A HOLE IN THE FENCE
The Bronx in the late 50's and early 60's had much to offer a pre-teen boy with energy to burn. Aside from endless miles of sidewalks to ride one's bike on at the risk of being yelled at by old ladies sitting out, there were acres of asphalt paved and bordered and subdivided by chain link fence. We called it "the park," but there weren't any trees, there was no grass. The playground attached to Public School 121 was my place, my world. Just three short blocks from our brick twin house on Tenbroeck Avenue was a world where structure met exploration.
As the school buildings themselves were locked after class time, public school playgrounds also had scheduled operating hours. Each was staffed with someone we called "Parkie" whose job it was to dole out sports equipment and supervise the bathrooms. Parkie babysat the neighborhood and cleaned up the occasional but rare mess or spill. He was the local law with a set of keys as his only weapon. He was after school daycare while mom was home cooking dinner. The sign on the front entry gate in the fence was a classic: It read "NO Skating, NO Running, NO Jumping, NO Bike Riding, NO Ball Playing. This is YOUR playground, enjoy it!" Perhaps the wording isn't exact, but it's pretty darn close. It seemed to strangers that our playground was officially off limits to all fun. But unofficially it was the center of our social world. We had a blast!
Interior chain link fencing subdivided the whole place. Basketball courts and a towering concrete handball wall each had their own "room." Just inside the main gate was the playground itself. Here was the bathroom building with a place for Parkie to sit out of the sun and a room for the spongy red dodge balls and checkerboards that he gave out. Word would quickly spread through the neighborhood for blocks in every direction whenever Parkie would turn on the sprinkler fountain head that stood dry for most of its life in the center of a sea of blacktop. Such simple wet fun on a hot city day! A wading-pool sized depression ringed with cast iron fencing held a ton or two of sand to scoop and plow and dig. To the left was a bank of wooden see-saws next to an impossibly high--at least to a nine year old--ladder and slide. The "baby swings" were set off with a low chain link fence just beyond the stacked open cubes of the one-inch pipe monkey bars.
Then up a cement ramp into the next room were the real swings. Thick chains that could have come from the docks held up a fat, wooden slab form-fitted with stiff and tough aluminum. Those swings demanded a room of their own and they begged to be abused: stood upon, twisted and released, straddled and hit from side to side to side. And no where to be seen was anything rubber, soft, or shock absorbent. No colors at all other than the silver and gray of metal and concrete and the occasional blood-red of skinned knees.
By today's standards our playground could have been the most dangerous place for children ever built. Dozens of kids with not a cartoon character ride or blanket of soft mulch in sight spent hours each day happily running around. The only supervision--a lone male who had the keys to the bathrooms. And yet somehow both the playground and the kids survived the mutual abuse. Until one day someone cut a hole in the fence. A four foot rip in the chain link through which anyone could enter after hours. Parkie's locked gate was now useless. Repeated attempts at repair resulted in repeated breaches cut yet again. And eventually the City of New York gave in.
One night a crew came and squared up the hole in the fence making it a permanent shortcut entrance to the basketball courts. The main gate that stood locked after dark was now locked in the open position. After a time, broken beer bottle glass was found in the sandbox and it was emptied down to its cement floor. The benches that lined the play area where the occasional young mother sat watching her children run and play had their wooden slats carved deep with endless graffiti and were eventually dismantled. The hard aluminum swings were replaced by rubber slings that could neither be stood upon nor comfortably sat upon. Parkie's job was lost in a budget cut. The sign posted whose listed rules we loosely obeyed was obliterated with paint from a spray can.
That fence had kept the social order of the day. Its detailed, posted rules were the unseen boundaries that we all lived by and sometimes tested. It kept the structure that young people need as they explore their limits. But now, the happy and trusting world we knew was gone. There was a hole in the fence.