Let’s be honest: These men are no spring chickens. Phil has been white on top for more than a decade. Rand has got a bad hip. Taos Joe’s knees are shot from too many marathons in his youth. They ought to be taking it easy, golf carting their way through a morning on the back nine.
Not a chance. Three times a week, these unofficial members of the Santa Fe Handball Club leave their ages in the locker room, take over the racquetball courts at Club International and whack the hell out of little blue balls. They sprint. Cut. Lay out. They eye the ball as it shoots past, step forward, spin on a dime and smack it as it comes off the back wall. They wink at their partners, talk smack to their opponents (“Nice shot, you lucky f—!”), adjust their safety glasses, wipe the sweat from their brows and do it all over again.
“Handball’s a thinking man’s game,” Rand Marco says. He’s a barrel-chested man with a generous, open-mouthed smile and a sportsman’s wit. Like many of these men, Marco started playing as a kid. He got serious at age 17, when his uncle brought him to a YMCA in Los Angeles.
After he beat everyone in the place, he moved on to the Hollywood Hills Y, home of the heavy-hitters. “Took me three years, playing every day, before I won a game,” he quips. Eventually, he went national, hitting with the best of them, traveling cross country to tournaments, sleeping in his Volkswagen Bug. He landed in Santa Fe approximately seven years back and has since become unofficial mayor of the local club. “It looks simple,” he says, “but you’ve got to study the game—I mean really study it—if you want to get any good.”
Give it a try if you don’t believe him. One of the guys will lend you a pair of gloves (they’re no more padded than your mom’s gardening gloves, by the way, worn only to keep sweat off the ball) and invite you onto the court for a tutorial. You’ll feel suddenly naked. You’ve got no racket to hide behind, no golf clubs to blame.
Your opponent claims he’ll start you off easy, but there’s no easy in handball. The ball plays tricks on you, slips just out of reach and stings when you manage to hit it. The walls appear too quickly. The floor falls away. You realize you haven’t communicated with your left arm since high school gym. Your feet tangle on invisible lines. Good work, your opponent says, 42 points later.
Go ice your hand, kid. You could be a decent player if you give it a few years.
Try 40. When David Scheinbaum started playing in Brooklyn, Lyndon Johnson was in office. “If we weren’t in school, we were on the courts on Foster and Nostrand,” Scheinbaum says. His beard is streaked gray but, behind his glasses, his eyes flash with the exuberance of a teenager. “Boys, men, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Italians, Irish, Jewish: We all played. You’d bring a peanut butter sandwich and play one-wall from morning till night.”
When Scheinbaum’s other passion—photography—brought him to Santa Fe in 1978, he couldn’t find a game until he ran into a fellow urban transplant, Bill Light, from San Francisco, also a lifelong handballer. They met at the now defunct Tom Young’s across from the College of Santa Fe, translated their outdoor city park game to the four walls of the indoor court and, as legend has it, the handball club was born.
Today, 30 years after that game, the club—which just hosted its 9th annual Prairie Dog Classic tournament—has nearly three dozen devotees. White-haired Phil Vergamini, who began hitting with Scheinbaum and Light in 1981, calls the men of the club “the finest collection of human beings on the face of the planet.” Forget that they often have nothing else in common. Forget that—off the court—they are Republicans and Democrats, military men and artists, PhD scientists, contractors, former sheriffs. On the court, they are handballers.
Observing them play, watching them talk smack and head off to Second Street Brewery for a round of post-game beers, you get the sense these men are inductees into a society of their own, a sort of guild. There are forces at work here we non-handballers simply don’t understand. There are secretive, time-tested techniques that have been passed down, like masonic handshakes, from one generation to the next. The rest of us can mess around with our little rackets and clubs—these men have discovered, through handball, a way to transcend cultural boundaries, a kinesthetic code through which they communicate on a more powerful, more instinctual level.
They’ll all tell you how they’re trying to bring in the next generation—Michael Webb teaches kids at a local high school and the College of Santa Fe, Lauren Brubaker has a group at St. John’s College—but they’re not worried about the sport disappearing. Marco, Scheinbaum and crew know better than any of us that handball is not going anywhere. The sport is older than most religions. Ancient Egyptians played it. Toga-clad Romans played it. Mesoamerican warriors played it. Irishmen defied oppressive 16th Century English laws to play it.
Yes, handball is here to stay and the Santa Fe Club is as well. Ice caps may melt, empires may crumble, but so long as a wall is standing, a handballer will be there, whacking the hell out of a little blue ball.