gamut (2006-27)

Forty years ago this month, I had a simple agenda, and it was the same every day. Get up. Put on some shorts and a T-shirt, and, if I could find them, maybe some shoes. Go outside.

After all, there wasn’t much to do inside. There weren’t computers, computer games, or IM, or videos. There was a TV, but it only had three channels, and in the daytime it was soap operas and game shows. Allen Ludden and Betty White and Kitty Carlisle and Gene Rayburn could kill the time if you were home sick in bed, but a healthy kid would never waste a precious half-hour of July sitting in front of a vacuum tube watching old folks chortle.

It was summer; you were a kid; therefore you were outside. It was a very simple principle. Moreover, you were in your neighborhood. Summer days were spent mostly within walking distance of home.

Gasoline may have been cheap, but it was understood that if you were under 16, you wouldn’t ever be driven anywhere unless it was somewhere that a licensed driver wanted to go, too. Before soccer leagues, kids never set agendas. If you went to a movie, it was a movie that somebody’s mom wanted to see; if you went to a pool, it was a pool where somebody’s mom had friends, and would sit in her bathing suit holding a thick paperback with the other moms.

There were sometimes swimming lessons, or YMCA day camp, but they were mostly short-term things. For the most part the days were unscheduled. Summer was mainly in your neighborhood, and outside, and that was fine. Some of it was spent on bikes; we’d get odometers and try to run them up. Hitting 20 miles in one ride was a goal, even if all 20 were always within one mile of your house. Some of it was spent in trees. A maple tree in our backyard had a comfortable crotch I called the Crow’s Nest, and I’d read comics and Hardy Boys books up there.

Mainly, however, summers were spent in vacant lots. My neighborhood held a rich variety of them, and each had its own personality and purpose. A vacant lot could be a gridiron, a battlefield, a jungle, a desert island, one of the stranger planets.

There were a couple of nice parks in my neighborhood. One had a tennis court and a slide and some monkey bars. My friends and I never went to parks. I don’t remember them ever being mentioned.

We were boys. We spent our summers in vacant lots. One was across the street, where, almost every day, boys played pickup football. It was a broad, flat field of short-cropped grass, marked off as a football field, and in the center was a big bare patch of red clay; many plays were executed in a cloud of dust.

I don’t know who owned the lot; there was a house adjacent to it, where an elderly crippled lady lived, and the word was that she owned the field. I was told she never left her room, and the only window in the room faced away from the field. She either tolerated the daily football, or perhaps didn’t know about it.

My friends thought I was lucky to live there, across from the ball field, but the fact is I didn’t care much. I didn’t like being told what to do, especially by other kids, and football is the most authoritarian of sports. And you don’t tend to like what you’re not good at. I was a skinny, absent-minded kid with precarious coordination; the only thing I could do half well was slip through the offensive line and get at the quarterback. Even that got tiresome.

I preferred the other vacant lots, the ones I could get lost in. There were plenty of them, and most of them were lush and extravagantly overgrown. One had a pile of rotting lumber, ruins of a house. One had old graves in it, inscribed with names like Absalom and Moses. One offered, back in the woods, a manhole cover that turned out to be an excellent secret entryway into the sewer.

My favorite vacant lot was at the end of our block, a deep depression we called the Valley. It may have been an ancient sinkhole, and in my memory the floor of it was deep below the street level, maybe 30 feet; you’d climb through dense undergrowth down into it. And down there, unseeable from any perspective from the street, was a forest. It has vines to swing on, and old hollow treetrunks you could climb inside.

We’d heard warnings that a kid had gone down there, and gotten bitten by a tick, and died of one of the horrible tick diseases. I pictured it happening immediately. A kid got bitten by a tick, dead right there on the spot, in the Valley. I wondered if they ever actually got him out, and always kept an eye out for skeletons.

It was a great place, but because it was invisible, other kids didn’t think about it much, or maybe avoided it because of the stories. I was often there alone.

Another vacant lot was swampy; another was a thicket so dense we could negotiate it only on hands and knees, never knowing for sure which way was out. We’d race through it like rats.

We felt entitled somehow. If a vacant lot didn’t have a house actually built on it, and a well-mown yard that proved people were living there, it was fair game. Some places we called “vacant lots” were probably just the neglected regions of people’s back yards.

The most popular vacant lot was a big clearing slowly being reclaimed by the woods around it. You could tell it had once been something else, but it was hard to tell exactly what: perhaps a formal garden to some other generation, a place where people in formal dress sipped illegal martinis in the dusk, but sometime later, but still long ago, it became a dumping spot for construction leftovers and garden waste, most of which had successfully evolved into mounds of loose dirt.

It was such an interesting area that I made a map of it on my roll-down windowshade at home. We called it 3-F, because we liked military code, and when my friends and I first encountered it, it featured three decaying forts of large tree limbs and scrap, built by kids unknown to us, or perhaps Confederates or Indians.

We operated on the legal principle that all you had to do to claim a piece of land was to mark it with wooden stakes with our initials on them. We didn’t always take that step when we were just playing, but we did take special care to stake out a piece of property before we actually built anything on it.

And we built all sorts of things, out of scrap lumber and galvanized tin, forts, treehouses, clubhouses, obstacle courses, booby traps, tunnels in the earth. Of all the things we built, tunnels seemed magical. You’d dig a deep trench, then lay it over with wood, two-by-twos with some plywood on top, say, then cover that with three or four inches of dirt. The swanky ones had a trap door of some sort. And you’d climb in, and be underground. If we did it right, it was pitch black.

The best part of having a tunnel was the descending into it. We would do that over and over. Sometimes we took down candles—”to make plans.” The only time I ever heard a kid express any enthusiasm for “making plans,” it was when he was underground, and I’m not sure any actual planning got done.

The fact is we never really knew what to do underground, except to dwell there, if briefly, feeling subversively subterranean, but on a humid day it was a cool relief.

The adults who owned the properties we modified to our specifications were either indulgent or oblivious. Their legal rights, and their existence, never occurred to us. If I ever thought of adults, it was of creatures overlarge and unnaturally quiet, moving around pointlessly from room to room inside a house.

I knew the vacant lots in my neighborhood, but it seemed like every neighborhood had its own vacant lot, or at least some jungly backyard never penetrated by anyone over 14. I knew the lots in both of my grandparents’ neighborhoods almost as well as I knew those in mine.

Vacant lots tend to bring out the club organizer in children, and to join ours you had to negotiate a block-long obstacle course within a certain amount of time. It included traversing thick bushes, balancing along the top of a concrete wall, climbing across a shed roof, scrambling over a fence with the help of a tree.

The entire course was along the property lines in the close-set backyards of about 20 houses. It never occurred to us that we didn’t own it. And I don’t remember anyone correcting us on that matter.

I’m not sure kids play in vacant lots anymore. I’ve read sportswriters bemoan the loss of sandlot ball as a reason for the decline of some sports in America. It may be bigger than that.

I’m not sure what changed, what killed the vacant-lot summer, but I can think of several suspects.

To be sure, there are probably fewer vacant lots these days.

Many of the vacant lots of my childhood are all developed now, with houses, betraying none of their old promise. Even the Valley was filled in, with hundreds of tons of clay. It astonished me that when it was all done, that complex jungle world, with the woodland glades and the hollow stumps and vines and legends of a long-dead boy, allowed room for only one plain house.

Modern subdivisions are planned more tightly, and people don’t let their backyards go to seed like they used to.

I wonder whether perhaps the concept of private property has become more sacred than it was 40 years ago. It was once understood that an overgrown lot was, more or less, public, and that kids were going to play on it.

But property owners may be addled about stories of cat sacrifices in black sabbaths; and they may have cause to worry more about liability these days. Near our house today is a vacant lot, what was once a private home, now razed, the property apparently the subject of some lengthy legal dispute. In the ‘60s, it would have been a vacant lot. Today, it has a tall fence around it, and stern warnings.

And parents anxious about the faces on milk cartons and in the 1040 booklet are more protective of our kids now.

And it’s possible that kids’ interests have changed. There’s electronics, to begin with; the point of high technology seems to be to keep us all seated inside as long as possible, and definitely has succeeded with kids. Their heroes are also different.

When I was a kid the heroes were still folks we saw in movies on the “Early Show”: Tarzan, Robin Hood, Cochise, Captain Blood, Commando Cody, Roy Rogers, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Mowgli; all of them were easy to imagine trailblazing and crimefighting and swashbuckling through the mimosa and honeysuckle in a vacant lot around the corner. Modern heroes are slicker and richer and more technically complicated, and require different settings. Maybe it’s harder to go into a vacant lot and imagine you’re a cyborg, or a Laker, or a mutant, or a heavy-metal star, or a gangsta pimp. 

Is the loss of the vacant lot important? I don’t know. It once played a major role in the development of the American kid. The skills they’re learning inside, at a keyboard, may be more useful. In all our days spent in vacant lots, after all, we never learned how to type.

Maybe kids still do play in vacant lots. And like the dull adults long ago who spent all their days doing God knows what inside their houses, of all places, we just don’t know about it.