Playground Man

Ilana Masad


The playground near Coolidge Corner isn’t what it used to be. When I was a kid, you could count on the concrete being solid under your feet when you were messing around in city playgrounds, but now they’re all covered by this strange, dark-green foamy business that gives a little when you walk on it. Today’s little ones are learning that they can always bounce back from any fall. That’s great. But they don’t learn that hitting the ground can hurt. What kind of lesson is that?

The rest of the playground is pretty generic. There’s a big structure, all painted in primary colors. It has one of those tunnel-bridge things that are made of metal with evenly spaced, bullet-round holes throughout. Considerate of whoever designed the thing, I guess – making sure that there’s a way for the kids to see out and the parents to see in. Maybe whoever thought up that bridge was scared of enclosed spaces. I don’t know, all it makes me think of is spitballs. If they were still the fashion, a kid could poke a straw through those holes, nice and easy, and blow missiles of spit and paper at everyone. Catch a kid doing anything like that today, though, and everyone starts talking very seriously about how he could have taken someone's eye out. Then they take the kid to a doctor, put him on meds, get him to quiet down.

There’s a really big ladder farther along the structure, where teenagers hang around late at night. They smoke dope that smells like the skunk family that once lived in the bushes under my window. When the cops’ blue flashing lights go by and make Vegas come alive on my bedroom ceiling, the teens run away, laughing.

They don’t wake me up because I don’t really sleep.

The reason the whole structure exists though – and if you ask me, the reason most kids still come to playgrounds at all – is the big, twisty tube slide. That slide, it's always yellow, always been yellow ever since they stopped making them out of metal and started making them out of plastic. There are two turns in that slide, tight ones, and I wonder whether they take you by surprise every time or whether the kids know those turns like a pilot knows his wingspan.

Trouble is the kids at my playground hardly ever go in there now. Inside it's all sticky, and it smells bad. The teenagers always throw their smoked-out cigarettes in there, just to stink it up worse. So these little kids, bundled up in the winter and looking like muffins, come play in March when the sun's peeping out and they slide down and get stuck halfway. You can see and hear their little hands banging against the sides of the slide, pushing themselves down. They never panic, though, which blows me away, every time. Even the ‘fradiest, scaredest, littlest kid who cries when he comes out the bottom and goes "thump" on the ground – even that kid never shouts inside the slide. It's like they're all still young enough to remember that it's no good trying to get help when you're stuck bang in the middle like that, in between spaces. You’ve got to wait till you're all the way outside in the air, or else give up before you get in at the top. Some of them do, they give up and go back down the ladder, but not too many.

There's also a swing set there. Sure there is, what’s a playground without swings, right? I love swinging, even now, when my joints hurt like boiled chicken and my mouth smells like stale milk and my skin fits me like my Bar Mitzvah suit did – too loose, already stained, embarrassing. I keep seeing these ads on TV about how there's this or that medication that's supposed to fix these things, but when I was a kid, old people looked pretty much like I do now, so I figure I'm doing okay. I don't feel great, but that's alright too. I don't think anybody who was born between two world wars should be feeling that great.

The other day, when I was standing in line at the supermarket, I saw this scary picture on the cover of a magazine. A woman my own age who still runs marathons. She had her tummy showing and she was all brown, just like me, because nobody told us when we were little that the sun wasn’t good for you. She had these muscles, big ones, that she was showing off. The teeth she was smiling with, though? Those weren't hers, and I don't care what anyone else says. They were too white, too perfect. I have pretty good teeth too, but even mine don't look as great as hers did. Sure, she might be happy, but she's not going to be mistaken for a spring chicken anytime soon. Her skin was old, anybody with eyes could see that, even in the picture. She had what my mother called old-furniture stains. It’s true. You get old, you show some wear and tear, it’s only natural.

Anyway, the swings in the playground are where I sit. Getting shorter has good sides too. Suddenly, those low swings, down close to the ground for the stubby-legged kids, they don't seem as hard to use anymore. They're just right for my bent old legs these days. I can still swing with the best of them.

Not that I do. I'm not an idiot. I'd never sit down next to a little kid and begin pumping my legs like it was normal, okay, just fine. Sure, Boston may be full of young people who think they're weird and liberal and accepting and all that jazz. But every generation is exactly the same in the end. I've seen it. I've lived here long enough to see the youngsters grow up – the hippies and the punks and whatever they called them in the nineties. All of them are into that “free love” crap until they become parents. Then they're just like their own folks and their folks and theirs before them. They bring their kids to the playground and watch them with mama-bear eyes. They kiss every boo-boo, and they go nuts at other parents and go on about how everyone else needs to control their brats. It’s like the minute they pop their kids out, they get brain freeze for life and can never enjoy ice cream again or something.

Alright, some are a bit better than others, I guess. Some realize that kids need to play rough and that getting dirty won’t kill them. Some get that a scratch or bruise isn't always the end of the world. Some of them even remember being kids themselves. But I don’t know. When I was kid there just wouldn’t be anyone there to get worried when we found a dead rat and ran around with it, holding it by the tail, screaming at the top of our lungs.

But even the most relaxed and reasonable parents these days wouldn’t let their kids play with a strange man. The older you are, the worse it is. As if every man who likes kids is a sicko who really… you know… really likes kids. I stopped trying to explain a long time ago. I just made it worse, trying to get the words out about how kids just make me glad is all – their curiosity, their silliness, all that stuff.

It’s okay, though. Like I said, now I barely sleep at night, and so I sleep when it's daytime and I can let the sunlight in. Then I can also hear the kids laughing and screaming at the school and I know that the world is still turning, a key in a lock that doesn’t open anything besides itself, over and over again, and I feel alright and I can go to sleep. And at night I watch infomercials for things I don't want or need. I keep meaning to get the cable people out to fix me up with some better channels, but I always forget, between one thing and another.

By early morning, three-thirty or so, the teenagers are usually gone from the playground, and that's when I take my turn at the swings. I go there, layered real well because I get cold easier these days, and I love it. It's so quiet, but the lights are always on, those bright orange lights that remind me of the time between the two big wars, when I was a kid.

First thing I do is, I walk through the playground and I pick up after the people who were there before me. Sure, there are street cleaners whose job it is, but they come later in the morning or in the afternoon and they don't really do a good job. I tried calling the city council to complain, but the people on the phone got just as suspicious as parents always do. What's an old man doing, calling up and asking about whether the slides and swings and benches are clean enough, huh? So I called again and pretended to be a father, but the guy recognized my voice and called me a geezer and hung up. I guess I should have waited a while and tried again, but I don't mind cleaning up. It's good for my back, keeping it limber, all the bending and moving. I mostly try to clean up the inside of the yellow slide, the bit that I can reach when I sit on it and lean in.

There's also the sandbox, but I don't go near that, because cats always play around there at night, and cats and I – we don't suit one another. They don't like me and I don't like them. Never have and never will. Back when I was a kid, it was still funny to tie cans to their tails and see them run around and around, trying to get them off. Nobody told us it wasn't okay to do that, and even though it made me a little nervous, and I always wanted to do something else, like play soldiers, well, I guess the cats remember me. They know that I kept quiet, that I was complicit in my friends' crimes. I think that makes me worse in their eyes than the ones who actually held them down and tied the strings

The area near the swings, though, that's another place the teenagers like to be. They drink beer there and leave their bottles and cans all over the place. The worst is when they break the bottles and then I have to go home and get my broom. The green glass blends in with the springy dark green foam and it’s hard to make sure I’ve got it all. I’m always worrying that I’ll hear some kid screaming next day, stepping barefoot on a piece of dirty glass. Usually, though, I just pick up the bottles and the cans and the cigarette butts and the little paper ends of their joints that are called “roaches” I think and I throw everything away in the garbage cans on the edges of the playground. I can't do anything when they do bigger stuff, like spray painting cuss-words on the benches, but I do what I can.

When I'm done with all that, the sun is usually about to come up, because I move slowly. That's when I sit down on my favorite swing, the one in the middle. It used to be a tire swing, and then it was a black leather band between two chains that got real hot during the summer, and now it's a blue plastic seat with little bubbles on it, maybe to help kids keep their seat without slipping. It hurts my skinny old rump to sit on it, but it's worth it.

See, swinging is the closest I'll ever get to flying again. I move my legs real slow at first, and use my upper body too, to get the momentum going. When there's some space to move my legs more and stretch them out a little bit farther it gets easier, and that's when I feel my whole body beginning to defy gravity just a little bit. With the up-and-down motion of swinging, the physics of it, your body is being pulled towards the center of your arc, so really, you're managing to work against the earth's pull because your motion is heaving you up, to the center of the top bar above you. It's the cheapest freedom there ever was, that feeling.

I swing until I can't anymore. Until my arms start to hurt and my back feels like someone's putting a haystack on it and my head begins to feel so close to my neck that It's like I'm some wrinkly turtle in a shell. I don't make myself stop with my feet, though. I let it happen and I wait it out. Like landing, it sometimes takes a long, long time.

When I finally stop, I always feel a bit dizzy, just like I used to when I got off my plane, and for a minute I even hear the buzz of the engines, but it's just my blood rushing in my ears, nothing else.

It's about six in the morning by this point and sometimes there's a person or two who sees me sitting on the swing. Mostly, people out at that time are hurrying.

Once in a while I see someone really looking at me, even watching me, and I wonder what they see. A pervert, an old kiddie-snatcher, a homeless bum, or a sad sap who has nothing better to do with his time. I don't relish any of those versions, but there you have it.


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Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Printer's Row, Hobart, Hypertext Magazine, Specter, and more. She is the founder of The Other Stories, a podcast that makes it a bit easier for new, emerging, and struggling writers to be heard. You can find her tweeting too much @ilanaslightly.