May 5, 2014

Vacant Lots

When I was growing up it was not unusual to come home scratched up and dirty after playing in a vacant lot. There were vacant lots in every city I lived in, and they served as the meeting place for all the kids in the neighborhood. Depending on the city, they could be as small as one house or as big as a whole row of houses. Of course, the bigger, the better. If the vacant lot was a small one, it served as a town hall – we would meet there, gossip, and then argue about where to go and what to do. If the lot was a big one, it might serve as the entertainment itself, saving us a lot of time arguing.
In those days kids were smart. Before getting into a fight in the vacant lot, the meanest bully would tell his worst enemy, “Hey, stupid, watch out for that broken glass on the ground,” and they would go somewhere safer to fight it out. If some unlucky kid fell on broken glass and cut himself, we would all rush him home, and then he’d get screamed at, and usually cuffed pretty good by his mom and dad for being so stupid as to fall on broken glass, and we’d be right there watching the fireworks. But very few kids ever fell on glass. We watched out for ourselves.
But how did all that broken glass get in the vacant lot? Why, from kids throwing rocks at bottles, of course. And how did the old tires get there? Why, from dads and uncles cleaning out the garage, of course. And how did the old rusty metal get there, the washing machines, the old lawnmowers, the junk?  Well, for some people, the vacant lot served as a substitute for renting a trailer and going to the dump. Who knows how it all got there? But there was plenty of stuff to get hurt on – it was loads of fun.
One time I was exploring a vacant lot by myself. They had started to build a house there, and the foundation was already finished. There were hundreds of steel rods sticking up all over the place, and climbing around, I slipped and fell on one – got me right in the heart. Stunned, I got up, staggered home, lay down on my bed, and prepared to die. Never did that again. And never told my mom – I didn’t want to get hit.
If the vacant lot was a little bigger, the kids with bikes would scrape out a race track and race bikes around until someone fell down and hurt himself. Then everyone figured out it was a bad idea, and the racetrack reverted to its natural, weedy state, only to be re-scraped the following month. And a really big lot could serve as a baseball field, with special rules to accommodate the unique shape of the lot - any ball landing between that phone pole and that pile of tires, hit over the outfielder’s head is a triple.
In Utah there was one lot that was actually a gigantic field, with tumbleweeds and everything. Five or six of us took most of one summer digging a giant hole in that field, about fifteen feet across and five feet deep, which would ultimately get a roof, camouflaged with tumbleweeds, a secret tunnel entrance, and serve as our cave-clubhouse until the next winter’s snowfall collapsed the roof. I never worked so hard in my life digging that hole, it was a real blast.
In Berkeley there was an interesting configuration of two vacant lots, one on the downside of the hill and one immediately below on the upside of the hill on the street below. It was all weeds and too steep to play on, but there was one feature useful to kids – the shortcut. Ordinarily you’d have to walk pretty far to get down the hill to go buy candy at the store, but over time, kids had trodden a path from one street to the other through the two lots. It was not for the faint hearted. It took a good fifteen minutes to climb up the shortcut, and you hoped someone would see you make it to the top because it was a heroic deed – not everyone could do it. Going down the shortcut was more dangerous. You had to descend slowly on foot, sliding on the loose dirt. The brave kids would slide down on cardboard and fly off at the bottom. Never got that brave, myself.
In Oregon vacant lots were home to wild blackberry patches, some as big as a whole block. When word got out that berries were ripe, dozens of families hustled down to pick their fill. Besides carrying their soon-to-be-filled bowls and buckets, the old timers carried big pieces of cardboard and long boards, used to throw down and crawl into the inner sanctum of berry heaven where all the biggest ones were hiding. They didn’t talk much as they picked, concentrating on filling their own buckets.
No one ever mentioned the owners of these vacant lots. No one thought about it. It was free land, available to everyone in the neighborhood, like a little bit of wilderness. No owner ever came around to put up a fence to keep people out. There must have been an owner somewhere, but they were definitely absentee.
As the population grew, the subject of real estate rose to the surface. Nowadays people are much more knowledgeable, and freely discuss the finer points of mortgages, neighborhoods, contractors and points, having gone through the process of buying, selling, remodeling or refinancing several times.
Who knows? Yesterday’s vacant lot owner might have been a neighbor, who eventually sold the land at an enormous profit to finance his grandson’s future. And that grandson might be asking today, “Grandpa, how did you get that scar on your arm?”
“That? Oh, I got that falling on broken glass in a vacant lot when I was a kid about your age.”
“Grandpa, what’s a vacant lot?”

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