe. Probably. Possibly. As for his thoughts on the matter, well...I never bridged the distance between us to ask him why I irritated him.
"A little sluggish this morning, eh, Golub?" he asked, with a snide grin. I looked down at the pot of boiled potatoes which lie beside the vat of bosrsht. What would happen if I mashed a mealy spud into his face?
"Yeah, I guess," I answered. "But you know, Danny, if one of you guys had knocked on my door to wake me up, then I wouldn't have a penalty tea duty now."
Of course, I had no right to blame anyone else for my own comatose ways. Still, I was not above laying an undeserved guilt-trip on my co-workers.
"As it was," I continued, "if it wasn't for my resuscitation by a vespiary drop-out, I'd probably still be sleeping now."
Danny turned away, seemingly more interested in a rack of glasses mishandled by a clumsy dishwasher. Perhaps he was actively searching his memory for the definition of "vespiary." My lexographic one-ups-manship might have ended at that point had Donny Rubien not been eavesdropping.
Donny, the Station Five busboy was a vivacious gadabout. With his slender, flexible arms, long neck, and large eyes, he sometimes reminded me of a Dr. Seuss character, a gnome-like Lorax, or a South-going Zax, or some such phantasmal creation.
" 'Vespiary dropout!?!' " Donny screamed, without breaking stride. "Golub, who the fuck are you trying to impress? This isn't tea time at the Yale Cricket Club y’know. This is the goddamn Boiberik dining room. And you, though you try to deny it, are just another lowly servant, groveling for tips."
Donny intrerrupted these acerbic judgments long enough to stop at the salad cage to grab an order of bananas and cream. He pivoted about and headed out the door, passing Phyllis Keningsberg, who entered to refill an empty butter dish.
"Phyllis," Donny called, loud enough to reclaim the group’s attention. "Why don't you stop what your doing and visit with the borsht table? Bocci's giving vocabulary lessons." And he stomped his way out.
Phyllis paused, looked bewildered, smiled over to us, shrugged, and headed for the dairy box. Tension lingered on the borsht line. Roger hoisted his tray, filled with cold beet soup, over to the soup area. Ben continued portioning out the maroon extract for Brad, who was up next. Kenny stepped between Danny and I to diffuse the residual rancor. In this case, he changed the subject. "Up for a little hoops this afternoon, Bocci?" he asked.
A pulse of energy lifted my mood as I envisioned a half-court contest. For me, Boiberik and basketball were nearly synonomous. It is true that the camp purported to emphasize Jewish culture, and that much enegry and enthusiam were devoted to dramatics, socializing, and the year-end festival of brotherhood, dubbed "Felker" (meaning simply, "People"). Nevertheless, for me and many of the campers in my circle of friends, growing up at Boiberik meant progressing through the mitele and elste basketball ranks, then on to a series of acrimonious counselor versus waiter contests. A select few eventually secured an esteemed position on the Staff (All-Star)team, which played other camps. (Ultimately, the burden of travel for intercamp staff games proved to be too much of an inconvenience in the era of cannabis. By 1976, because there were enough able-bodiedstaffers available, we started an intra-staff "Hoop League." It instantly became a dominant feature of Boiberik's otherwise lackluster nightlife – for me, anyway.)
The ability level Boiberik's hoopsters was relatively modest. The range of talent was narrow (with rare exceptions). So the essential ingredient to a successful basketball career at the Boib often hinged on one's competitive spirit. The desire to win separated the few who truly excelled on the asphalt from the mediocre majority.
As for myself, I never achieved the level of intensity necessary to place victory above all else. I lacked focus, determination, killer instinct. Call it what you will.
If the teamwork was fluid, the shots were falling, the defensive shifts were smooth, and the rebounds fell my way, well, that was fine and dandy. During such rare occasions, I would often find myself on the winning team. Sometimes, my teammates' heroic hustle and competitive fervor would be contagious, and I would push myself beyond usual restraint towards the elusive state of total concentration.
But, for me, most of the time, in the heat of battle, I found myself distracted. Other concerns would pop up: a woman's attention, crushing fatigue, or the realization that the contest's outcome would have little impact on the remainder of my summer, my life, or the status of the universe as we know it.
This attitude, this resignation, this inability to focus, may well have been the reason that in the hundreds of games in which I participated during nine Boiberik summers, my team could not have won more than thirty per cent. At most. Probably less.
The previous night, in fact, during a Hoop League regular season game, I had been assigned the unwelcome duty of guarding Jon Sterngass. There were nine seconds left in the game. My team was ahead by one point. Jon was a counselor of the mitele yingstes (eight year-old boys). His determination and dedication to winning had grown to mythic proportions.
During the final time out, Fred predicted the other team's likely strategy.
"Now listen up everybody" he said, rallying the troops, much as Leibush had done during the Austrian campaign. Perspiration dripped off his chin. Steam rose from his shoulders. Mosquitoes and gnats swarmed about the court-lights overhead. For some reason, they chose not to sting, cognizant perhaps, of the mouthful of sweat they would imbibe.
I sat on the bench, exhausted, hunched over. Beads of moisture formed before my on the pores on my legs. These drops got bigger, coalesced, gave in to the forced of gravity, formed rivulents, headed south.
"Bocci, pay attention!" Fred said between gasping breaths. I tried. The pattern of sweat on my legs reminded me of the condensation that forms on the side of a cold aluminum can on a humid day. I was picturing Country Time Lemonade that I would soon enjoy, rather than anticipating the final play of the game.
"I think," Fred began, pulling Ricky Ritterman and Harris Kantor closer into the circle of five to heighten our sense of secrecy and of unity, "that they'll go to Sterngass." Duhhh. Thanks, Pat Riley. Sterngass was Mister Clutch. They would be crazy not put the ball in his hands.
Fred, Ricky, and Harris stood in front of me, looking down. They did not seem to appreciate how tired I was.
Harris Kantor, by the way, was the camp's best offensive talent. He was no Steve Shantz, but he was head and shoulders above the rest of the staff that summer.
He might have been a superb defensive player as well. But the scouting report was that he only exerted the maximum effort on one side of the court. I noticed, though, that he played better defense when there was an audience.
Jeff Nemeth sat by my side. Our center, Mitch Resnick, an exceptionally (and, some might have said, excessively) clean player, had already fouled out (on a ridiculous call) leaving the five of us to salvage a victory.
"So, I say we put Bocci on Sterngass," Fred continued, taking charge of a team which had no official coach. Generally, we planned strategy by consensus, but this was no time for democracy. "What about Rogue?" Harris asked.
"You're gonna guard Rogue, Harry; and that leaves Nem to guard Pion. Campy will take Sawyer, and I'll guard Rubien."
"No, no, no, no," Ricky interjected. This was out of character for the generally laconic Bomber. But as Leibush, himself, had discovered, personalities change in the heat of combat. "Let's put Nem on Rogue and Harris on Pion."
"That's right, that's right," Fred agreed quickly, as time was running out. "You got those matchups?"
The piercing shriek of referees whistles summoned us back onto the court. Billy Daitsman and Eric the Nem were officiating. They were doing an abyssmal job.
"Believe me," Fred concluded frimly, "they're going to go to Jon. And Bocci is the man to stop him." We joined hands five ways to bolster each other's confidence, then returned to the fray. Fred came up alongside me and offered last minute encouragement and instructions. "If you can't get through a pick, call out a 'switch.' But try to just push through if you can. Also, watch Jon driving baseline, because I think he'll try to draw the foul rather than take the jumper."
We lined up near the top of the key. Rogue inbounded the ball to Sawyer. I turned in time to receive an elbow to my solar plexus. This stole by breath momentarily, freeing Jon. I spun around to look at the ref, expecting a whistle. Foolishly, of course. Both inexperienced officials had their tunnel vision directed towards the ball; they missed everything else that happened on the court.
I caught up with Jon just as Sawyer bounced a pass to him in the right corner. Jon took two dribbles and saw he wouldn't be able to get around me on the baseline. Nem drifted over to help on defense. Jon eyed the basket. He pulled up. (Hey. A lot can happen in nine seconds.)
"He's going up," Fred shouted from across the court. I timed my leap perfectly, and would probably have gotten a hand on the ball if I had not been pushed from behind, falling into Jon as he released the shot. It went awry, hitting the side of the backboard. A whistle blew. I spun around to see the back of three opponents. Had Danny Pion delivered the elbow, the blind side impact? I had suspicions. But no proof.
Dait's called a two-shot foul against me. Donny Rubien embraced Sterngass in a premature victory hug. Ricky Ritterman collapsed on the floor in exhaustion. Fred complained bitterly to Daits that I had been pushed from behind. Jon went to the foul line.
I was startled from my reverie by Ben's insistent drone. "Let's go, pick up, pick up" he demanded. "Who's next for God's sake? Is it you, Michael?" he asked.
I began placing prepoured cups of borsht and side dishes of boiled potatoes onto my tray. "C'mon, look alive, look alive," he insisted, "there are customers out there waiting for service. They won't wait all day you know."
"Shut up, Ben," I mumbled, under my breath.
"What was that, young man?" Ben shot back, leaning across the table and shoving his myopic lenses in my face. He looked like Mr. McGoo. "I said one more CUP, BEN."
"And how many orders of schav," he asked, somewhat placated by my evasion and too revved up by the meal toremind me of how General MacArthur would never have tolerated such insubordination.
"Just one," I said.
"Damn it, push the schav," he said to Kenny, Danny, and myself. "How many times do I have to tell you boys to push the schav? It's delicious stuff, delicious. I drink it myself." He poured a cup of the viscous smegma into a clear glass.
"I do too Ben," Kenny responded most earnestly, obviously lying. "There's nothing I like better on a hot day at the beach than to chug a six-pack of ice-cold schav."
"Now you're being silly" Ben said, chuckling a bit himself, forcing us to reconsider the possibility that he was, indeed, human.
I left the borsht table, stocked my nearly empty tray with three cups of split pea soup, and returned to the dining room.
Chapter VIII: The Greenbergs
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