Simple Solutions to a Complex Crime Problem (continued)

Although my New York friends who have recently brought up the topic of increased city crime do not say they, family, or friends have been recent victims of crime, I have had one tell me that he has seen brazen shoplifting in a local CVS and that police, even when in the store, have done nothing about it. Others of us have been affected by such behavior whether we have witnessed it or not because more and more goods, at least at drug stores, have been put under lock and key making shopping for some everyday items more inconvenient. Although there has always been shoplifting, we now apparently have widespread organized shoplifting, or as it is called in some circles, “organized retail theft.” In the past an individual may have boosted Crest, a Kit Kat bar, or a six pack. They may have lifted the occasional watch for later pawning. But now teams are stealing in bulk to sell in bulk, often on websites, and this, not surprisingly, has caused concern in the retail sector. The manager of an affected store hit by organized shoplifting in downtown Brooklyn said in a news story that he thought that the cause for this crime wave was New York’s recently reformed bail law, which, according to him, had allowed the release of many repeat offenders.

The manager’s statement illustrates our desire for simple answers to increased crime. However, it is perhaps impossible to explain with certitude why criminal rates fluctuate. Organized shoplifting is not just a New York City problem. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently said, “Organized retail theft rates have spiked significantly in the past year, affecting communities across the nation.” The Buy Safe America Coalition says organized retail crime has hit hardest in places other than New York, listing Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Delaware, Maine, Florida, Missouri, and Kansas. The cause of the shoplifting in these states is unlikely to be New York’s reformed bail laws. The widespread practice indicates that New York’s problem is part of a larger problem that stems from causes other than a change in New York legislation.

When my friend first told me about the drugstore shoplifting and the police inaction, he ascribed the cause to the defund-the-police movement. But that rallying cry got little traction in New York City and seems to have had no effect on the police budget. Even so, the organized shoplifting has continued. My friend no longer blamed that shoplifting on the defund movement. A simple supposed cause of increased crime seldom stands up to scrutiny.

Statistics, however, show that overall crime rates have increased in New York. Several friends have maintained that New York City’s abandonment of the stop- and-frisk policies is the reason. The goal of stop and frisk was to question people on the streets who were suspected of crimes and then confiscate the illegal guns they were carrying. This seemed logical. Fewer weapons on the street would lead inevitably to fewer violent crimes. If you sent those violent criminals to jail, then there would be fewer criminals on the street and therefore fewer crimes. Simple cause and effect, right?

Although the use of the police tactic had been increasing before, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg stop and frisk soared at the beginning of this century, and crime, including violent crime, declined. Working just like it was supposed to, right? Many people thought so then, and many continue to think so. However, the widespread use of stop and frisk ended with the Bloomberg mayoralty. The stops plummeted from almost 700,000 a year to fewer than 12,000 a few years later. And the crime rate? It continued to decline. Six years after the end of widespread stop and frisk, the murder rate in New York City was the lowest it had been in seventy years. So crime fell when stops increased and crime fell when stops decreased. That “obvious” cause and effect between widespread stop and frisk and lower crime rates turned out not to be so obvious.

Criminologists have conducted more sophisticated studies and analyses of stop and frisk instead of just looking at these gross numbers. Most found no effect on reduced crime rates, while a few studies found a modest crime reduction–modest to the tune of a fraction of a percent. These results are not particularly surprising in light of the fact that the stops did not remove many guns from the streets, the stated rationale for stop and frisk. A gun was found in about one in a thousand encounters. Five times as many illegal weapons were found through traditional policing, which declined when police were focusing on stop and frisk.

Mayor Bloomberg reported that the absence of recovered guns showed the policy worked. Because of stop and frisk, he said, New York criminals learned not to carry guns on the street. So, let’s see: If a lot of weapons had been seized, it would show that the police practice worked. If only a few weapons were seized, it showed that the police practice worked. Hmmmm.

(concluded September 26)

Simple Solutions to a Complex Crime Problem

My dinner companion asked me how I felt about crime in New York City, a topic that comes up more often these days not only among New Yorkers but also from others when they learn I live in Brooklyn. The question usually implies that New York crime is rampant, and the city is dangerously unsafe.

I want to reply, “Of course, crime is prevalent in New York; we have all these people working in the financial industries.” But, of course, that’s not the kind of crime they are talking about. They are speaking of the kinds of crimes that are committed on the streets that aren’t Wall Street.

When a non-New Yorker makes comments about the city’s crime, I assume I am talking with a person who watches a lot of Fox News, but I know that that is not true for my crime-commenting NYC friends, who certainly are not conservative. I ask my fellow residents whether they or family members or even acquaintances have been recent crime victims, and uniformly the answer has been no. I remember a time some years ago when that same question would have produced recitals of victimhood.

Even though untouched personally by crime, many of my friends know people or are among those people who won’t ride the subways because of perceived rampant crime. And this highlights some of the special relationship between crime and New Yorkers. I have friends who choose other means of transportation over the subway, but I also know people who will not enter the trains under any circumstances. Period. It’s true: if you ride the subways enough, you will see untoward things. True now. True always. Have the bad incidents increased dramatically? I don’t know but not in my personal experience. A friend who recently gave up the subways did it at a time that transit officials maintained that crime had not increased on the trains. But it was also at a time when local news outlets increasingly reported subway crimes. It certainly seemed that danger had increased on the trains, whether it had or not. Think, though. If you are or have been a commuter or an otherwise regular user of a car, how often during the last several months, did the news media report about a serious accident on your network of roads? How often did you witness or were told about a dangerous incident—a car suddenly cutting in front of another one to make an exit or weaving about or tailgating or driving too fast? My guess is that scary road incidents in Atlanta and Dallas and many other places far exceed the dangerous incidents on the New York subway. Someone can check this out for me, but I believe that more people are killed and hurt in car accidents in this country than they are in crimes. Few people, however, decide not to drive because of highway violence even though they are much more likely to die or be injured that way than a New Yorker is by a subway or street crime. I am not immune to these patterns. Like most of us, I am not good at assessing risk. Even though I intellectually know that if I die or am hurt violently, it is more likely to be on my drive to Pennsylvania than on the subway, the report of a subway crime makes me feel more vulnerable and concerned for my safety than seeing the remains of a car crash on Route 280.   

There is, of course, crime in New York City that causes concerns and perhaps it has increased recently, but statistics show that the New York crime rate is lower than in other major cities and much lower than it was a generation ago. However New Yorkers, regular Americans, and news media don’t talk about other cities as much as they do about New York. A lot of weird and bad things can, and perhaps generally do, happen each week in New York, but I wonder if we collected all the similar news from places with a comparable population, whether we would find nearly as many weird and frightening things. For example, if each week you heard all that kind of news from all parts of Wisconsin, would you feel that Wisconsin is a dangerous place to live? The local paper from my birthplace reported that there was a shooting this last week in Sheboygan, which contains a tiny fraction of the state’s population. How many similar violent episodes were there in the entire state, and how would that compare to New York? I saw a report recently that there had been two mass shootings this year in New York City (population 8.4 million). Bad, yes. However, Wisconsin (population 5.9 million) had six; Colorado (6.0 million) had five; and Louisiana (4.6 million) had nine. But because one of the mass shootings in New York occurred on a subway in Brooklyn, it got national coverage. Most mass shootings don’t even make more than the local news these days.

Even with these statistics, we don’t tend to ask whether Wisconsin is dangerous and crime ridden. We might ask that about specific places in the state, but the state covers too much territory to think about it in those terms. The Janesville resident is unlikely to be concerned about a shooting in Wausau or Rhinelander. It may be surprising to you that the homicide rate in Florida is higher than it is in New York. But Florida encompasses many more square miles than New York City, and so you are only concerned about the small area of the state in which you live or where you visit. Similarly, a robbery or even a killing in the East Tremont section of the Bronx does not affect me. I don’t believe I have ever been there, and I can’t see how the event can make my life more dangerous. However, it will make it into the New York crime statistics, and when I see that crime is increasing in the city, it can make me feel more apprehensive even when few, if any, of the crimes truly affect me.

(continued September 23)

Snippets

As is my wont, I was wondering in an old rural graveyard. Below the name and dates on a fading headstone, the inscription read: “Buried here is a lawyer and an honest man.” And I thought: “Two men in one grave.”

On my subway rides to meet a friend for a Saturday night dinner, I saw many young women dressed for going out. Generally they were in groups of five or six. I saw no similar groups of young men, and I wondered about that imbalance. Although I did not see the same outfit on two different women, the clothing of many seemed almost indistinguishable—short skirts with low tops almost always in black (I saw two notable exceptions, one on a subway platform and one on the sidewalk both of whom were wearing what to my untrained-in-fashion eye looked to be bright red slips.) And I thought, as I have before, if that is what they are wearing, then I am supposed to check out their thighs and cleavage. I also thought, as I have before, all cleavage is noteworthy, but all cleavage is not attractive.

“Fashion. n. A despot who the wise ridicule and obey.” Ambrose Bierce.

“Only God helps the badly dressed.” Spanish proverb.

As I walked to the subway one day, I heard a street person in a doorway say to no one in particular, “Did you see that old couple who just walked by? They did it.”

In our politics and in our courts, evangelical Christianity has outsized power. I say outsized because I read that church attendance has dropped and more and more people claim to have no religion at all. On the other hand, I believe in the adage: “Faith will not die while seed catalogs are printed.”

Christopher Morley said, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.” I would add: You have not converted anyone by forcing them to say a school prayer.

“When you say that you agree to a thing in principle, you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.” Prince Otto von Bismarck.

When I learn about how climate change is altering this planet and its societies, I think what I have read about Manhattan when the Dutch and English first settled there. The island and its surrounding waters were a hunting and fishing paradise with deer, bear, and fox. Whales and porpoises were off shore where 10 foot sturgeon and six foot salmon were so often taken that servants often stipulated that they would not be served salmon more than twice a week. Oyster beds were so plentiful that the mollusks were for sale out of barrels as a street food well into the nineteenth century. Man has changed that environment.

Many states are having elections for governors. These, of course, are gubernatorial elections. How did gubernatorial become the adjective for governor instead of something else?

First Sentences

“For Thomas Williams, it was better to be no one than someone in Asbury Park.” Alex Tresniowski, The Rope: A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP.

“Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny or itself out of little more than dross.” Harold Varner, Bonds: A Novel in Hernan Diaz, Trust.

“Every night at 10:01 P.M., the next day’s New York Times crossword puzzle appears online.” A.J. Jacobs, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

“My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few.” Andrew Bevel, My Life in Hernan Diaz, Trust.

“The world Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen was born into on June 7, 1789, was the vast, sparsely populated coast of central western Greenland.” Stephen R. Brown, White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic.

“Nurse’s thick accent somehow makes me feel my English is improper.” Mildred Bevel, Futures in Hernan Diaz, Trust

“Around 1860, a French singer named Mademoiselle Zelie went on a world tour with her brother and two other singers.” Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing

“The paneled doors, shut to most of the world for decades, are now open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.” Ida Partenza, A Memoir, Remembered in Hernan Diaz, Trust.

“In October 1968—a year in which, as we all know, assassins made martyrs out of two good men, young soldiers with no other option waged a war while their privileged peers fought to end the same conflict, and a newly militant citizenry laid waste to their own cities and homes—Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain opened the door of his bright new white Cadillac for Bob Gibson.” Sridhar Pappu, The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.

“A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door.” Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but in the middle of the 1800s, school was not the central experience of children’s lives.” Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live.

Snippets

Would you be whining about your work if you had an incredibly powerful job, could have it as long you wanted, work full-time nine months of the year, and make enough to put you in the top 2% of earners with the chance to make even more? And yet here is John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, publicly bemoaning that Americans question the legitimacy of his Court. Apparently, he is so unhappy that so many see his work as illegitimate that he is going to resign. Just kidding.

“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” George Eliot.

I have listened to the summer sounds. I take my coffee and reading material to the porch as the light is dawning and pause periodically to listen to the bird songs, even though I cannot identify any of the calls. After dinner and dusk, I take a book to the porch and pause in my reading to hear the symphony of the cicadas. During the daylight I hear deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits rustling the dry leaves in the woodlot next to my reading spot. But, unfortunately, during the day I also hear the summer sounds of lawn mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, and backhoes.

It must be a sign of age: I think of my youth as all the time before I was sixty-eight.

A fact that surprised me: The first medal awarded to an American at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was for art. Art competitions were part of the summer games until 1948.

Another fact that surprised me: Iceland has no ants.

A recurring question that mystifies me: Why are Americans so besotted with the un-American institution of the British royalty?

Sometimes when conservatives rail against critical race theory they betray complete ignorance of what it is. Perhaps they oppose it because they think that it is a system for picking horses.

 “In the middle of the twentieth century, any Mississippi schoolchild who achieved an eighth-grade education had been exposed to a state history textbook [Mississippi through Four Centuries] that told of the glories of the Klan. In discussing Reconstruction, it said the Klan whipped and even killed Blacks ‘who had been giving trouble in a community. . . . The organization helped the South at a difficult time.’” Curtis Wilkie, When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer. (2021).

Tony Horwitz, in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998), reports that a visitor to a civil war battlefield asked a park ranger why so many Civil War battles were fought on national parks.

The philosopher said, “Half of wisdom is being silent when you have nothing to say.”

Making More Decisions

          We are reminded regularly that the country is divided, but we have always had divisions. Who can forget the Civil War? Now there was a divided country. We have had, however, other divisions, often violent ones, including our many, many Indians wars as well as strife between labor and the plutocrats that took the lives of lots of mostly working people.

          Increasingly, however, we think of divisions that aren’t as stark or cause as much violence. A lot of that comes from politics where vote seekers dice the electorate into more and more groups. The New Yorker writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore in her book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future suggests that 1960 was a turning point. Simulmatics, formed in the 1950s, was a little-known company with big dreams. It sought to collect data about voters and consumers, analyze the information by what was then new computer technology, and predict how people would vote. It tried to take credit for at least some of JFK’s success in winning in the 1960 election, but it is not clear that anyone in the Kennedy campaign saw the Simulmatics reports. I never fully comprehended what the corporation really accomplished other than its many public relations efforts to promote itself before it disappeared into bankruptcy in 1970. However, the book did make me think about the data I might like to collect if I were going to segment the American populace to better understand it for political purposes.

          Of course, we are aware of some categories that pundits and politicos already consider: race, age, education, and income and whether voters live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. All useful information, but I would want to ask further questions.

          Religion, for example. That seems to be an important piece of information. What is your faith? Do you worship with an established denomination? Would you describe yourself as an evangelical? How often do you attend a House of Worship in a year? What percentage of your income do you give to charities? How much of that flows to non-religious charities?

          Where do you get your news?

          How many books do you read a year?

          What two sports do you most like to participate in? To watch? None is an acceptable answer.

          Do you play video games? Which ones? How often?

          How often do you go to a gym? How often do you otherwise exercise?

          How many sexual encounters have you had that you regret or want to apologize for? (Our questionnaire is, of course, confidential.)

          What social media accounts do you have? How much time do you spend each day with them?

Which is more important for preventing oppression by the government: free speech or possession of a gun? What rights are protected by the First Amendment? The Second Amendment?

How many guns do you own?

          How much money does a family of four need to live comfortably?

When in American history did Italians come to be considered “white”?

Have you ever had a mullet? If so, when was the last time?

Have you ever had teased hair? If so, when was the last time?

Do you find yourself feeling superior to someone with a mullet or teased hair?

Do you know what white guilt is? Have you personally experienced it?

What kind of vehicle do you drive? If you had more money, what kind of vehicle would you drive?

Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

Have you ever served a sentence in jail longer than 60 days?

If you don’t now, would you consider living in a manufactured home?

Do you live in a gated community?

Do you own your own home?

Do you know what stock options are? Have you ever owned a stock option? Do you own stocks or bonds?

          What kind of music do you most listen to?

Where did you buy your last pair of shoes?

Have you served in the military? If so, what rank did you achieve? If you have children or grandchildren of an appropriate age, would you encourage them to join the military?

Would you encourage your children or grandchildren to join law enforcement?

How was your last medical procedure paid for? How much did you have to pay out of pocket?

Define a bell curve, a t-test, statistical significance, a control group.

          Do you think that the following statement is correct?  “If you weren’t a little dirty at the end of the day, you weren’t much of a man.” (Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.)

          What kind of shows have you binge watched?

When was the last time you went to a museum?

What podcasts do you listen to?

Do you agree with this statement? “The greatest pleasure I have known is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.” (Charles Lamb.) Has that ever happened to you?

The Anniversary Approacheth

The anniversary, as anniversaries inevitably do, comes again. The events themselves have now reached what used to be legal age. Twenty-one years ago planes exploded into towers and the Pentagon and crashed in Pennsylvania.

          That day may be emblazoned in the memories of many of us, but now up to a quarter of the nation’s voting age population was not yet born or were mere toddlers or had not yet finished grade school when 9/11 happened. However, whatever you recall of that day, we all live with the consequences of decisions this country made in response to that terrorism.

          Because of the events, we went to war and invaded Afghanistan and, bewilderingly, Iraq, but there were many other military actions in eighty countries in what was proclaimed the Global War on Terror. The costs have been steep. American lives have been lost, but we seldom think of the other deaths. A recent estimate suggests that 900,000 people have been killed and uncounted refugees created as a direct result of the war on terrorism. And of course, there were many other consequences—PTSD, sundered families, educations lost, addictions, and much more.

          We don’t discuss much the monetary costs although a recent report states that in the last two decades we have spent more than $8 trillion to fight terrorism. “Patriots,” however, did not want to pay for it. They did not suggest that we increase our taxes to pay for what was to make us freer and safer. Instead, we reduced taxes for certain segments of the population, and of course, deficits increased. We decided that for our security, our children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren, born and unborn, should pony up the money. If you rail against our national deficits and debt, you should think about how successful the 9/11 terrorists were.

          Our present military budget sucks up more than half the federal discretionary budget, and much of that is the result of our actions started in response to those attacks a generation ago. When politicians and pundits claim we don’t have money for needed infrastructure, healthcare improvements, education, childcare, and much else, think again to 9/11. Terrorists died on that day, but their actions live on.

          Another immediate response to the September 2001 attacks was increased “security” in the nonfederal sector. This continues. We require identification or special procedures to enter places that we once entered without fanfare. For an ordinary business meeting in an ordinary office building this past year, I had to stop at a desk. One of the two men there verified I had an appointment, which meant that someone had to inform him of the meeting. He took and printed out my picture on one of those sticky badges. He called the office where I was going, and someone from upstairs had to come down to collect me since the building required a card to use the elevator. And after what was maybe a five-minute delay, I was in the meeting. I have never seen expense figures put on this and similar kinds of security, but the equipment, personnel, and time spent all impose costs. Perhaps that amount is small for any one transaction, but there must be at least hundreds of thousands, perhaps even tens of millions, of such encounters every day, at a total cost of…..???

          Of course, all these actions that came in the wake of the Twin Towers may have been worth it if they have led to a safer and freer America. Perhaps some things have been done that achieve these goals, but we are not good at assessing our actions, even the ones we continue to do. Do you feel freer and safer? Does the world? Perhaps the 9/11 terrorists accomplished more than we realize.

Snippets

A federal judge has ordered the appointment of a special master to see if any of the federal records recovered from Mar-a-Lago are protected by “executive privilege.” Dobbs, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, held in essence that because a right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, a right to abortion could not be inferred from the charter’s text. Like abortion, executive privilege is not in the Constitution’s text. That privilege is inferred from the Constitution’s structure which supposedly mandates a Separation of Powers. Many constitutional rights are not stated in the Constitution but inferred from its structure and text. But not the right to choose for women.

Stories about Mikhail Gorbachev’s death report that he ended the cold war. And right after that, the American defense budget decreased. Oh, wait, it didn’t. Apparently like death and taxes, increased defense spending is inevitable.

 For tennis and some other televised sports, the graphics indicate the home country of a competitor with a flag. This is of little use to me since I don’t know the difference between Spain’s flag and Portugal’s, Chile’s and Argentina’s, Bulgaria’s, and Belarus’s. And come on, how many of you know the colors of Liechtenstein’s standard? If only I could find vexillographer Sheldon Cooper’s podcasts of “Fun with Flags.”

Each tennis player had won a point. The umpire intoned the score: “Fifteen all.” Would it be more grammatically correct or more accurate if she had said, “Fifteen both”?

If there is a connection between the singing of the national anthem and patriotism, then sports fans must love this country much more than those who do not know what a pick-off move is. I have heard in person or on broadcasts the national anthem before car races and baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer games. Until this year, I had not heard it before a tennis match, but then I heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung on the first night of the U.S. Open this year. But even though I have heard it said that professional golfers are the most conservative of professional athletes and that golfers in general are more conservative than those who indulge in other pursuits, I have not heard the Anthem as part of the too-many golf telecasts I have seen. May I consequently assume that those at a golf event are less patriotic than those at a football or baseball game?  I wonder if our previous Golfer-in-Chief ever sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”—assuming he knows the words—before he plopped down in a golf cart for his frequent eighteen holes. Perhaps if he had sung the National Anthem more, he would have supported the Capitol Police. But then again, would you be surprised that as a result of the new golf organization, that Has Been Guy wants to learn the national anthem of Saudi Arabia?

 Life expectancy has dropped for the last two years. Another way to state that is the decline in life expectancy that started under Donald Trump has continued.

I admire people who follow their principles at a personal cost, but how should I react when I think those principles are silly? I am looking at you, Novak Djokovic.

U.S. Open–Not This Year (concluded)

I expect whenever I go to the U.S. Open some experiences similar to past ones: I will get lost coming out of the parking lot and I will wonder where we are going to find dinner in Queens. But one thing will have changed since we first started going to this tennis tournament—the role of the ball people. Each tennis match has six ball people: two stationed behind each base line and two at the net. Their basic job is to scoop up the loose balls when not in play and get them to end of the court where the server is.

          When I started watching tennis, the American ball kids threw the balls. Those at the net only had to toss them from mid-court to the back wall, but those behind the baselines threw the entire length of the playing surface. To be a ball person, one had to be able to throw the ball, and I thought that was right because, in my opinion, real American athletes should be able to throw. In contrast, ball people at tournaments in other countries rolled the ball as if they were involved in some sort of kiddy game. The ball kids beyond the baselines would bend down and roll the balls to the net boys and girls, who would then collect them, turn and roll them to the kids who were going to supply the servers. Of course, I thought, those Italian, French, English, and even Australian people had to do this because they could not throw. That thought made me proud to be an American where we can do so many things.

          The NBP has always been able to throw well and knows and played tennis. A natural to be a ball person at the U.S. Open, I thought. So one year I took the NBP to the ball-person tryouts at the National Tennis Center about six weeks before the Open. I had brought a ball for the NBP to warm up with, and we found a vacant court on which to practice.

The person in charge of the tryouts explained that people who could only throw from the net to the baseline and not the full extent of the tennis court might still be hired, but their odds were lessened since they would have to be stationed at center court instead of being able to fill any of the six ball person positions. The NBP did well and was better by far than most of the tryouts. Part of the reason was that the progeny was a gifted athlete, but also because many of the kids could barely throw. I had expected that many of the girls might not be able to loft the ball from one end to the other, but I was surprised at how few of the boys could. When I was growing up, almost all the boys I knew could throw reasonably well, but perhaps my memories were distorted. I hung out primarily with guys who played sports; maybe there were lots of boys I did not know who could not throw a ball sixty or seventy feet, but I still think they were not the majority. At the U.S. Open tryouts, however, it seemed that maybe only a quarter of the male teens could throw adequately.

          The NBP was going to be a shoo-in to be a ball person, and I already was trying to figure out transportation and other logistics, but then I started to feel some guilt. Unlike the progeny and me, many of those seeking the position seemed to be from the less affluent classes, and probably the weeks-long pay could be important to them and their families. Was it right that the NBP took a position that otherwise would have gone to one of them?

          At the time the NBP was identified as a girl, and as a ball girl she was going to have to wear a tennis skirt designed by one of the sponsors—Ralph Lauren or Puma or Adidas. And here I failed as a father. Even then, I should have known that skirt-wearing was a problem, a major, major problem. The NBP, although not then openly identifying as non-binary, fiercely resisted skirts or other “girls” clothes. I should have gone to those in charge and at least asked if the NBP could wear shorts, but I did not think of it. A few weeks later, the NBP got the official notice that she was accepted but declined the invitation.

          Somewhere between those tryouts twenty-five years ago and today, however, the role of the ball kids at the U.S. Open changed. They no longer throw the tennis balls, but as in Europe, awkwardly roll the balls as if they were in some sort of hurried, miniaturized lawn bowling event. They no longer seem American but Frenchified, fussy, foreign. I don’t know precisely when the change came or why. Of course it could be that wild throws might endanger spectators and it’s the fault of the insurance companies. But I believe that at least part of the reason is that fewer and fewer American kids can throw a ball as well as American kids ought to be able to do. Abilities have changed, and, apparently, so must American standards.

          Alas. I mourn the result. But I still like the way the NBP can throw.

(I urge you to read the guest post from the NBP on August 3 where he narrates some of his tennis experiences including the U.S. Open tryouts. I hope that I will not be blamed too much, even though I feel as if I could have been a better father.)

U.S. Open–Not This Year

I could not get the tickets I wanted and won’t be going with the Non-Binary Progeny to the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, on the first Friday of the two-week event as we often do.

As with baseball, football, basketball, and soccer, the venue has a large stadium where spectators sit in assigned seats to watch the action. I don’t remember the first time or how many times I have attended the Open (always with the spouse and/or the NBP), but I do remember that I have seen some great tennis there, even if some of the details are hazy. I saw Federer stave off defeat in a close, exciting third-round match, but I don’t remember his opponent. I saw Agassi play a match where his opponent (I don’t remember him either) could not control his toss and his frequent intoning of “Sorry” echoed through the stadium and Andre became increasingly irritated. I saw what I heard later described as a match for the ages as Venus Williams was beaten in a tiebreak in the third set (her opponent?). In one great match I do remember both players. It was Boris Becker against McEnroe, but in this case, it was Patrick McEnroe. Long and close. It started late in the afternoon and extended past the start of the evening session. Those folks with the night tickets were kept waiting outside the stadium’s gate until the match concluded. The family was with me. The tennis grounds are near Long Island Sound, and as can happen, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. It was cold, and the wussy members of the family kept asking, demanding, imploring, begging that we go home, but I made us stick it out. (They have forgiven me or forgotten about it or have repressed it or have made it into a silent volcano of resentment that might erupt someday.) Patrick, who had beaten Boris earlier that year at the Australian Open, lost in four sets, three of which went to long tiebreaks.

Our seats were seldom outstanding. The best tickets were unaffordable and even if we could have dug deeper into our pockets, almost all the good seats were snapped up in some mysterious process by fat cats and corporations before we plebeians could even think about buying them. However, through the years, I have learned where I could get seats that seemed to work best for us—behind the end line with the sun to our backs in the section just above the tickets for the 1%. When I first got those tickets, they weren’t cheap, but not so extravagant that I thought I was buying a high-end used car. In recent years, however, the cost for this location has gone up and up. Even if I could afford them, their outrageous cost offends me, and in recent past years, I have had tickets in the upper altitudes where the ball is aspirin-sized and the plunk of a struck tennis ball seems to take a few moments to arrive. But I have still enjoyed the outings.

There were some glorious years that were different. An acquaintance worked for a company that hosted hospitality tents for sporting events, including the Heineken Pavilion at the U.S. Open. Knowing I was a tennis fan, for several years she offered me Heineken tickets to the Open. There were great advantages to this. The seats were much better than any I had bought, and the tickets granted admission to the Heineken center. The tennis center grounds are asphalt or something like it, and if the day is warm, it can be brutally hot at ground level during the day sessions, as it was one year that the NBP and I had the special tickets. The Heineken beer pavilion, however, is air-conditioned. Stepping inside for only a few moments to get a break from the heat and humidity was blissful. Because we often stay eight hours or so at the Open, bathroom breaks are necessary. There is often a line…but not at the Heineken tent. Food is also necessary; there are concession kiosks under the stands, and food stalls around the grounds. They are pricey, and often the lines are long. But those of us blessed with the Heineken connection are greeted with long buffet tables with goodies for which we do not pay. Besides that you might get to hobnob with–well, gawk at–famous tennis players of the past. The Heineken tickets, thus, had many benefits topped by being FREE. Of course, we were spoiled by them, and everything since then has been a bit of a letdown.

Watching the matches in the main stadium is only a small part of enjoying a trip to the U.S. Open. A major tennis tournament is different from other sports events because in addition to the action in the center court of the large stadium, the tennis venue contains many outer courts where matches are going on simultaneously. Some are in smaller stadiums, but many of the courts are like those in a public park with a few rows of bleachers along the sidelines. Spectators can seek out contests throughout the grounds and from a few feet away see some of the best athletes in the game. (At one of those courts, I caught a ball that flew over the three-foot fence. Before tossing it back, I noticed string marks on it and other wear and tear unlike any of the balls I have ever played with. Not surprisingly, tournament balls are changed every nine games.) In addition, the outer grounds contain practice courts where spectators can watch stars getting ready for their next match.

On these outer courts where the NBP and I spend most of our time, we have watched singles with high-ranked players and those not seeded; doubles matches; junior matches; senior matches; wheelchair matches; and practice sessions. Much of this has been highly entertaining including a women’s doubles contest with players I had never heard of. One of the players was an attractive blonde–I believe from Lichtenstein–who was drawing special attention from both the NBP and me.

The tennis tournament is also different from other sporting events because the players walk through the grounds and the spectators to get to and from the outer courts. After a mixed doubles match, Martina Hingis, one of the NBP’s favorites, walked a few feet past him. Hingis shook his hand. The NBP was thrilled, reporting, “It was soft.” And I will leave for another day our encounter with Andre Agassi.

(concluded September 5)