It’s weird how a neighborhood can feel so different from one block to the next. Sometimes it’s the houses — how far they’re set back from the street or how close they are to one another. Sometimes it’s the block’s proximity to a restaurant/bar or major traffic light/intersection. Maybe there’s a church on the corner. Or a school. Perhaps it’s new trees planted next to the sidewalks, or towering old ones uprooting them. Every street has a different vibe.
Our block has a bunch of kids. That’s our vibe.
Most of the kids I see every day are the early elementary and pre-school kids. They ask for pushes on swings, like to play “school,” and cry. Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s also a lot of fighting and tattling.
The older kids — I assume — are indoors on their phones, playing Xbox, or watering down the bourbon. I don’t really see the older kids except in the morning when they’re walking to school. Or at the summer block party when it’s dark and... Wait, who are those people over there in the shadows?
Two days ago, a few of the older elementary school kids discovered our tree swing, a 50-foot yellow nylon rope attached to a thick branch that plumbs right to the middle of our back yard. They also figured out that by climbing over the rail of our back porch, they can stand on the other side and use it as a launch pad — like something you might see while drinking Mountain Dew. Or what is it now, Red Bull?
It’s only a six-foot drop from the back porch to the ground, but a foot caught here, a head landing there — it’s just a matter of time before there are stitches, casts, and lawsuits. Plus the return swing — in which they repeatedly repel off the rail. Painting and carpentry are not part of my skillset.
“Hey,” I said coming out to the back porch, whereupon each kid froze like a cat on a kitchen counter right before its owner reaches for the spray bottle. “Uh, um, how can I put this? No.”
The frozen children blinked as I burned the image of UNCOOL DAD into their brains.
The girl on the ground next to the tree managed to come out of her trance.
“Well, no one has hurt themselves yet.”
She was sincere with big eyes and a sweet smile. I understood. I’ve used that one many times myself. A classic. And knock on wood, I don’t have any stitches. But I do have a crooked scar that runs along the inside of my thumb. Of course, it’s been so long you can hardly see it. Damn, I’m old.
“Ah,” I said. “That’s great, and you make a very good point, but let me stop you right there and emphasize the word ‘yet’ — your word, not mine. ‘Yet’ suggests there will be a time in which we can’t use the word ‘yet’. Am I right?”
The girl holding the rope standing on the other side of rail (still frozen) cracked a smile. She was picking up what I was putting down.
“It’s so much fun, though,” continued the girl down by the tree.
“Yes,” I said. “I know. And I think it’s great you’re all here playing together and everything, but no jumping off the porch, ok? It’s me. I just don’t want to deal with all the broken bones, busted brains, and buckets of blood.”
“Can we go in a circle?”
“Sure, just take turns and don’t kick the porch.”
Whether it was my dadding or that it was nearing dinner time, the kids soon disappeared.
Which bring us to yesterday, in which we were finishing dinner. I moved to the comfy chair on the far side of the family room and looked out the back window. I saw the rope moving. It’s been windy. Maybe it was just the wind. Except the rope suddenly sprang taut, as if our house was a boat and we were out fishing for children and we had just caught one. I looked over to Pam.
“I think our tree swing has kids in it.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that,” she said. Which means she probably did.
“I’ll take care of it,” I said getting up.
I went out to the back porch. Two boys were playing on the swing. One younger, one older. I think they were brothers from up the street. I stood at the top and watched them. My presence had no presence. Maybe I was cool. “Chill.” Only I wasn’t.
“Hey guys,” I said descending the steps and getting their attention. “Uh, I think it’s great you enjoy the swing and everything, but it’s a little weird that it’s getting kinda late and you guys are out here playing while my kids are inside and will soon be getting ready for bed. You know what I mean?”
The boys were silent.
“Let’s see,” I said thinking how to say the same thing but just a little differently. “It’s weird when I look outside and it’s late and I see kids playing in my backyard who aren’t my kids. I mean it’s kinda weird. Am I being clear?”
“Yes,” said the older one.
I didn’t give them a look or make any kind of gesture. I didn’t want them to feel bad. I just wanted them to recognize that unless they were part of my family, or involved in some kind of sleepover, this was not where APPROPRIATE, EVENING, and FUN intersected on the Venn diagram. So I just continued my way around the house to get the hose to water the plants out front. But I could hear them behind me scurry away. Although the younger one came back on his scooter, parked himself out front, and watched me water the plants. I smiled at him and he scooted away.
I’m fine being the UNCOOL DAD. So I won’t be the one asked for cigarettes and beer outside the 7-Eleven — I’m ok with that.