Gotham Diary:
17 October 2011

There are three playgrounds in Tompkins Square Park. The largest, near the 9th Street entrance, along Avenue A, is also the most popular, so much so that the other two, on opposite sides of the walk that leads into the park from the corner of 7th and B, feel neglected or abandoned, and I’ve always had the feeling that parents who choose them must be worried that their children won’t thrive in the throng. “I’ve always had the feeling” — listen to me! I never set foot in Tompkins Square Park until a fine day in April of last year, when Will was still wee enough to be carried in a sling (not yet by me!), and Megan and I walked over from her flat and found a small patch of vacant bench in the larger of the two east side playgrounds. It was crowded that day! I remember being aware the the buds on all of the trees’ branches had just popped open, while we were sitting there, flecking the scene with green, stationary snow. Will pretty much slept through that visit. In the later part of the year, when I would take him on walks (so to speak) on Sunday afternoons, we stopped in Tompkins Square Park only to watch the dogs cavort in the big-dog run. When Will got to be old enough for playgrounds (or, it may have been, a little before that), I always took him to the big one along Avenue A. If nothing else, he was always invigorated by the challenge of watching other (bigger) kids do things. Plucking two nicknames from the bouquet of Burgundian sobriquets, I would say that Will is bold (hardi) without being rash (téméraire). Forethought precedes the plunge. Yesterday, for example there was a bit of playground furniture that he was not quite ready to try. It was in the medium-sized playground, the one that I’d never taken him to.

We went because he chose it. We had been parked near the drummers, five or six men with waist-high drums, sitting in a tight row on the east side of the park. We could hear them before we even crossed Avenue B, but you wouldn’t say, up close, that they were very loud. The drummers were all well into middle age, and their beats had an easygoing, Sunday-afternoon feel. Every now and then, a man or a woman or a couple would stand up in the the walkway and do a very minimal two-step, more suggestion than actual dance. When I unhooked Will from the stroller, he walked right into the middle of the drumming and the dancing, and I scurried to retrieve him lest he keep on going. The second time I gave him his freedom, he turned in the other way, toward the intermediate playground, which was right there. The entrance at that end was locked, so we had to walk round, retracing our steps toward Avenue B. The three of us brought the crowd in this playground up short of ten.

I hadn’t noticed on my 2010 visit that this playground is fitted out, basically, with one large construction, a very stout affair of planks and girders. There are ladders and slides, too, of course, but basically what you have is a multi-level parapet that bows in a gentle arc, so that kids can mount it at one end and charge along to the other. One of the modules in this parapet is a chain bridge, constructed of linked planks that wobbles when it is crossed. It doesn’t wobble very much; only the most hysterically anxious parents are going to worry that their little angels might come to grief on it. But it moves enough for Will to raise his eyebrows. Kathleen and I, standing alongside the parapet, used our hands to demonstrate the gentle undulations of the planks. I wish I’d taken a picture of Will trying to do the same, leaning at the very edge and pressing the nearest plank with one finger. Whether it was the failure of this test to generate any motion at all that decided Will against further experiments with his pedal extremities, or some other reservation, we will never know. Soon enough, I’m sure, he’ll run across the chain bridge, thrilled by its answering back with running of its own. But not yet. Not yesterday, anyway.

Another image that I wish I’d captured is Will’s way of swigging milk. He tosses his head back so that the bottle is almost completely vertical. He makes me think of an ecstatic trumpet player — or perhaps a trumpeter on a bender. He liked having the bottle nearby, yesterday, and sometimes he insisted on clutching it even though it hampered his acrobatics. Some choices are very hard.