Almost Free

“Hey, watch your flutter. There could be danger in the air for us kids.”

“How about throwing the ball around? You want to?” I asked my four-year-old son on one of our first days in Los Angeles, where we’d come on holiday from Argentina to visit family in my childhood home.

“Yeah!” my son said.

“OK. Let’s play here in the backyard,” I said, pointing to the cement porch.

“No,” he said. “Out front.”

I thought for a moment. The street, cars, abduction. This is America. This is Los Angeles. This is Brentwood. This is Brentwood Glen. An upscale neighborhood that’s nothing but safe, really. But you never know with all those SUVs. They can race by. And, well, you never know, do you?

“How about here in the back?

“No, out front.”

“Hmm. Well, OK then. This way.”

We walked down the side of the house to the street and the big unknown. There was no sign of life on the street, only a scattering of shiny sports cars and never-been-offroading SUVs parked up and down the block.

Then a garage door opened at a house down the street and a man emerged.

We watched.

He pulled out a ladder and then returned inside again, to his tools, so it seemed.

Nobody else was around. No moving cars. Just my son and I. He bounced the ball and smiled. Boing, boing, boing. He stopped and the street went silent again except for constant hum of the 405 freeway. He bounced the ball again. Then he kicked it and there it went across the street and we watched it roll under a car and come to a stop in the gutter.

“Wait here,” I said.

I looked both ways and walked across the street and back again. No cars, no people, no kids.

The odd thing is that this is the very street of my childhood. My brothers and I and our friends – at least a couple dozen of them – would roam and explore these streets by day and by night. We owned this street and the others in the neighborhood, taking to them first on foot, then on Big Wheels, then on Chopper bicycles and then skateboards. We ruled. We had time on our hands and plans, many of them mischievous. We walked home from Brentwood Elementary, an hour’s journey at our pace, stopping to eat ice cream and chocolate bars from the supermarkets on San Vicente Blvd., not always paying for them, I must confess. We played tag in office buildings before getting chased away by security guards. We ran down the road, across busy streets and through graveyards and under bridges and across work yards with big metal pipes. We’d throw rocks and the workmen would shoo us away, big trucks chugging by. Up a little lane we went to our neighborhood for a game of football on a neighbor’s front lawn until the call came for dinner and then home.

Today the streets are silent. No children and no games of football or baseball or ding-dong ditch. I hear kids in the distance, their voices and yelps muffled by the walls of their own homes where they play in backyards or sit at game consoles or flip through TV channels, their parents too scared to let them roam free.

This can’t be, I thought. This must change. I will get my two other children out here and together we will play in the street. We’ll repopulate the driveways and front lawns and sidewalks and streets with kids playing and roaming.

With more determination, my son and I played with the ball, kicking and dribbling and laughing. My wife came out with the youngest and the one-year-old crawled down the driveway to the ball and us. That’s two kids. That’s a start.

Then it happened. A front door across the street opened and two children emerged, seven and nine years old, perhaps. My son watched as they swung on the front gate to their yard, back and forth. Friends, he must have thought. The father followed the girls and went through the gate. The girls followed him and the mother came out behind them, closing the gate. The mother looked over at us and then walked across the street. She stopped in the middle. This was it, I thought. She’d tell us what a brilliant idea it is to play out front. Can my girls join?

But no.

She asked if we could tell her who owned this white Isuzu Trooper parked in front of her house because it is poorly parked and the back bumper is protruding into her driveway. Such thoughtlessness has made it hard for her to maneuver her people carrier in and out of her drive. So if we could please tell the owner to be more considerate she’d be much obliged.

The mother and father and the two girls then piled into their people carrier and carefully maneuvered out of the driveway and drove down the street without even waving, the kids probably ferried off to an activity of sorts because the streets of our neighborhood have been deemed too dangerous or too limited in educational value for their aspiring kids.

So we were left to play alone, the only children laughing and chattering on the street. My son kicked the ball and it rolled under a parked car and he said, “Uh ho,” and then he went and got it and laughed and threw it again, maybe the first child to do in years, since my brothers and my friends and I roamed free.

Can we take back the streets?

I’m not sure.

So we went to the backyard to play.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • mwsully August 18, 2009, 8:24 pm


    You're spot on in making the distinction between past and present. I spent more time outside than in, doing the very same things you describe.

    It is, unfortunately, a sign of things to come–decreased trust, community and neighborhood.

    Good writing again,

    Michael Sullivan

  • Charles Newbery August 25, 2009, 3:05 pm


    Thanks for the comment. I hope the good times return to the streets of LA (and the rest of America). There still is some of it here, outside the big cities, in Argentina. My kids love it.

    Talk soon,

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