8:30 a.m. On the Wolverine to Ann Arbor
On the south side of Chicago, the train passed a grassy area where backless benches painted in bright colors face what appears to be a small round or octagonal stage. I wonder if it is some officially sanctioned Chicago Park District activity (I didn’t see enough to know if it was actually a park) or if it is someone’s back yard, and if the neighborhood children sing or act there — perhaps even the adults, once in a while.
What a marvelous thing that would be, to have a place where people could come to stage performances for the joy of it. What a wonderful way to explore the imagination, both as a performer and as an audience. No tickets, no money, no costumes, no sets — just characters and story and enthusiasm.
This grassy area may not be any of those things, of course. In my imagination, it is where a real-life Anne of Green Gables dramatically recites “The Lady of Shalott,” “The Highwayman,” or the contemporary equivalent.
Something about this reminds me of a conversation some coworkers and I had a few months ago about the suburban ubiquity of fences. I had never noticed or thought about such things until a friend from high school got married and moved to a subdivision. When I visited, the solid fences around every back yard struck me disagreeably.
I remembered all the afternoons and evenings when I rode my bicycle to Amsdell Junior High School, then walked my bike around the chain-link fence between the school and the neighborhood, then through the yards of perhaps a half dozen houses until I arrived at my friend’s home. I don’t recall a single fence. She could stand in her yard while I stood in the neighbor’s to play catch or to bat a ball around. No one thought anything of it, and no one seemed unhappy enough over their lack of a fence to get one.
A coworker told us that the yards in her neighborhood also all ran together and that no one thought of living in any other way. In winter, she said, when the ground was frozen one of the adults would run water onto the grass in several yards to form an impromptu skating rink for everyone to use. It was a tradition that brought people together to enjoy the larger community.
When I visited the friend in the fenced-in neighborhood, I stood on her deck and felt an odd sense of claustrophobia. Most of what I could see were cookie-cutter frame houses surrounded by a forest of solid wood fences, making everything seemed closed off and compartmentalized. They did not even provide privacy; because of the slope of the land, from the deck I could see into dozens of yards. Nude sunbathing, open-air love making, any kind of private activity would have been as public as if there had been no fences.
What purpose do fences serve? Perhaps they keep out unwanted irritants, like stray animals and children. Perhaps they offer an illusion of privacy. I suspect the most important feeling they give to people is one of ownership and control. “This is my domain, and to enter it you must have my consent. It is not to be confused with that of the person next door, whose name I barely know and can’t remember. It is not to be confused with my place at work, where I have little control over anything. It is mine, and this fence is a reminder to you and to me of that important fact.”
What fences don’t evoke is a feeling of community, the feeling I got from a passing glimpse of an open grassy space with stage and some simple, brightly painted benches.