Daylight dims on Taylor Street and the festival tempo jumps. Picnickers rise from their blankets, double daters stroll. The crowd careens between food booths on either side of the street. Onstage a sequined entertainer punctuates torch songs with Italian salutations to the audience. In the middle of tourist traffic the neighborhood kids gather, indifferent to anyone outside their teenage circles.
Standing in the beer line nearby, I am joined this warm summer evening by a middle-aged man, slightly stooped from work as a plumber, I imagine, or maybe a piano tuner. He smiles at me and the four-deep cluster as he joins us in jockeying for position around the tent.
I turn to watch the commotion coming from a group of half a dozen boys directly behind me.
Two are belly-to-belly like umpire and baseball manager over a questionable call. They are yelling in distorted Italian and waving their fingers. Faces are flushed, cheeks billow, necks are straining.
“Doe–” “Ching–” “Say say say–” “Ohhht!”
The plumber/piano tuner is looking back at them and smiling. “It’s an old game we used to play on street corners down here,” he tells me. He explains that players go one-on-one, simultaneously holding up a number of fingers and shouting out the number they guess to be their opponent’s. Yelling and posturing are key, he says, to breaking an opponent’s concentration.
Girls gather expectantly on the fringe of the boys’ arena. Meanwhile the man’s wife approaches, assesses the beer line, and leads him away with a sigh. I imagine her decades ago waiting in the same way as tonight’s girls.
I give up on the beer line to join the audience. A tall, dark, shirtless young man is up against a chubby, brainy-looking kid in shorts past his knees. Smart beats Handsome, who goes outside the circle to sulk. The new winner is challenged by a lanky blond boy who doesn’t look local but knows the local game.
The incumbent loses and steps back, making room for a new match, as I approach him. His name is Rich, he says, and he lives on Carpenter Street. They play the game all the time in the neighborhood. They usually play in teams of three and go best of seven, betting for money or beer. Rich smiles when I ask him his age. “Seventeen,” he replies. He takes a sip of his beer and adds, “Yeah, well.”
What’s the game called? I ask. An enthusiastic friend with a Day-Glo earring jumps between us. “Mota! Mota!” he shouts, pronouncing it something like MOE-dah.
M-O-T-A-? M-O-T-T-A? M-O-D-A?
The friend shrugs. “Just mota,” he says.
Mota is about verbal intimidation as much as luck. It’s a chance game, not unlike Rock Paper Scissors, although by the raucous play and unintelligible dialect outsiders will think there’s more going on. Screaming the count from one to ten, players distort each number in a regular pattern. Some numbers are emphasized by repetition. Translated phonetically they are: ooon, doe, tray, kwat, ching, say-say-say, set, ohhht, novee-novee-nov, brrr.
As night darkens the game intensifies. The lanky kid is in the beer line with at least seven empty plastic cups stacked under the one he’s draining.
One of the girls from the fringe leans into the circle and holds up a splayed hand. “Ching,” she mocks, and leads her friends away. I decide to go watch the fireworks.
On the way out I see the boys again. The festival is over but no one is leaving. Stationed around the entrance, the boys hope to be the last ones hustled off. I say good-bye to Rich as an impromptu game strikes up between his buddies. But the cops are loitering around too, and the players are told to move along.
“Too much noise,” the patrolman tells me. “Causes commotion.” A group of policemen leaning against squad cars displace the boys in the street.
I turn back to look for the boys on Taylor Street but they have vanished back into the neighborhood, the old Italian village still alive in ways as strange and small as guessing games.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.