The month of June always makes me wistful. School’s out. A half-liberated, half-sad seasonal sensation settles over me, a feeling I associate with childhood and summer vacation. When I was growing up and the bell rang for the last time on the last day, children streamed out the schoolhouse doors and into the streets.We played on those streets outdoors all day every day until we were called in for supper and/or September arrived. Almost every block had a vacant lot to play in, with clover and poison ivy and skunk cabbage. Boys whiled away their time exploding those little paper-wrapped dots of gunpowder known as “caps” on the curbstones. Girls played house and dressed dolls. We all read comic books. We made war with sticks from the huge old oak trees, we fashioned forts out of refrigerator boxes with doors woven of honeysuckle vines, and we made plenty of mud pies to feed the imaginary troops. After supper, the fathers smoked Lucky Strikes on the front steps. The mothers stood, always with their arms folded comfortably, and chatted in pairs. It was a time before mercury vapor lamps, and even though we lived in the heart of Boston, there were fireflies and stars visible in the early evening sky.
Forty years after mud pies, I’m raising a son in a city where there is no mud. Perhaps there never was mud in New York City, just pools of water from backed-up sewers settling into the asphalt until that seismic shift known as a pothole rends the ground, sending hubcaps, bicycle wheels and rollerbladers arcing through the air like tumbling semaphores of distress.
And I know the world has changed. Most children don’t play on the street in any city these days, and vacant lots don’t stay that way for long. “Look,” said my son as we walked past a formerly vacant site in Manhattan where bulldozers were digging a deep pit. “They must be making a swimming pool.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” I said, even though I was thinking “Fat chance.” But as it turns out, the new building will indeed have a swimming pool, albeit on a high floor with a membership cost of over $100,000 a year.
Urban youngsters rarely touch the earth at all. “Pesticides!” shrieked a mother past whom I strolled in Central Park not long ago; she was chiding a child who was jabbing at the patchy grass with a plastic spoon. “Medical waste” is what another friend of mine worries about when her child works in the community garden near their apartment. (She doesn’t have to worry for long. The city has sold the garden to developers, and it’s scheduled to be plowed under any day now.)
Not that I’m on a mission for mud, but there isn’t any in public playgrounds anymore. Wrought-iron fences with well-policed gates surround the playgrounds at most city parks, their structured environments cushioned with rubber floors, fancy drainage systems and no dirt. Some have well-groomed little sandpits, but they are off-limits to any child older than a toddler.
There was lots of unregulated outdoor public space when I was growing up. Today, play areas for children are probably safer, cleaner and better supervised than when I was a child, but the preponderance of them are private and indoors. There are indoor gyms, indoor game arcades, indoor soccer fields, indoor discovery centers. Kids in search of a good time in New York spend half their lives in museums and theaters. Few children haven’t memorized every last dinosaur at the Natural History Museum, every last bit of armor at the Met, every last fish in the Aquarium. Few haven’t had a backstage tour of Lincoln Center.
For all the cultural advantages, there is a price, of course. Not only does such a way of life cost buckets but to the little hothouse humans it breeds, sun is a threat, birds carry disease and butterflies are nothing more than roaches with interesting wings. My own little boy, cocooned beneath the fiercely bright night skies of New York City, used to pretend the airplanes plying their course toward La Guardia were shooting stars, and make a wish.
Some years ago, I remember reading an article by a woman whose name I can no longer remember who had taken in her homeless teenage niece. The niece had suffered many privations growing up in a warren of highrise project housing, but perhaps most poignant, she had never seen the moon. When it rose, great and glowing, over the lowrise horizon of her aunt’s suburban neighborhood, she was dumbfounded and, struggling to name it, cast it as some peculiar kind of street lamp. The niece, according to her aunt, had never had time or opportunity to lift her eyes from the meanness of the streets in the neighborhood where she had grown up.
I used to think of that story as an illustration of extreme deprivation. These days, I wonder if it is not exemplary of a more general experience shared even by the privileged. My son’s is a generation to whom “fresh air” means air-conditioning that works and for whom the forces of nature exist only in New Jersey.
I wonder how these children will see themselves in the world. When I was growing up, for instance, naming and nicknaming were related to traditions of specificity and the timelessness of connection–i.e., little Johnny Junior, Sarah After Her Great-Grandmother or occasionally a Tredwell the Fourth. Today’s wired global village is peopled by “Jason62493.” Yet within the packs of clones one can only hope there dwells some more poetic sense of the infinite. Indeed, I am inspired to see one such little Jason, bright and autonomous, huddled with my son; the two of them are composing fantastical and chimeric e-mail addresses: “Birdboy2000@magictree.com,” “Laughingfishleaps@foodchain.org,” “Moonmindedearthling@glowworm.smile.”
That these youngsters still tie themselves to the earth while sighting moons in cyberspace is strangely comforting, even redemptive to this firstname.lastname@example.org. It gives me hope that the children of our relentlessly panoptic millennium will find at least a few heavenly bodies to guide them in their exploits through inner worlds and outer limits, then home in time for supper.