News flashed in
the midst of the family's nine-day wake for Joseito: He had been captured ...
alive. Rather than surrender with fellow rebels, he had exchanged I.D.'s with
one of them who had ended up being executed, then gone into hiding. Now both of
O's cousins had been plucked, and Lolo hung on the vine, overripe. It was time,
Antonia told her husband, to blow the smoke off one of his pipe dreams.
O watched his
father pack and leave for America.
Lolo relished the
freedom but couldn't bear the loneliness. If his wife and children wouldn't
join him in Queens, he warned, he'd return and take his chances. And thus, one
sunny October day in 1967, a bony, brown eight-year-old without two words of
English appeared in the shadows of Shea.
His family's new
neighborhood, Corona, was America compressed into a couple of dozen square
blocks, a babel of tongues, a stewpot of nations--a threat to his identity or,
if he had room enough inside, an infinity of possibilities. It was a choice
everyone faced: clinging to the smaller, safer circle of his own kind or
embracing the wider, wilder one.
The embrace began
on the steps of an Orthodox church, with a pink rubber ball and a Greek boy
named Gus. Then came a Cuban named Fidel and a Dominican named Johnny. Then a
Jew named Peter, an Irish-Italian named Dave, an African-American named Freddy.
Whenever a newcomer showed up--another awkward outsider--O seemed to recall his
backyard in Valverde Mao and picked that kid for his team.
The Gents, a
Latino gang, wanted O to join them. Fat chance. He didn't say it that way, of
course. He'd grown up breathing the tension that trailed a man who didn't care
whose hackles he raised; O would make sure to smooth every feather. But
something in him recoiled from clubs, from anything that suggested exclusion.
Give him public school, not the parochial one his sister Sixta attended. Give
him the shiny blue National League jacket, spangled with every team logo, not
the Mets jacket. Sure, he'd use police barricades as planks to scale the fence
at Shea, but he was there to root for players-- Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays
and Juan Marichal--not the home team. Too tight a circle. Too small an o.
Better to include
the gang members in his circle. Better, after a couple of hours of stickball on
99th Street, to jaunt down Junction Boulevard talking baseball with his
one-of-every-kind crew, grinning and greeting Caribbean vendors and
Mediterranean deli owners, grabbing guava-jelly pastries at the Cuban bakery, a
couple of slices to go at the Argentine pizza joint, some goat stew at the
Dominican greasy spoon, then heading to Spaghetti Park, his shoelaces and
shirttail forever flapping, to watch the old Sicilians knock bocce balls while
he sucked Italian ice till his lips and tongue turned neon cherry.
could tell you what was happening inside O's cranium. The wiring in his
forebrain's limbic system--the cockpit for a man's emotional relationship with
the world--was thickening and spreading, new neural pathways developing in
response to all his happy new connections; his inner circuitry multiplying with
his outer. His dad kept upping the ante. Every year or two Lolo would get an
itch or the rent would rise, and the family would move a few blocks or a few
miles to another apartment where O slept on a rollaway in the living room. He
never asked for his own bedroom, closet or dresser, never needed to define his
His family moved
again when he was 16, to neighboring Elmhurst--identified by National
Geographic as the most ethnically diverse zip code in America--and O's circle
grew wider still. His new school, Newtown High, boasted children from 67
countries, offered him what he calls his first public girlfriend--a Korean--and
elected him sophomore president. But O was underdog, not ruling class. He
served his term and never ran again; it interfered with his obsession, the one
exception to his no-club rule. His ball clubs.
Redwings--he'd play on two or three of their age-division teams at a
time--consumed his summers, and Newtown High's nine owned his springs. O was
ringleader of a half-dozen kids who played for both programs, conductor of
their dugout ditties and all-city by his sophomore year. Newtown coach Warren
Albert had the only team in the league that sang during games and the only
player who demanded more suicide sprints after practice. O wore it all over his
face like cherry Italian ice: He was going to play in the bigs.