I was a latchkey kid. We didn’t have grandmothers to look after us while our parents were at work. We knew how to heat up our lunch on an electric stove at the age of six. The parents would have let us use the gas, but we were afraid of matches back then. We left our parents clumsily penned paper notes before going off to spend endless hours at the unsupervised playground. We would go get our baby sister from kindergarten because there was no sense in our being apart when we could be home together. Back then, teachers didn’t think twice about letting a seven-year-old pick up a three-year-old and take her home.
Or maybe they just let me do it. Because when I say we, I mean I. More or less.
It doesn’t end here. I have a friend who took herself to kindergarten and back at the age of four. It does make one wonder about the raison d'être of the entire institution of kindergarten, but that is neither here nor there. We had more alone time than we would have wanted, and an unmistakable badabum-badabum way of thundering down five stories’ worth of stairs in thirty seconds. In school, you could always tell the kids who grew up in houses from those who lived in apartment blocks just by the way they used the stairs.
I started taking English lessons at the age of seven. Classes took place in an elementary school nearby, and my father would drive me there and back. As I got a little older, I started walking back myself.
There is a slope between the main road and the entrance to my apartment building. Human feet don’t like to follow paths of concrete, so they scuffed a shortcut through the patch of grass. The path would turn to mud when it rained, cake as it dried, and freeze over in December. It was the last part of my walk back home, so close to the door that I already had my keys in my hand as I approached it.
I don’t know what it was about that slope, but it always made my feet turn on the badabum-badabum and canter down it like a pony. It gave me momentum. It gave me joy. Those few seconds made me feel like anything could happen, and I could do anything I wanted. It was the end of my day and the sheer extraordinariness of walking home alone at night made the breeze smell differently. The world was different because a child skipped and hopped on a patch of dirt.
I would love to segue into something rainbowy and inspiring now, like I still feel like a little girl, or I skip down that slope whenever I return home, but that’s just not true. It stings more than a little to be living here again: it was not something I would have wanted for myself. These days, the pony canter is more of a thuggish saunter of the bride of Shrek munching on a pig-in-a-blanket from the bakery across the street. It’s more bathos instead of taking myself seriously. I do still take that path, though, and it does make me smile. Especially when I remember the time it iced over and I thought it might be a good idea to take the shortcut uphill. As an adult. When your center of gravity is not what it used to be.
When I was a latchkey kid, I didn’t use the elevator because I didn’t weigh enough for the electronics to register that there was a human inside the machine and get it moving. You could press the button and hold it until it started, but there was always a chance of the elevator just getting stuck with your little self in it. I don’t use the elevator now, either, but for different reasons: because it’s an awesome way of avoiding the neighbors, and because after sitting on my ass all day, climbing stairs is my only cardio.
I’ve gone round the block and spiraled back to wear the shoes of the latchkey kid again, laughing and biting my cuticles all the way home. Not that my coping mechanisms are stellar now, but I still don’t envy the weight of the world that that kid made herself carry. An artist of killing time, eternally alone, eternally waiting for that someone to finally come home.