Volume 74, Number 54 | May 18 - 24 , 2005


Trials of the Immaculate Playground: A sandy tale

By Peter von Ziegesar

Six members of the Committee for the Immaculate Playground, three women and three men, including myself, stood around the sandbox, staring down — and we did not at all like what we saw.

The sand was dirty. It had been there since the ’60s, no doubt, and had never been changed. It was laced with Popsicle sticks, cigarette butts, twigs, pigeon blobs, bits of plastic toys, cracker crumbs, the bleached bones of small animals, those tiny transparent pellets from disposable diapers and God knew what other microbial entities, small crawling things and effluvia, the products of generations of O.P. (other people’s) children wallowing in it.

When you got down and looked at it closely, it was an amazingly disgusting mess. A cesspool disguised as a public recreation area. A toxic waste site posing as a recreation center. Something had to be done to protect our children, the members agreed. The sand had to go.

“Gross!” breathed Clytemnestra Goldfarb, mother of a pair of very clean 6-year-old twin girls with thyroid eyes.

“Repulsive!” agreed Laura Griddle, whose runny-nosed 2-year-old was sucking a corner of her sweater and making an increasingly large black wet mark.

“Would you ever, ever consider allowing your child to play in there?” Clytemnestra asked me.

“Never!” I said. “I’d sooner drop her into an open sewer!”

So, the members of the Committee for the Immaculate Playground being in agreement, Clytemnestra got busy on the phone, calling contacts at her local Democratic club, anyone she could think of in the Parks Department. But she soon reached a dead end. It turned out the city, as a matter of policy, did not replace sand in playgrounds. Sand had been around since the time of the dinosaurs, the thinking went, and would be here long after the West Village had melted into the Hudson River. Rain from the sky would wash the sand in fresh water, sunlight sterilize it, air from New Jersey fluff it dry and ants carry off any crumbs and excess organic matter, and City Hall intended to do very little to impede a natural process that had been going on since the time of Fiorello LaGuardia, or perhaps even longer.

“But…we found medical waste in our sandbox!” sputtered Clytemnestra desperately grasping for straws.

“Is it near a hospital?” asked a bored city employee. “I can give you a number for that.”

Seeing that no help was going to come from above, Clytemnestra held a face-painting party to raise $800 for new sand. A local pol and former park dad named “Follow Up” Zimmerman stood up, balding and kindly-faced in pressed jeans and a Brooks Bros. shirt, and delivered a speech in praise of self-reliance. He mentioned Clytemnestra’s name twice. Clytemnestra blushed and waved her arms in self-deprecation.

The Parks Department agreed to let the committee have the number of the contractor, Omniphage Wilson, who normally supplied to new playgrounds, and Omniphage himself, seeing a chance to make a quick buck on the side, agreed to deliver the sand.

There remained the thorny problem of what to do with the old stuff, now viewed as little better than toxic waste. A number of eager-beaver dads and some moms volunteered to shovel the sand out of the pit. This is where I come into the story again. Shouting songs and sea shanties, I and the other eager-beaver dads and some moms shoveled for hours over a long, hot Sunday until our gym-trained biceps ached and our shovels scraped the concrete bottom of the sandbox, and all of the old, dirty unusable sand stood in damp yellow piles around the rim.

And exactly in that position the piles remained for the next six weeks. Spring ran into summer, while the children of the park stared longingly at the hot, hard empty concrete bottom of the sand box, and Clytemnestra shook her head and couldn’t believe what was happening.

Finally, under pressure from his constituents, “Follow Up” Zimmerman called a number he swore he would never use, and with some timid arm-twisting and some sort of horse-trading swung a deal, the details of which were never published. Parks Department employees instantly came in small tractors, like those used by suburban fathers to groom their lawns, pushed all the old sand into trucks and carried it off.

Not one of us wondered where the sand went, whether it was recycled on the sly to another city playground, taken to a deep Nevada cave to detoxify slowly over centuries or simply dumped into the river. We didn’t care, because the new, clean sand would be delivered soon. And our children could once again play trucks and dig in a happy, safe, smutz-free environment.

June advanced into July. Grass grew in the cracks in the concrete bottom of the sandbox, and stray cats came to bat around their desiccated turds there. The Committee for the Immaculate Playground began to get inquiries from the Group for Toddler Safety about the dangers of having an open kidney-shaped concrete pit, now sequestered behind fly-away pieces of yellow police tape, in place where kids played.

At last, to everyone’s joy, the day came for the new sand to arrive. Fathers and moms gathered expectantly around the concrete rim of the sandbox, shovels in hand, as the contractor’s truck inched backwards into place, going, Honk! Honk! Honk! Clytemnestra, who had arranged all the details over an endless number of phone calls to the contractor, seemed in an especially nervous and excited state. She had insisted that the sand be boiled before it was brought to the playground. Omniphage had agreed a little too smoothly, she thought. How can you tell if sand has actually been sterilized? She made a note to go to the drugstore and see if she could buy a testing kit for G.I. tract microorganisms.

With a screech of metal, the enormous iron truck bed lifted up. Sand poured into the center of the pit, all in a whoosh, raising an enormous cloud of dust. Then the driver of the truck chortled, slammed the truck plate back into place, and drove off in a roar — leaving all of us staring at the pile of sand he’d left behind in utter amazement.

The pile was about 4 feet high and about 6 feet in diameter. It contained enough sand to fill the back seat of a Volkswagen Jetta. Maybe.

A few titters ensued, as some parents recalled the scene in “This Is Spinal Tap” when the heavy metal band, expecting a megalithic Stonehenge set to be lowered onto the stage, gears up to an awesome climax of guitar riffs, only to watch a 2-foot model come swinging down instead. There were flashes of light all over the playground as moms and dads flipped open their cell phones to call their spouses and tell them the funny thing that had happened. Kids, galloping en masse to jump in the sand pile, had to be forcibly restrained.

Clytemnestra stared at the miniature mound, utterly transfixed. She was, in her other life, an N.Y.U. professor of mathematics, and she had used complex algorithms to calculate the volume of the sand pit down to the last molecule. Waves of horror and shame rode through her frame.

Finally, Laura Griddle took Clytemnestra’s hand and marched her over to where “Follow Up” Zimmerman stood frozen in place with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Each of the women took an arm and dragged him to the back of the jungle gym. Right there in the playground, they forced him to call the number he swore he’d never call again.

His back — as he turned to make the call, and as he paced this way and that, partly climbing the gym set, and jabbering spasmodically into the phone — did not convey happy body language. Nevertheless, when “Follow Up” turned around again, he was smiling.

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said. “Which do you want first?”

“Bad,” croaked Clytemnestra.

“The bad news is that our contractor friend is not coming back. Apparently, boiling all of that sand was expensive, and no matter what kind of deal he made with you, good people of the sandbox, Omniphage Wilson’s standard contract with the city states that he’s not allowed to come even close to losing money, no matter how egregiously he underperforms any particular job, or whether he even bothers to show up at all.”

The members of the Committee for the Immaculate Playground, including myself, stood stunned, taking this in.

“What’s the good news?” asked Clytemnestra, at last.

“The good news is that you can have your old sand back, ‘Follow Up’ ” said. “Oh, not all of it. Some of your sand has been mixed with tar and sprinkled onto an on ramp of the Cross Bronx Expressway. But the rest you can have. Most of it. At least 50 percent. And they say they’re going to percribrate it for you.”

“Percribrate? What does that mean?” asked Laura Griddle.

“It means they’ll put it through a piece of wire mesh.”

This parable is loosely based on events at the Bleecker St. Playground. All characters are purely fictional unless they’re absolutely convinced they aren’t.

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