Half a lifetime ago I went on a long and ridiculous bike trip, and for years after I worked on a book about the trip, which I never finished to my satisfaction. However, today, while looking for something else, I found myself reading parts of the book and was struck by several stories about meeting kids in parks. Here are three:
I sit in Cinderella’s carriage – an enormous, pumpkin-orange playground toy – scribbling in my journal. The metal seat is cool against my hamstrings.
A horde of kids approach, and I hear them clamor atop the structure, screeching and singing, oblivious to me in the shadows.
Then, abruptly, silence.
“Hey, there’s a man down there,” whispers a girl. “I don’t think we should disturb him.”
“No, you definitely should disturb him,” I say, calling up through the hole in the roof. “He needs some disturbance.”
The kids poke their heads inside from above and read all the graffiti aloud, taking pleasure in spelling out the word fuck wherever it appears.
It appears often.
Walter Johnson city park. After watching a few run-filled innings of a girl’s softball game, I walk my bike to a nearby picnic table and begin preparing dinner. A young mother appears with her two small kids. The younger child, a boy, makes a dash for the swings.
“It’s dinner time!” shouts the woman. “You can play after!”
The boy ignores her, swinging.
“I’ve already told you once!”
The boy swings higher, throwing out his legs.
“If I have to come and get you, you’ll regret it!”
“Get it, regret it,” he sings. “Get it, regret it.”
The woman hands a bag of food to her daughter, strides up to the swings, plants herself before her son, and in one motion wraps her arms around the boy’s legs, tackling him in mid-air. The boy, holding the chains with all his strength, twists violently, his forward momentum impeded. For a moment they are frozen like this, as though posing for a photograph. Then the woman grasps the boy’s belt on either side, yanks him off the swing, plants him upright on the ground and smacks his butt, hard. Neither say a word, though both gasp frequently and loudly.
After a moment to re-adjust clothing and hair, the young mother leads the children to my table, apparently the only table in the park. I have the usual: macaroni and cheese with canned spinach. They have fast food hamburgers, french fries, and soda. The woman maintains a steady stream of chatter, remarking on the nutritional value of my meal and periodically offering me their surplus condiments: little packets of mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup.
“Who cares!” cries the boy suddenly. “My daddy is fat!”
In the background of Shirley’s drawing, in the upper third, she sketches a tent, a campfire, a giant sun, a tree, and some clouds. I stand in the foreground, holding my helmet in one tiny hand, a water bottle in the other. My pear-shaped face is longer than my torso, and my smile is nearly the size of my helmet. The dark hair of my chest is prominent, and my glasses seem delicate and fragile. The clouds resemble waves, so that I seem to be standing underwater.
From Shirley Age 11, she writes in long-hand along the edge of the page.
Warren, her six-year-old brother, is more of a minimalist. He draws two intertwined stick figures with big dopey smiles.
“They’re humping,” he snickers. “Get it?”