There are certain places—mostly playgrounds—that post signs advising visitors that no unaccompanied adults will be admitted without a child escort. Sometimes, these are practical concerns: jungle gyms and ball pits are not made to bear a grownup’s weight. (This is to say nothing of creeps.) But maybe they are also meant to give kids a sense of specialness in a grown-up world.
There should be far more of these signs. In fact, they should be expanded to include “No unaccompanied adults on grounds of preserving their dignity” and “No unaccompanied adults on grounds of Baby Jane–style macabreness.” Signs for both these categories would bar adult entry to petting zoos; most merry-go-rounds, with special dispensation for the kind with brass rings; and any restaurants clearly intended primarily for little girls. (These prohibitions sort of apply to groups of wild teenagers who scare little children, but of course they know exactly what they’re doing and run the world.) It is not that I don’t understand a need for nostalgia and childlike wonder. But over the weekend—while I was accompanied by young children, may I add—I saw a young French woman texting as she rode the Central Park Carousel, so.
All of which brings us to the “Power of Poison” show at the American Museum of Natural History and how, a few days ago, I found myself standing in front of a model witch stirring a fake, steaming cauldron, while surrounded by school groups. Which is great, if that’s what you want. It is a really interesting show, in fact—once you can swallow the sky-high special exhibition entry fee—which gets into the science, history, and lore of poisoning, while presenting a bunch of hands-on workshops and multimedia demonstrations by museum docents. If I were a child, I think I would have loved it. “Let the lady see,” one of the teachers instructed a little boy, and I had the grace to be embarrassed.
It is a funny thing to wake up one day and be “the lady,” a grownup who is defined by not having a connection to a child. It is not something one envisions. Sure, anyone can ride the carousel for three dollars. But when my friends asked me if I wanted to ride with their three-year-old, I shook my head, because I knew she would feel safer with one of her parents, and would say yes only to be polite.
It is, of course, dangerous to start thinking about The Catcher in the Rye every time one is in Central Park, or the Museum of Natural History, or feeling lonely for childhood. I felt sheepish when I pulled my old, middle-school copy off my bookshelf. But:
Then the carousel started, and I watched her go round and round … All the kids tried to grasp for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’s fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.
Of course, the old Central Park carousel burned down in 1950. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, and the current one would not yet have been open. The new one also doesn’t have brass rings. But blurring these lines is what fiction is for.