Winners Don’t Win, pt. 3: The Dharma Racquets

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.

― Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

In December 2020, Cat & I decamped to Lowell, Massachusetts for almost 9 months as she costume designed the return of the Showtime series Dexter.

Our temporary home, give-or-take 4 hours north of New York City, was a charming, modern 1-bedroom 5th Floor apartment in a 75-unit rental complex called the Thorndike Exchange. The converted building housed the former Hood’s Laboratories factory in the late 1800s. The sunrise view above looked east from the corridor outside our unit. Our apartment windows looked the other way, towards western MA, over the Lowell Regional Transit Authority’s Gallagher Transportation Center, a churning public bus hub, and the last stop on the Lowell Line T commuter rail that sits about 30mins from Boston.

In 1882, Charles I. Hood headquartered his eponymous company in a 4-story 175,000 sq ft factory here, because the Boston & Lowell railroad freight depot was right out the back door. In the Industrial Age’s golden age, Hood Labs was one of the largest patent medicine companies in the United States. Its flagship product was Hood’s Sarsaparilla Soda, marketed as a “blood purifying” miracle. Hood extended the rail line right into his factory, and designed a global manufacturing and distribution process that sent Hood’s soda and its catchy tag line “Good blood! Good blood!” around the world and back.

One deep New England winter’s night, during a relentless storm right out of The Crucible, I watched the Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) snow removal force battle a blizzard. From five stories up I filmed the action below and a few improvised takes of ambient float. My window on the transportation terminal was a dynamic portal on the still relatively closed universe of Lowell, the hometown of both Bette Davis and Jack Kerouac.

I found a lot of peace in that view. It’s no surprise that tennis entered my life again in that place.

Across the street from the Thorndike Exchange, fate put an almost always unused tennis court in Lowell’s South Common park, a public park that, during our tenure at the Thorndike, functioned as a bit of a containment zone for cops to keep an eye on all the known local down-n-outers, junkies, and homeless folks.

Built by a public/private partnership on the outskirts of Lowell’s relatively rougher, southern edge of town, the tennis court was fenced-in with a basketball court about 6-feet astride its sideline. As soon as Spring began to thaw the Common, we kept seeing the empty court across the street every time we left and returned home. After a couple weeks of the court calling out to us, Cat, who never played tennis as a kid or had a formal lesson, but still hit with me valiantly early in our relationship as a favor, decided she wanted to learn the game for real, so we went to work with two $30 Head racquets from Target.

After Cat & I tooled around for a couple weeks finding our basic forms, I took an early Spring trip back to NYC to get Luna groomed and check in on our Brooklyn apartment. While home, I dug our 20-year-old racquets out of storage, and brought them back to Massachusetts. A tennis pro at the Woburn Racquet Club restrung them.

The South Common court’s surface was asphalt. The net posts were 4” diameter steel bollards embedded into literal roadbed. The net cable ran straight across with no center dip. There was no separation between the tennis and basketball court, either. Errand basketballs would bounce through our approach shots as often as tennis balls would roll under ballers attempting layups.

I hadn’t touched a racquet since 2006, when arthroscopic surgery to debride a labrum tear and remove a bone chip in my right hip sidelined all my athletics for a while. A year later, in full recovery, tennis receded. I’ll tell that story in another episode.

In Lowell, I began to resurrect my game, due in no small part to watching Cat exhibit passion, nascent talent, and a desire to improve. As New England spring sprung, we ended up playing multiple times a week, and poking out into Lowell’s other public courts.

The hard court surfaces of the Lowell High School varsity team courts across town from us, even with a few cracks and undulations, became favorites. They were welcome relief from the court-cum-roadbed across the street from the Thorndike. It was a nice change-up to play on a surface that didn’t eat up shoes and balls, or make you feel like a fried egg on hotter days.

Cat & I took each other as far as we could go without professional help. Along the way, we shot a lot of “instructional” videos of each other that will never be shared, but were vital in keeping us motivated to improve.

I’m not sure, actually, that I’ve ever had as much fun playing tennis as I did on that asphalt tarmac in Lowell. To honor the court that rekindled my love for the game and sparked Cat’s, and knowing our work earned us the right to buy decent 21st century equipment, we left our racquets on the fence after our final session in July. With any luck, like the luck that put the court there for us in the first place, someone else is using our old racquets to discover or deepen their love for the game.

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