The Pickup Artists

By Noah Bernhardt

It’s 5 p.m. on a Sunday. It doesn’t matter where exactly, as games are played the world over. Several people have already arrived, and more are filtering in. Handshakes and head nods are replaced with high fives and hugs as more tenured players begin to appear. It’s time for pickup.

To be specific, a pickup game is a weekly affair where players meet at a specific time and location to play a casual game. Teams are usually decided then and there, or by what shirt players happen to be rocking that day. Games are played year-round in parks across the globe. For many people they serve as weekly exercise—a chance to kill time in a sports off-season and, perhaps most importantly, as a temporary community center. Pickup games serve as a meeting point for displaced community members, such as immigrants, tourists and marginalized groups.

Kaila Chan recently organized a game of ultimate Frisbee in Alameda, Calif. titled “East Bay Pickup Frisbee For Womxn & Non-Binary Folk.” Chan felt that she was stuck in a support role when she was playing mixed pickup games, and that she was a more “expansive” player when playing with only women-identified players.

Chan is also enjoying the learning experience of being a leader and of educating herself and others about the LGBTQ experience. “When new people came, I’d always start with ‘Hi I’m Kaila, my pronouns are she/her!’ And there’d be this awkward pause, then they’d reply with their name and pronouns.” Chan points out that currently, the conversation about gender equity is focused around including women, where Chan thought it should focus on trans and non-binary inclusion because, “If we are giving support to trans and non-binary people, then we are already giving support to women. We live in a world that doesn’t prioritize women, and I just don’t have the patience for that. In my way, I’m making this space.”

Rand Wrobel also finds value in playing pickup. “I was going downhill in my life about 10 years ago. I didn’t see the point in playing any longer. Along came grandmasters [age 40+] and it really reinvigorated my play. I had more purpose to get in shape and I take motivation from playing with players my age.”

Wrobel is the administrator for a pickup game at Bushrod Park in Oakland. The game has a wide variety of skill-levels and age ranges. Wrobel remembers a time last summer when Bushrod was filled with players. “There were a couple teams practicing, as well as two pickup games playing side by side. The old-guys’ game and everyone else.” Bushrod’s numbers have been thinner of late, but Wrobel isn’t worried. “Ride the waves and the droughts,” he recommends. “It’ll all even out.”

Wherever I travel, the first thing I do is hop on Google and Facebook, looking for the pickup scene in places as far flung as Costa Rica and Amsterdam. I plan whole days around a game, because I know where I can find pickup—I can find friends. Through whatever other barriers there are, our bodies speak the same language on the field. The people I play with become friends and guides for the weekend, allowing me to see a side of the city I’d never see as an outsider.

Whatever sport you play, you can find a game on Facebook or Meetup.com by typing a city name and the sport. Pickupultimate.com is a great resource for ultimate Frisbee players. Finally, if you want to play with Rand, Kaila and me, you can come to Bushrod Park in Oakland at 5p.m. on Wednesdays and 4 p.m. on Sundays.

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