to throw a frisbee

brown bucket list #3

nice kimMy freshman year, in an introductory art class, I became captivated by Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, which portrays four people—a couple, a solitary man, and a waiter—in a downtown diner at night. It is cold and dark outside, but the diner is warm and well-lit. The details are brilliant, meticulous, but what makes this painting unforgettable for me is the perspective. When you see the painting, you take on the perspective of an outsider, out in the cold, looking in at the warm diner. I always imagine this outsider to be forlorn and miserable, longing to be inside but not stepping in for some fearful reason.


Often, on cold February nights, when I am walking along the snow-encrusted streets of Providence, I imagine myself to be this outsider. When I walk down Waterman Street, I stop in front of Faunce House and squat to see Brown Taekwondo, dressed in their pristine white uniforms, standing in the center of their blue mats, throwing kicks and punches in the air. When I walk down Benefit Street, I stop in front of the Athenaeum and stand on tiptoe to see the neat rows of folding metal chairs, the red wine in plastic cups, and the salon speaker behind a podium. When I walk down South Main Street, I stop in front of the brick building with tall industrial chimneys and crane my neck to see RISD students working at their long steel benches. These scenes have nothing in common except this: They—the martial artists, the salon attendees, the artists—are inside; I am outside.


And I am tired of being outside.


At the start of my senior year, I decided to join Brown’s intramural Ultimate Frisbee team. I had signed up for the Frisbee mailing list my sophomore year and watched the emails pass back and forth like an observer at a tennis game. I would read them wistfully—there were countless parties and impromptu midnight games of Frisbee golf (frolf)—but I had never gone to a practice or a scrimmage.


This year will be different, I thought.


In September, when I got the email announcing the first day of the Frisbee Fall League, I marked the day on my calendar and, in preparation, lay out my athletic gear. When Thursday afternoon came around, I dashed from class in Wilson Hall to my room in Slater Hall, changed clothes, and set out for Pembroke Field.


It was a beautiful fall afternoon: The leaves were yellow and orange, the Providence sky purple and pink. The grass on Pembroke Field was long and green, and the golden cupola of the Nelson Fitness Center glowed in the distance.


I am going to miss this, I thought, suddenly nostalgic.


“Do you want to toss?” a short, lean boy with shoulder-length black hair asked me, breaking my reverie.


“Yeah, sure,” I said.


“I’m Rick, by the way,” he said, putting out his hand.


Rick moved to the end of the field to avoid the other throwers and signaled to me to throw. I placed my feet apart, moved my shoulder back, leaned forward in one single motion, and snapped my wrist right at the end, as a friend had taught me. The disc wobbled a little, but it then straightened out and went to Rick, who clapped it between the palms of his hand.


A respectable backhand, I thought.


Rick threw a forehand, which didn’t wobble at all, and I caught it by clapping my hands. We soon settled into a rhythm, throwing the disc back and forth. A breeze was blowing, and I felt good—the discomfort of feeling out of place was dissipating.


“All right guys, bring it in.”  


I turned around and saw that the other guys had formed a circle in the middle of the field. I picked up the disc, and Rick and I headed to join the rest of the players.


In the center of the circle stood two boys. One had brown hair and a brown mustache and was wearing a purple, sleeveless Brownian Motion jersey with white shorts, while the other was clean-shaven and was wearing all-black: a pair of black shorts, a black T-shirt, and a black baseball cap.


“I’m Kenny,” said the boy in the purple jersey. “And this is Daddy D.”


Daddy D—I liked the alliteration—raised his baseball cap in acknowledgement.


“And this is the year’s first Fall League,” Kenny said. The returners in the crowd cheered.


“For first-timers, this is how Fall League works,” Kenny said. “We start off with a warm-up lap or two, then we do stretches. After the stretches, we break into teams and do drills. Then the teams scrimmage.”


“Any questions?” Daddy D asked, taking off his baseball cap.


“No, father,” one of the guys in the circle said, and there was laughter.


“All right, let’s go then,” Daddy D said, putting on his baseball cap.


After the warm-up lap and stretches, I hobbled—the groin stretches had taken their toll—over to the assigned corner with the rest of my team. The drills went fine. My forehand was wobbly, but my backhand was good enough. Physically, though, I was beat: My shirt was drenched with sweat, my mouth was parched, and I kept taking off my glasses to wipe away the droplets of perspiration falling from my hair.


After the drills, we switched to the scrimmages, which was a relief. I stood on the side, waiting for my turn, sitting out most games.


“You’re up,” Kenny said. He was the team captain and had gone around the circle repeating our names until he remembered them.


I ran onto the field and stood with the other six members of our team.


“We’re doing man-to-man marking,” Rick said. “Look across the field, and the guy directly opposite you is your man.”


I looked across and saw Daddy D.


Oh fuck, I thought.


Our team suffered an ignominious defeat (7-2), and I screwed up often. Daddy D was too fast for me, as I had feared. When his team was on the offense, he would feign in one direction, and then turn and dash to the center of the field, while I followed hopelessly behind.


“Who is marking him? Who is marking him?” Rick would shout.


After the game, Rick pulled me aside and pointed to the field, “Look at all those guys. They’re giving it everything, running as fast as they can. You can do it too.”


I hated to tell him that I had been running at my full speed—that this was full-tilt ahead. I sat out for most of the remaining games—out of sheer exhaustion more than shame at my incompetence.


After that first Fall League practice, I went to a few more practices, but sporadically. Papers and midterms kept me busy, and most days I didn’t have the energy (or the heart) to tramp over to Pembroke Field.


By November—midterm season—I had almost forgotten about Frisbee, when the invite to the Frisbee initiation arrived.


The house was indistinguishable from the rest of the houses on the street. The blue paint was chipping in places, and the house number—metal digits stuck on the door—had a digit missing, its faint glue-outline still visible. There were three empty glass bottles lined on the porch, like sentries on duty, and thickets of bushes grew outside.


I hesitated for a moment. This seemed too ordinary. Maybe I had gotten the address wrong. Just then I heard a rustling sound from above. A moment later, a yellow rivulet arced from the balcony to the bushes.


I moved back as a pungent odor wafted from the bushes.


The door to the house swung open, and Kenny stepped out.


“Hey, do you mind,” he shouted, looking up at the balcony, “This house is a home.”


There was a moment of silence and then the sound of a zipper.


“Sorry,” the disembodied voice from the balcony said. “The line to the bathroom was really long.”


Definitely the right house, I thought, and followed Kenny inside and up the stairs.


Inside, there were three sagging couches with holes in the seat cushions, the yellow stuffing visible. String lights ran along the length of the room. The window latches were broken, and the windows were propped open by mini-towers of empty Bud Light beer cans. The room was stuffy and hot: Almost all of the men’s Frisbee team—nearly 40 people—was present, sitting on the couches or on the floor. There was shouting and confusion as beer cans were thrown around the room.


I made my way across the room, stepping over the people sitting on the floor, and sat down on a couch near the window.


My escape hatch, I thought, peering out of the window.


I was unaccustomed to all the noise and exuberance, and was feeling nervous and out of place. I had stuck my head out of the window—under the pretense of getting fresh air—and was gauging the drop to the ground, when the room fell silent.


I pulled my head back into the room, and saw Daddy D standing in the center of the room.


“Hey guys,” he said, and several people shouted back greetings. “I just wanted to acknowledge that this a very bro-ey atmosphere and that we are cognizant of that. But there’s no pressure to drink, and we are doing our best to make the program a welcome space for everyone.”


My fears temporarily allayed, I sat back down on the couch.   


Kenny and Daddy D explained how Frisbee initiation worked: The first-timers would come up, one-by-one, to the speaker’s chair—a chair in the front of the room—and share an embarassing story. Afterwards, they would drink from a Frisbee filled to the brim with beer (or punch). Once the first-timers had gone, returners could volunteer to share their stories.


For the next few hours, I was regaled by one outlandish story after another. There were raunchy camp stories, scatological stories, police-evasion stories, and even a story involving an inflatable chair. As the evening neared to an end, the beer towers had multiplied—six instead of the initial two—and grown in height: Everyone was in a benign and muddled state.


“All right,” Daddy D said, standing up, “It’s time to wrap up. Have anyone of the first-timers not gone yet?”


The room was silent. I was hoping no one had noticed that I hadn’t told a story when someone grabbed my arm with a vice-like grasp.


It was Rick.


“You haven’t gone yet,” he said.


Cornered, I muttered, “I guess I could go.”


No one heard me so Rick acted as an amplifier. Holding up my arm like a referee declaring the winner of a boxing match, Rick said, “He said he’ll go.”


A path cleared for me from the couch to the speaker’s chair. I walked up to the chair, draped my jacket around it, and sat down. A sea of drunk, strange faces stared back at me. My palms were clammy, and I was tapping my foot. There was a buzz going around the room, and I waited for things to quieten down.


I told the story about the time my roommate Cormac had, uninvited, serenaded me and my date. (You can find this story in the Post- archives online.) It went down well—though to be honest, the audience was so drunk that they would have applauded even a “Hansel and Gretel” retelling.


As I knelt and drank from the Frisbee filled with beer, they chanted my name and even though the beer tasted foul and the edge of the Frisbee was chipped, for those few moments I felt perfectly safe and happy—like I had finally found somewhere I belonged.