On Friends And Playgrounds by Anja Tyson

The irrational but understandable fear that my daughter suffered before we moved a few months ago was that she would lose all of her friends.

To be clear, we moved a little less than two miles, from the edge of Brooklyn to the edge of Manhattan, and because of New York City’s current way of being, her friends are scattered around town. Her social life depends on an elaborate network of dealings between working parents planning days in advance highly-organized and programmed playdates that are equal parts enriching and carefree. These playdates have not ceased, as I assured her during that breakdown a few months ago, and her circle of friends, all gained by benefit of my own relationships with other parents, remains unspoiled. 

When we first moved to SoHo I frantically searched high and low for new local children for her to consort with, to make this new neighborhood, whose cache and romanticism mean absolutely zilch to a 7-year old, seem more habitable. I have known Soho for most of my life, and markedly, in the last two decades, I have rarely seen local children do much other than walk the distance between their front door and the waiting car that will take them to their respective private school/parkour class/private music lessons. The playgrounds are oddly deserted of middle-aged children (in the range of age 7 to 12), probably because the current performance expectations of parents are so rigorous that if our children spend a even meandering moment on any given day without programming we fear someone will call social services on us. 

Gone are the days of small children walking alone to a friend’s house, because your friends are scattered across the city because of New York’s School Choice program. There is no marauding gang of small children hanging outside for other, newer children to meld themselves into, there are no Kids From The Block, other than your own. Orchestrating socialization requires planning, there is so happenstance, there is no meeting new people, there is only Schedules.

There is, however, one playground we have found where we go every day, where the same kids are there at the same time, unsupervised, middle aged, just about to jettison out of their childhood years into the awkwardness and desperacy of teenagedom. Here, in this gated pen on the corner, is where the Kids From The Block are, and because of my daughter’s easy nature she has managed to glide smoothly into this hodgepodge group of local kids with ease, such that a week or two into her tenure in SoHo she would arrive each evening, playtime disguised as a reward but sandwiched between errands, and there would be an echo resonating of different little voices saying “Hi, Matilda”. The kids play, some other kids arrive, some other kids leave, it’s a revolving door of freeze tag and early flirtations and made-up dramas. 

Are these her people, strictly? No. Is it good for her heart and mind to walk into a space and be greeted by name by a diverse group of children whom she maintains casual acquaintances with? This might be one of the most important things on earth.  I tell you, if the playground disappeared tomorrow and we needed to reach any of these children, I wouldn’t have a clue how to get in touch with them. And this is perhaps the most important element of this equation, is the complete and total lack of Programming. 

This morning HBO sent me an email notifying me of the impending release of the Friends Reunion, and out of the bad habit created by my work of opening and reading every email I receive, I begrudgingly tapped it while walking the dog, greeted by the aged, vacant but pleasant smiles of the cast of Friends. 

I was never an enormous Friends fan – I was a bit too young and the storyline was a bit too off-base for what I could relate to as a preteen: rich, white dramatic Gen Xers in especially fabricated fantasy minidramas that doubtlessly inspired a whole wave of domestic immigration from the flyover states expecting to ease right in to their inherited rent-controlled 2 bedrooms-with-balcony, Central Perk mug in hand, and just fall in love. The image of the reunited cast is haunting, most pointedly because each of the cast members has had so much plastic surgery in an attempt to retain the individual characteristics that Hollywood told them were their key features, and the result is the rest of time, age, life melting around those permanently affixed brow lines. I am careful never to make fun of those who have aged poorly into their plastic surgeries – the issue itself is the reflection of a culture that insist that everyone has a schtik, an aesthetic value, a signature, and that they need to hold onto that feature or risk falling into the abyss and being forced to live off their royalties until they die in obscurity. Plastic surgery is rarely the result of an individual but rather the result of our culture’s effect on the individual. 

I was not originally a Friends fan, but during the height of the pandemic when the paraffin in the oil lamp of my anxiety was bad TV, I watched the entire series. My friend who grew up on the Upper West Side once told me that sometimes she needed to watch Seinfeld before falling asleep, just to hear the “sounds of the city”, which were of course carefully engineered in a sound studio on the lot in Los Angeles where the rest of the series was filmed. Friends took this faux reality even further – most of the establishing shots (aside from the exterior of their supposed apartments on Bedford), are actually images of downtown LA. It is completely disconnected from the reality of New York, but I didn’t watch it in order to remember New York, which I missed terribly from inside my apartment, actually in New York, when we were all terrified and alone.  What I got from watching Friends was the last bit of life before everyone in the world had a cell phone, and what that meant. 

It’s a slice of our past life that I long for every day, and even more so as I’ve started to realize that my daughter’s experience of being shuttled to and from perfectly timed pre-organized and hyper-programmed events is actually just an echo of my own. Dinners are planned by text message weeks in advance. Everything is ordered online, sometimes even by subscription. We text each other on the way to seeing each other. So precious few things happen by chance.

Conversely, in the 90s so perfectly preserved by sitcoms, half of life’s events were happenstance. Want to see your friends? Go to the coffee shop/park/bar where your friends are always hanging out. They’re not there? Wait for them. They’re late? Continue to sit and wait, because being late without calling or otherwise notifying someone is not a crime punishable by death. Something interesting happened to you that day? Save the story in your mind until you see your Friends, then tell it to them when everyone has arrived in the same place. It sounds simple, but try doing all of these things now and you will see what I am getting at. 

I live with my boyfriend, and often times I will run out on an errand or bring our kids to the ice cream place nearby that for no discernible reason serves ice cream in a cone shaped like a fish with a candy unicorn horn on top, away from the house for 20-30 minutes at maximum. Each time, something happens while I am out, something is observed, a thought crosses my mind, and the overwhelming urge comes to pick up my phone and text my boyfriend, my best friend, about whatever it was. The person who I will also see in 15 minutes when I arrive home with the groceries or the kids or the Swiffer refills. I always try to catch myself, put down my phone, stop typing, halting at whatever stage I let myself get to, and remember the thing I wanted to tell him until I get home. I try so hard, and half the time I forget immediately, or it pops up days later, and I startle, out of nowhere, and tell him the story frantically and out of context. I wish more than anything that my brain allowed those thoughts to be held in my head like a regular person from the 1990s, but our culture of immediacy has slowly eroded my prefrontal cortex, the grooves disappearing from years of *urgent* emails and Instagram stories and text message novels and online shopping. I am less of a person because the survival skill of remembering important short-term facts or experiences has been denuded into the constant suspicion that I have just forgotten something at all times.

I also try to hold this in my mind when I am online, as I so often am these days, or when I have a particularly frustrating moment at work and my hand goes by muscle memory to open my Instagram app because I know it will wash my brain of any feelings I might currently have. The internet is incendiary, it knows only short-term memory, and similar to the playground my daughter loves, few people interacting online have real friendships in the outside world, and their experiences are limited to the very short interactions caused by gathering in the same place. The internet is incendiary, it demands you are succinct at the sacrifice of truths, it is a one-dimensional playground full of bored, lonely, overscheduled children with energy to burn off.

So I suppose my question is: where is your coffee shop? Who can you get in touch with without holding a computer? And are we too far gone to make those things happen again? I would love nothing more than to bump into you and fall off the charted path, get an unexpected glass of wine and hear about your day. But when I look at my days, on the little calendar on my phone, I struggle to understand how to make that happen again. Any suggestions are welcome. 

Words by Anja Tyson. Photograph by Matt Weber

2 thoughts on “On Friends And Playgrounds by Anja Tyson

  • Reply Katie June 4, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    I am lucky that my parents live exactly four blocks away from us, so sometimes, if we’re out, I’ll stop by, and if they’re free, we’ll have a pink lemonade in their yard. Other than that, I see other school parents at pick up or drop off, and can have a friendly visit if we stay and play at the school park after school. Every one else, is a phone away.

  • Reply Samantha June 8, 2021 at 10:56 am

    I have felt grateful for Anja’s essays. This one included. Even when my life looks very different, I can see myself in so many of her words. Thank you, thank you.

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