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Dominic plays on the second court. He is one of the last of a breed. He doesn't roll the ball at the pallino when he wants to shoot; he throws and tries to hit it on the fly, when strategy so dictates. Deep lines on his parchment face show his age to be well over 60. He is one of the best, as well as one of the last of his kind. But he is not as good as Jimmy.
Jimmy is a star, in a quiet, Henry Aaron sort of way. He rarely loses. A retired union representative comes down now and then to play and also to impress people by flashing his bankroll. He is Jimmy's favorite victim because he has more pride than talent. One day, they say, Jimmy took, him for more than $100 in a couple of hours.
Matty Powers is warming up on the fourth court. He looks like a construction worker just out of his prime, but he is a retired cop. Everybody else just steps into the court and rolls, or throws; Matty warms up for his game. He grips the stone horseshoe-shaped wall around the backboard and bends. One, two, three knee bends, each a bit shallower than the last. His face is red, and his glasses are clouding with sweat as he pulls and puffs himself up the fifth time. His are old muscles, not young, and he covers up by coughing. It is phony, and everybody knows it. But nobody laughs.
The fourth court is not like the other three. The surface is as fine as a putting green and as flat as a billiard table; the players replace their divots. The backboards are dead, and the players avoid them because using them would be too easy. No one plays truly well here, and only a few have played the game for long. Their names are Mike and Paddy and Jacob. There is little Italian blood; just about everyone took up the game on retirement.
Boccie was not always like this. The game was young once, when Rome fought Carthage in the Punic Wars, long before the first Pope. Roman soldiers passed time between battles pitching rocks at a small stone. By the middle of the 14th century, boccie was so popular that Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, had to ban it so that his people could concentrate on war. The game survived and spread across Europe, fathering French p�tanque and English lawn bowling. But the heart of boccie stayed in the north of Italy, around Turin, to be loved by firebrands like the 19th century revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi.
In earlier days, in the Italian colonies of the U.S., boccie games were stag affairs, and a man would no more allow his wife or sister to watch them than he would take her to see a striptease. The world of boccie was masculine and, with the girls out of the way, the men bragged about their women as the wine supply shrank.
As boccie ceased to be a young man's game, it also ceased to be limited to Italians. Thirty years ago Tom Westman first started playing. Tom worked on Wall Street until he felt too old a few years ago when he was still in his 60s. His legs gave out long before that. "I used to play baseball, but when I got too old I started boccie. Actually, at first I played horseshoes behind the old Shamrock Inn here in Pelham Bay; a lot of those guys played boccie, though, and that's how I started. This was just before World War II when I was about 40 years old. Back then the streets in Pelham Bay were all dirt roads, no paving yet, so we would pick out a spot on the street and play there. Sometimes we'd play where there was a little slope to the street near where we wanted the end line. That discouraged fellows from shooting too hard, because the balls would roll pretty far. We played a delicate kind of game."
The Parks Department built courts in Pelham Bay Park 15 years later, and Tom's group moved in. "When I first started coming down we had a really good bunch of Italian players," Westman says. "That was when we had our only challenge match. A group from St. Lawrence Avenue, south of here, asked us to send over our four best men. We did, a series of matches for $5 a man. We won, I believe, two out of three. Nowadays, there probably aren't any boccie players left on St. Lawrence Avenue. But there are not too many good men here, either."
Dominic may be the best. Except for Jimmy, of course. "Dominic is one of the few men here who still hits the ball on the head, the old Italian way," says Tom Westman. "I never played that way because I'm Irish and the men I learned with were mostly Irish, but Dominic's way is much harder. You see, in that game when you want to take the pallino down the end or shoot someone's ball away, you have to call your shot, like in pool. If you hit more than six inches away from the ball you're aiming at on the fly, your shot is no good, regardless of whether you hit the ball eventually or not. Ten years ago maybe there were 20 men here who played that way. Now only Dominic and a couple of others can do it. Of course, that may be because there are fewer Italians here." About 100 men play regularly on the courts in Pelham Bay Park, and almost half of them are Irish or German.
In Pelham Bay everyone talks about a house in Van Nest, an Italian neighborhood a couple of miles away. It is a secret place; you need a password to get in, just like a Chicago speakeasy. Great boccie players swarm to the court inside, traveling from as far as Boston to get a piece of the action. "They play for $1,000 a game," says Westman, a little awestruck. No one in the park knows exactly where the place is. No one has ever been there. No one has ever known anyone who has been there. Or no one admits anything. "Maybe the house, she burn down 10 years ago," says a toothless, olive-skinned ancient. "Or maybe she not. Maybe she still there; maybe she never been." The house is as real as heaven.