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How To Play

There was a time when the playground was my daughter’s entire life. We would have to spend good chunks of our weekends there plus any slab of weekday daylight leftover when I picked her up from daycare.

Sometimes she’d rope me into being a customer in an imaginary store she set up underneath the shaky bridge or I’d have to be a passenger in the giant train she pretended the entire playground to be. Sometimes I had to be Venom to her Spiderman and chase her around while she shot make-believe webs at me. Sometimes she’d insert herself in a group of other kids and she would run around with them in that manic headless-chicken gallop that suffices for entertainment at that age.

When the time came to leave she would howl with a soul-deep bereavement no matter how many hours we’d been at the playground. If we were out and about and we passed a playground en route she would demand we stop at that playground no matter what we were on our way to and no matter how sketchy the playground appeared to adult eyes. If I said no because we were running late to an event that was not Being At The Playground or because the swings were overrun with teenage dirtbags she would not understand these reasons and she would scream with a toddler’s sense of violated justice.

Now when she does want to go to the playground it is usually because she wants to tool around on her bike or rollerblades and the playground is the safest and least hilly and sidewalk-cracked place to do that. She often tires of these outings sooner than I do. She doesn’t “play” anymore.

This weekend she made a rare request to skateboard to the playground and back. But once we got there her plans were thwarted by an adorably aggressive little girl. She looked around 4 years old and she had a ponytail with a ribbon. When we arrived the little girl was on the periphery of a group of older kids playing tag and trying to make herself noticed among them with little luck. They barely noticed when the little girl ran off and gestured at my daughter that they should play hide and seek.

The little girl spoke more Polish than English but her enthusiasm broke the language barrier. The girl indicated to my daughter exactly where she should hide. In the manner of preschoolers since time immemorial she wished to game the system in order to be a winner. My daughter told me she didn’t want to be a jerk so she played along.

When it was time for us to leave the little girl squeaked something to my daughter in Polish. My daughter said she couldn’t understand so the little girl started over in English. You come twice? she asked. I think she meant, Will I see you here at this playground again? My daughter shrugged and said maybe. She didn’t want to make any promises. The little girl rode off on a tricycle and yelled good-bye! five different times as we went our separate ways.

The scene brought to mind a brief episode from my own kid-dom that I hadn’t thought about in years. I grew up in a suburban development that swelled with young families following the flood of post-Summer of Sam white flight. When I was a kid there were tons of other kids within a five-year radius of me. Every backyard echoed with kid yells year round. In the summer the neighborhood pool filled to bursting with kids who stayed there from dawn to dusk. The place was full of Play.

Then all these kids got older and stopped playing outside due to the insidious influence of video games and the general torpor that descends on pre-adolescents. The families of the neighborhood closed up shop for breeding and none of them moved away so there was no space for new little kids to enter the picture.

But there was one house that was open and it was down the street from ours. It stayed vacant for years for reason I didn’t quite understand. My mom explained to me something about the heating system in the place that made it expensive to maintain and thus unsellable but this went in one ear and out the other.

A summer arrived when the owners of the vacant and expensive house despaired of selling the place and deigned to rent it out to a young mother and her five year old. We learned about this the morning the five year old showed up on our doorstep unannounced. He looked like kindergarten-aged Charlie Bucket with giant glowing eyes and a head of messy curly blond hair. Someone must have given him the intel that me and my two brothers were the only kids on the block and he showed up looking for someone to play with.

The problem was me and my brothers were all too old for this sort of thing. I was already in junior high. Even my youngest brother was beyond the age of “playing.” With my mom off at work 9-5 every day our summer plans included tremendous amounts of sleep and Nintendo and Mystery Science Theater 3000. If we dared to go outside it was to shoot hoops in the driveway or organize wiffle ball games in the yard replete with pitcher’s paradise and invisible men on the bases.

And here was a little boy who wanted to play. Amorphous goal-free play of chasing each other around until your lungs feel like they’ll burst. Me and my brothers had zero interest in playing but we also did not want to be jerks and say no to this little urchin. So we played what he wanted to play which was mostly hide and go seek. He seemed genuinely disappointed when someone spotted him standing behind a column on our front porch so eventually we feigned ignorance and “gave up” just so he could triumphantly say You never found me!

We tried to guide the little boy inside the house because we much preferred video games to this activity. When he found out we had Nintendo he said Oh! I have a game too! Then he disappeared for a while and returned with a cartridge aimed squarely at his own age group. It was called Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular. He loved to play this game even though he had no idea how to play it. This game had a sack race level in which you had had to get Snoopy across the finish line without falling into potholes that opened up in the street beneath him. The little boy seemed to think the potholes were the goal because he invariably aimed his controller straight at every divot in the pavement. For preteens who obsessed over trying to get Mario safely from one castle to the next this was maddening.

And then suddenly an internal alarm clock went off and he said he had to go home to have lunch and he left. When my mom got home from work I told her this little kid showed up at our house at the crack of dawn and she thought this was very cute. She did not seem to understand my fear of being known as a kid who played with kindergarteners all summer. It would have seriously damaged my reputation if I’d had any rep to damage.

The little boy showed up again the next morning. Me and my brothers were barely awake but attempted to not be grumpy. We played hide and seek. We watched him play the Snoopy game and not listen to any of our instructions on how to play it the “right” way. Once again he left at lunchtime and we all breathed a sigh of relief. But he was back the following morning. And the morning after that. He was not going to get sick of us and he was not yet ready to stop playing.

I wondered how to tell a little kid that playing with older kids all the time is a little weird and he should play with kids his own age. Except there were no kids his age around for miles. He missed the kid boom in this development. Had he been born five years earlier he would have had an endless assortment of kids to play with from sun up ’til sundown but he arrived on the scene too late and all he had was teens and near-teens whose idea of a good time was mocking reruns of Small Wonder. The poor kid was desperately lonely and in exactly the wrong place and time to get a proper cure for this loneliness. But I grumbled to myself in that selfish teenage way about how his loneliness was not my problem.

I didn’t know how to get the little boy to go away but fate intervened. The next morning his mother showed up by herself. She was tall and blond and struck me as a professional type with her long black skirt and copious shoulder pads. She apologized for her son knocking our door early every day and bothering us. I lied and insisted her son wasn’t bothering us because I figured that’s what I was supposed to say but it was clear to me that she could sense how uncomfortable we were and how strange the whole situation was.

She said her little boy wouldn’t come by again and I felt awful and rotten in the way you can only feel when you weasel your way out of something you don’t want to do. Through gritted teeth I said he really could come by any time he wanted to. It wasn’t a problem at all. She said it was nice of me to say that. Then she left.

I never saw her or the little boy again. For the rest of the summer I thought about this poor kid having to play by himself in this crappy house no one wanted to buy. But I never felt so guilty I actually paid him a visit. The mom and the boy moved out before school started again. If you put a gun to my head now I couldn’t tell you the little boy’s name.

I remembered this all in a flood as I left the playground and the little girl who was desperate to play with someone and it ached inside me and I felt I had to tell the story to someone so I told my daughter. The story took quicker to tell than I thought it would. There wasn’t much to it really. I wasn’t sure it was a story at all. My daughter asked me if the little boy was all grown up now. I hope so, I said.