A sign hung down from the Bittman Facility entrance – ‘Everywhere is a racket.’ Bittmans was located in Loopsickle, Michigan, cold as a meat freezer in the winter, but lylocks, shmyties, and booterberries grew all spring and summer long. At times, it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. Bittman’s tenants came from all over and shared one thing in common – a loss of hope, a teetering into the endless realm of despair. Bittmans promised a way out.
There were no big buildings at the facility, no crowded streets, no dented coke cans or syringes lying about, only green grass, a river, weeping willow trees, Russian olive trees, maples, elms, all kinds of trees and as a result, breezes that sang as they rustled through leaves. But don’t be deceived; there were also muddy feet in the spring, death and decay, ugliness everywhere. There were creeping little critters, rodents running wild, and dirt roads filled with rolling tumbleweeds, a lot like the tenant’s minds which felt no spark, no need to carry on, no reason to live.
When they spotted the sign at the entrance – ‘everywhere is a racket,’ tenants assumed the implication was a tennis or badminton racket, another self-help guru trip, to inspire a volley, a back and forth, a seesaw, a playful cruise through this life is but a stream or a dream or however the merry rhyme goes.
But from the minute they stepped over the line and into the facility, they were told that ‘everywhere is a racket’ meant everywhere is a scam, “Even God,” said the founder and director of the facility, Mr. Jeremy Bittman, a third generation steel magnate who traded in his inheritance and bought this track of land outside Loopsickle, Michigan, in the wild, far from the paranoia of city life – the buildings with window eyes staring down on everyone, watching their every move, the stop and go traffic lights halting any flow of ‘life is good’ momentum, and that indecipherable hum of crowds gathering around cold statues and dirty plazas.
“But how is God a racket?” asked the tenants when they first heard this blasphemous refrain. None of them were religious having lost all trust in God for they were unhappy, desperate, distraught and many other words that began with the letter D. But ‘God a racket!’ They enjoyed a new born curiosity with this chastisement. They asked why over and over, but were never given an answer and as a result, their curiosity lingered and bloomed as they settled into their sleeping area. There were no private rooms, only an open space with bean bag beds or hammocks. They wondered about those too. Curiosity rained and reigned.
Bittman’s tenants were then given three activities- 1) To toil away in a shoe shop – to learn the ancient trade of shoe repair, 2) To read and discuss with the group a history of their choice, from the Etruscans to Egyptians to Inuit to whatever they wanted, and 3) to build a baseball diamond and play. They had no choice in the matter. They were required to participate in this trinity of activities or else, be escorted away from the facility. The three activities were designed in the spirit of crop rotation, to shift their minds and beings from one activity to another, from tasks with their hands, to using their minds, to spark their imaginations – to build a baseball diamond.
There was also a mess hall to chow down food three times a day. Chefs were instructed to always add spicy pepper Sriracha sauce to whatever they made, from scrambled eggs to sardines and potatoes, Sloppy Joe’s, macaroni and cheese, tuna sandwiches, bowls of rice, always with Sriracha.
And so they ate spicy fire food, fixed shoes, studied histories, and built baseball fields. They made the home run wall in three colors – center field black, right field blue, left field silver. The black and blue didn’t bother Jeremy Bittman. He knew it as the lingering effects of the tenant’s despair. Instead, he focused on the left field silver, that luster of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, the trio trinity of splendid left fielders stationed at Fenway Park, one after another.
The tenants built a backstop fence, erected a foul pole, and chalked the lines, scribbled out a batters box too. And when complete, they reflected on what they had created – the fence, wall, lines and so on and suddenly, their enthusiasm and industry dipped. It all felt like a prison, that fence and wall, those lines, all of it a prison. No matter what they touched, it always turned into a trap, a racket, as the sign at the entrance insisted, a sinister seduction this Bittman Facility, another obstacle keeping tenants from activating their full potential, that uncharted area in their minds where maybe some semblance of happiness might erupt and help them make it through another day. They’d been duped.
Most had never played baseball but they quickly learned with the help of Jeremy Bittman that the game featured positions and more positions, roles, a street corner democracy where each and everyone could sport their wares, from plaid Hawaiian shirts to shoes with holes in them. They could scream their truths and observation, whine and whisper or say nothing at all. They were struck with even more curiosity.
Each tenant quickly landed a role as if by some magnetic force. One fell into the pivot ways and short toss of a second sacker, another the hammock recline of the DH. There were speedy pinch runners and timely hitters. Those with dance in their gaits became pitchers contorting windups and friendly ones gravitated towards first base to chat up runners.
They cheered from the bench and when in the field, they stood on their toes, ready and alert, a long nine-inning moment, free from that empty feeling in their mind and stomach, a medicine without a pill, so potent that some swore off the notion, the sign hanging down that said ‘everywhere is a racket.’ Instead, they turned to the sky and all around and hummed.