The U.S. Open is more than just the matches, it's an experience. Each day, we'll highlight one part of what makes the Open the Open.
I leave my truck or wife’s car at the Hall of Science parking lot each day at the U.S. Open. It’s just a five minute walk from there to the South Gate of the National Tennis Center, over the Grand Central Parkway via viaduct. When I’m on the “other side,” brightly-lit Arthur Ashe stadium still towers over the landscape and you can occasionally hear the throaty roar of the crowd when someone does something big. But it seems to be of another world. And in many ways it is.
On the “wrong” side of the parkway it’s fairly dark, the lush foliage of a zoo bordering the road on one side, and a pedestrian cutting through the area at a late hour almost any other time of year might traverse the area nervously, one eye over his or her shoulder, or decline to take his chances.
Often, the sprawling parking lot is nearly empty when I reach it, which makes the scene that greets me even more dramatic. A soccer game is usually in progress in a distant, decently-lit reach of the lot. The goals have no nets (just as there are rarely nets on the rims at public basketball courts). The goals also are light, easily broken down and reassembled, because they’re made of sections of two-inch plastic PVC pipe, using elbows and junctions to create perfect copies of a formal goal, only on a smaller scale (something like 2:1). And here I thought I was the only genius in town when I made a standing target-frame for shooting from the same materials.
But the soccer game isn’t the activity that fascinates me; pick-up soccer games are a dime-a-dozen all over Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. I am drawn magnetically to the festive, vaguely Mexican-sounding trumpet, guitar and percussion music, and the groups of boys and girls dancing to it in different, poorly-lit sections of that gritty dark expanse of concrete. They perform a synchronized dance (think line-dancing, or team clogging), like shadows dancing in unison at the fringes of that awful tangerine-colored light that spreads from what are now called “safety lights,” but in a simpler time were called streetlights.
I pause by the truck, but can’t take my eyes off the dancers. I’m fascinated, and it never fails. Watching them has, I think, become part of some unacknowledged decompression ritual for me. I think about going over to join them, maybe talk to somebody about whether that dance means something special, or learn where it comes from. Are these young people Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorian, Nicaraguan, or all of the above? But I decide not to. It’s not so much that I’m a gringo; it’s more that so many of the Central American people I’ve met have been as shy as they are friendly. And I don’t want to make them self-conscious or distracted.
My interest isn’t really intrusive; I’m not gawking at them with a slack jaw in a “buy golly, will you just look at that!” kind of way. I’m just mesmerized, and I find myself smiling, even relaxing. There’s something incredibly sweet and innocent in this pastime of theirs. The dancers move together, like a school of tropical fish around a diver. They are keenly aware of each other; some of them might even be intimate with each other. But as they go through the repetitive, orchestrated steps they don’t touch or even appear to communicate with each other. It looks like each is lost in his or her individual reverie, but I think it’s more like each dancer has surrendered herself, and is simply content and happy to be a part of a larger whole.
How different it is from the doings over in Ashe, which still dominates the skyline in that direction when I glance back at it, the roar of the crowd still audible like gravel sliding down a chute in the distance. The guys in Ashe must be killing each other. What strikes me is how cold that seems all of a sudden. And how elaborate and complex and, in many ways, excessive.
At one time in my life, I would have wished that those dance groups and soccer players and shirtless, bicycle-riding kids could all go into the National Tennis Center, understand that those doings in Ashe are something special, even historic, albeit in a narrow, sports-related way that is mainly of interest to the “haves” of this world, but has some real intrinsic value in spite of that.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more that those dancers and pick-up athletes in the parking lot aren’t very interested in that big to-do across the parkway. They aren’t standing around with their noses pressed to the glass. They have no particular desire to be part of it, either, which is weird when you consider how “hot” a U.S. Open ticket can be for people with a lot more options than these kids have.
The park people probably think that the extravaganza at the National Tennis Center is a little weird, and I’m sure that occasionally someone strolls over the viaduct to the tennis side and quietly, standing apart, watches the images flickering on the big screen visible on the side of Ashe, or the tennis fans bearing their bags stuffed with souvenirs streaming in and out of the South Gate.
More Scenes from Queens:
Monday, August 27: Getting to the Open
Tuesday, August 28: Night Matches
Wednesday, August 29: Photography
Thursday, August 30: Autographs
Friday, August 31: Food at the Open
Saturday, September 1: Practice Courts
Sunday, September 2: Getting In
Monday, September 3: Staying Connected
Tuesday, September 4: Ball Kids
Wednesday, September 5: The Corporate Connection
Thursday, September 6: The Outer Courts
Friday, September 7: Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Saturday, September 8: Arthur Ashe
Sunday, September 9: Empty Corridors