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March 14, 2013 02:02 PM
TobyandAngel_(2)Everyone needs a tennis buddy. 
Everyone needs someone to hit with and not worry about winning or losing. Someone to talk with before, after and during play to pull your mind away from the myriad problems life delivers.
In the summer of 1971, I moved to New York City to work as a journalist. I didn’t know a soul in the city. In time I learned about a group of single young adults who met on Sundays in a large church. Though not particularly religious, I thought maybe I could find a tennis player there.  I met several people that first Sunday and by far the friendliest was a thin, bearded guy who seemed to be everyone’s best friend.
He introduced himself as Angel, and he pronounced it like one of those spirits that supposedly flies around heaven. We chatted that day about the usual stuff, mostly where we worked. Angel was a production engineer for a clothing manufacturer.

A few weeks later, the singles group planned a weekend in upstate New York.  I went along because I had heard there were tennis courts there. I also heard women would be there. 
On Saturday morning I worked my way into a doubles group. Angel was one of the players. When we warmed up, I could see Angel was athletic, but his tennis strokes were self-taught. Just before we started to play I heard Angel say to his partner, “OK, we’re gonna work on Toby’s backhand.” 
I laughed out loud. This guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, I thought.

Turns out he did. Angel and his partner drilled every ball at my backhand, normally decent but on hiatus that morning.  
“Don’t worry about it,” Angel said as we walked off the court. “You won’t be a beginner forever.”
Soon after that weekend Angel and I began to hang out. I had grown up in a small town in Connecticut. I had never been around Puerto Ricans, except briefly in the Army. Angel grew up in the South Bronx, in one of those crime-infested housing projects of “Fort Apache” fame.  His parents still lived there and he lived with them, though he wanted to move to Manhattan, where I lived.

Searching for a Court
Angel and I soon began to meet for lunch or have a beer together after work. On the weekends, we played tennis. 
Playing tennis in Manhattan has never been easy. There are not enough courts and the ones available are expensive or have long waiting lines. Playing tennis in the city in 1971 grew even tougher. That was the year that Chris Evert made her remarkable debut at the U.S. Open, reaching the semifinals as a 16-year-old. The tennis boom thundered. Everyone struggled to find an open court. Everyone but Angel.
Angel was the most resourceful guy I ever met. If you gave him a spool of electrical wire, he could probably figure out a way turn it into a radio. That was how you survived in the South Bronx. He knew how to beat the system.
“We’re going to the seminary today,” Angel told me on the telephone one Saturday.

Seminary?  That’s where Angel took me—to an Episcopal seminary on West 20-something street in Manhattan.
“They have courts here?” I said as I stood in front of a cluster of stately gray buildings.
“Sure,” Angel said. “C’mon.”
I followed him into this beautiful, lush courtyard in the center of which sat a single immaculate tennis court.
“Are we allowed in here?” I asked Angel. 
He looked at me as if I had just fallen off the turnip truck.  “Why not?” he said.
Though there were no signs saying you had to be a student or faculty member, it did seem sort of
private. Not to Angel. 
We played at the seminary for a couple of years, spacing our visits so we didn’t look like intruders. One day Angel telephoned and said, “I’m picking you up in ten minutes.”

Angel had a Volkswagen and he drove it everywhere in Manhattan.  He knew where every parking space was and he knew how to squeeze his VW into spots that weren’t used for parking. On this day, we headed up the West Side Drive.  Soon the George Washington Bridge came into view.  Angel turned off an exit just before the bridge.
“Where are the tennis courts?” I asked.
“In a minute,” Angel said.
Down a slope, in the shadow of the bridge, lay half a dozen courts.  They appeared to be city courts, but only two were being used.  Probably because nobody knew they were there. Angel knew.
The Final Point
Another time Angel took me to some courts on the Lower East Side.  Loitering about the fences appeared to me to be the cast of “Super Fly,” the movie about cocaine dealers that had just been released.  
“I don’t know . . .” I said uneasily.
“You a man or a mouse?” Angel said. “Squeak up.”
In we went. 
Angel stayed my tennis buddy for the five years I lived in New York City.  Both of us got married in the city. I was his best man and he was in my wedding.  We kept playing tennis together until I moved to New Mexico. We would talk on the phone a lot, about our lives, our families. Every few years we visited, making sure to bring our racket along. 
In 2001, I went to Seoul, South Korea, to start up an English-language newspaper.  Two months after 9/11 I awoke one morning to watch the news on television. An American Airlines plane had crashed just after takeoff in Queens, New York.  All those aboard had died. Terrorism was a possibility, the newscaster said. The plane had been bound for the Dominican Republic.  

Dominican Republic? Angel had emailed me a month or so before and told me about his new job that took him periodically to a clothing factory in the Dominican Republic.  He couldn’t be on that I plane, I told myself. When I returned to my apartment that night, I opened my computer. There was a message from Angel’s wife, Pat Rosa. 
Toby, I’m so sorry to tell you but Angel was aboard American Flight 587.
I reread that sentence until all I could see were soupy words.  
Playing tennis with Angel didn’t make my game better, yet afterward I always felt better. That is what a good tennis buddy can do. I miss mine. If there are indeed angels flying around in heaven, Angel is surely showing them how to beat the system.