Please indulge me in a walk down memory lane – “Broke into the old apartment. This is where we used to live.” – Barenaked Ladies
The gates were locked as we strolled up to the park. Not just locked, but there was yellow police-tape stretched across it, across other parts of the fence and trailing on the dingy sidewalk in front.
I wasn’t too surprised, though.
Back in the day when we frequented this small park, you never knew if it would be clean and welcoming, with kids running about, or littered with greasy paper bags of leftover takeout food and empty beer bottles. Although I wish my memory would suppress it, I even had come across an empty condom packet (thank God never a used one!) and maybe a needle or two.
It was the used needles that would shut the park down from time to time.
John Jay College was in the adjoining neighborhood, and students from there would frequent the park in the evening hours of the fall and spring semesters, after the nannies, mothers and children had long gone home for the day to the adjacent apartment buildings stretching up into the sky. Some years the students and street bums heavily frequented the park. Other years local police and security guards were more vigilant, and the park properly belonged to the kids and was more or less clean.
I could’ve taken D to other parks, and I did. Central Park was no more than a four-to-five block walk away, and the internal parks there were not hard to reach. And although I liked them, I never felt like D and I quite fit in with the West end tots and kids – their nannies and moms discussing preschool interviews and the latest specialty art or music class their young charge was taking.
We were living paycheck to paycheck back then, and besides that I had been raised in a small-town environment of free play, Saturday morning cartoons and bike riding. Not preschool and kindergarten applications that you put your kid on soon after they were born (if not before) or popular toddler classes taken to build music appreciation and play skills.
So, trips to Central Park were not part our frequent daily routines.
There was also a park if you walked down the street away from our apartment building and turned right. I rather liked that one, with multiple playground equipment and less kids frequenting it, couched between two shiny, relatively new apartment buildings with the Hudson River framing it on the third side. The added incentive was that there was a relatively affordable (and no-nonsense) grocery store close to it.
I could’ve made him walk, but he wanted to ride. It was easier that way. Less fear of him bolting into the street. In many ways, he was as unpredictable back then as he is now.
So more often then not I chose the little gated park in front of our building. It was kept nicer when we lived there, with the one path that circled it swept clean and litter properly stuffed in the trash compartments rather then in the grass. It was pretty basic, with only had one measly jungle gym and no swing, even.
Really, if you thought about it, it was a pathetic excuse for a park.
But it was ours, and it was enough.
It was where I, already having D in several types of early intervention and faced with the idea of having to put him in physical therapy because he was so slow to walk, held onto tightly to his little fingers, arms extended up, and guided him to walk on the padded ground around the equipment.
It was where I helped him climb up the four-rung ladder, hand over hand, pushing his butt gently, making his knees bend and climb until he could do it himself. I still have the picture somewhere, of him independently climbing after what seemed like forever, with a triumphant yell escaping his face.
It was where one summer I chased him around endlessly trying to feed him bites of the dahl–chawwal–salan (lentils-rice-curry) that he refused to eat in the apartment – that one summer when he was turning two, where every single damn meal was either attempted in the hallway outside our apartment, in the laundry room of our building where he was fascinated by the spinning dryers, or outside in this playground, stuffing in bites between his climbing and sliding.
The dryers. I didn’t know back then that he was stimming on the clothes going round and round and round and round in those big dryers.
It was where in the summer time the park authorities would turn the fountain on, and water would fill the middle area, and he would splash around. I knew the New York City water wasn’t the cleanest, but God he loved it. And, as my belly grew heavier and heavier with his sister growing inside of me, as we marched closer and closer to a formal diagnosis which would confirm to the family that which I had already known for a year, I watched him splash around the water in that small park that summer.
Now, on this random visit 14 years later, the gates were locked, and the police tape was stretched. The park was empty and looked even worse for the wear.
But, it was still my place of heartbreak and happiness.