This afternoon—like nearly every afternoon after Jay wakes up from his nap, works out his crankiness, and agrees, finally, to let us put his sandals on—Caroline, the boys and I walked three blocks down Pine Street to quiet Fitler Square.
There are other parks in Philadelphia that offer better people watching (Rittenhouse) or amusements like swings and a sprinkler (Taney). Fitler’s offerings are understated: A bubbling fountain; a retiree in bloomers, the park’s gardener, who it’s said bites the heads off toddlers who tread among her begonias; a sense of remove from the hustle-bustle of the city and the din of apartment living.
The best part about Fitler Square, though, is that every time we go we see the same handful of families. There’s Shareena and Shaun, Molly and Davis, Katie and Owen, Rebecca and the other Owen, Claudine and Max. Everyone comes out to play at the same time each day, after naptime, when it’s not quite so hot anymore. By the time we arrived today they were all there, soccer balls, sidewalk chalk, pails and shovels strewn about.
None of the kids were particularly engaged, though, at least not with each other. Owen was playing tee ball with his mom. The other Owen was wandering around dragging a green plastic pail behind him. Max was off by himself filling a dump track with grass clippings.
The six toddlers, all born within months of each other (and most of them at the same city hospital), glanced off each other and then passed on, looking for something more fun to do. Jay picked up the soccer ball and dropped it. He took a half-hearted swipe at Max’s truck. He considered a stick of chalk but then thought better of it. Often we come to the park and it’s like this. I’m still stunned at a two-year-olds capacity for boredom.
In the two years since Jay was born I’ve probably spent a thousand hours at the parks around our house. For the first nine-months I went mostly for the company of other parents and because being outside soothed Jay. But once he began to cruise, the park opened up for him: He could make his way to toys that weren’t his and introduce himself to all the infants he’d spied for months from inside his Baby Bjorn.
But for all the hours I’ve spent watching tiny kids play, I haven’t figured out yet why sometimes they play together like puppies and other times they orbit each other like strangers.
I remember very clearly the first time Jay played euphorically with other kids. It was a rainy afternoon in March. We put on his rain boots and headed over to Rittenhouse to splash in the puddles. I saw a Ukrainian boy named Alexei who we knew from the previous Fall. He was running around screaming and his nanny told me, “He thinks he’s a dinosaur.”
Jay was scared but intrigued by the yelling and he followed Alexei at a short distance. Arms out at his side like a pterodactyl, Alexi stomped both feet in a puddle. Jay did the same. Alexei stomped again. Jay stomped back. Then they were off, running from puddle to puddle, splashing and screaming.
A prim girl named Masha came through the Square with her mom. She was wearing a black dress, white tights and ballet flats but her mom let her jump in the puddles anyway. Now there were three of them running about. The boys seemed compelled by the abandon with which this sweet little girl attacked the puddles. They jumped higher, screamed louder, sent dirty water flying through the air.
Standing off to the side, watching them play, my heart was beating almost as fast as Jay’s.
I retold this story to Caroline as we hung out in the park this afternoon. When I brought up his rain boots Caroline reminded me of the way Jay had reacted the first time we’d put them on him: He’d taken a few tentative steps, and then clutched the wall for support, and then fallen to the ground, refusing to get up until we took them off his feet.
While we were talking the tide turned in Fitler Square. I don’t know how it started, but I looked up and there were Jay and Shaun, making mounds of dirt at the base of a tree. Max came over with his grass clippings. Owen ditched his mom at the tee-ball stand. Just minutes ago none of the toddlers had seemed to know the others existed. Now they were deep in each other’s worlds.
“I make the orange cake,” Jay said to no one in particular, as he and two of the boys filled a bucket with dirt. They leaned on each other, poked each other with twigs, got dirt in each other’s hair, jockeyed for position around the dump truck, and looked every bit the way I imagine a den of baby groundhogs.
Afternoons in Fitler Square are not endless, though. By six o’clock Caroline and I began to think about how we’d cajole Jay into getting back on his trike to go home. One of the boys—Max, I think it was—got a stick in the eye and started crying. (Isn’t that always how it ends?). As Max’s nanny swept him away I broke the news to Jay: it was time to go home.
Jay looked at me for a moment, his plastic shovel paused mid-dump, like he couldn’t quite believe what I’d just said.
“Nooo Daddy, I want to play,” he whined.
Countless times each day I ask him to do something and he refuses. This was one occasion, though, where I was happy to hear him say no.