#464 — Heritage Park, Valencia

“You taught me a lesson today,” said the guy I was playing tennis with yesterday.

 “Oh really – what?” I hadn’t set forth to teach any lessons.  I had set forth to play at Heritage Park in Valencia.  That’s the furthest I’ve gone, further even than Sylmar, and Sylmar to me has always been the furthest you can go from where I live in Mar Vista and still be in LA.  But no, beyond Sylmar is Valencia – two valleys away. 

The air is different, more mountain-y, and the light is different too.  Sharper.  The sidewalks are cleaner and the intersections are wider, by a fantastic amount.  The intersections are the length of Olympic swimming pools and the speed limit is 50 and being a pedestrian up there in the Santa Clarita Valley is like being a Chupacabra, a rare species, mythical in your own mind.

But really I was just me and my enormous tennis bag and my thoughts, alone on the express bus from Westwood up to the intersection of McBean Parkway and Newhall Ranch Road.  We had zipped along the 405 – hello Skirball Cultural Center, hello pano-view of the San Fernando Valley & Bud Light factory & exit for Cal State Northridge!  My thoughts were mainly, “Look how many cars and big rigs are headed south whereas we are zipping along” and also “Why am I the only passenger on this bus?” I pondered suburbs, inclusivity and exclusivity, sustainability and unsustainability while mostly staying off my phone except to snap some pix to share the adventure with you.

When I’m on the bus or riding the Metro, I try to be doing only that, not mass-hypnotized into thinking the world is my phone screen, aware of the vast expanse I am traveling, in this case hurtling past moderately mountainous chapparal, scruffy with occasional bursts of pine and creosote.

I surfaced from rumination when my stop came up in time to ask the bus driver why I was the only passenger.  “Because I didn’t pick up no one else,” she told me sensibly, adding with a note of human kindness, “Are you sure this is your stop?”

I assured her and myself it was and then set forth to find the tennis courts, which a passing jogger dressed like me almost entirely in black said were right up there where I was heading.  This reassured me and I enjoyed the walk along the clean wide sideways bordered by eucalyptus trees.

I got to the courts in time to enjoy the sun still rising like a torch.  I had time to stretch by hugging my knees and swiveling my hips before my new tennis friend showed up, a wide-shouldered guy with a tucked-in gold chain toting a bucket of balls he said might all be de-pressurized.  We hit a few and he kept saying, “That one’s dead.”  Meanwhile, he gave me his backstory which I don’t think he would mind me telling you involves him playing tennis six days a week now in an effort to pick up where he left off, prematurely, in high school, when he made varsity in 10th grade but then got distracted by distractions common among high schoolers. 

Now, thirty years later, he has purchased a ball machine and is working on getting his form back and I would say he is making great progress.   We were rallying steady-as-she-goes and several times surpassed the gold standard 20 back-and-forth, until he asked if I wanted play a set and I said sure.

Well, he was nothing but compliments.  “You’re a very smart player,” he said. 

I am?  That’s great to know!  It made me feel… smarter! 

He was also very supportive of my quest to play on every public court in LA.  “We can go to a couple of courts next time and in between get Korean barbecue.”  

What could be better?  Answer: nothing!  And all that was even before my new friend told me the thing I had taught him, which he told me was:

 “Just play.”

I loved hearing this.  I was not consciously aware of giving off any pedagogic vibe but am happy as can be that this is what he got.  I was just trying to bend my knees and hit low-to-high and have the ball sound good off my racquet and play-to-play as opposed to play-to-win and do all that without thinking about it.  If he’s getting “Just play” from my galumphing around the court, then he is quite astute and I am doing good work.

PS Before we called it a day, he asked me to demo my kick serve.

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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