The Great Lawn

The crowd at the playground at 85th and Central Park West is about half nannies, half mommies, with the nannies up by a woman or two. There are Thai nannies, Indian nannies, Caribbean nannies, Dominican nannies, post-collegiate American nannies, matronly nannies. Some of the nannies are like mommies, wiping noses, feeding Cheerios one by one, some are like office workers, watching an invisible clock.

Out on the Great Lawn, nannies self-segregate by native language, forming little cloches, the adult faces all Asian or African or South American, the children all white. A quick scan of the greater weeping willow tree area reveals at least a dozen $700 strollers. A year’s rent in strollers, I’m thinking, a big score for the stroller thieves of Central Park.

Young mothers aggressively push the strollers, diamond rings flashing, t-shirts expensive. Their bodies betray no aftereffects of childbearing, taut with wealth if not with youth. Glossy private school girls, anorexic and voluptuous at the same time, talking on cell phones, cottony-clean private school boys, shirtless, swaggering. Older dads, making enough dough to be in the park at 4:00 on a Monday, embodying the joys of fatherhood at fifty.

There is, as always, a significant percentage of twins, and I marvel again at the oddity of a population so wealthy and specific that they conceive their babies at will in test tubes in a buy-one-get-one-free format. Do the double strollers cost $1400, or is there a discount on those, too?

An inordinate number of little boys wear polo shirts and it is not hard to imagine their steady march toward financial adulthood. It is not a meaningless act, I think, to put a collared shirt on a young child. The absent parents of the Upper West Side, ensconced downtown multiplying their mutual funds, must know at some level what they do when they collar their toddlers. It’s the yoke of economic expectation, locked firmly around the kid’s chubby neck. Let the children wear t-shirts!, I think. Let the children be children!

A boy fails to gain possession of a soccer ball from a bigger boy and erupts in tears. His mom scoops him up, kisses his cheeks, croons, “I’ll play with you.” The kid who kept the ball away now offers it, chagrined, but the crying boy throws it on the ground, “I don’t want it now,” he sobs. A determined mother hustles her kid along the path, dragging him by the arm. “Lately,” he says, “I’ve been eating my lunch.”

Older brothers terrorize younger ones in symbolically pregnant games of catch. Impatient fathers try to improve the younger brothers’ techniques, they squirm and cry and continue to throw (I hate this expression, but it is evocative) like girls. The older brothers’ throws are dead-on perfect and just a little too viciously hard and the younger brothers bobble them. The older brothers roll their eyes and kick the grass. The younger brothers’ throws are a mockery, they fall short, or go long, or lob high and weak, and the older brothers make showy catches with the sadism that hides in every older sibling. The younger brothers scramble, puppyish, and even as they are made to suffer they grow in some cruel way, pulled a little bit beyond their limits by this enemy and friend who wears the bigger replica Yankee jersey, sleeps in the bigger bedroom.

Baseball teams take the field, clouds of dust, the bellows of serious coaching. Track teams hustle by, gaggles of barely pubescent girls, their adipose tissue rearranging itself by the minute, and coltish boys, so spare, the ones who run. Older girls, the real stars of some prestigious high school, streak by in lockstep, their bodies Olympian, their legs dotted with the prevention or aftermath of serious injury, stretchy, black braces of varying sizes and high-tech polymers.

I am hit between the shoulder blades, hard, and the wind goes out of me. As the impact recedes I realize by sound and smell that it was only a tennis ball gone wayward from the nearby fraternal battle. “Tell the lady you’re sorry,” shouts the dad.

“Sorry,” says Older Brother, rolling his eyes.

“Sorry,” says Younger Brother, panting up alongside Older Brother and imitating his eye roll.

“S’okay,” I mumble, and continue reading my book, digging a stick absently in the grass.

A few minutes later, a really little kid pushing a toy baby stroller stumbles up to me and bumps it into my legs.

“Tell the lady you’re sorry, Maxie.” says his dad.

I smile at the kid, encouragingly, forgivingly.

The kid stares blankly back at me, crouches down, picks up a handful of wood chips and brings it meditatively to his mouth.

“Don’t eat dirt, Maxie,” says the dad.

The way Max is crouched down reminds me of one of my all-time favorite quirks of little kids, which is that if you crouch down to meet them at eye level they crouch down, too, as if they just don’t get it that they’re little. Almost all little kids do it, and it cracks me up.

The kid looks at me, totally defocusing now. The wood chips fall from his fingers. He has that great stare of the preverbal, the way they look at you free from assumption or connotation, their expression saying something between, “huh,” and “who or what the hell are you?”

I put down my book. I look back.

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