The boys at
Pelham Bay think smaller. "Nobody plays for really big money," Westman
says. "Oh, a couple of them will play for $5 a man every now and then, but
that is about it. Except for the retired union man that Jimmy takes, of course.
Almost everybody plays for 25� a game, just to keep it interesting. On Leo's
court we never play for money at all because we want to avoid
controls that fourth court. He created it, more than the Parks Department did;
he looks after it, he cares about it. You have to be a friend of Leo's to play
the fourth court, and you have to be very careful to replace any holes you
might make during a game. "We don't like people lofting the ball and then
not replacing their divots," says Leo.
At 70 he looks
magnificent. But just five years ago, when he left his foreman's job at Con
Edison, he almost died. "When I retired, I was pretty active muscularly.
But mentally I had no problems to solve. I sat around and started brooding.
When you are going to work, you get up even if you feel a little sick and get
out of the house. Many times you'll find you feel better when your mind is on
other things. But when you don't have anywhere to go anymore, you just sit in
bed and feel sorry for yourself. I got to the point where I was awfully sick
for no reason at all, and the doctor told me I was going to have a nervous
breakdown and probably die if I didn't find something to do with myself before
it was too late. So many retired men die in the first year or two after they
retire. So I started coming down to the park. I found plenty to do. I feel
useful. I feel wonderful."
He found plenty
to do, all right. First, the courts were in terrible shape. "Five years ago
Paddy and me took out all the weeds from that first court down the end,"
remembers Novick. "We screened the clay. Then we brought in some fine sand.
We had the prize court. The problem was all these guys who don't do a tap of
work would always be on the court before we got there in the morning. They
didn't take care of it. Finally, I said, 'You can have it. I'll fix this one by
the fence.' But some of them are blackmailers. They told us, 'You fix one for
us and we'll leave yours alone.' In self-protection, this spring we did all of
them." Leo tries to sound disgusted, but he keeps smiling.
looking for something to keep the court from turning dusty," he continues.
"My sister lives in Pennsylvania where there are a lot of dirt roads. But
cars kick up hardly any dust at all going by. So I asked her if she knew how it
was done, and she found out for me. They use calcium chloride. I started out
with a 75-pound bag just for our court, but eventually I did all four of them.
It took more than 200 pounds of calcium chloride. And there is another
wonderful property of this stuff. Before we had it, the courts would get a bit
damp toward evening, and in the colder weather they would freeze up altogether.
But the calcium chloride keeps the courts from freezing the way they used to.
We've played through four winters now. You've got to get the snow off first, of
course. We used to have a lot of time on our hands, sitting around waiting for
But do not think
of Leo as just the park handyman. He leads, he organizes, he almost commands.
He doles out favors. Sometimes that role is the most difficult. "We used to
have a wonderful man working for the Parks Department in the area called Simon
Lyons," he says. "He was some kind of supervisor. He handled more than
one park, so he only came around occasionally, but he was always very good to
us. One day he came down and told me he wanted to get some boccie players for a
tournament at Randall's Island. There would be refreshments and prizes. Anyway,
I got eight of the good players here to come along, and when the day came, he
sent over station wagons for us.
we got there, we found out there wasn't anyone else from any other part of the
city. My boys were a bit put out; they were all Italian, and proud people, and
they wanted to show off their skill. Then they saw the courts where the
tournament was to be held. Four beautiful courts—but too new. The dirt must
have been laid just the day before. They stepped down into the court and sank
in. It was a farce; they all got temperamental and they wouldn't play.
felt pretty bad about the whole thing, and he gave us three new sets of boccie
balls. Then a week later he came to the park and brought us 10 wallets and
trophies. He told us we could have the tournament right here.
everyone up into three groups: the Experts, the In-Betweeners and the Amateurs.
I was an Amateur. The Experts and Amateurs worked out all right; the winners
got their wallets and trophies, and everyone was just as proud as could be. But
the In-Betweeners! They were mostly Italian and they felt insulted about not
being picked for the Expert group, so they sulked. They never did play, either.
After the whole tournament was over, Si Lyons came back again and gave me a
brand-new boccie set for having helped. Well, what am I going to do with two
boccie sets? So we had another tournament for the boccie set. This time I got
together 32 of the men who were really strong players, all Italian, and put all
the names in a hat. The man whose name was drawn first would play the second
man, and so on. When that was done, the 16 remaining names went back in the hat
and we did the same thing again.
"This went on
until we got down to the last two men. They were Dominic and Jimmy. I was
hoping that Dominic would win, because Jimmy has always been very proud, and I
thought that winning would blow his pride all out of proportion. Anyway, when
the day of the match came, Dominic was sick. He called me up and told me he
just couldn't play. Well, Jimmy wanted to win on a forfeit, but I convinced him
that he would have to wait to prove that he was the best player. So he agreed
to wait a week.