William and Robbie

I still sometimes do that dumb Elizabethan thing I do. I can’t help it.

Although it’s been quite a while now, I can place the first public appearance of this verbal tic with certitude. It’s so memorable because the audience was the last I would ever, in any circumstance, have chosen: Peace Pipe, Bird, and Jay Zed.

The four of us were at that difficult age when young males do not yet need to shave but do so anyway. It was early March, a day of false spring but still nippy. Underdressed, our cold-weather gear prematurely left at home, we were shooting hoops in the half court up towards the Sherbrooke end of Addington. Separated by just one row of triplexes from the Expressway’s all-devouring maw, it’s a spot that looms so large in the mythology of me and many of my peers, living and departed, that I tend to forget it’s not necessarily world famous. So I’d better provide a bit of background.

It wasn’t always called the half court. It wasn’t always called anything. For many years it was just a three-sided space. Concrete walls stretched three stories up, the smoothed-over remnants of what was once a residential courtyard; bricked-over window shapes hinted at untold lives once lived behind them. The upper reaches were smoke-streaked, for reasons that can’t have been nice. Rust marks here and there told of long-stripped fire escapes. Someone, it was hard not to think, hadn’t quite got out. The arm’s-reach portions of the walls formed a diorama made up of the mystic frescoes of our district’s aerosol Michelangelos, their signatures legible only to themselves and their brethren, their fuck-you obscurity testament to a rare integrity.

For decades stretching back into legend, this was a place of unspoken immunity. Stained mattresses (no sooner would some poor city worker have dragged one away than another would be there, to all appearances spontaneously generated), used condoms, syringes, bullet casings, and still more things we tried but failed to identify, all spoke of activities they never taught us about at St Aloysius. To enter the half-court at all was, in a sense, to be expected to do bad. In the half court we always knew that the ghosts of our history were there – looking on, keeping a record. Making demands.

At some point someone in an office somewhere must have theorized that if you give people the suggestion of something wholesome to do, they might just cut down on the open-air humping and the mainlining and the gunplay, because one day, suddenly, two backboards and hoops were installed. Their respective heights had been set at regulation level with no small care; the boards, dazzling in their whiteness even in that place that saw so little sun, each bore the requisite target square above the rim; the mesh nets, finer to our eyes than any lace of Flanders, impressed us no less for the sure knowledge that they would very soon be stolen.

On the morning of the appearance of the backboards and hoops, a bright crisp April morning in 1986, a good many neighborhood folk stood speechless on Addington for a considerable time. We had no frame of reference for what we saw. Some seniors among us, no doubt nursing sepia-toned rites-of-passage memories of this setting, showed a certain wistfulness. Most of us, though, felt something more akin to confusion. Notre-Dame-de-Grace was not, is not, a place where things so new, so non-tawdry, so incontrovertibly good, are often seen.

We were by no means sure, at first, that we were even allowed to use it. Two or three of the braver among us stepped forward and toed the new court’s surface gingerly, as if it might be booby-trapped. It wasn’t. Very soon, from somewhere, a basketball was produced, then another and another. These balls were bounced, and heaved toward those hoops, then bounced and heaved some more. Change had come.

That nameless benefactor, that faceless saint, had his or heart in a noble place. But a hard truth must still be told. That person knew squat about basketball.

The backboards were mounted almost flush with the walls, so until this very day the ballers of Addington need to think seriously about just how hard they want to drive to the basket. The hoops are so near each other that to attempt an actual game in there is all but pointless; you’re engaging more in a cooped-up basketball/handball/pinball hybrid. And just to make that initial weirdness all the weirder, a wire-mesh fence was erected between the sidewalk and the court one night soon after the boards appeared. It was understood that a cubbyhole would very soon be cut, but days stretched into weeks and months and nothing happened. For a time, the only means of access was to climb and take your chances with the spikes on top. Soon, though, in what hindsight tells us was one of the first displays of their budding neighborhood authority, Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed – partly, I still think, because they considered climbing somehow beneath them – forced a gap between the wire mesh and the wall, a space we used until the fence got all bent out of shape. When the official cubbyhole finally did appear, it was frankly redundant. Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed, especially, would look at that cubbyhole, and at anyone so gauche as to think of using it, with undisguised contempt. They had a word for things like that cubbyhole, things that denoted conformity and a life lived in dull obedience. “Citizen.” Noun and adjective merged. Citizens did citizen things.

On the day my habit went public, I was in one of those grooves. If you’ve been in one yourself, ever, you’ll know what that means. I was one with the ball. It’s beautiful when it happens. It was actually an inconvenient time for a groove, all things considered, but you can’t choose your groove times, and once you’re in one you’ve got to go with it. You’re being guided by a higher hand. Nothing, not even the presence very nearby of three guys you would make a point of avoiding in any other setting, is going to knock you out of that groove. You’re in it until that higher hand decides it’s got an appointment elsewhere.

Even though it’s small, or maybe because it’s small, the idea of personal space is very important in the half court. Always has been, mattress activities notwithstanding. You don’t mess with the space of someone who’s already there, you don’t start making chit-chat or interfere with them in any way, unless you sense that they want you to, or they initiate it themselves. So picture the scene: I’m there in my groove with the hoop on one side while Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed josh and jive and shoot at the hoop on the other side. We observe the invisible line. At times, because basketball is basketball and the ball sometimes bounces in strange ways across that line, we’re almost bumping into each other. I can guess what they’ve had for lunch by the smell of their breath, and they can probably do the same with me. But we make no official acknowledgement of each other. Until I let the cat of my habit out of its bag.

It took something special to cause it. And goodness gracious, what a special shot it was. All these years later I’ve still got to hand it to myself. It was the kind you would only attempt if you were already in a groove of Jordanian proportions. (In a slightly later era, no doubt, somebody would have had a camera phone and it would have been posted and gone viral and I would have achieved a form of celebrity that might have pre-empted the separate and stupid form of celebrity I did achieve.) It was a truly incredible no-look fadeaway over-the-shoulder sky-hook bank shot, a shot that was one part Hakeem and one part Kareem with some MJ in the mix, and it hit nothing but net. (Is there any sound in creation quite as sweet as that swish?) And now, in my exaltation, here it came.

-A hit! A very palpable hit!

Immediately I knew they had heard it. How I knew was not by sight but by sound. Missing sound. The other ball wasn’t bouncing, and when that sound stops for more than a few seconds you notice. It’s like the whole world has gone silent.

~ ~ ~

Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed were a package deal. It’s ironic, because right about then we were studying Venn Diagrams in math class. The irony is that Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed did not illustrate the principle of Venn Diagrams. On the contrary, they stood in stark opposition. These guys were never about subsets or permutations and combinations. They were an indivisible unit, a three-headed being that sometimes stretched or compressed but always retained its defining oneness. And there they were now, side by side by side, these sons of Jamaica, looking at me. I had no good, solid, practical reason to turn around and look at them but you know how it is. Sometimes you just do. I did.

Well, once it was like that, me looking at them and them looking at me, I couldn’t just turn back around like it was nothing. The rule is a sacred one around Addington: Avoid eye contact as much as possible, but once it’s established follow through with whatever that contact has started up.

Nothing was said for a time, which wasn’t surprising. If Peace Pipe or Bird had ever voiced more than two words in one go, it wasn’t within my hearing. Jay Zed was the uncontested spokesman for the unit. His street name, being a Canadian variation on that of the greatest rapper who ever lived, carried the strong implication that here was a young man utterly without confidence issues. Let the citizens shuffle around in their collective self-doubting stupor; Jay Zed was going to get his. Only now does it strike it me that for someone named for a rapper Jay was never especially verbal. With words he was a minimalist, more haiku man than epic balladeer. But let it never be doubted that he had a way of making those few words count.

Jay Zed looked at me, at the ball in my hand, over at Peace Pipe and Bird, and back at me. He smiled his private poet’s smile and then spoke.

-Homeboy’s on some Shakespeare shit.

To this day I’m not sure whether he really knew or was just employing it as an all-purpose word for weird, old-sounding English. Whatever it was, he was absolutely right. Somehow, though, I had the feeling it wouldn’t be a great idea to let him know that. To say to Jay Zed “Yes! Hamlet! Ten points!” would just not have been wise at that moment. So what I did, grinning my best shit-eating grin while Peace Pipe and Bird snickered and Jay Zed kept that mystery smile up, was look Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed in the eye – each of them in turn, so as to avoid any possible show of disrespect – and then turn around and take another shot. A very stupid thing to do even in normal circumstances. You should always quit on a high. But shoot I did, and sure enough it was a total brick. Like Shaq from the line. Bye bye groove.

~ ~ ~

My neighborhood, there’s no denying, is decades past its brief peak. But to me and other lifers it does possess a kind of beauty – the beauty of decay, yes, but we’ll take it. Here’s the thing though: it’s strictly seasonal. I won’t even try to defend the winters around here. With everything in shades of gray and shit-brown and no leaves on the trees to muffle the expressway roar, things do indeed get grim. I know we’re not supposed to cheer for global warming, but it will have its perks.

Not that some people won’t miss winter when the last snowflake says screw this. Guys like Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed embrace winter every year because it gives them a wider range of fashions to choose from. Oversized is the thing with these guys, and in winter you can go oversize crazy. Seeing them approaching from down the street, on an afternoon in mid-November in the winter when it all went so wrong, was like spotting three gradually expanding astronauts with baseball caps instead of bubble helmets. Jay Zed, especially, had the Apollo IX vibe going on. His coat looked like some kind of futuristic industrial container. There might have been a whole spare Jay Zed in there. Anyway, here they came, and there was no dignified way for me to avoid them. When we all got within a couple of strides of each other we stopped, Mexican standoff style. Jay Zed gave my wardrobe a slow going-over from head to toe.

-That don’t do, Homes. Just don’t do.

This was in a period when Jay Zed was in thrall to The Wire, trying his best to adopt the argot of Stringer Bell and Omar, and making a respectable job of it. It was one of his series of seasonal dialects, anything being preferable to the lovely lilting patois of his Jamaican elders.

I could try to describe what I was wearing but let’s just save time and not bother. Then as now, anonymity was the driving force behind my personal aesthetic. It may limit my shopping to the church basement end of the market, but that’s okay, really. I’m cool with it. It definitely saves money. Jay Zed shook his head, looking lost in sorrow.

-Them threads, Homes. You lettin the Addington down. We doin our duty up in this bitch, we representin, you feel me? But you, Homes, you causin a problem up in here. Know what I’m sayin?

His two-man chorus giggled. Peace Pipe and Bird weren’t representing at quite the level Jay Zed was. The leadership principle applied to fashion too. But as far as unbelievably baggy designer hip-hop winter apparel went, Peace Pipe and Bird definitely had me beat by a country mile. I wasn’t about to argue that point.

-You so white.

That was Jay Zed again, neatly summing up the whole problem. Peace Pipe and Bird graduated from giggles to loud laughter. What a hoot of a concept, a white guy being white. I’d have been laughing too if I’d been them.

So there I was, representing nobody much but myself and frankly doing a poor job even with that, standing in front of Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed and saying nothing. My silence was taken for concurrence that, yes, I was white. Jay Zed continued his critique.

-I mean, you on some Napoleon Dynamite shit, Homes. Ain’t you want the ladies? They not with your shit. Y’all gots to step your game up.

Being around Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed almost always involved not saying what I was thinking, which at that moment was that I could not recall once ever seeing them with a lady. There didn’t seem to be room for a female in their triple act. But obviously it wouldn’t have been too wise to point that out to them, not even in a joking way. It’s the kind of thing that can backfire big-time. So I was perfectly willing to let the whole thing go. But something, maybe it was the way they kept cackling and giving each other fist-fives, kept it alive. I felt it coming on. Uh-oh.

-Thou art a queer fellow. A tailor make a man?

Well, that stopped the merriment right in its tracks. My habit had gone into its bank and withdrawn the first thing about clothing that it found, and boy, was it ever not a good one. Peace Pipe, Bird and Jay Zed, by the look of things, were taking one particular word in its most pejorative sense. A hush fell over our little scene and I became aware again of the expressway roar, even wished I could be over there dodging traffic instead of right here on this sidewalk.

Jay Zed stepped right up to me. I’m talking boxer-to-boxer close, when the referee is giving the final instructions before the ringing of the bell and the commencement of hostilities. It didn’t look good. But I had to hold the stare. Again, the code, the sacred code. It’s hard to say how long our eyes locked: long enough for me to ponder many possible fates involving many possible varieties of bodily harm. Very slowly, though, in infinitesimally graded stages, Jay Zed stopped indicating imminent violence and assumed a more reflective aspect, which by no means reassured me that I’d escaped the beatdown.

-You ain’t even bullshittin, is you, Homes?

Every word brought its own tandoori chicken whiff. Jay Zed liked the takeout at Dad’s Bagels just as much as I did. I didn’t reply and I definitely didn’t flinch from the smell. By the terms of the code, that would have been just as bad as backing down from the stare.

-You real up in here with this shit.

It seemed time to say something, and here it came.

-I am, quoth he, expected of my friends.

Insincere of me, that was. A lie, in fact. It was a stretch to say I had any friends and there was damn sure nobody waiting for me anywhere just then. But I wanted to get away and that was the line that came out. Jay Zed cocked his head a bit, almost like he’d understood me perfectly well and was considering something. Finally he backed up a step, and spoke softly.

-Whatever, Homes. Whatever.

Jay Zed nodded and the three of them stepped around me, Bird making a point of bumping my shoulder hard. I counted to ten, took my first deep breath since I’d seen them coming, and walked on.

Ian McGillis is a writer and journalist. His first novel, A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry (The Porcupine's Quill, 2003) was shortlisted for multiple awards. His forthcoming Montreal-set novel, William and Robbie, is named for the two idols, both named Shakespeare, of its adolescent protagonist.