Mayor Bloomberg should forget smaller sodas and think bigger stickball.
I do not mean to wax nostalgic here for some hazy bygone New York of the last century. I just think there’s a better way to make our fat city kids lean and street smart again.
When I was a kid, most groups of boys walking around Brooklyn carrying stickball bats and bouncing little pink rubber balls usually consisted of five lean kids and one fat kid whose nickname was Skinny.
Movies and TV also reflected the one fat kid-to-a-crowd ratio.
Today, it’s hard to find six kids out of doors, but when you do, five are fat and one is skinny.
The reasons are varied.
Air-conditioning and 500 TV channels lure kids indoors on cold and hot days. And as marvelous as the Internet can be, it has entranced two generations into a sedentary coma. Fast food and big sodas are awful.
But in New York City, I draw a straight line from childhood obesity to the death of street games and the rise of video games.
In the early 1960s, when only movie theaters had air-conditioning and there were just seven TV channels, we fled our clammy railroad flats for the street. We played stickball from right after breakfast until our home-cooked supper.
From a plane you’d see more pink balls in flight over New York City than pigeons, and for every Spaldeen there were 10 skinny kids and two fat kids in motion.
When night fell, we played ringolevio, buck-buck and “I declare war” until 10 p.m. No one worried about his kid being on the street because everyone was on the street, proving Jane Jacobs’ theory that human density promotes safety.
Because we were in perpetual motion I didn’t know one kid with asthma. Or diabetes. We were independent, self-reliant and always made the honor roll in street smarts.
Then came the air-conditioning. Followed by cable TV, VCRs, and video games. Kids stayed home. Eating junk food, rattling joy sticks. They got fat. Lazy. House dumb instead of street smart.
Stickball, skellies, hopscotch and other street games all but vanished by the 1980s.
A recent New York magazine piece on Bloomberg detailed his generous personal donations to inventive urban programs in cities all over America.
So how about the NYC Mike Bloomberg Stickball Program?
Bloomberg’s proposed Big Brother big soda ban is well intentioned. But he’s from a Boston suburb and knows from a buck but not from buck-buck, and certainly not from the gutter-glories of belting a Spaldeen two sewers. Hizzoner would leave a leaner, street-smarter legacy if he invested a few bucks to resurrect the comatose game of stickball that Willie Mays used to play with the kids of Harlem.
The word Spaldeen is a New Yawk pronunciation for Spalding, the company that still makes the little magical pink orb. All we need is a bulk-rate supply of Spaldeens and some stickball bats and we won’t have to sweat the size of soft drinks. Bloomberg, who oversees the Department of Education, could even make stickball part of the physical education curriculum in spring and fall.
Bloomberg had no trouble banning traffic from Times Square and Herald Square, and so instead of banning big sodas, he might consider banning traffic on school streets in every neighborhood where local kids can play stickball and run their fat butts off chasing Spaldeens from dawn to dusk. There are plenty of old time stickball veterans around who would love to teach kids how to play this beautiful city game.
Every year, a bunch of old-time Brooklyn guys returns to Park Slope, from which they’ve been gentrified out, to play stickball on the Carroll St. of their youth and raise money for the local Boy Scout troop. And what’s the city’s response? The NYPD assigns four cops from the 78th Precinct to make sure no one enjoys a cold beer.
Worse, Bloomberg bans sodas at the same time as he proposes cuts to calorie-burning sports programs like Out of School Time. He would cut the program’s budget from $91.5 million to $71.3 million, reducing the number of kids from 52,000 to 29,000.
Let them eat cake. Washed down by big sodas?
Time to think stickball, Mike.