When I look back at my childhood, I see a barefoot rowdy rascal running after a ball. My main pastime, just like every other boy in our neighborhood was to chase a striped plastic ball we’d all chipped in to buy. That’s all we needed to have fun. Our street was full of players of all ages, starting with little ones like myself al the way to those with faces blanketed in mustache and beard; we all shared the same passion.
At the beginning of each game, we had to go through a painful selection process for two teams. This squabbling started with a half-hour exchange of the most shameless words in our vocabulary and ended by throwing a few punches and kicks! After this ritual, non-selected players would’ve become ticked-off spectators and forced to sit out. They sat on the sidewalks, by the two endlessly parallel gutters filled with black slime that marked our street like every other one in our southern city and heckled the players.
We played football in the God’s oven. At noontime, the asphalt melted into black chewed gum and stuck to the sole of our bare feet. Not only we endured the scorching playground but we risked our very lives by dodging passing cars. Every few minutes the screeching sound of a car brake reminded us it was time to run. Another driver must have hit the brake to avoid an involuntary manslaughter. At this point the furious driver darted out of his car and chased the same kid who’d just avoided killing to take his life. Only God could save the poor kid if the driver caught him.
This daily routine pretty much sums up the fun I had in the first nine years of my life on the streets until we moved to Tehran, the capitol.
Our new house was located in a quiet middle class neighborhood, a dead-end alley called Kindness with no filthy gutters with no roaming kids or hostile behavior. All I saw was courteous neighbors greeting one another. Every morning, I woke to a clean street with no beggars, no gypsy women selling kitchen gadgets, and no kids wandering around knocking on the doors looking for playmates. Soon I realized I could not adjust to that sterile environment; the new neighborhood was to make adjustments to accommodate me.
“We are now living among educated and cultured people,” my father reminded me while twisting my ear, “children here must have their parents’ permission to go out and must return home before dark. It’s called discipline,” he continued.
Discipline, culture, obedience and permission were fancy words I had difficulty to comprehend yet I had a hunch they contradicted the very concept of fun.
In all fairness, our new neighborhood had a few advantages. I could play with girls without their parents starting bloodshed; that was surely a pleasant change in my life style. To avoid losing our family respect in new neighborhood, my mother didn’t let me go out without shoes anymore. In fact after I was forced to wear shoes on streets I realized at age ten that the soles of my feet were not created black by God.
Gradually, I acclimated myself with the new milieu and grew fond of the greeting rituals of the cultured people in our new environment.
My investigation revealed that almost every residence in the neighborhood contained some kids. It took a few months but I managed to gradually lure them out of their nests in the afternoons to play football. By the following summer we had eight to ten dedicated players every afternoon.
The generated noise however, disturbed the peace in the neighborhood and disturbed the afternoon naps of some neighbors. Our football games raised concern for an army colonel, a retired judge, an ayatollah, a Persian rug merchant and our own next-door Jewish neighbor. More than anyone else we managed to upset Mr. Biok, a high-ranking oil company executive who lived at the end of the alley, a well-dressed and respectable man by all accounts.
I was impressed by the creases of his pants; I swear he could cut a watermelon with those sharp edges. Mr. Biok was also my greeting target practice, for whom I recited a series of “hello”, “good morning”, “good afternoon” and “what a nice day?” all in one sentence regardless of time of the day or the weather condition. I enjoyed making fun of him in the most serious way possible. It was obvious that he was suspicious of my intent in offering insincere greetings yet he felt obligated to respond to my greeting politely as he had no solid evidence to prove my mendaciousness.
Concerned neighbors at one time or another spoke to my parents and expressed their dismay with the ongoing chaos and mentioning my name as the instigator. They held me personally responsible for ruining their children’s disciplinary practice and shattering the serenity of the neighborhood.
After the first summer in the neighborhood Mr. Biok identified me as the agitator and prohibited his two beloved clean-cut sons to come in contact with me. He had quarantined his impressionable children despite the fact I respectfully greeted him on the street on daily basis.
Playing football became more and more popular despite the widespread opposition of neighbors. As the kids became good friends, the parents became more adamant in opposition to our afternoon fun. Every time our ball was kicked into a neighbor’s house, it was thrown back ripped by a knife to show their hostility.
Most often our footballs landed in Mr. Biok’s yard. Unlike others however, he didn’t rip our footballs in pieces, he just didn’t return them. His house was rightfully called the ball cemetery. Kicking a ball into his yard meant end of the game for the day and additional financial burden of purchasing a new one the next. Our small daily allowances were too small to afford a new ball everyday.
One day after another tragic loss, we all sat down with gloomy faces by the ball cemetery and grieved the loss of loved ones. We all realized this was not a sustainable situation. One of the older kids proposed a resolution.
“Why don’t we ask Mr. Biok to return our balls? He seems to be a reasonable man. Unlike others he has never shred our footballs. Why not asking him?” he reasoned.
To this day, I don’t know why I volunteered for this task. Maybe because of all those greetings I’d offered to Mr. Biok. Maybe because I felt I was mature enough to communicate with him man to man and resolve our issues like two civilized individuals. At the age of eleven, I was convinced that Mr. Biok would understand our passion for the game and return our footballs, and maybe even let his sons play with us. I was determined to extend a hand of friendship to a neighbor so unknown and so distant to me.
With a self-confidence I didn’t know I had, I rang the doorbell not once but twice under the admiring gaze of my friends. A couple of minutes later, the door opened and I faced our kind and gentle neighbor Mr. Biok. I was eager to show how well adjusted I’d become and demonstrate my mastery of the art of salutation and proper communications.
“Hello Mr. Biok. Good afternoon. How are you today sir?”
Mr. Biok stared into my sweaty face and responded, “What do you want?”
“Sorry to disturb you sir, but is it possible for you to return our balls? The ones we have kicked into your yard by mistake? Of course, we are all sorry for your inconvenience, sir. I know it’s your nap time.”
His eyes sparkled, as he took a deep breath and politely responded.
“Wait here,” he said.
He went back inside leaving the door ajar. I took the opportunity and glanced inside his yard and witnessed the most beautiful scene I’d ever seen in my life. All of our missing balls were neatly piled in an empty water basin in the center of the yard. Once again I saw the red balls we’d lost, the yellow ones with blue stripes and the solid ones. And best of all, my own personal leather ball with the inner tube that my sister brought me from India. It was sitting there anxiously waiting for me to kick it around like football legend Pele. God knows how many players I’d dribbled with that ball on a tight corner spot the size of a handkerchief.
I was so mesmerized by the splendor of the sight that totally forgot Mr. Biok until suddenly I sensed a pleasant draft like a fan blowing at me. For a second I thought our nice neighbor brought me a running fan to cool me off after the game. Then I looked up only to face a fuming beast with a long garden hose twirling over his head. The vengeful monster frantically stormed toward me, claiming my life in his sweet Turkish accent. I leaped like a scared rabbit and ran for my life and the other kids followed my lead.
Mr. Biok could have easily reached the slower kids running behind me and beat the hell out of them but he was not satisfied by a simple retaliation, he was after blood, mine. He was not interested in innocent victims; he was after the kingpin. Yes, he was determined to clean the entire neighborhood by eradicating the root cause.
My only chance of survival was to reach our house in the middle of the alley but the faster I ran, the longer our street seemed to become and the farther our house appeared to be. The twirling garden hose was closing in on me like a roaring helicopter. I could feel the lethal touches of it’s blades on my back and wondering why me? Why should I always be the one who pays? My short life flashed before my eyes as fast as I was running from my immediate death.
As the tentacles of the demon were touching my back, I feared what if our door was shot and when I reached our house, I found out it was; so I coiled my body into a cannon ball and smashed myself into the locked door desperately hoping that there was a God and he had mercy on my soul. The door miraculously flung open and I was thrown inside.
The raging monster stopped at our door as the neighbors converged, circled around him and finally convinced him that killing a kid, even it was me would not eliminate the love of kids for football. The beast calmed down and transformed back into Mr. Biok again.
After that horrific event, no one dared to show up in the alley for a few weeks and the entire neighborhood plunged into an eerie silence.
One gloomy afternoon, as we all lounged outside our homes a vivacious rainbow of colorful balls showered our neighborhood from the last house of the dead end alley.