I must be nostalgic. Both of my novels are set in the early 90s. A time when media was a mix of radio, music videos and a handful of decent cable channels. Personal communication mostly took place face to face, through letters or our parents' telephone lines. Video games were still played in arcades. Adage aside, it was a simpler time. I regularly miss those days, but lately, I've been longing for a time even further back. Back to the 70s of my childhood. I don't so much miss the mass culture of that decade, of disco and Kiss and spray-painted cities, as I do the halcyon days of freedom and adventure I'd enjoyed as a child in those years.
I lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood in a fledgling upper-middle class town in the ramparts north of New York City. It was mostly kids from parents who had grown up in the Bronx or upper Manhattan who had escaped the collapsing city for the promise of flourishing suburbia. We were first-generation suburbanites before suburbia was synonymous with success.
Our neighborhood was especially devoid of such status. We lived on a dead end, in a small section of town cordoned off on three sides, respectively, by railroad tracks, an electrical plant, and an active gulley that ran parallel to the elementary school and its vast fields, with hills beyond that and a cookie factory in the distance that filled our skies with the sickly-sweet scent of processed sugar and dough.
A grab-bag of kids from mixed ethnicities and races met at the dead end each day. And together we mined our surroundings for all the adventure they could offer. We hopped trains and chucked rocks at electrical towers. We explored the gulley and ventured deep into its drainage pipes. We played ball in the fields and the school's courts. We raced bikes, and each other, through the untamed hills. We jumped fences and used the yards of unknowing neighbors (especially those with pools). We nipped from stolen liquor bottles in our hidden fortresses of tree houses and abandoned railroad cars. We played manhunt deep into the night.
No one envied our existence, but we were free. I left the house after breakfast, returned for lunch, most days, and only came home for dinner after my father had called my name about four times. And during those days, I'd usually done spectacular things, things my parents never asked about or could even fathom. But I had lived. I'd played baseball games of countless innings or basketball games lost of any score-count, without the interference of umpires or coaches; I'd leapt over rushing waters and scaled up to perilous tree tops; I'd negotiated disagreements or fought it out when those negotiations failed. I'd run like a wild man alongside trains or from pissed-off adults whom we had run afoul. I'd hidden in secret places, shivering with the fear of being caught by dangerous older kids we'd sufficiently annoyed. How I washed it all off before bed time, I have no idea.
I never forgot those days, but I'd never truly missed them. Until now. I miss them now because my kids don't have that freedom. They are rarely out of my sight (or the sight of someone responsible). They are not allowed out on their own. Their activities are organized. Everyone gets a trophy. No one gets offended. No one takes a risk. No one's allowed to fight it out. Their existence, I fear, is too precious. Too dear. My 10 year old is worried about her standardized test scores. And her extra-curricular activities. About getting into middle school. She doesn't know the joy of tenuous independence. It's not her fault. She wants to go out on her own, but we won't let her. Too dangerous. That's the world these days. It's probably better (you should see how some of the kids I grew up with turned out), but, still, it makes me wonder...and it makes me nostalgic for the 70s of my childhood.