Of Traffic and Tee Times: The Grace of Unexpected Community
The things you do for your children. Or rather, the things you unwittingly do for yourself.
It was an early autumn Thursday afternoon, four days after the ten-year anniversary of September 11, 4:25 p.m. If we didn't leave the house right then, we were never going to get to my seven-year-old son's inaugural golf lesson at the East Potomac Park course, where a Washington, DC-wide "golf and leadership skills" enrichment program was set to take place in thirty-five minutes.
It wasn't going to be Alex's first introduction to the sport: He had already been doing Saturday morning lessons since the spring -- his choice, after he decided he wasn't interested in playing machine-pitch baseball or soccer, at a ragtag community center near our house. He had spent all summer receiving coaching from a courtly-mannered teacher, an older gentleman who was unfailingly patient yet wry -- like a Buddhist monastic in immaculate white shoes.
But then we heard about the program at East Potomac Park. Some ten times bigger than our little neighborhood outfit, this one promised more fast-paced instruction, tournaments and skill-building games, and a gaggle of twenty-something coaches to help out. Plus, the program was free.
So we decided we would keep on doing the neighborhood golf program and just "add in" East Potomac Park on Thursday afternoons. The problem with "just adding in" East Potomac Park on Thursdays, though, is that it would require me to drive across the most crowded part of the city, and back, at the very crescendo of rush hour, in my 1998 Honda Accord, with the seven-year-old and the two-year-old in the back of the car.
It couldn't be that bad, could it? I thought -- the classic miscalculation of the over-scheduled parent. It's just once a week.
Oh yes it could. Minutes after leaving the house, we ran into what can only be described as an epic traffic jam: The city was experiencing its first misty gray fall rain, which meant a surfeit of dumbass (sorry, Mama) Washington drivers changing lanes too swiftly and crashing into one another. I abandoned classical music on the radio for the frenetic compression of all-news WTOP.
It took us a solid hour to travel six miles down New York Avenue, then another thirty minutes to get through the 3rd Street tunnel. The children were thirsty. More than once I considered turning around and heading home, though by that point it would have taken just as long to get home as to get where we were going.
And all along the way I rehearsed to myself the arguments of the Free Range Kids / Last Child in the Woods crowd. My husband and I like to think we have a mellow style of child rearing, more focused on moral development and kindness than in developing the "Super People" described in James Atlas' essay in the October 2 New York Times.
I was becoming the stereotype I decried -- schlepping children to lessons at the great cost of time and calm. Couldn't they just run around outside the house?
It was almost dusk when our tired little family got out of the car and arrived at the East Potomac Course at Hains Point. But it is not an exaggeration to say we were unprepared by what we found: a vast and gorgeous expanse of green, just yards across the Potomac River from Reagan National Airport.
On the edge of it all was a columned stucco clubhouse I later found out was built as a tea house in the 1920s -- in a time when public park projects could be grand and gorgeous. Still pretty early on a weekday, folks who'd played hooky from work were enjoying a beer and fries on the portico.
Once we found them, Alex was immediately absorbed into the group of young golf players from all over the city: rich kids with long skater-cuts wearing sweatshirts from private schools such as the National Cathedral School and Gonzaga, alongside those of us from more modest backgrounds, and some who clearly came from very little at all.
It's a preoccupation of mine: the opportunity, in these stratified times, for children to mingle with others not of their economic or social class. "Why are you so obsessed with this stuff?" my older brother, the stockbroker, has asked me.
Because it gives the poor children the possibility of new worlds, and the rich children the gift of being humble.
Here, in this island park in the middle of the city, the social contract -- the one that my G.I. Bill parents believed in passionately -- was still intact.
Alex stood under the covered awning of the driving range and putted with his new friend, while flights landed and took off above, rising and descending across the great expanse of sky. It was impossible not to think of September 11 then, the three weeks when National Airport was closed, all of us fearing that it would never re-open -- too unguarded, too close to the city in these dark charged times.
And yet ten years later, here we were.
There was a moment where I stood in the falling light holding my daughter on my hip, the drizzling wind blowing against my chilly legs, when I was suddenly filled with an emotion I couldn't quite name, one that was at the same time both nostalgic and wild with hope. I felt at home in this place, and wanted it to be mine, to be part of its motley collection.
Here, in the heart of this country's most-maligned city, you could find warmth. And community.
Afterwards, we repaired, shivering, to the snack bar, and ordered steaming cheeseburgers and fries -- the rich kids and their dad with the Blackberry; the African-American grandmother in a suit and heels (probably a Federal agency manager) raising her grandson all by herself; and my own family like a little ark, messy-haired children who kept carping loudly for another bag of Doritos.
I decided that it was worth it to make the schlep.
This post originally appeared in Image Journal, on Oct. 6, 2011.
Caroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland.