By Matt Benedetti
As I stepped out of my grey Jeep Cherokee at the corner of Dale and Poplar Streets in early Winter, I took in the view of the Conley Schoolyard in the late afternoon with my German Shorthair Pointer, Bosco. We were the lone visitors to the place as the last glimmer of December sun rested on the 1920’s era schoolhouse. We were both excited to be there but for different reasons.
I noticed how the area seemed familiar and foreign all at once. Gone is the elephant grass, overgrown weeds, broken bottles, dented slide and rusted chainlink fence with a sizeable hole that served as an entryway from my house on Cornell Street. The racially charged busing era graffiti–a reflection of the tumult of the 70s-that marked the walls is also a memory, replaced by unrecognizable, sanctioned storybook characters featuring wide smiles.
It was almost as if we were never there. But we HAD been there. 20 years ago this place was our collective backyard and sanctuary. Before the encroaching responsibilities of adulthood and the natural shift of interests from the familiar to the wider world, a window exists where we are often caught in between.
My window occurred in 1988-89 and gave me a glimpse of the challenges that lie ahead but allowed me to absorb this last hurrah with time-tested friends from my corner of the world at the Conley Schoolyard in the Roslindale section of Boston.
This period was prior to the hectic dawn to dusk adolescent schedules and before helicopter parents felt compelled to shuttle kids around town like chauffeurs. For my friends, activities from grammar school through high school were invariably based at the Conley.
We enjoyed a significant amount of free time and our games were designed and organized by ourselves. Disputes were mediated and problems solved without adult guidance. Our homes were all in close proximity but the schoolyard was our home and the center of our universe. The red brick façade and stone gray steps were as familiar to us as our kitchen tables.
Memory acts as a filter distilling good times from bad. I can vividly recall the Girbaud
jeans, Champion sweatshirts, gazelles and Adidas tracksuits (owned a unique pale blue one with white stripes) but can’t remember any bad times at the Conley.
Poplar Street is a busy two-way elevated route that curves around the schoolyard 8 feet below street level allowing vehicle occupants to get a wide view of the whole area. Emergency vehicles frequently travel the street and the sound of sirens was as much a part of the landscape as crickets in the country.
As teenagers on a warm day, we would often be armed with a hockey bag full of ice cold pony Buds and a radio playing the Beastie Boys, U2, Run DMC or a similar selection.
The bulls of E-18 were nearby in Cleary Square in Hyde Park. The majority of these veteran officers appeared to be approaching retirement age and would take notice of us but with the crack epidemic cresting across the city; our carrying on undoubtedly became a low priority.
We were chased a few times, a thrilling event, often scaling the high fence and plunging into the backyards of Doncaster Street, adrenaline pumping. After one chase, as we streaked across the faded painted diamond, I paused and looked back to gauge the distance between us and our pursuers. I can clearly recall the plainclothes detective casually stroll down through the overgrowth, give us a glance and pick up the full cooler of iced beers.
He returned to his vehicle and pulled away leaving us with nothing but mixed emotions. After the dust settled, we felt relieved to have avoided the pinch but were soon outraged by the inconvenience.
Of course, we would find more beer.
Mattapan was less than a mile and our neighbors to the east would often drive by and curse at us, occasionally tossing green Heineken bottles that would smash on the pavement. We traded insults in kind and would collectively look to our right to see if they would proceed down the driveway behind the school that was shielded from our field of vision.
After a moment, we would resume whatever game we were playing.
The Conley was an all-purpose makeshift sports facility. Stickball, baseball, football, street hockey and handball were among the games we played. Street hockey was fun but not always ideal, if the ball jumped a stick it might sail all the way to Dale Street. In frigid temperatures, the orange Mylec hockey ball would shatter after a hard errant slap shot off the wall.
Handball, however, was our favorite way to spend the day. It required endurance as well as the practiced hand-eye coordination necessary to respond to each volley and the intelligence to anticipate the next move. Although we possessed different strengths, for the most part, we were all evenly matched. Regardless of beckoning external distractions, we never lost interest in 3 on 3 handball and would play under any conditions. Midday on the searing summer blacktop, after an autumn shower or even in Winter if the snow was cleared.
It is difficult to understate the intensity of these games. Other sports could be played elsewhere but handball at the Conley was “our” game and you had to belong to understand. Every culture has customs foreign to outsiders and playing this game was akin to a belonging to a club accepting no new members.
We never knew what would happen on a given night, particularly in summer. That was part of the adventure and I miss all of it.
As darkness fell, Bosco and I got into the Jeep and pulled onto Poplar Street, I glanced at the Conley on the right and clicked on the radio. The Beastie Boys ‘Paul Revere” was playing and I wished for one more weekend in 1989.