“Hey Buddy, what’s your name?”
“Hi Keith, I’m Bill!”
He shook my eight year old hand and engulfed it.
“You ever play ping-pong Keith?”
“Well Keith, I’m going to show you how to play, and you’re going enter some tournaments and win! OK?”
I inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly and mumbled, “OK.”
I was a suburban Boston boy plunged into a cacophonous sea of kids at the local Boys Club (it was just for boys back then), teetering on the verge of a meltdown. I was lost. I was intimidated. Everyone seemed to know their place except me. I had no idea what to do. My Mom made me go. I didn’t want to. But I did. And hated it. It was teeming with a bunch of obnoxious beelzeboys acting like they owned the place since The Babe was home run king. I wanted to go home and watch Three Stooges reruns where it was quiet and safe. But I had to stay. And I loathed it. Until Bill introduced himself and made me feel like, maybe, just maybe I could belong.
Bill could have been 22 or 32 or 82. Everyone looks like an old man when you’re 8. He was scruffy, slightly pudgy and had oily thinning hair. He looked like an extra on the set of the TV show ‘Taxi’. But he had this infectious smile and genuine exuberance that didn’t seem contrived. It seemed real. It was real. An eight year old can pick up on a fake in a heartbeat. At least this 8 year old could.
Every time I would go back to the club, Bill would track me down and say in his thick Boston accent something like, “Keith! How ya doin’? You enter a foosball tournament yet?”
“Well c’mon! Let’s get you signed up and start practicing!”
He showed me how to play ping-pong. And bumper pool. And Foosball. He showed me were to sign up for bingo, and kickball, and boxing. He made me sign up and compete. He would say, “It doesn’t matter if you win Keith, what matters is you get in there and try!”
It sounds so cliché, but to an eight-year-old boy from a fatherless home it was a constant stream of revelations. His confidence and positivity infected me. Inspired me. Made me want to play. And want to win.
I went out for ice cream one night and saw Bill at the restaurant. He was sitting alone. It’s always shocking to a young mind when you see someone out of the element you know them in. It’s as if you think they somehow stop existing when you leave the place you know them from. So when I saw Bill I was shocked. But excited.
“Hey, it’s Bill from the Boy’s club!” He saw me, smiled and waved. And continued to eat. Alone. It seemed weird to me to see Bill outside a sea of kids and craziness just…eating. It’s as if I expected to him to be playing Ping-Pong in the middle of the restaurant. So when he was just quietly eating it seemed out of place. And sad.
Bill stopped working at the Boy’s Club after awhile. By the time he left I had become one of those loud obnoxious kids running around acting like I owned the place. I played Ping-Pong, Foosball, Bumper pool, entered tournaments, won, lost and grew to love it all.
One day out in the Boy’s Club parking lot I was hanging out with some of the older kids trying to act cool and he drove up in some huge beater car.
“Keith! How ya doin’?”
“You playing pool and ping-pong? Winning some tournaments?”
“Yeah, a few.”
The older kids were talking with him too but subtly mocking him at the same time. He didn’t seem to notice at first. Some ducks flew over head and he said, “Where’s my shotgun! Time to go hunting!” For some reason this was too much for the kids and their mocking became obvious. Bill didn’t get angry and retaliate or swear. He just seemed sad and drove off. But before he drove off he looked at me and said, “Keep at it Keith, you’re a good guy.”
The older kids continued to mock as he drove off. I couldn’t understand why. Bill was so nice and cool, why would they make fun of him? Maybe because his scruffy unkempt look and positive demeanor were just not cool enough for them. I don’t know, but I felt terrible when he left.
I have no idea what happened to Bill. I actually know nothing about Bill at all. I imagine he worked or volunteered at the Club because he wanted to help kids. Looking back at Bill through a grown up’s eight year old eyes, I imagine he was a bit of a loner who thought a way to get out of the rut was to try and make a difference in some kids’ lives.
Well Bill, wherever you are, let me tell you, you did make a difference.
And whenever I play pool or Ping-Pong or birds fly overhead, I think of you.