Included in the essay collection Reservoir: Tales from the Other Jersey, available for purchase on Amazon.com
Can it be true that I lived in Paradise once? Was that me, a wild boy, bare-chested, in cutoff jeans and sneakers, a sprite in perpetual motion, vaulting over rocky streams and scrambling up trees? Was that a throwing knife strapped to my sweaty ankle—the knife I ordered from the back of a magazine? Is it true that I spent entire days, dusk until dawn, tramping through woods and cornfields and meadows with my friends, without an adult in sight? Was I ever really that free?
Now that I am passing out of middle age, I find myself, in the few minutes before I finally sleep, wondering if the idyllic mental portrait of my childhood that I have long treasured can actually be real. I have had forty years to learn that memory is not a hard drive that records every digit and pixel with flawless accuracy. Our memories are fluid and productive. They can trick us. So I wonder, is it true that I spent so much time unsupervised? Is it possible that the world was ever thus?
In Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie describes the Neverland as a small island, “not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed.” My memories of childhood are similarly encapsulated. My island is in fact a town in Northwestern New Jersey that predates the Revolutionary War with two white church steeples rising out of the treetops and a gentle river curving through the center of it all, a town surrounded on all sides by an ocean of farmland. It is possible to google the location of this island, to map a course to it, and then drive there, but you will find only a placeholder—a very convincing one, a veritable replica of the place I once knew, but a placeholder still. The island I remember has vanished, moved on to another location or another child’s imagination perhaps, but fragments of it still live on in my memory, in vivid still lifes and twenty-second clips and delicate shimmers of feeling that evaporate almost as quickly as they pass through my mind.
Every story of my childhood that matters to me began on the front porch of the three-bedroom ranch house at 6 Busher Place on any given Saturday morning (and most summer days) in the mid-1970s. My life in that house was ruled by boring regularities and reliable rituals that accrued over a decade or more resulting in what can undeniably be called a “good childhood.” There were four children raised up from infancy in that house between 1965 and 1975; ten Christmases with a real tree each year and my Uncle Joe’s Lionel train set circling around the sap-beaded trunk, smelling of the oil we used on the tracks and chugging along past miniature houses, churches, and factory buildings; ten Easters with my sisters wearing pink dresses and me in a little suit and tie; three thousand dinners served at 6 p.m., the family sitting around the same dining room table.
For me, the action was outside. From the front porch, I would step forward into those few square miles of suburban neighborhood, woods, cornfields, and meadows that together formed my own “not large and sprawly” island. There were a thousand adventures, and whenever I summon memories of them, as I often do now, I can clearly see the trees and sky and water and the dozens of footpaths known only to the neighborhood boys and the hundred leafy alcoves we moved between. By the time we were ten years old, my friends and I were like the Yanomami of the Amazon who can map the location of every rock and tree stump for miles around. Here, in this enchanted land that was almost entirely devoid of adult supervision, I moved as easily as a light breeze through the treetops, growing from wobbly-legged toddler-dom into hairy adolescence. Here, I was tested. Here, I learned the alchemy of the semi-natural world. Here, I was transfigured into the creator, the destroyer, Pan and Artemis and the god of war, and then, back into a boy again before I walked through the back door just in time for dinner at 6 p.m.
My neighborhood stretched along a quarter-mile slope that rises gently uphill from Route 78 to the shores of Spruce Run Reservoir, a handful of streets dotted with new trees and ranch houses and bi-levels built on quarter-acre lots, all of this only recently terraformed from two-hundred-year-old farmland. The highway and the reservoir were new as well, both having been built in the five years prior to my family's arrival in 1965. Route 78 cut through the south end of town, six lanes of graceful superhighway sweeping eastwards from Pennsylvania headed towards New York City.
Most of the men in my neighborhood worked for big companies in the East like AT&T and Johnson and Johnson, and consequently, our collective gaze was trained eastward. There was a sense that we lived on the outer rim of a civilization, the absolute ground zero of which was Manhattan island. In the East lay a storied cosmopolis of museums and restaurants and subway stations; the World Trade Center and the Guggenheim; the Yankees the Mets Jets and Nets. We defined ourselves in the warm glow of this civilization. We were both a part of it, and not.
There were nightmares in the East as well—the ‘67 Newark Riots, the ‘77 blackout, The Son of Sam, and a thousand apocryphal stories of criminality that played out in the graffiti-scrawled subway station of our collective imagination. We reveled in these stories because they made us feel safe and superior as if we alone had discovered the secret to a secure life.
We barely ever turned to face west. The West was farm country, the Delaware River, and on the opposite shore of it, the mysterious land of Pennsylvania, which seemed to stretch on forever in rolling green hills and sad little left-behind towns that seemed barely to have poked themselves into the twentieth century. In my mind, the West was the province of hicks and horse farms. If you drove just a few miles west on Route 78, the country music stations and hellfire preachers began to fill the car radio speakers. On some nights, when weather conditions were just right, I could hear preachers on the handheld radio I would sometimes bring to bed with me. Under the covers, with the light from the tiny dial making my face glow in the darkness, I would listen to these voices.
“There’s only one person who can keep you from going to hell. It’s the naaaame of Jesus.”
“Judgement is coming, God be praised. He brought a great flood upon this earth. Geology confirms it. He destroyed the earth with waters once and said never again, but he will return and destroy it with fire.”
I tried to imagine what that would be like, the whole world consumed in flames. Trees and houses burning. Streets melting into gooey black rivers. Lakes boiling. Who were these rage-filled men with hypnotic voices that boomed out of those tinny radio speakers?
My parents moved to Clinton in the mid-1960s, at the tail end of that first generation of Americans to live in the suburbs. Many of the families in that neighborhood, including mine, still preserved some faint, fading memory of another country, culture, or language from grandparents or great grandparents who had immigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the last century. For me, this memory was little more than an echo wrapped inside of a Brooklyn accent and in the occasional snippets of Italian I overheard between my grandmother and her two sisters at the Easter dinners in New York where they would cook for two days straight—meatballs, and lasagna, and bragole, and zeppoles dripping with honey, and cake drizzled with anisette—all of it heavy and sweet and sweat-inducing. Afterward, after I had eaten too much because the old women were all urging “mangia, mangia” and piling more food on my plate, I would lie on the floor of my grandmother’s living room and doze off. My sisters and brother and cousins and I could feel the old country in those moments, a weight of obligation to remember and preserve something that was gradually evaporating, but that weight was carried mostly by our parents and grandparents, not by us. We were Americans, and sometimes, when we felt like making a point about it, we were Italian Americans.
No one knew how to live in the suburbs, so that first generation of suburbanites tried to replicate the cultural norms they had known in small rural towns and city blocks and West Virginia hollers. They were people who had experienced real community with all of its cramped, comforting, gossipy communalisms and carried it with them into their new suburban houses and neighborhoods. These people waved at you when they drove by and they weren’t afraid to shout across the street at you and your friends to stop hitting the wiffle ball into the door of the new Chevy station wagon parked there. On the walk home from school each day, one of the fathers in our neighborhood would wait for us to walk up the hill past his house and then hang out of his second-story living room window and call out to us by name, wearing a white t-shirt with a cigarette slanting from his fingers to call out to us each by name. You knew what the interiors of most of your neighbors’ houses were like—the rose-petal shape of the scented soaps in their bathrooms and the dustball that hung in the ceiling corner of the living room for three years. You knew every inch of their backyards, and if they had children, you knew what the inside of their cars smelled like.
There were children everywhere. Today, many kids in the suburbs are one of two, or the “only child” like my daughter, but in my neighborhood in the 70s, families were larger—four, five, six children. A family in our Church had nine children. Nearly every house in our neighborhood had kids. In winter, we were like an army bivouacked on that hillside, but in the summer months, we would leap into action, spilling through backyards, leaping into pools, and climbing trees. There were a handful of houses with fences and a few more that were off-limits because of dogs (some of them scarier than others) or a homeowner who staunchly advertised their dislike of children, but most adults had long ago yielded to this daily Children’s Crusade in their midst.
We played war incessantly. Every variety of toy gun was on display in the summer months—imitation M1 Carbines and M16s; wooden flintlock pistols; laser guns that made sci-fi death ray sizzling, crackling, electric shock noises; real BB guns; and six-shooter cap guns. There were plastic bazookas and flamethrowers and fake hand grenades and plastic pith helmets and squirt guns. War games were a mashup from every era of warfare that had ever been marketed to boys by the toy companies. Nerf crossbows against Viking battle axes. Stormtroopers firing blasters into Roman shields. Davy Crocket long rifle versus Robin Hood longbow. For us, the art of war was in deciding when and how to accept death at the hands of an adversary. When hit with a plastic arrow or Nerf dart, there was no arguing the outcome—you fell to the ground stone dead—but imaginary bullets and laser beams left much room for interpretation. Which, if any, of the bullets flying towards me from the barrel of a plastic Tommy gun would lay me low? It was my choice? When would I stiffen and groan and fall to the ground, writhing in agony? How would my death (soon to be followed by my miraculous resurrection) advance the storyline?
We blew things up. Some of the older boys had secret caches of cigarettes or marijuana, but we stashed fireworks. After the July 4th holiday had passed, we would hide the leftover firecrackers, bottle rockets, and M80s in a rail hole in the corner post of the cedar rail fence behind my house. We threw firecrackers at each other. We caught sunfish from DeMott's Pond and stuffed lit firecrackers into their mouths to see what would happen. We blew up rotten tree stumps with M80s. We lit sparklers and then pretended they were lightsabers, stabbing at each other until we all had red welts on our hands and arms. We built a fire at Cheetah Hill on the shores of Spruce Run Reservoir, pushed a can of Chef Boyardee into the flames and waited behind trees and rocks for it to explode. Ten minutes later, the can made a popping sound and blasted a shower of red and white goop ten feet into the air.
There were fights, two boys rolling in the dirt and punching and five minutes later, laughing as if nothing had happened, doing the play-by-play in our best Howard Cosell voices. There were bullies and bloody noses and black eyes, shoves, checks, slaps, tackles, nut punches, roundhouse kicks, pile-ons, wedgies, titty twisters, piledrivers, neck breakers, and chokeslams. We were poetry in motion, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” WWF, and Bruce Lee.
My own experience of parenting a ten-year-old daughter in the Atlanta suburbs might as well be happening on another planet. Children in this world are constantly supervised, their days parceled out into “activities,” which are a kind of cultural currency that accrues value all the way through childhood and adolescence to the college application process, where it can finally be cashed in for something of value. Childhood experiences are carefully crafted and curated by adults who intend them to be entirely safe and purposeful. Childhood itself has been over-designed, planned out, and evacuated of risk. We arrange playdates so we can hover nearby. We are expert watchers. In fact, I feel as though I live in a vast surveillance state overseen by parents, coaches, teachers, therapists, ballet instructors, senseis, doctors, youth ministers, au pairs, nannies, and dieticians. And I am periodically reminded by those giant electrified billboards over the highways or the alerts that now come buzzing directly into my phone via text message that if I look away for just a second, my child could be snatched by a 46-year-old white male driving a black 2001 Nissan Sentra.
Our young people are growing up inside of a vast cultural panopticon, always with eyes on them, or believing so. The panopticon was an ideal prison conceived by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was designed so that all of the cells were open to visual surveillance from a watchtower at the center of the prison, but the watchers were hidden, so the prisoners never knew when they were actually being watched. This threat of constant surveillance was supposed to inculcate good behavior in the prisoners. Our children are like this now, the model prisoners, and parents are the actual watchers, hovering in a dawn-to-dusk vigil to forestall the possibility of even the slightest injury, physical or psychological.
Having come late to parenthood (my daughter was born in 2011 when I was 46 years old), I was mostly oblivious to these profound changes to the day-to-day realities of parenting that occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. I first observed the panopticon in full force when I took my four-year-old trick-or-treating for the first time. I noticed immediately that no child under the age of thirteen was out that night without parents hovering nearby, standing on the sidewalk or in a car idling at the curb with a clear line of sight to their children. In this moment, I could see the army of watchers out in full force. Halloween in my neighborhood in the 1970s was one of the great annual rites of childhood independence. By age eight, we were already roaming the neighborhood on Halloween night in packs, without parental supervision. Halloween was also special because on the night before, October 30th, we celebrated something called “mischief night, which is a strange ritual that is particular to New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Eastern Pennsylvania. Mischief Night is a socially sanctioned night of anarchy in which suburban neighborhoods are beset by roving gangs of children and adolescents armed with rolls of toilet paper, cartons of eggs, and bars of soap.
Mischief Night is unthinkable where I live now. Halloween in the Atlanta Metro suburbs is staged for maximum order and consumer consumption. We drive around the neighborhoods in our part of Marietta and marvel at the conspicuous displays of the Halloween spirit. There is no danger of the lid coming off of anything. Anarchy is not on the menu anywhere. No one is soaping windows or egging houses or TPing trees and houses. Parents google for lists of allergy-free candies and blogs about how to avoid culturally offensive Halloween costumes. What was once the most exciting and subversive of American holidays is now corporatized and scrubbed free of edginess and the possibility of offense, like nearly everything else in our society.
The freedom of our shared childhood was a delicate thing that existed in a cultural ecosystem based on strong bonds of communal cohesion and sturdy immigrant parenting styles. Only now, after it has been snuffed out, do we realize what we have lost. This nostalgia is a common theme in my circle of friends and colleagues who are over the age of forty. We often share wistful stories of our unsupervised childhoods. We can hardly believe that this world ever existed. We discuss articles we’ve read about how children lack resilience. We wonder if the new “free-range parenting” trend will take hold. At the same time, we agree that we would never let our ten-year-old ride his bike to the town square alone, or many of the other things our parents allowed us to do.
No one actually ever voted on this new regime of parenting. There was no public debate or national referendum. The cultural noose tightened very gradually, and now the cult of over-parenting exists at the level of ideology, which is another way of saying that it is indistinguishable from common sense.
This new regime draws its power from fear. We have successfully injected our own collective fears into our children—fear of strangers; of peanuts, and gluten, and sugary drinks; of too much screen time and exposure to radiation from cell phones; of bee stings and ticks and mosquito-borne illnesses; of Ebola and West Nile Virus and birthing a baby with Zika-induced microcephaly; of skin cancer; of leukemia; of vaccines; of the wide world of allergies; of neighbors you don’t know well; of the entire sex offender registry but especially the ones who live four miles from your house because you can locate them with a special app on your phone; of crime in all of its forms, but especially forced entry and serial killer stalkers and rape; of cancer-causing agents; of Red Dye 40; of bullies and haters and fat shamers; of the melting ice sheets in Antarctica; of tornados; of terrorists and the superflu and the big rock out in the cold blackness of space that is destined to slam into our fragile planet one day. But the asteroid need not cross our path for that fragility to hobble us. Fear itself is enough.
These days, I daydream a lot, and my Neverland is never far away.
When I read Peter Pan for the first time, at age 12, I was struck by the arrival of Peter.
She [Mrs. Darling] dreamt that the Neverland had come too near and that a strange boy had broken through from it. He did not alarm her, for she thought she had seen him before in the faces of many women who have no children. Perhaps he is to be found in the faces of some mothers also. But in her dream he had rent the film that obscures the Neverland, and she saw Wendy and John and Michael peeping through the gap.
The Neverland is always in motion, and never far away, separated from our world by a thin, permeable barrier. How often I have felt this way about my childhood island, simultaneously doubting my recollections of it and then reaching through the gap that periodically opens to see it in all of its glorious detail?
I wonder, is it real? Did my mind create these delights?
Now that I have a young child, I wonder if the parents in my old neighborhood—my own parents—were negligent for allowing us to wander free for entire days at just nine and ten years old, out of the house by 9 a.m. and back home for dinner at 6 p.m.? Were they blissfully unaware of the dangers, or is this generation of parents guilty of neglecting the free-spirited wildness of youth, allowing our fears and neuroses to run wild while we obsess over the safety of our children? I do not have an answer, but I know for certain that I would not have wanted to be a child in this era. I feel this down in my gut. Give me freedom. Give me autonomy. Give me the feel of dirt running out under my feet and the smell of trees and the occasional taste of blood in my mouth.