By Connor Adams Sheets
Nearly a dozen young men and women are sprawled across the cracked cement at the back of the handball court Monday afternoon at Bland Playground in downtown Flushing, smoking Newports and waiting for their chance to play the game that occupies them for hours on end on hot summer days.
As a Long Island Rail Road train rumbles by on the elevated tracks above them, four men smack a blue rubber ball back and forth against the white wall with its painted-over graffiti, continuing a New York tradition that endures in public parks throughout Queens.
Dripping sweat, two of them are shirtless, elastic boxer bands showing above their low-hanging jeans, the other two wear T-shirts. All four have the chiseled bodies of practiced athletes, and they let out a triumphant whoop each time the ball gets away from their opponents.
The games get heated and insults fly fast and loose, but the mood is fun-loving and open, according to 21-year-old Peter Rodriguez, a Bland handball regular.
“Everybody’s welcome,” Rodriguez explains shortly after finishing a game. “Whoever calls next is next. They’ve got to wait in a long line, but it’s fun. Everybody’s nice.”
The court is surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence, but every once in a while the ball gets away from the players, soaring high over the barrier and landing under the train tracks.
That’s just what happened at about 6 p.m. July 29, a sticky summer evening much like any other at the Prince Street park, according to Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Sal Arena.
An errant ball found its way out of the park and under the rail trestles, and 20-year-old Mason Xu crawled through a peeled-away section of chain-link to retrieve it from the trash-strewn brambles under the trestles, something the Flushing man had done many times before, according to a friend who was playing at the court Monday night.
Xu wore headphones as he ran under to grab the ball, and the friend said he must not have heard the westbound train pulling into the station.
“The train was preparing to stop at Flushing Main Street when the engineer saw an adult male dart out from under the westbound platform. The train struck the individual, later identified as Mason Xu,” Arena said.
The train struck Xu under the tracks, according to Xu’s friend, causing severe injuries including broken ribs and a severe head wound. He was taken to New York Hospital Queens, Arena said, where he remained in critical condition Aug. 2 after undergoing surgery for massive head trauma.
“He’s doing fine actually, he can breathe, he can hear, but he has some broken ribs. He got clipped, that’s all, and he hit his head on a rock,” Xu’s friend said. “He’s a good kid, he’s a loving person, always smiles. Very bright, he’s got a bright future.”
Xu, a student at Queensborough Community College, was still in the hospital Tuesday afternoon, but his condition had been “upgraded to serious, and doctors say he’s continuously improving,” according to NYHQ spokeswoman Cynthia Bacon.
Bland Playground handball player Jason Castro, 23, said Monday that he only knew Xu in passing, but that he could not understand how he was struck by a train, as the ground trembles when one approaches the station.
“We’ve seen him around. I heard he had his headphones on, and since he couldn’t hear the train he got hurt like a dumb little kid. He should have never had the headphones on up there,” Castro said.
Rodriguez agreed that carelessness was the culprit, though he and Castro both expressed sympathy for Xu.
“A lot of people go up there,” he said. “I would say about a million guys go up there to get their handballs, but he’s the only one to get hit by the train.”
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.