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How to Play in a Sprinkler

Three generations of New Yorkers relish the finest summer pleasure the city has to offer—a sprint through shooting walls of water.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Illustrations by Dakota McFadzean

The sun cooked the water off the cement, creating a thick smell. The New York City version of fresh-cut grass, this was the smell of summer. The water from the sprinklers was icy cold, so even though the air was heavy and hot and the sun unforgiving, I could only stay under the frozen shower for a few seconds at a time. My cousin Sabina and I ran in circles, darting in and out of the sprinkler and shrieking. Now when I hear children playing I sometimes wonder why they always have to scream, but then I remember the thrill of trying to outwit the water, to get cool but not cold, and it seems perfectly appropriate.

I spent almost every day during the summers of the early nineties in the sprinkler park in Tompkins Square. Sometimes my mother was there, but usually the playground was a trip my father and I took together. He sat on the bench close enough to see and hear me, but far enough away that his book wouldn’t get splashed.

For the first few weeks of summer I always tried to get him to come into the water with me, tugging at the cuffs of his jeans, splashing him and giggling, but I gave up after the first few times. He told me that reading was his favorite game, and that his iced coffee was keeping him perfectly cool, thank you.


By 2003, when I dropped out of high school, Tompkins was still where I wanted to spend all my time. As a teenager I was still happy each year when the sprinklers came on for the first time, but only because they were an eternal symbol of summer, not because I had any intention of going in. I was still almost as excitable as I had been when I would jump up and down holding my father’s hand, waiting for the last stoplight between me and the sprinklers to change color. But the things that excited me were parties and punk shows, not playgrounds.

My Holy Land became the patch of grass in the center of the park known as “hippie hill,” which was always covered in degenerate kids like myself lying in the sun, drinking beer out in the open. One day as I lay staring at the swaying tree branches, the smoke from my cigarette drifting up toward them, thinking about how perfect life was, wishing that everything would stay exactly as it was, a shriek from somewhere to my right cut short my lethargic train of thought. I looked from hippie hill toward the sprinkler park and laughed to myself that the height of my debauchery was taking place yards from the kingdom of my childhood. I reveled in the juxtaposition, feeling supremely adult.


My friends and I, lounging in the grass when we were supposed to be in school, felt we owned the park. Filth and danger were romantic and we sought them out everywhere, teasing fate and mortality as if they were the streams of cold water from a sprinkler. We didn’t want or need anything more than what we already had or could easily get by begging or stealing.

After a few years of this, one of us inevitably took the reckless aesthetic a little too far. When Jael met Jim, she thought that because he was ten years older, had a prison record and nowhere to live, he was the perfect storybook prince for our twisted fairy tale. We tolerated him for a little while, but her father didn’t, so they ran away to Boston, then to the Appalachian Trail and eventually to Florida.

A month after their daughter Riley was born, Jim went back to prison. The reality of Jael’s situation caught up with her. She was a homeless seventeen-year-old mother, and suddenly “the life” didn’t seem so romantic anymore. She called me crying in the middle of the night. I was the only one of our close friends who didn’t live with a parent, didn’t have to ask permission, so I told her to come and live with me. I said it without hesitation, without consulting my roommates, without considering what it would really mean for me, at sixteen, to have my friend and her infant move into my bedroom in the Bed-Stuy apartment that I shared with three other teenagers.

I believed I was mature; I had an apartment and a job, after all. But in truth, the only reason I had moved out of my mother’s house months before was for the freedom to be as immature as I wanted. To me, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in my own living room meant I had made it.

For the year that Jael and Riley lived with me I was basically Riley’s second parent. I changed her diapers and walked around the house holding her gently but almost desperately to my chest, bouncing her and whispering to her for hours so that she could sleep, and continuing to pace long after she had drifted off, smelling the sweet smell of her baby hair and not minding the drool that inevitably covered my shoulder. I decorated her corner of my bedroom with postcards of paintings from the Met and MoMA and pictures of animals and fairies, wanting to get her mind going and fill her dreams with art and fantasy. I thought of her as my baby, and for the first time in a long time something real mattered to me.


On a sweltering summer afternoon in 2007, we were all sitting on hippie hill. I glanced over at then-two-year-old Riley crawling around in the filthy grass, her golden hair plastered to her little pink face with sweat. The filth had never bothered me until I saw her crawling in it and then sucking on her fingers.


I scooped Riley up and strapped her into her stroller, throwing her things and mine into the basket under her seat. “We’re going to the playground,” I told Jael. She waved an acknowledgement with her cigarette hand. I considered going to Kmart and buying Riley a bathing suit, but then remembered the change of clothes in her diaper bag. I felt we had to hurry to get to the sprinklers. I wanted her to understand that I was taking her to do something fun, something that was for her, and didn’t want the message to be lost while waiting in line.

When we arrived at the sprinkler, Riley stopped and stood just outside the water’s reach, one hand outstretched toward it. When the freezing drops touched her hand she pulled it quickly away and looked back at me, disturbed by how cold it was. After I wet my hand and cooled her forehead with it, she seemed to get the idea. But rather than running in and out like I used to, she just stood there, calculating whether hot or cold was better, wetting one hand at a time, then each foot in turn. She seemed to be having fun in the methodical way that little girls sometimes do.

I parked myself on a bench just beyond the splash zone but close enough that she could see my encouraging nods and smiles. As I wiped the sweat from my face with a filthy hand I considered running through the water, but I took out a book instead. The book I brought with me that day happened to have been my father’s; his name was scribbled on the inside of the front cover. He died when I was twelve, before I was old enough to have adult conversations with him, so his books are always special to me. I imagined what conversations we’d have about them if he were still here. I wondered for a minute if he ever read this book sitting in this spot, if somewhere outside of time we were sitting on this bench, reading this book together.

I looked up at Riley and she was looking at me, her face wrinkled with discomfort, fidgeting her feet in a sort of half-hearted stomp. She didn’t know what to do. She reached toward me and grunted—she wasn’t talking yet. Remembering how confused I was by my father’s stubborn refusal to participate in this summer ritual, I put the book down and kicked off my shoes, the feeling of wet, hot concrete on bare feet giving me flashbacks. I picked her up, her sweaty little body clinging to mine. She wrapped strands of my tangled hair around her grubby fingers and held on a little too tight.

As I ran through the streams of water, I shrieked. She didn’t. She was in shock. When we got to the other side she looked like she might cry and I held my breath, bouncing her a little on my hip. Suddenly she burst into such a giggle fit that she gave herself the hiccups. She twisted herself out of my arms, reaching back toward the water, ready to go again. I set her down and swung my wet hair off of my face. Having had my fun, I was ready to go back to my bench and my book, but she stopped and reached back for my hand.

And then I understood why my father never came into the water; now she expected me to go with her every time. She grinned her gummy grin as I gave her my hand and she wrapped all five of her sticky little fingers around my pointer finger, first pulling me toward the water and then hesitating as the moment came. I gave her a little tug and we ran through, at a toddler’s pace, which was slow enough to get us completely soaked. This time she shrieked, too. She wanted me to go with her again, but I refused and retired gratefully to the “adult” seat on the bench. I spread my long, wet ropes of hair out over my back and my skirt over the bench next to me to aid the drying process.

My gaze going back and forth between the pages of my father’s book and my happy, giggling goddaughter, I finally understood why he enjoyed this so much.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published May 28, 2014. This article is republished here with permission.

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