We were at the end of one of those summer nights that draw out endlessly with their laziness and warmth, until it feels like a secret is bound to come out. Four of us were gathered around a makeshift fire pit in a concrete driveway, watching its embers grow dim. That was when my neighbors admitted, quite by accident, that their real estate agent had advised them against buying the house that they now lived in—the house right next door to mine.
“Are you sure you wanna live next to that?” my neighbor, Jess, recalled her real estate agent asking. By “that,” he had meant our home, and more specifically the assortment of kiddie litter that peppers the front yard, contaminating the surrounding property values and perpetually embarrassing my landlord. It is a rotating mix of balls, bats, and rubber superheroes missing their heads.
It takes a very special type of person to answer that yes, they actually do want to live next to “that.” We could have missed out on knowing our neighbors—missed out on knowing our entire neighborhood, really—if we hadn’t been willing to let our front yard be an honest reflection of the chaos of our lives.
Whatever it means to “put on airs,” my husband and I are the opposite of that. (In fact, when I envision our family in our most natural habitat, we are radiating dirt, Pig-Pen style.) Our first apartment was a one-bedroom, wink-and-it’s-legal rental that did not have insulation or any kind of heating mechanism. When a mouse crawled through the stovetop while I was cooking dinner for a guest, I barely reacted. But when I became pregnant, the “quirks” of our place became untenable, and we had to burrow into the ’burbs to find a neighborhood we could afford.
Now we live in a two-bedroom apartment on Staten Island. In the beginning, living here felt like a moral violation of my ramshackle sensibilities. The lawns are preened, the shrubs are pruned. The holiday decor tends to reflect the season we are in—no celebratory window-clings left up from a month ago. People here also somehow intuit what day refuse will be collected, as if trash day is a regular and predictable occurence. It is probably the nicest place I have ever lived, which at first was strangely unnerving. It felt unnatural to bring children into such an alien world, and yet I did it twice, all the while accepting that we were just never going to fit in. I was a bohemian spirit exiled to the outer rim—or so I thought, until we got The Slide.
My yard’s main attraction is an old plastic slide my dad dug out of his neighbor’s garbage several years ago and gifted to me. It pairs “nicely” with its companion, the world’s most perfect climbing tree (an ancient magnolia that blooms beautifully for two weeks before its petals become a carpet of rot). The slide is probably just about what you’re imagining—it’s a waist-height eyesore in primary colors; a rain-beaten and pollen-stained relic of Fisher-Price past. There used to be stickers on it, but they’ve been weathered down to their goo. The slide’s presence on the lawn, which is more like a tattered patchwork of matted leaves, makes our ground-level apartment seem shabby and neglected. But my kids, aged 2 and 4, have never cared. And neither, I was delighted to find, have my neighbors.
When I put the garbage slide outside, it was spring. I felt a little bad about how ugly it was, but only for a second. The neighbors were already, I assumed, up in arms about how little we seemed to care about our property. Nothing could besmirch us further than our consistent failure to toil behind a weed wacker on Saturday mornings.
My sons waddled up the slide’s tiny blue stairs over and over, or huddled underneath the slide’s incline and pretended to be inside a rocket ship, while I wistfully stared out past the manicured curbs and sidewalks of our street and imagined myself closer to the center of things. I picked at the dead leaves, and made half-hearted attempts at seeding zinnias and other things a person might do if they were watching themselves grow older in a time-lapse montage. And then my neighbors started showing up on my lawn.
First John and Jess moved in. I didn’t know it at the time, but the garbage slide and its glamorous lawn trash accessories were hardly a deterrent to them bidding on that house. They were actually a sign of life—a signal that their own children would be welcomed into a community where kids were living and playing and making a mess. We started having impromptu play dates that centered around the slide. Nobody had to invite anybody (thank God, because I am the worst at that kind of thing). The slide did all the talking for me. It said, “Come on over to my side of the fence.”
Next, a couple of the older boys from farther down the street started showing up. Abandoned Wiffle balls, filthy rubber bases, and a forever-crooked baseball tee became fixtures in the mess of our wilted grass. Their parents came, too, to run interference between the balls and people’s windshields, and to pinch hit when they were needed, to bellow “CAR COMING!” with a timbre that somehow conveyed both boredom and alarm, and eventually to drink the beer and spiked seltzers that came out of everyone’s big red coolers on wheels, which were suddenly in abundance and in front of my house.
Our Friday pizza order doubled, then tripled, and then we lost track as the kids ate on the lawn all summer, their fingers stained with juice and sauce and dirt and melted ice cream from the ice cream truck that somebody had paid for. Tracy across the street ordered an outdoor screen and projector and we set out blankets and made popcorn and watched movies while the sun set, in front of this stupid ugly garbage slide that should have been rotting, or whatever plastic does, in the Staten Island landfill.
Old Silly String, bleached-out sidewalk chalk, and lost Nerf darts started to line our street, replacing its formerly pristine look with Big Garbage Slide energy. An obstacle course of “SLOW: CHILDREN PLAYING” signs are now arranged in a zig-zag pattern on the asphalt from when school lets out until the sun goes down. They’re a gangly sight, but until we get a speed bump approved by the city council, they will have to do.
Recently, as I pulled into my driveway after running some errands on a sunny afternoon, I noticed that a gaggle of tiny people were swarming up the magnolia tree, and sliding down the slide, without anyone in my family even being home. I felt giddy to see them there, even as they got in my way and surrounded my car and banged on its doors to say hello to my kids, and to me, a person they know not as a Pig-Pen proxy with a vermin issue, but as someone safe, their friends’ mom.
At some point, I had decided to sit outside my house and bring my mess out with me, to be the one crack in the sidewalk where the cement had been level for years. And now here I was, at the actual center of everything. I hadn’t meant to have a revolving-lawn policy with 40-odd people and their offspring; I never saw myself as domestic enough, or logistics-savvy enough, or handy enough with a cheese board to be what you’d consider a “host.” But being a host isn’t about keeping everything in place or staggering the hors d’oeuvres. It’s about welcome, and sometimes welcome works best when you’re willing to lead with the chaos—the mouse in the stove, or the old slide sitting on the lawn. It’s letting yourself function, however imperfectly, and with whatever you have available at just that moment, so that everybody else can relax and let themselves function, too. It’s saying, “The grass here’s soft, whether it’s green or it’s not—I’d love if you’d come to my side of the fence.”
Kathryn Watson is a freelance culture writer who writes about popular artifacts, critical theory, and the internet. Her work has appeared in Racked, LitHub, Longreads, and PASTE. Find her on Twitter @whatkathrynsaid.