The Unaccustomed Earth
of the basketball floor
The guy is overweight, significantly, and his extra weight suggests discipline and strength. He’s lots younger than I am, but that doesn’t mean he’s a kid. It’s a kind of town league, a bunch of forty-somethings mostly, who’d rather run and pass and shoot than jog an endless circle around that blame gym or freeze their extremities tight on dark-as-night runs around town in the early a.m.
Anyway, this heavyweight guy throws an elbow. The ball had squirted loose and all the vets in the game were going after it. A ref—if there were one—might just let that elbow go in the flurry around the loose ball. But I saw it, and I knew it exactly for what it was because I’ve been out there myself. I knew from whence that elbow came because I know the culture.
He threw it because he didn’t like the guy he was guarding. When the average age out there is early forties, winning isn’t everything. Who gives a crap who wins this morning—shirts or skin? Nobody. So that elbow got thrown for a reason, plain and simple. The heavyweight didn’t like the guy he was guarding. I know that’s true. I’ve been there.
I pulled on my jacket, my hat, and my gloves, and started walking to the door. Outside, through the gym window, the target of that elbow walked off the court. I know why. It wasn’t fun anymore. You get elbows thrown at you when you don’t think you deserve them, and, when you’re forty, you start thinking about running those frozen streets in the darkness.
I’ve been listening to Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short fiction by Jhumpa Lahiri, really terrific fiction deeply set in Bengali-American immigrant experience, “diaspora fiction,” some call it. For weeks now, I’ve been marveling at her ability to illuminate the lives of people whose culture I don’t know beans about, and yet, paradoxically, at the very same time reveal the humanity of those folks so clearly and vividly that I’d recognize their behavior anywhere. She uses what’s peculiar to bring to life what’s universal.
Jhumpa Lahiri is playing in my head, literally, when I walk out the gym.
I am completely sure that if Jhumpa Lahiri had seen that heavyweight, over-the-hill ball-player throw that elbow, she wouldn’t have begun to understand the story behind it. I’d have to tell her. She doesn’t know the culture.
I wish I knew more cultures as well as I know the culture of the over-the-hill ball players. Pains me to say it, but no matter how many terrific books I can read on Bengalis or Lakota or Navajo, I’d never quite understand the way things work in those worlds as well as I understand what happens to overweight old men on basketball floors.
The key to good writing is to make that old man's ball game the whole darn world.