Monday, March 10, 2014

An outside chance

One of the saddest things I’ve read of late was a brief article in The Economist that talked about the decline of street play.

The article was prompted by a town in Long Island that recently banned street basketball – you can’t even use a roll-away hoop – and, further, requires special permission for folks who want to put up a hoop in their own driveway.

I can understand putting a curfew on b-ball. Who wants to listen to thunk-thunk-thunk dribbling, and the reverberating metal sprong when Spalding hits backboard at 3 a.m.?

And, certainly, every town has main streets where it would be a clear and present danger to have kids slam dunking.

But on a pokey side street? Couldn’t they just ask folks to drive more slowly and carefully to accommodate kids playing in the street? Or are we just so auto über alles that there’s no room for kids to play games the require a road surface?

Forget hoops, a gated community in Florida banned street play altogether:

This seems slightly at odds with the town’s motto, “Live. Work. Play”, but no matter. People must be protected from the dreadful dangers of dribbling and dunking.

And a couple of years ago, a nosy neighbor sicced the police on a mom in Texas who was watching her kids play on scooters in her cul de sac. Tammy Cooper spent the night in lock up, charged with child endangerment. Maybe these were motorized scooters, which certainly can be annoying.


There was a lot that was boring, repressive, and just plain miserable about the 1950’s and 1960’s, but they were, on balance, a pretty darned good time to be a kid.

Unlike our parents, we weren’t Depression babies, stuffing cardboard in hole-y shoes and hoping for a comic book or a handkerchief for their birthday.

We had stuff. Maybe not much compared to today’s kids, but certainly plenty compared to what our folks had (a baseball glove, a violin case). We had all sorts of TV shows aimed squarely at us. Sure, most of them were god-awful, but they were ours.

And we got to run around free range, without any supervision beyond the vigilant (and, let’s face it, occasionally vigilante) mom watching out the window.

Sure, we had backyards to play in, woods next door, a pond down the street. But plenty of our play took place in the street.

For starters, the people next door put up a basketball hoop on the telephone pole opposite their house, so the boys – yes, sigh, it was mostly boys – got to play basketball. It was nothing fancy. If there had been a net to begin with, it didn’t last long, and the hoop itself was bent and rusted out. But it stood there for years.And got used.

We jumped rope in the street. Played D-O-N-K-E-Y, Red Rover, Dodge Ball, and Simon Says. Rode our bikes and pedaled our trikes. Roller skated. Wheeled our dolls around in baby buggies. Chalked in our hopscotch grids and hopped away.

The pavement ended in front of our house, and the rest of the street was a dirt road where we played baseball. Or just walked around. Or ran around. Or watched boys get into fights.

Other street activities included following the sewer cleaners around from sewer to sewer, hoping that while they were clawing up buckets full of soaked dead leaves, empty Lucky Strike packs, and god knows what else, might find a lost bed rubber ball and toss it our way. So what if it smelled a bit. Woo-hoo, a free ball!

There were, of course, fewer cars back then. Most families in my world had one car, which the dad took to work.

You didn’t need a car to run errands. We were a five minute walk away from a grocery store, pharmacy, dry cleaners, barber shop, beauty salon, and repair shop that also sold light bulbs. If you needed to make a more substantial purchase, those same five minutes would take you to a used car lot and a place that sold cemetery headstones. Obviously, these weren’t errands that kids got to run. (Here’s a dollar. Go out and see if you can get me a Studebaker. Don’t forget to bring the change homes.) But you could get things without getting in your car.

Five minutes in the other direction brought you to Friendly’s.

We were a 10-15 minute walk to a low-rent shopping center that had a Zayre’s, a Woolworth’s, a Western Auto, and a gift shop.

What did stay-at-home moms need with a second car when they had kids who could run over to Morris Market for a head of iceberg or down to Woolworth’s for a spool of thread?

So, fewer cars meant it was safer to play on the streets.

But it’s not just the streets. Kids just don’t get to play outdoors as much as they used to.

Back in the day, we did virtually nothing that was organized. Boys played Little League and pee-wee hockey. Girls took piano, tap, or baton twirl. Other than that, we were on our own.

Something to be said for having grown up in a time when the powers that were weren’t running around passing laws saying we couldn’t play D-O-N-K-E-Y in the street.

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