June/July 2010~ I first realized adults live lives quite different from children when I was 10 or so and asked one of my father’s employees what his plans were for the summer.
“Work,” he said, somewhat confused by my question.
“You don’t get the summer off?”
“No,” he said, “nobody does.”
“That’s only because you’re a kid,” he said, “don’t get used to it.”
I sat stunned for a few minutes digesting the news that the endless summers of leisure and fun I had been enjoying up to that point wouldn’t last forever.
A dozen years later, I awoke one morning in my first post-college apartment in Chicago to the sound of children yelling and screaming and laughing–of kids being kids.
I had only gone to sleep about four hours prior and their joyful squeals weren’t bringing me much joy at all, only starting that day’s hangover four hours earlier than usual.
I looked through a window and saw a handful of 12-year-olds playing in the courtyard that ran between my apartment building and the one next to it.
I threw open a window, stuck my head out, and screamed down at them.
“Hey, you! Yeah, you kids down there. Why the hell aren’t you in school today?”
They stopped and stared slack-jawed at the puffy-faced, wild-haired gargoyle that had interrupted their game.
“It’s summer,” one of them said, both ending the conversation and putting me in my place in one fell swoop.
“Well, okay then,” I grumbled, “carry on.”
Then I closed the window and lumbered off to make coffee and search for aspirin.
I don’t know where the line separating being a kid from being a grown-up was crossed, exactly–I never got a brochure welcoming me into adulthood–but, at that moment, I was sure I had crossed it.
So much time had passed since I had experienced summer as a magical season of fun and adventure, instead of just by being uncomfortably hot each day while riding the “L” to work, that it didn’t even cross my mind that these kids were on furlough from school.
At their age, my friends and I would hop on our bikes and tear off to the Indian neighborhood on Devon Avenue on Chicago’s north side to raid the dumpsters behind the sari shops looking for the long cardboard tubes that once held the silk and cotton they made saris from.
Then we would joust each other, at full speed, in the alley.
I don’t remember if bike helmets even existed back then but I’m certain none of us had one. And yet we all survived, more or less unscathed, and 20 years later we still reminisce about that and the many other adventures we had in the alleys of Chicago, just as much our Mississippi as the real one was to Tom, Huck and Jim.
We were totally untethered from our parents–cell phones were still shoe box-sized devices rarely seen except in the hands of drug dealers and the government agents tasked with apprehending them–and we were left, more or less, to our own devices until it was dinner time.
Today, I’m afraid such a hands-off approach might be seen in some quarters as neglect, our jousting tournaments the source of lawsuits the moment one of us so much as skinned a knee or chipped a tooth. Our parents would have fingers waved at them in the press for letting us run amuck and get hurt. There would be interventions and tearful supplications on daytime talk shows, counselors hired, therapy provided, camera crews ready to document every moment of the “Wild Boys of Devon” transformation into fine and upstanding reality show participants.
Instead, after each collision, we just picked ourselves up, wiped away the blood and dirt, climbed back on our bikes and demanded a rematch. Those scars are proof that I was there, that I’m still here.
I hope today’s kids are having the same kind of free-form, choose-your-own-adventure fun we did back then.
Parents seem so concerned with scheduling appropriately structured supervised activities that stimulate math skills and conflict resolution or some such hokum that they’ve turned having fun into an unpaid internship in adulthood that’s coordinated on the family’s synced-up Blackberries.
If 12-year-old boys do still joust each other on bikes in glass-strewn alleys, I hope it’s actually outdoors and not just while playing the video game version inside of a dark, air-conditioned cocoon someplace while getting bedsores.
I fear it could be the latter after seeing a video game version of the bags game I’ve seen folks playing on sidewalks around town. When something as simple and cheap as tossing beanbags into holes cut into plywood boards is adapted into something meant to be played indoors at home, a game about raiding the fridge and taking a nap afterwards can’t be that far behind.
Once we’d exhausted our supply of cardboard tubes or began to accrue the kinds of cuts and bruises that would require an explanation when we got home, we would ride off to buy comic books and spoil our appetites for dinner with pizza and ice cream.
Girls existed in a universe even more fraught with peril than those inhabited by our favorite superheroes and hadn’t yet made it onto our summertime to-do lists, such as they were.
We’d sit in a park someplace passing comic books back and forth discussing the exploits of the angst-ridden superheroes and their neurotic adversaries with the fervor and earnestness of a panel of guests on “The McLaughlin Group,” and I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier.
Though I recently started riding my bike again after an embarrassingly long hiatus, my jousting days are probably behind me.
But, even though pizza and ice cream may now be followed by a cup of coffee and a cigar, there’s still nothing that makes me happier in the summertime than sitting on a bench on the ped mall reading a stack of comics and graphic novels checked out from the library.
Even without the comics, just watching the river of humanity that flows through there snake past me–whatever flotsam and jetsam it may contain–is still the most interesting show in town.
Summer is here now but it will be gone tomorrow and even if you’re not going to make it out to Arizona to kayak through the Grand Canyon there’s still plenty of escapism to be had right there on the ped mall, free and yours to enjoy all you want if you can turn off the voice in your head that’s telling you all the other things you should be doing instead.
The ped mall is our shared front porch, where we can go to be alone with our thoughts or a book or to be sociable and visit with friends or even with strangers or just to pretend to be busy and hide behind our sunglasses watching the constantly rotating cast of characters play out one tiny drama at a time.
Go down there, sit on a bench in a puddle of sunlight, eat some pizza and ice cream and take in a show.
Take a long lunch and read a few comic books and smoke a cigar.
Anybody who’d look down their nose at you for playing hooky for a few hours being a kid again in the season that’s theirs more than anyone else’s is terminally grumpy. Nothing can save them now. They might as well just go check into a hospice someplace so why worry about what they think?
If I see you down there, running through the fountain to re-baptize the child within you I won’t tell anyone.
I’d probably be too busy saving Gotham City again to notice, anyway.