I’ve just come from chasing my son — 20 steps behind and snapping photos of his retreating backpack — as he set off double-quick for his first day in Mr. Tupper’s fifth-grade class at the John M. Marshall Elementary School. Teddy is walking to school this year, and neither would he tolerate the presence of a parent at dropoff point number four at 8:40 this morning, nor would he abide his mother so much as rounding the corner of Main Street onto Dayton Lane, a quarter-mile from the classroom door.
“Don’t try to escape on your way to school!” I shouted as he trotted west along the crooked old brick sidewalk, “or we’ll be meeting the truant officer!”
Teddy wouldn’t really play hookie. I think. But he has been known to go walkabout. For his first-ever assignment in public school on Thursday, he was asked to write a list of five surprising things about himself. Number three was that he has pet chickens — which turned out to be surprising only in that three other kids in the class also mentioned household chickens in their replies. Also not surprising was Teddy’s number-one fun fact, that he’s a fan of the Nintendo Switch video game Splatoon 2. More notable for a 10-year-old boy was number four, “I like to take walks.” This is true. Teddy likes to perambulate and think. He’s a nomad.
I give him a long leash. When he was 5 and his sister 7, I pinned notes to the front of their T-shirts, handed them a walkie-talkie, and let them march hand in hand to the I.G.A. on North Main Street to buy popsicles. They came home with Cheetos and cream soda, reporting that a friendly police officer had waylaid them to ask if they were lost and advise them not to speak to strangers. When he was 2 1/2, Teddy somehow prised open the heavy front door of our house in Nova Scotia, and I only noticed he was gone when the doorbell rang, and there was Teddy standing on the wrong side of the sidelight window beside a stranger. She had found him calmly moving north on Water Street, headed with determination to . . . somewhere. Now that we live again in East Hampton Village, as long as he takes my cellphone and follows a predetermined route, I allow him to go on hourlong promenades, leaving our house, heading up Dayton, along Gingerbread Lane to the railroad station, and back again via Main Street. A few times this spring, when extra bored during lockdown, he jog-walk-jog-walked to Main Beach and back. He says when he walks he thinks deep thoughts.
When I was in fourth grade at John Marshall, I also walked to school, but in those days there were fewer fences, gates, or evergreen barriers between properties, and I pushed through a bit of light shrubbery bordering our own lane to take a shortcut across a neighbor’s lawn. My late-1970s route to and fro was a quarter as long as my son’s; I wish he could take the same shortcut, but given the state of the neighborhood it’s probably not to be.
I’ve considered knocking on the door of the shortcut house — it still stands, no longer a ranch but a “country cottage” with more elaborate landscaping — but I have been put off by thoughts of how awkward it would be when the homeowner says no (with vague mention of liability insurance, no doubt). But I do have fond childhood memories of Dayton Lane. More than just the route to school, Dayton Lane was the best place to start a night of trick-or-treating back in the day, when I was Teddy’s age.
When my niece Adelia was about 3, I kidnapped her and took her trick-or-treating up and down Dayton in the dark. She wore a lamb costume that I had made for her with fleece from Sag Harbor Variety, and I explained that we would ring doorbells, and we wouldn’t be afraid, but would ask for candy. By then, 2004, I think, there were no other children in costumes to be seen anywhere along Dayton or Buell Lane, and there were few lights in the windows. One man hid behind a curtain as we approached.
Deal and I could see through the Plexiglas storm door into the front hall of one house with lights ablaze, where there stood a card table covered with an orange-and-black table skirt, a ceramic ghost, a bundle of dried decorative corn cobs, and a careful arrangement of small waxed-paper bags with more ghosts on them. In the treat bags were hard candies, Tootsie Rolls, and licorice pipes. I propelled my niece forward with a hand between her shoulder blades, and she stepped courageously up to the storm door.
We could see an old lady in the kitchen, down the dark hallway, slowly taking off her glasses as if for company. When she opened the door, it was like breaking the seal on a jar: The air pressed her light dress to her shins. “Well, my,” she said.
“What do you say, Deal?” I said to my charge, who responded by lifting her plastic pumpkin pail a few inches.
“What do you say?”
“Ticker teet,” Deal whispered.
“Take them all,” the lady said, using both hands to fill the plastic pumpkin with penny candy. “You’re the only one I’ve had.”
I can’t go up Dayton Lane without thinking of that poignant moment, although my own kids are too old now to be forced into adorable costumes to ransack the night. But venturing out on foot, alone or with comrades, is always to be encouraged, opinions of other parents and current cultural norms be damned — even to the dark end of the street.