Today’s kids look at their iPhones, play action games on their XBoxes, chat with a hundred friends, and see what is new on social media – all from the comfort of their homes or the back seats of their moms’ SUVs.
When I was growing up, the playground was the center of our social media. It was where I met my friends to play basketball, tag football, and baseball (with one bat, a Spalding pink rubber ball, and no gloves). Games were played on hard black macadam topped with broken glass from soda bottles. After playing two or three full-court basketball games, coming off the playground with no scrapes, scratches, or blood on your sweat socks and Converse high tops meant you didn’t play hard enough. If the game was baseball, it meant you didn’t slide into any base, because you would have taken off a layer of skin under your jeans.
There we would talk about our sports heroes, TV, and what teacher we disliked in school. As we got older, someone brought a deck of pinochle cards and we played for hours. There were no drugs or booze; maybe a few guys smoked cigarettes. The only grass was on the front lawn of the park, where the old folks sat. Although we seldom had fights, if there was one, there were no guns or knives – just fists to settle the argument.
There were no child molesters in that park, because they knew we would run them out. If you had some change in your pocket, you could buy an ice-cold Coke or a Ring Ding at the corner candy store, which had everything you needed or wanted. You were respectful to the owner and the customers who walked in, because that was your corner and you didn’t want to get kicked off it. The customers were your friends’ fathers and mothers, some local politicians, or sometimes the priests from the church across the street. Police cars drove slowly by. The cops inside knew everyone from the park on the corner, so they would just nod their heads, and you knew they would be back if you caused any trouble.
At the end of the day, plans were made for the next day. If it was a Saturday, the altar boys talked about who was serving what mass the next day. Then it was home by 5:00 for a hot meal with your mom and dad and a night of TV shows, listening to a ball game on your transistor radio, or reading comic books. The bad boys made other plans that you just walked away from (and hoped you would see them the next day). We were not called a gang; we were friends growing up together on a playground and a corner.
I want to go back to that time and place and feel the innocence again. I want to experience what a new pair of sneakers felt like then. I want to joke with my friends and talk about the athletes who made barely more than our fathers. I want to go home sweaty, tired, bloody, hurting – but happy that I made a basket, hit a single, or scored a touchdown. I want to hear my mom say, “Did you play nice today?”
To all you parents: Get your kids out from behind their iPhones or computer screens. Take them to the park this summer so they can play in the sunlight and make real friends!