Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The bocciodromo

Around the corner from our apartment sits the town’s bocciodromo. After seeing everyday from my steps, passing it on my way to the grocery, I finally got around to visiting the other night...

A sign printed in bold, red ink reads: Access to the bocce playing courts is exclusively reserved for those who are wearing shoes with regulation smooth rubber soles.

There is almost no talking, hushed like a pool hall or a high-stakes poker room. Lit like a rink, the sounds of the bocciodromo are reminiscent of hockey, without the scrapes and slicing of skates. Echoes are shorter and lighter. Almost all of the fans keep their coats on. The players hang theirs along the risers, above their bags which have separate compartments below for shoes. There is one woman out of 50 people present. Conservatively, I am the youngest by 35 years.

Four matching courts, divided by short partitions painted barber-stripe red and white. The floor is a grey concrete covered in a fine green dust that shows broom sweeps and skids and knocks and the drag of feet on follow throughs. On an empty court, a pair rolls in anticipation, checking the give and flow of the surface, like goalies, golfers, skiers. Against the green background, the piebald balls stand out, some in day-glow bright, others blue or grey marble, a plain flecked yellow like lemon sorbet. The shadows thrown by the legs of onlookers appear at first glance to be small undulating valleys. Boards at the end of each run tell the score in black and hunter orange numbers on white plywood.

I focus on one player who in turn focuses on the pallino, a small pink ball 35 feet away. He rests his hand low, almost touching the ground as if to pick up a coin. The bowl approaches perfection, to within four inches. He turns to a friend behind the glass with a familiar smug smile. On another court I see a ball launched airborne. Arcing nearly the length of the floor, it swoops in to knock an opponent’s ball from its proximity to the pallino. Because of back spin the thrown ball stays dead put.

Like grown up marbles, bocce is a game of precision and touch. The judge carries a device with sliding calipers to measure distances and a marking end to note ball locations. Walking past me, he slides in a new piece of chalk and I notice his laminated name badge. The players all carry buffing towels in their non-throwing hands. The pairs wear uniforms, shirts long-sleeved and collared, pants a polyester athletic blend. The shoes blend the aesthetic of Florida white pants retired and East Village tight black jeans – Puma, Adidas, unknown brands. All, undoubtedly, have the appropriate soles.

The tournament started with 128 teams and will be down to the finals tomorrow night.

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