My friend Samantha shared this photo this morning, and it made me think of a kid I kinda knew.
South Buffalo’s Mulroy Playground was around the corner from my house. During the summer of 1983, there were always dozens and dozens of kids— and zero adults.
Everyone was there mid-morning, when the city would drop off free lunches off the back of big yellow Pep Dairy trucks everyday.
Wrapped on a small styrofoam tray about the size for a pound of hamburger, came rock hard peaches, sour orange juice in a sealed plastic cup, and a sandwich— either thick-sliced low-grade bologna or a “choke sandwich,” which was wrapped to look like an ice cream sandwich, but instead was peanut butter and jelly between graham crackers. There was milk, too, but unless it was chocolate milk, I don’t remember anyone drinking it.
There was a 1950s concrete wading pool, which normally was filled with broken glass, but no water. After a heavy rain, we’d carefully wade in the rainwater, brown glass bits, and floating gold foil Genesee Beer labels.
Next to that, there was a monkey bar castle to climb on, but the older boys commandeered what was another worn-out 1950s structure. That was actually fine with us, because who ever had been throwing the beer bottles in the wading pool had been using the castle turrets as urinals. On hot sunny days the smell was unbearable.
Over on the swings, where everyone was doing their best to try to swing over the bar, Jimmy was usually on the last swing, barely swinging, his feet making noise with the gravel and dirt with every pass. He was obese in a way that most of us had never seen in another kid. He was big. He was also my age—around 7— but I didn’t know him. He went to a public school a couple of blocks away, I went to Holy Family school right behind the playground.
I’m not even entirely sure that his name was Jimmy, but it’s hard to forget this kid. As the early summer morning sun turned up the swampy heat and the smell of piss coming from the castle turrets, seven-year-old Jimmy laconically sat swinging all day, chain smoking.
Even among this group of vagabond, hobo, street-urchin children, something felt terribly wrong about Jimmy puffing away non-stop; inhaling even.
It wasn’t even the fear that he’d get in trouble— it just didn’t seem right. And sometimes, often even, other kids would say something.
Like a 12 or 13 year old would take a drag off a Marlboro and ask, “Aren’t you too young to smoke?”
With the same amount of detached interest he showed in swinging, he’d answer, “Nah, I’ve been smoking since I was 6.”
He told a lot of stories that seemed unbelievable, but there he was– a seven-year-old chainsmoker. It really made anything seem possible.
I don’t remember talking about Jimmy with my parents, but since it bothers me this very moment almost 40 years later in the same way it did back then, I imagine I might have said something. Probably to my ol’man, who probably half-listened, and probably responded with a Parliament dangling out of the corner of his lip as he growled.
“Don’t let me find out that you’ve been smoking over in that goddamn park,” he would have said. “I’ll put my boot so far up your goddamn ass you won’t sit for a week.”
We moved and I never saw Jimmy again. I hope someone put a boot up his ass and he’s doing ok today.