This summer felt like a wholesome kind of theft — the opening to a movie, just after the apocalypse, when the protagonist walks through the aisles of the supermarket, taking food without paying as a matter of survival — a friendly, blameless, understandable kind of looting. In summer there’s the sense of getting away with something; you’re able to steal time in the world without spending any money, just sitting on your stoop or a bench in the park, out in the world absolutely for free. Potential can be got for rock-bottom prices. A Choose Your Own Adventure spreads out before you for the very low cost of just leaving your house.
This is not the case in winter on the east coast, when the tendons of the streets are prone to freezing over, and the places with hang potential zip themselves away. Encountering possibility becomes an expense — two to five dollars to sit in a coffee shop, fifteen or more to spend time in a movie, let alone the costs you must incur just to getting yourself there. You’ll rack up a tab just by being in the world, and even so it’s a challenge to go somewhere and just be. Wintertime activities always have an object. You will go ice skating, or out to a new restaurant. You will shop at Macy’s or a trendy indoor craft fair, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever just do nothing outside your house. Staying home, of course, is usually an option, but at home the possibilities are pretty well-foreclosed. The things left to chance are just conflict with roommates, and when the depression will inevitably set in. Otherwise the crystal ball just shows reading, or hours watching Netflix, or going online. On the internet it seems like anything could happen, but when does it ever? It’s a poor substitution for the contingent fun of summer.
The park is how infrastructure enshrines just chilling. It’s where tax dollars go to hangout and do whatever. It seems laughable to me that we’ve long lived in the cold but haven’t found a way to make indoor public space. The library isn’t really a place to do nothing; It’s for reading or research or sometimes for sleeping if your city opts to cut funding on shelters. In the park you can go and meet a friend for a chat, but chatter is discouraged in the quiet of the library. It’s an okay public place, but it isn’t a park.
I think a lot about those women who take brisk walks in the mall, past Hollister in the morning, when the roll gates are still down. This seems to me like a radical thing, to make parks from places which are decidedly not parks. There are many good places we could go in the cold if somehow we could free them from whatever they are normally used for. I met a friend the other day inside a free museum and treated the art boring like a tree or a bus stop. You don’t have to get sucked in by art feeling fancy. A museum can sometimes be a good room with stuff.
Everywhere is a park. Sometimes I like to go to a church, bring a book or a journal or just listen to headphones. (They’re not lately in a position to be turning folks away.) The same can be said for the lobby of a big hospital, where outside food and conversation are both welcome, and there are tons of weird atriums funded by the rich. Urban Outfitters is a park. Zumiez is a park. Any store with a couch can be a park for a few minutes. Ikea is an indoor Central Park that is everywhere.
If you style yourself in certain dumb costumes, other indoor parks will spread out before you. If you are young and wear glasses, a college is park. If you are a man and look important you can lounge on a corporate campus. A hotel lobby is a park with free wifi, and a bus or a train, for the cost of a ride, is a park that will take you all around the city. Sit with a friend until the end of the line, then turn back around and ride back to where you came from. When you are home you will be happy you went out in the world.
It’s true that loitering is another word for this, so be cautious as you go around making places your park. A hospital or a church is not truly a park, but parks themselves are only public inconsistently. A park is public for a woman walking in the daytime, but it is not recommended she visit at night. A sexy white lady can lie down wherever, but an elderly black man is likely to be hassled. It’s true that parks themselves are hardly perfect places, and everywhere is a park is a temporary solution. I know it sounds insufferable or probably too blithe to say that I want to go lounge in an Urban Outfitters, but the feeling of potential feels like a matter of public interest, or possibly an issue of public (mental) health. People get depressed in the winter more than usual and going out in public is a way to sustain hope. This year I fled the snow for California, but eventually I’ll go back to a place where it’s cold. Maybe by then parks we’ll have indoor public space. It doesn’t have to look like fake trees and AstroTurf. It could be colossal indoor steps meant for sprawling, or a room with good chairs and different kinds of light. That would be a great park.
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a writer.
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