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Tennis Court Confrontation

By       Message Al Rodbell       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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This took place on a public tennis court on a beautiful Sunday morning in a small Southern California city. Although it could be seen as a trivial argument among two people, it illustrates some rather important issues that have consumed our country, those of race, class and the ongoing effort to forge a society where in spite of our inherent conflicts, we manage to muddle through. It is also about noise.

When a ball is served and it is "out" it must be called so immediately in sufficient volume that the server knows that it is a "fault." And there are other such out calls, along with the score to be called loudly enough to be heard clearly seventy feet away, in many cases over considerable background noise. But there are other shouts that are not in the rule book, such as after a highly competitive exchange of strokes, with increasingly acrobatic parries and returns, and then your partner chases down a ball that he manages to hit with a running stroke that lands right over the net on the opponents side on the line to win the point, and in exultation, and relief, I shout, "Fantastic shot!"

While he and I give each other high fives and catch our breaths, and all four of us on the court have lost the count of the game during the exchange, the noise of the mutually expressed pleasure happens to be traveling beyond the courts.

Recently, such exclamations were heard by a man (call him Richard) who had heard these sounds before, many times before, pretty early in the morning for him since he had been up with a sick relative, and felt that the noise that he had been hearing went beyond what was necessary, and finally he had taken enough.

He walked out of his house, across the street, into the play area ignoring the ongoing games, to one person, the source of the disturbance, explaining the effect of the noise on him personally, and accusing this individual of being the sole source of this disturbance, reinforced by his avowal that he had heard his own friends on the courts telling him to be quiet. It was I whom he was addressing through the chain link fence, with his twelve year old son at his side.

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Although I admit I am loud, I knew that the person who had been really loud over the last few weeks, to the point that many players did ask him to be quiet, wasn't there at the time, as I tried to explain to Richard. But, he didn't accept my explanation, and continued to accuse me of personally being the cause of his family's disturbance, and asserting that it was only his reasonableness that deterred his calling the police on me. Finally I told him enough is enough, that I got his message; and started move away to resume play.

But this was not acceptable to him, so he started to walk around the fence to confront me. In response I picked up my tennis racket and told him not to get in my face, that I would not be threatened and would use my racket to defend myself.

Now to take a step back to give a larger picture. This took place in a suburb of Coastal San Diego County in a public school facility used by the community. This small city happens to be mostly White, as were all of the players on the court; and the neighbor, Richard, happened to be part of a demographic of less than a single percent of the population, African American.

As he walked around the fence to approach me, one man blocked his way, and others repeated my statement that I had not be the person that he claimed to have heard repeatedly. But there was no vigorous defense, except for one man, an older guy, (I'll call him Jeff) who came of age far before political correctness was in anyone's vocabulary. Others were somewhat stunned by what was unfolding, and while a few tried to correct the premises of his anger only Jeff was forceful enough to point out the obvious, that now it was Richard who was "disturbing the peace."

Finally with a few harsh words in my direction, Richard walked away past the gate and on to the street. I attempted to to resume playing, but I was too shaken, so I picked up my tennis case and walked after him. Seeing him a distance away, I called out to him, "Hey, stop, lets talk about this." Realizing that I had brandished my racket previously as a weapon, I put my case down. He looked back and walked back toward me.

Now it was face to face, no audience, just two guys talking. The first thing I said is that I was sorry if I disturbed him, but that his reaction didn't have to be so emphatic. I described how I once lived near an elementary school, and became amazed at the volume of a few hundred children during recess. As he softened I told him how when I met a family with a child in the school I told the kid in mock seriousness that he should ask all the other kids to be quiet during recess.

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His anger was quickly dissipated, as I shared other times when I had been in situations like his and felt the same anger. During his initial rant at me on the courts he pointed out how he paid taxes for these facilities, but didn't begrudge it because he valued public recreation, pointing to his son who was on his middle school tennis team.

With that, I pointed out that I also valued public courts, that the very courts that his son uses had been slated to be privatized when I found out about the plan. I told him that he can look up a couple of OpEds in two local papers that I had written that first opposed the privatization, and described my speaking at City Council to have successfully helped keep the courts open and free-so far.

As the conversation continued, it would be hard for anyone who had passed by to believe that fifteen minutes before, these two men had come close to a physical altercation. As we were wrapping up, after acknowledging that he played tennis himself, I invited him to join us. I can still savor the smile on his face from this invitation.

This experience has elicited a cascade of thoughts and feeling for me. Well into our conversation after telling him my own experiences with noise annoyances, Richard said with a smile, "you and I are more alike than you realize" That's true on many levels.

Only two weeks before around ten on a Saturday night, from a more rural area behind my yard my wife and I heard the sharp sound of speakers at what I would guess was originally in the 130 decibel level, blasting a particular genre of music, obscene rap, which is not to my taste. It was a clear night and the sound probably could have been heard for miles. I called 911, first telling them it was not an emergency to get the general number. After finally reaching an operator I explained the situation, telling the operator that although I don't have the exact location, "tell the deputy to open his window, and he won't miss it."

As the time went on, and noise continued unabated, I was considering getting in my car finding the house and going inside with the very same anger that I had been the recipient of Sunday, remarking to my wife, "If I do this, it will become a 911 emergency." I didn't care that it was a party with dozens of people, who in party mode were oblivious, if not contemptuous, of those whom they were annoying. I was just angry. Luckily I didn't have to test this out, as before long the noise ended abruptly, as I assume the police, having no trouble locating the source resolved the situation.

Yeah. Richard and I had many things in common, but also differences. We still live in a segregated society even after the half century of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. I can go weeks without interacting with an African American, and when I do, that is the salient quality, at least initially, that I'm aware of. Far from the ideal of a color blind society, we still have a society that in all ways except among certain professions, are separate and far from equal.

Later, when I calmed down, I thought of certain ironies of this event. Richard was convinced that it had been I who had been the sole voice of disturbance for many weeks. He recognized my voice, and I probably was the loudest person there that morning, but as confirmed by several people, including K. the organizer, it was the other person whom people had told to be quiet. It was a case of mistaken identity. In this situation it culminated in my bruised feeling, and an aborted physical confrontation. But such faulty identifications, especially across races often have more dire effects, such as convictions of felony charges based on just the certainty that Richard had of my "guilt." Strong emotions affect these perceptions, and the person, in this case usually a white person identifying a black, are as certain in their identification, as Richard was in his.

Perhaps it is awareness of this, along with a myriad of other injustices that are still built into our society that cause those other players mostly to be mute, not to come to the defense of this white man against a black man, since whatever the circumstances in this case, even in this conservative area, there were enough other things for Richard to be angry about that were best left unaddressed.

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Recreational tennis can be a cruel experience, or more accurately, reflect the inherent injustice of life, as in some people being endowed with attributes that others have less of, in this case athletic ability. Tennis is also a painful reminder of the cruel realities of aging, as even the best players lose their speed and reflexes, and then something rather terrible happens, they are no longer desired as players. There are ways that that this is conveyed; the call to join a game that never comes, or noticing that a new set has just started and somehow you were excluded.

Every player is vulnerable to this rejection, which among many is simply accepted as the person moves down a notch to others of comparable skill. It is this vulnerability that was sensitized when Richard, rather than a general complaint about noise from the courts, accused me of personally being the source of the disturbance, of being inconsiderate to the point of causing not only his discomfort, but that of his family, some of whom were ill, in his home. His accusation, only slightly refuted by some in the courts, since all play had stopped during the argument, could have been construed as a zoning issue of allowing private homes fifty feet from a playground. But there were other, more primal emotions, in the fore at that time.

When I walked after Richard it was not so much anger at him, but disgust with my fellow players. They knew that it wasn't me who had been the persistent cause of his anger, although I was one of many who had made noise. In fact our system of round robin play requires all four people on court one to shout "Time" when their game is over, to be heard by everyone in the complex. Perhaps seeing Richard's anger most in the group felt a certain relief that there was to be no collective responsibility, but Al was going to take the hit, justified by "he is kinda loud after all."

Only Jeff, with his lack of concern that he be seen as racist, spoke sharply to Richard, saying that his confrontational attitude was not appropriate. Ironically, it was Jeff's support that allowed me to reach out to Richard, as it lessened the sense of ostracism that I was starting to feel among the group that after a year I had started to consider friends. It was Jeff, the "racist" who was able to go beyond race, and to speak his mind to a black man who later tacitly admitted was overreacting and misdirecting his anger.

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Retired Commercial Printing Executive, developer of I.T. systems for the industry. Advanced degrees in Social Psychology, now living in Southern California

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