#480: Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Rec Center / HomeState

I’m on a quest to play tennis on every free public tennis court in Los Angeles.  This was my daughter’s idea, which is one of the many reasons why I like it.  I have, over a 20-year LA tennis career, played on about two dozen different courts.  And by courts, I mean the entire facility.  I’m not seeking to play on every single tennis court in Los Angeles.  That would be crazy!

This tennis quest, by contrast, is eminently sane.  Not just regularly sane, but eminently.  According to my intel, there are 512 free public courts in LA, so if you combine my 24-court head start with the eight I’ve already played on since beginning this quest the week after I retired from being a public high school English teacher… then let’s see, despite being a former English teacher I can do this math… I think I can, I think I can… 570 courts to go!  No wait.  470.  Subtraction!  Let’s check… 512 minus (24 + 8) = 480.  There we go.

480 is do-able.  Let’s give it two years.  By the 2024 elections, I will declare victory.  There’s gonna be a lot of that going around, unfortunately, but this tennis quest is a good news story, about — among other things — a retired guy figuring out a new way to find meaning in life. 

Here are a few additional rules:  the main one is, I have to either take public transit or ride my bike to get to the courts.   This gets me out among The People and avoids further killing of the planet.   It’s still the very early going but I have the strong feeling that taking the bus is going to be my preferred mode because I notice that after you ride your bike more than a couple miles, it starts to take some energy out of your tennis game.  It didn’t use to.  But it does now.

***

My old work friend N. showed little outward sign of effort in disposing of me at the VNSO courts this morning, but he did sportingly claim to being a bit winded after we played one set and a tiebreaker in the mounting swelter.  I was riding high on the good vibe of our re-union and thus did not berate myself too much for not hitting harder, which is what I had set out to do at 6:30 a.m., before getting on one bus, then getting on another bus, and after that another bus… only to realize that despite all these buses coming on time there was still no way I was getting to Sherman Oaks by 7:50.  So I bailed and took a Lux Black Lyft to get me there on time, which I know is cheating and breaking my own rules, but it was worth it to show up on time after not seeing N. in 20 years.

He is still as smart and funny and with-it as ever, so as I have already protested too much, I didn’t mind the whupping as it incentives me to actually hit a ground stroke past the service line.  Meanwhile, we bantered about our old colleagues, especially S., our former boss, about whom N. shared welcome good tidings.

“I think about S. all the time,” I told N. when we were just warming up at the net.  “His sayings.  ‘Second mover advantage.’ ‘Perfect is the enemy of the good.’”

“Hecho no dicho,” N. chimed in.  Among the many things I admire about N. is his proficiency as a Spanish-as-Second-Language speaker.  He long-ago taught me vocabulary words including enano and cacahuate, dwarf and peanut, which counters the conventional wisdom that language should be taught in context because he shared those words with no other context than liking the way they sounded and they have stayed with me forever.

I was also glad upon glad that N. took an interest in my quest.  “You must be writing about it,” he said.

“Yah,” I confirmed.  “I’m writing letters.  I always thought that was my best genre as a writer.”

“Letters are great,” N. re-confirmed.  His daughter just left letters behind for him and his wife upon heading for college.  N is still all tore up.  Letters have that power.

“You should also write a blog,” he said.  “Centro de Gozo.  Talk about your journey and rate the courts and then find the nearest taco truck.”

“Where’s the nearest taco truck?” I asked N., and so after we played he dropped me off at HomeState on Ventura Boulevard & Greenbush, across from the Psychic Eye Book Shop.  Delish!!! is my main note.  Well actually my main note is Exquisite!!!

I will elaborate on that momentarily but first let me diverge into this one post-game incident, when we were walking over to his car and it suddenly occurred to me that if I was gonna be blogging about these tennis courts I better take some more pictures.  So I looked around at these sun-blasted courts, which already were shimmering and mirage-looking at 9 am, and to be honest, all tennis courts pretty much look the same unless they are in especially crappy or superb condition.  The VNSO courts are in excellent condition, but nothing really asked me to take its picture until I saw a backboard with a small rectangle.

This rectangle was marked out in weathered blue masking tape.  It was about two feet wide and a foot high, with a single inch-square dot of tape in its center and suspended above a long blue line at tennis net height.  This rectangle did call to me.  It said,

“I am the navel of the world.”

I immediately knew what it was talking about, because I’ve been re-reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, must-reading for anyone on a quest who wants to think of themselves as an epic hero.  Or do you have to be epic?  You could also be a quiet hero.  Or an unsung hero.  That is all yet to be told.  The point here being, Joseph Campbell is constantly talking about the navel of the world and from context I glean that this navel is a portal into the wisdom of the universe.

That’s why this rectangle caught my eye: because I’m constantly on the lookout for Hero With 1000 Faces imagery that can transform me from average tennis player with lotsa time on his hands to, duh-DUH!!!!!!!! we can be heroes!

So as I’m getting up close and personal to take a picture of this rectangle, an older-than-me guy says, “What are you doing?”

And all you Joseph Campbell fans out there know, when older guys suddenly step into your frame when you’re on a quest, PAY ATTENTION because that can be Step 3 of the hero’s journey, “Supernatural Aid,” in which a “protective figure (often a little old crone or OLD MAN) [caps mine] provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.”

Amulets.  Yes, please!  Well, it turns out that this guy’s name is Tony and he’s from Hungary and many years ago he was the guy who taped up the rectangle! 

He told me and N., who had been taking this all in and in fact had clarified for me that when Tony asked me what I was doing, he wasn’t challenging my right to take photos of seemingly random stuff, but rather, expressing a curiosity about what drew me to that particular item from among the infinity of surrounding stimuli.

Tony said he curious because “I used to run these drills with a famous doubles player, where the game was to hit the rectangle ten times in a row.”

N. had not only heard of the famous doubles player and but also verified that he is the son of a famous sitcom actor.  So there we were in the presence of greatness. 

I asked N. how he was doing on time because I had it in mind to run this drill with Tony and see if we transcended to a higher level of consciousness, but N. had a call coming up at 10.  So I asked Tony if I could take his picture next to the rectangle, showing his pride of creation.

***

N. gave me explicit instructions to get the Trinity breakfast burrito at HomeState.  I’m glad I followed his advice because the Trinity is now the breakfast burrito to beat.  Scrambled egg.  Bacon.  A single sliver of potato. 

“Get the flour tortilla,” he also counseled me.

I did and am again glad about following his instructions because you often hear about chewiness or gumminess being bad things, but I am here to tell you the flour tortilla of this burrito was chewy and gummy in a very pleasing way, like when you feel a smile coming on, and then lasting, but you’re not forcing it, you’re just happy.

I am also pleased that this burrito was not too big, although I do like a jumbo, San Francisco-style, football-sized burrito.  This was a much more demure object, neatly wrapped in shiny foil, clearly demonstrating that HomeState does not promote killing the world through overconsumption, but rather nurturing our collective well-being through the exactly right amount of tastiness, as is further demonstrated by free refills on hibiscus limeade.

Published by MarkGozonsky

Mark Gozonsky is the author of The Gift is to the Giver: Chronicles of a 21st Century Decade (Keppie Usage, 2022). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Sun, and Lit Hub. Mark’s essay, “Gritty All Day Long,” is anthologized by Norton and featured in Best American Sports Writing. He has been writing since his emergence as a gigantic music nerd in early-1970’s San Antonio, Texas. Stints as a regular commentator on public radio’s Marketplace and Internet 1.0 exec preceded a 20-year run as a public school teacher. Marko’s favorite writing topics include unorthodox pedagogy, well-intended gardening, and the intersection of baseball and urban bicycling. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, where he is working on a new book about his quest to play tennis on every free public court in LA.

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