Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Central Phoenix
The Central Phoenix neighborhood I grew up in had its fair share of characters. It would not be inaccurate to say that we were a virtual pantheon of the idiosyncratic. One of our eccentrics was an elderly gentleman we knew as “Gimme-gimme golfball.” (I use “gentleman” loosely as he may have been Phoenix’s most ill-tempered resident.)
Yesterday a few elementary school friends and I were catching up in the pizza joint of our childhood. Over thick slabs of Sicilian style, one friend, as old friends do, looked over and made the insider reference: “Gimme-gimme golfball.” At the mention of his name all four of us, middle-aged men decades removed from the old man’s maltreatment, groaned in unison. Anyone who grew up near Chris Town Golf Course can regale you with stories of the places on their anatomy that Gimme-gimme marked with his golf club, an ancient 2 iron. None of us seems to have escaped his withering stare, his snarling curses, or the wack of that 2 iron. At least not in our memories.
Gimme-gimme’s 2 iron might have been the inspiration for the multi-purpose tool. The well-worn club was used mostly as a cane. But it doubled as a retriever of errant golf balls, and, far too often for our tastes, was pressed into service as a device for the bludgeoning of the local preteen male population. Gimme-gimme used that old club for many things…unfortunately, none of them was golf.
How is it, you ask, that an elderly man was attacking boys with a 2 iron in a perfectly nice middle-class neighborhood? We boys had ended up on the losing end of a vicious territorial rivalry over our community golf course and the fruit it produced, errant golf balls. The neighborhood nine-hole had been fashioned on the cheap from an old sheep farm. It was acres of open space with trees dividing the fairways, a small lake, a driving range, maintenance sheds beside the abandoned farmhouse, and a grain silo that begged to be climbed. It was next to the source of our most enduring form of entertainment, a large family owned citrus orchard separated from the eastern edge of the course by a long line of ancient and gnarled salt cedar trees. Can you imagine such a place not becoming the stomping-ground of boys for blocks around? Unfortunately, Gimme-gimme thought so too. We were there for mischief. He was there for money.
One morning in the summer after the fourth grade, I was perched in a salt cedar watching golfers and pretending to be a WWII radio operator defending a Pacific island from bagcart towing invaders. I heard a golf ball bounce off of a cedar trunk and lodge in the rusting iron mesh of the farm fence the cedars had spent five decades attempting to engulf. I scampered down from my hiding place. Reaching into the cedar needles just inside the fence for my newfound treasure, my fingers wrapped around a coveted Titleist ball when, WACK, a blazing pain erupted in my temple. I rolled on the ground, grabbing my head in agony. Through tears I saw the old man’s grizzled arm reach through the fence. “Gimme that ball, kid.” He said, as he pocketed the ball and ambled off, not bothering to look back and see if he had inflicted lasting damage on my now dented noggin.
One day I complained about the old man to a friend when we were in the clubhouse buying candy from the 10 cent vending machine. The golf course manager, within earshot behind a rack of collared shirts for players who showed up in inappropriate attire, barked, “That old man provides a service to the golfers…you should probably stay out of his way.”
Gimme would clean the balls he found in a washtub in the back of his old camper truck, carefully repaint them, and sell them for a dollar through the golf course’s north fence while seated on a 3-legged canvas camp stool on Maryland Avenue. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was bolstering his retirement income. Maybe both.
Of course we didn’t tell our parents that the old man was marking us up with a 2 iron whenever we got too near his income source. We also didn’t tell them we swam in the lake after hours, or snuck over to the clubhouse and sampled bottles of warm soda from the cases stacked in the shed, or tried to get the night crew to chase us in their gas powered Cushman carts either. Kids didn’t give away their secrets in those days. And parents, well, they didn’t really want to know. But I did ask my dad about the old golf ball salesman once. His reaction was telling. “The old grouch works hard enough. He would make a decent living if he wasn’t such a joyless, angry old cuss. We would rather hike all the way back to the clubhouse and pay retail.” Which explained another mystery: Why the golf course manager was so fond of Gimme-gimme.
I learned an important lesson from Gimme-gimme golfball, lumpy temple and all: When you do a job, do it with smile on your face. After all, a joyless service is no service at all.