Joyland

New York |

Spring in 2024

by Gideon Jacobs

edited by Michelle Lyn King


In 2024, the unofficial first day of spring fell on the official first day of spring in a way that felt cartoonish. It was as if, this year, the sun and the clouds and the animals and the trees and the flowers and the breeze and the bugs and all the rest were warned of the exact date with enough lead time to really prepare, to put on a good show, to perform in the way certain families do when an important guest comes over for dinner, the children confused as to why they have to wear clothes inside the home that they would normally wear to church.

Homer was walking through one of the city’s hip neighborhoods, half listening to his friends talk about how perfect the weather was—“Yo, this weather is perfect”—and half listening to other pedestrians express similar sentiments—“Oh my god, can you believe how perfect this weather is?” Every park was full. Every cafe with outdoor seating had a two-hour wait for a table. People were chatting and joking and laughing and smiling. Homer inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with fresh air, trying to discern whether the first-day-of-spring medicine everyone was so hopped up on was the real thing or a placebo.

The boys—Homer and seven others—had texted each other in their group chat, agreeing to play basketball outside for the first time since fall because each of their respective primary caregivers had delivered a speech urging them, on a day as nice as this one, to go outside, get dirty, scrape their knees, play. In the case of Homer, he was sitting in the living room watching a reality show on his computer when his father began lecturing him about the importance of being out in the world, saying that he was aware that, in lecturing his son on such a topic, he had become a cliché, acting out a scene between an old man and a young man one might see in a sitcom. But Homer’s father’s self-awareness didn’t stop him from continuing because he recalled that his own father used to literally tell him to get his “head out of a book and go climb a tree,” and the more he thought about it, the more he was happy that he did just that. Homer’s father closed Homer’s laptop mid-episode, looked his son in the eye and said that sometimes clichés are cliché for a reason.

The boys had decided it was worth journeying across the city to find a fancy private court some high schoolers had told them about. The rumor was that the court was pretty much always empty and unguarded, easily accessible if you knew which trespassing signs to ignore and which fences to jump. Although only a few of the boys knew of the court’s supposed location, they had all heard about it and seen photos of its freshly painted lines, its NBA quality backboards, its hoops adorned with nets that looked like they could, with the most perfect of jump shots, produce a goosebump-inducing swish. Some of the boys had argued that a journey across the city could be all for nothing, and that it was easier just to play somewhere closer to home, but the debate was eventually settled when Homer, the youngest of the boys, decided to speak up, saying that he thought there was no better sound in the world than a basketball entering a well-netted hoop at just the right angle with just the right amount of backspin. The group racked their brains for something that might undermine this assertion but, after a long pause, even those who claimed to have heard a girl orgasm agreed that Homer’s hypothesis was correct, maybe even a little profound.

The first half of the trek, from their quiet, residential neighborhood, around the edges of the old industrial zone, through the poorest section of the city, then the hippest, then the ritziest, was easy and uneventful. But when the boys began to cut across the main commercial district, the first-day-of-spring fever spiked, the sidewalks becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Foot traffic was so dense at points that frustrated pedestrians chose to walk in the creases between the curb and the street, dodging the puddles of grayish juice emanating from piles of garbage adjacent to the gutter. Soapbox preachers, sunglasses vendors, and homeless beggars added to the congestion.

The crowds, although worse than usual, did not surprise the boys. It was a much-discussed idea in the media that the city’s population, which had been growing exponentially for decades, had, in the last couple of years, possibly eclipsed the municipality's capacity. Sociologists and demographers wrote books and articles about the unfolding phenomenon, all of them submitting their own explanations as to why this was happening even though the city was becoming less and less “livable.” Most pointed to economic factors, automation, and the changing nature of labor. Others focused on the combination of the drug epidemic plaguing rural communities and the decline of urban crime rates. And a few experts blamed the internet, theorizing that the city had simply become too popular in the world’s collective imagination, that it, as a brand, had gone so viral that the product could no longer meet customer demand. Whoever was right, what was clear was that the influx of people had left local politicians overwhelmed, urban planners dismayed, and real estate developers very, very rich.

A few of the older boys led the way, wedging themselves through tight openings, sometimes stretching arms out to claim pockets of space ahead and, when necessary, delivering a polite push to anyone encroaching on their planned path. Homer and the others did their best to fall into the lanes opened up by the leaders, their bigger and more aggressive friends. This method, similar to the kind of drafting that geese or Tour de France cyclists use, was only effective if each boy left no significant gap between himself and the boy directly in front of him. But on a particularly busy block, Homer, who had the shortest stride, the narrowest shoulders, and the timidest disposition of the boys, was cut off by a man wearing a neon pink t-shirt, holding a bullhorn to his mouth and a paddle-shaped sign that said “GROUP 1” in the air. Once the man with the bullhorn secured the space in front of Homer, a herd of neon pink t-shirts closely followed. Homer tried to push through, and said excuse me a few times, but much of GROUP 1 was holding hands, making chains that could only be broken with a more involved, adultish negotiation.

The man with the bullhorn was shouting out various facts about the skyscraper above, interweaving anecdotes about its construction and historical significance. He said that the architect—a famous woman who had recently passed—called the building The Wave. He said that she designed it to bend slightly in the direction of the street, like a wave bends toward the shore. He said that she did this to emphasize the growing issue of overcrowding, to allude to the idea that the city was approaching a breaking point, and that, just before her death, she had admitted that her hope was for The Wave to send a subtle message to City Hall. The man with the bullhorn then lowered the bullhorn and, out of the side of his mouth, told those in GROUP 1 who were closest to him that he wasn’t sure the architect totally grasped the concept of subtlety. The members of GROUP 1 who heard the joke laughed, and those who were just out of earshot asked those who were laughing what it was the man with the bullhorn said that was so funny. The rest of Group 1 was holding their phones to the sky, arching their backs and tilting their chins to take a picture that captured what it feels like to stand under The Wave, to look up at a building that appears to be falling on you.

Eventually, GROUP 1 began moving on to the next attraction, and the cloud of pink thinned out. Homer saw an opening, squirmed through it, and was then spit out of this dense pocket and onto a street corner that was still busy, but offered a slight respite. He looked in the direction his friends had been walking and didn’t see them. He jumped a few times, hoping to catch a glimpse of some recognizable heads, but all he saw was thousands of people on their way somewhere monomaniacally focused on getting there.

Homer pulled his phone out of his basketball shorts to send at text to the group chat and tell the others that he’d fallen behind, but his phone was dead. Without his friends, he had no way to get to the court and was also unsure how to get home from this part of the city. He kept his eyes on the black screen, hoping the device might miraculously come back to life. Panic began to creep in. It was a panic that made his throat tighten and ache the way it used to when he was younger and his father was late to pick him up from elementary school. Homer thought about asking a stranger if he could borrow their phone, but then realized he didn’t know any of his friends’ numbers. He thought about going into one of the packed restaurants and asking if he could charge his phone, but he didn’t have a charger on him, and even if the restaurant happened to have one, the staff would probably be too overwhelmed to help a boy who was not a paying customer.

Homer felt like crying. He knew that if his father were to appear next to him, he would have immediately done so. He leaned back against an old telephone pole and looked up at the sky, hoping gravity might keep tears from coming. There were little metal footholds jutting out slightly from the tall wood cylinder, running all the way up to the top, where, before the city went entirely wireless, there would have been cables. He tried to think if he’d ever seen a utilities worker climbing one of these poles, but the tightness in his throat spread to his scalp, and under his scalp, his brain was buzzed, producing so many thoughts at once that it was impossible to pull out a single coherent one. This buzz, much to Homer’s surprise, came along with some relief, a peacefulness similar to what falling objects must experience the moment they reach terminal velocity. Thinking so hard that he wasn’t really thinking at all, Homer shoved his sneaker into the first foothold, and wrapped his arms around the wood pole. It was as thick as the average sidewalk oak tree. He secured his balance and pushed himself up off the ground.

After a few efforts, his perspective shifted from about a foot below the crowd to about a foot above, and the sound of the city changed in his ears. It went from a muffled roar, like an out of control freight train rolling through an underwater train station, to a crisper cacophony, like an in control freight train rolling through a terrestrial train station. The air became less stuffy too. Homer, about a third of the way up the pole, carefully twisted his body so that he could, from this better vantage, scan the crowd. His eyes moved across the scene but he didn’t spot his friends. What he did notice was a few people at the base of the pole pointing at him, talking to each other, and taking pictures of him. Homer pretended he didn’t see them and kept climbing.

Homer pulled and pushed himself further up the pole. He could feel that, although crying was still a possibility, he was smiling a little. He began to feel hopeful. With a good birds eye view, he would be able to spot his friends, who couldn’t have gotten far. When he was about two-thirds of the way up the pole, he decided to turn around again and scan the streets. There were now hundreds of people gathered directly below, not walking anywhere, just standing, most of them holding their phones in front of their face, taking pictures of him. One man was making a video, talking directly into his camera like a news anchor, saying, “There is a boy climbing a pole. Will he climb to the top? Stay tuned to find out.” Homer looked a block down the avenue, in the area he guessed his friends might be, but only saw more people he didn't recognize, many of them walking, and some running in his direction. They must have seen that a crowd was forming near the pole and therefore assumed something was happening near the pole.

Homer turned around and kept climbing. Now, with each step, his panic receded further, and in its place grew a confidence that, if tangible, would have been warm to the touch. It propelled him higher though his arms and legs began to grow tired. When, finally, there were no more ruts for Homer to shove his sneakers into, he turned around a final time and saw that the crowd gathered below, all eyes on him, had ballooned into the thousands. Those in the front of the crowd posed for photos at the base of the pole, putting a foot in the rut closest to the ground and a hand on the wood cylinder, as if they too were about to climb. Those in the middle of the crowd held their fingers pinched in the air in a way that, from the perspective of their camera, made it look as if they were about to pluck Homer off the pole. Those in the back, still unsure what was going on, steadily pushed their way to the front.

Then Homer saw it. An object, maybe a ball, maybe a basketball, flying up and down, up and down, up and down, way in the back of the crowd, nearly a full avenue away. His friends, once they reached periphery of the crowd, must have stopped to see what was causing the commotion. Homer waved his arms like someone stranded on a desert island waves at their rescuer. The boys waved back, but so did thousands of other onlookers, many of them trying to mimic Homer exactly so that their movements would look synchronized with his, as if this boy on the pole was leading a large flashmob in a well-rehearsed dance. Some people asked other people who looked in the know, “Is this a flashmob?”

Homer called out to his friends, screaming each of their names as loud as he could. His friends screamed back, but so did the thousands of strangers. The screams, bouncing off the glass windows of the buildings that encased the crowd, grew louder, compounding as the mass of screamers celebrated the incredible volume of their collective scream by screaming. Homer tried to ignore the din, and focus all his energy on the dot in the distance that he was sure was his tallest friend. He wanted to trying to connect with him telepathically, and by sheer will, plant a thought in his mind: “that small dot sitting atop that pole is me, Homer.”

Homer saw his tallest friend run over to another friend. He saw him frantically searching for something. He saw him pull what could have been a cell phone out of his backpack. Homer, who generally didn’t believe in magic, smiled wide, thinking his attempt at telepathy had worked, until his tallest friend, instead of making a call or sending a text, positioned one of the other boys in front of him. This boy looked to be posing with his hands up and one foot back, as if struggling to support the pole, the way tourists sometimes do when visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Once it seemed they got the shot, they ran to join the others, who had already turned to leave, which made sense because it was mid-afternoon now, and even if the group did, in fact, find the court, there would only be so much daylight left to play.