Peter Dabbene’s poetry has been published in many literary journals, and collected in the photo book Optimism. He has published the graphic novels Ark and Robin Hood, the story collections Prime Movements and Glossolalia, and a novel, Mister Dreyfus' Demons. His latest books are Spamming the Spammers and More Spamming the Spammers. He writes a monthly column for the Hamilton Post newspaper. His website is www.peterdabbene.com.
Suburban Complaint #1232 --The Basketball Hoop
When I first moved to suburban Hamilton, New Jersey from Staten Island, New York almost twenty years ago, what struck me about my new home wasn't the comparatively limited public transit system, or the increased amount of open space and greenery, or the abundance of backyard pools—it was the fact that everywhere I looked, there were driveways with basketball hoops.
To understand why this might seem shocking, you first need to understand that Staten Island holds nearly 500,000 people in its 58 square miles. Hamilton, by contrast, contains about 90,000 people in roughly 40 square miles. As a result of denser population and smaller average lot sizes, backyard pools in Staten Island are rare, losing out to swim clubs, community pools, and illegally opened fire hydrants. With more demand, public buses and trains run more frequently, and are a viable means of getting around, unlike in New Jersey, where public transportation seems to exist only because it's somehow required by law. And in Staten Island, basketball hoops, and the driveway or street space to use them, are at a premium.
Thus, kids in Staten Island often go to a playground or schoolyard to play basketball. With children congregating in a limited number of areas, and around a limited number of basketball hoops, pick-up games are common, as opposed to solo shoot-arounds. In central New Jersey, though, there's plenty of space for the suburban dream—a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and a basketball hoop in every driveway.
(Here's where I'd happily list some curmudgeonly complaints about the loss of community, and parents never letting kids out of their sight, and those kids being too lazy or too preoccupied with their smartphones to walk down to the schoolyard anyway—but since I've sort of just done that—sly, wasn't it?—we'll skip it and move on.)
My own kids had played basketball a couple of times at parks, but most of their limited experience came when we visited my sister's house, which features a hoop on the back patio. Then two of my friends, who have kids the same age as mine, got hoops for their backyards. Having a basketball hoop on the premises soon began to seem like a God-given right, like breathing, freedom of speech, and the ownership of semiautomatic weapons.
I knew there was a strong chance that whatever hoop I acquired wouldn't be used more than a few times a year, so I didn't want to pay several hundred dollars for a brand-new, top-notch one. I also wanted no part of the four hours one friend said he spent putting his store-bought basketball hoop together. If the Little Tikes plastic basketball hoop for toddlers that we got as a hand-me-down extended higher than six feet, all of what follows would have been moot.
With my parameters determined (not too expensive, not too much work), I set about my search. Allow me to describe the process, but keep in mind that this is not, as you will see, a process you should aspire to replicate in any way.
I went to Craigslist, specified "central NJ", and looked up "basketball hoop". A fouler, more wretched-looking collection of hazardous metal, weather-beaten plastic, and rotting wood may not exist anywhere outside your local junkyard. There were plenty of pictures, which accurately highlighted the loneliness of each deserted basketball hoop in its current location; this could, perhaps, be the heart-wrenching subject of an art series by some young photography student. Some stood among bare trees and assorted backyard detritus—gardening tools, piles of leaves, and sheet-covered, rusting cars that would one day find themselves listed on Craigslist as well. Other hoops stood perilously close to telephone or power lines, or sat on curbs, waiting for delivery to a new home, or the garbage truck, whichever came first.
Descriptions are important on Craigslist: a photo might show a complete basketball hoop, attached to a post and ready to be shot upon, but the item for sale might be "backboard only", or "rim only", leaving one to wonder what disaster, natural or man-made, had contributed to the demise of the missing components.
Most sets had large bases that could be filled with water to anchor the hoop in place; after missing out on one in Princeton (free to whomever contacted the owner first), I found one in Colts Neck that looked promising. It was $75, seemed intact, and was adjustable in height, a key feature. Colts Neck was 45 minutes away, but I was going to be in the area in a few days' time. There was just one detail that would later turn out to be more of an issue than I'd first considered: the owner had filled the empty base with concrete.
I understand the impulse—what could be more solid, or safer, than something that absolutely would not move, once placed? And there were wheels at the rear of the base, so that if lowered at an angle, the hoop actually could be "moved easily". More on that later.
I'd measured the interior of our emptied-out mini-van, but wasn't completely certain the hoop would fit. I negotiated a bit via text message and got the price down to $50, cheap enough to take a chance. Bungee cords packed, I made my way to the house.
The owner was a guy in his thirties whose girls hadn't used the hoop in three years. We lowered and carefully wheeled it out of his garage, over to the back of the mini-van. We removed the backboard and rim, then slid the post into the car as far we could. Then we lifted the base. It should be noted that I was having second thoughts about the wisdom of all this, but at that point, the immediate challenge of getting everything into the car seemed paramount.
Luckily, the seller was a big guy, and between the two of us, we were (barely) able to lift that concrete-filled base the two feet we needed to clear the lip on the trunk. I estimate that it weighted about 9000 pounds, but I could be mistaken. We pushed the post forward until it touched the front windshield, which was protected by a towel, and after a few minutes of adjustments, managed to get the trunk closed. Good thing, as the prospect of holding back a runaway load of concrete-filled, heavy-duty plastic with a few bungee cords seemed more than a little naïve, not to say hazardous and irresponsible.
After a slow but successful drive home, the worst seemed over. In the morning, I'd just slide the hoop out, roll if to the backyard, and bask in the glow of hero dad-ism.
At dawn, the truth revealed itself. The raised lip at the edge of the mini-van's rear cargo space, which had helped to keep the base secure during its transportation, also made it extremely difficult to get it back out. In lieu of a big, muscular guy to help me, I drafted my wife into service, just as she was preparing to leave for work.
Determined not to make the metal post or its base permanent features of the car's interior, we pulled, inch by inch, and finally cleared the trunk. That's when the third member of our team, gravity, took over.
To some people (including me), that might first seem like a good thing. I knew the heavy base would come down quickly, but it didn't occur to me that as the base dropped to the ground, the top of the post would rise like a see-saw and collide with the auto's sturdy, Korean-made (South, not North) ceiling. The two oppositional forces—gravity pulling against a now-stationary post—tore loose one of the bolts fastening the post to the base. This was not ideal.
I was able to roll the entire apparatus to the backyard patio, which at least hid it from public view, sparing me the indignity of curious neighbors and onlookers politely inquiring, "So... what'cha doin'?" or "Is that supposed to be like that?"
I saw that the plastic base had torn around the bolt, but there was still hope—the main post had come a bit loose from its bolt, but what's loose could be tightened, couldn't it? Access to the bolt was underneath the base, which led to a farce consisting of me trying to flip the very heavy base onto its side, and every time, the base rolling away from me.
Fueled by frustration, I kept at it until I got a good look at the bottom and realized that repair was, to put it gently, unlikely. It would never be tight enough to assure that my kids wouldn't one day find a big, heavy, metal pole embedded in their heads. Some people might have called it quits there, and I was nearly among them. But as I stopped and considered my options, I realized there was one chance left—a long shot, but if I could salvage the hoop, it would be worth it.
A non-working and long-abandoned light post that was cemented into the concrete patio had been a fixture of our backyard vista for years. It was a relic from before we owned the house, and the only reason it was still there is that I'd never been motivated to get it out (one doesn't dictate inspiration). The basketball post, meanwhile, was hollow and looked as if, freed from the base, it might fit like a sheath ON TOP of the light post. If it did, I'd have a stable post, and with an adjustable height backboard, everything would be just peachy.
I got a ladder and lowered the hollow metal basketball post over the five foot high light post. It fit nicely, but the light post was wider at its lowest three feet than it was the two feet above. So now I had a ten foot pole sitting on top of a three foot booster. Regulation basketball rims are exactly ten feet off the ground, so this would have been a bit of an added challenge for the children, especially considering they could barely heave a ball up to the standard height.
Simple math meant that if I could cut the basketball post down to seven feet, I'd have regulation height, if not regulation process. So how does one cut a metal post?
A visit to Home Depot brought me to two employees in the Tools section, whose combined age barely surpassed mine. They were talking about their girlfriends, and I sensed immediately that they had never cut a metal basketball post. I would later recognize their standing under the "Tools" sign as a rare instance of truth in advertising. Though not particularly forthcoming with their assistance, they eventually pointed me to a small, hand-held saw tool they claimed would do the job. I took a chance, purchased it, and soon began the operation.
It was slow going, but the post did get cut. If you're wondering about the total time and money invested to this point, let me remind you that it's the principle of the thing that's important—the principle of of not admitting failure, which can be judged as inspiring or stubbornly pig-headed, but unquestionably important.
Sizing the basketball post atop the lamp post again, everything seemed good, with the exception of a slight wobble— the result of some extra space between the upper part of the lamp post and the inside of the basketball post. I needed a way to stabilize it, so the backboard wouldn't wiggle every time a ball hit it.
Looking around the house, I determined a possible solution. As a longtime supporter of print newspapers, I've learned they're useful for many things other than reading. Millennials who get their news online, aside from having a skewed view of what news is, presumably often find themselves lacking proper materials to line birdcages, protect tabletops from the use of watercolor paints, and create paper hats. Here, wadded-up newspapers could function to stuff the gap between the two posts, and thus stabilize the hoop.
I "filled out" the upper part of the lamp post by wrapping the newspapers around it and securing them, using Disney Princess Duck Tape. The latter will go without further comment, except to say that it's embarrassing enough to own Duck Tape (a brand that owes its very name and existence to the failings of American literacy), without adding a smattering of Disney Princesses to the mix.
My wife, who had inadvertently, and somewhat unwillingly, observed bits of the last few steps from the kitchen window, seemed surprisingly able to focus on other things, rather than the master craftsman at work outside. When I came in to get more newsapers, my own curiosity wasn't as easily restrained:
"What's it like to live with a genius?" I asked.
"I wouldn't know," she replied.
Once the job of securing the newspapers to the light post was done, I set the height of the rim and tightened the bolts that held it, got the stepladder, and lowered the basketball post again.
In any task, the greatest feeling of accomplishment—the climax, if you will—comes in the instant the work is done. The cleanup afterwards is a necessary evil. Thus, there was great satisfaction in testing the backboard by tossing a couple of lay-ups, but an equal and opposite sensation in realizing that there remained a large plastic base filled with concrete, yet to be addressed.
The weight of the base, plus the difficulty of maneuvering it without leverage from the post, meant some of the concrete needed to be removed where it stood.
The plastic base offered only a small hole, a few inches in circumference, to provide access to the interior, or empty its contents. Draining water via the hole would have been easy enough. Hardened, heavy concrete, however, was another story entirely.
Luckily, I now owned a metal-cutting (and presumably, plastic-cutting) hand saw, with which I set about expanding the opening. Expending no small amount of effort, I was able to cut a line about a foot long, and then cut perpendicularly to make a fold. I found a crowbar in the basement and used it to break up the concrete, a little at a time, and shake it loose from the base. Slowly but steadily, the base grew lighter.
The end to this ignominious adventure came when, after several refusals by garbage pickup employees to accept the mangled and not-quite-empty base into their truck, I unloaded the final bits of concrete and brought them to the local ecological facility. Later, I watched as the now feather-light plastic base was taken away on a garbage truck, the final evidence removed.
Today, the basketball hoop sits proudly outside my kitchen window, a monument to bad decisions and partial redemption; periodically used, awaiting the day when, in its now-altered state, it will rejoin the ranks of listings on Craigslist, inspiring pity, and perhaps for one poor soul, ambition.
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