Watching kids play in the neighborhood buoys spirits the way sports once did

Dylan, the teenage boy from across the street, runs restless circles around the neighborhood, his Nikes scuffing on the asphalt. You’re ...



Dylan, the teenage boy from across the street, runs restless circles around the neighborhood, his Nikes scuffing on the asphalt. You’re tempted to ask whether you can time him. The two girls who live around the corner, Mia and Leonora, ride skateboards with a kerlunk-kerlunk noise down the middle of the empty road, and you stare after them wondering who will finish first. One evening after a day-long gusting rainstorm, three little scamperers under the age of 8 in striped pajama bottoms emerge from a house and begin racing their scooters through the mud puddles, kicking up geysers of brown water and drenching themselves. It’s clearly a breakaway.

“Ten on red to win,” you say.

A lone boy, whose name you don’t know, is so full of nothing-to-do that he bounces a basketball off a beech tree. He’s about 10 and has a rampant tousled head. He picks a spot high up the tree about where the backboard should be and shoots at it. The ball makes a soft, ragged, uneven sound, leather on bark, and rebounds at a bad angle. He calmly deals with the untrue bounce, moves around the tree to catch it. He shoots it up again and again, titch, titch.

It’s a little town, but it has a great big park, the bequest of a rich old lady who left several acres. There are two baseball diamonds with bleachers and a playground with a creaky roundabout. People sneak in and meander around. You follow a soft chinking sound to the far diamond and come upon a man hitting grounders with a metal bat to two boys of about 13. The ball kicks up gray dust on the hardpan, and the man says, “Hurry!” The infielder, being a boy, saunters to it. But when he whips it to first with a surprisingly strong, practiced, wrist-snapping throw, you realize he’s who brought them out here. He is happily sweaty, all salt and water. You can almost smell his young animal scent.

From behind, there is a noise somewhere between a whap and a thump. Another boy, a slim high schooler in billowy sweats, is pitching hard into a blanket hung on a chain-link fence. He reaches into a bucket of balls, and then he unfurls in a loose wave of motion, thin and flexible as a sheet flapping on a line. You enviously roll your own sore, overused, locked-up shoulder. Another older man watches the boy, too.

“It’s so nice to see someone play a game,” you say, and he nods and replies, “Isn’t it?”

The other night an ambulance crawled down our main street. This is Long Island, a coronavirus hotspot, with almost 19,000 cases in the county — up 2,000 from just a day ago. Local officials are talking about using the farm fridges as spillover morgues. Do you know anyone sick, the neighbors ask? “Just one, thank God, and he’s okay,” you say. Everyone has strange anxiety dreams. In one of yours, you’re playing an evil, deadly black video game in the dark because all the lamps in the house have burned out. In another, an immense stranger, innocuous but somehow menacing, knocks on the door and calls your name. You tell him you don’t know him, but he insists that you do and starts scratching at the lock, trying to pick it and get in.

Nevertheless, you begin to find a strange magic in the stillness. Without all the incessant chatter of play-by-play from your former life, the music and the shouting, you find some surprising new enthusiasms. Such as running in a cold spring rain. And neophyte birding. “Is that a loon?” you ask. “Do loons live here?”

But it’s the kids, the green shoot kids, who have become your primary new pastime. As you watch them and their made-up, truncated, skipping-stone, chalk-on-the-walk contests, you realize that, though you always thought games were important — meaningful, not just trivial escapism — you never quite knew why until now. It’s because they’re our vitality. Humans play. Try and stop them. They play, even as they march out into the world in masks along with their work boots or heels or neckties, trying to put food on the table in the midst of a very bad time. You can’t kill fun — not with a gun or a bomb or a disease. Play is elemental. It’s how young mammals learn their survival skills.

In the next house over, the neighbor Chris, manager of the town grocery and therefore member of an at-risk population, has turned his backyard into an open-air wonderland for his two girls. “It’s their world,” he says. He has strung up a circus-acrobat line with rings and bars. Between two trees runs a red ribbon of a tightrope. The youngest girl, Leonora, walks the rope teetering on one foot and then the other with that innate ease that belongs to the very young, who are featherlight and don’t have far to fall. She makes it three full steps across before she trips lightly off the line. She sees you watching and waves. You smile through a bandanna, raise gloved hands and applaud.

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Newsrust: Watching kids play in the neighborhood buoys spirits the way sports once did
Watching kids play in the neighborhood buoys spirits the way sports once did
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