We met a new neighbor this weekend, Benton. “New” in the sense of “new to us”, not in the sense of “new to the neighborhood”: either one of us could have put a rock through the other’s window from our respective front porches for over ten years. (It is a testament to the cordiality of the neighborhood that it has never occurred to either of us to do so, despite our proximity.)
Earlier last week, we met another neighbor, six houses down, with a son roughly the same age as ours, playing in the John Stanford School playground. They were amazed to discover there were other children living on their block.
I could lose myself on vacant lots and playgrounds, in the alleyway behind the Wawa, in the neighbor’s yards, on the sidewalks. Anywhere, in short, I could reach on my bicycle, a 1970 Schwinn Typhoon, Coke-can red with a banana seat, a sissy bar, and ape-hanger handlebars. [...]
Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map – marked HERE THERE BE TYGERS and MEAN KID WITH AIR RIFLE – that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.
We have a map just like that, rolled up and tied with twine, in a drawer in our mind. On it: the cauldron-shaped hill that served as the site of our epic games of “smash-up derby” (point bikes down, meet in the middle); the church wall facing the parking lot where we played Off the Wall (or its rougher cousin, Suicide); the groove-worn track through an anonymous neighbor’s yard, leading to a piece of bent-up fence wire.
The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations – Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from the doors marked STAFF ONLY. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.
Chabon goes on to tell a story of how, when he moved to Berkeley, he found a nine-year-old girl living two doors down who had lived there her whole life. Two doors in the other direction lived a boy, the same age, who had spent his whole life in the same house, as well. They had never met.
As we’ve moved off the streets and into “safer” realms, we’ve lost track of each other, and it’s a tragedy. We drift like ghosts that can see the world around them, but not each other.
But it wasn’t just happenstance that we met Benton. We recently dug up our front lawn and put in several raised bed gardens. Benton saw us struggling with PVC and clear plastic sheeting and came down to offer some cloche clips he’d made. Had we be in the back, as we’ve been for years, we never would have met, and never would have learned about his paintings or his wife’s trash couture Dick’s burger wrapper sculptures.
We’ve been spending more time out front in general: mornings find us camped on our steps, coffee cup in hand, watching the school kids unload from buses while the Baby Z points and shouts at the passing bicycles (“bike! bike! bike!”). This too, has led to connections: three weeks ago, we recognized Steve, who we hadn’t seen in almost a year, dropping off his daughter. We waved. A week after, he stopped in for a long morning of chatting over coffee, exchanging schemes for CD-spindle-based algae farms and vertical, modular gardens.
And all because we were out in front, where we could see and be seen.
Wallingford, we’d like to meet you. But as long as you’re in the media room, up in your study or even around the back, we can’t. Come on out front! Sit on the stoop, play in the street, lay on the grass. See who happens by.