Driving downtown yesterday, we passed a charming small park, perhaps half a block square. Gracious shade trees, brand-new-in-the-world jonquils, lush grass someone clearly tended on a regular basis. And a large white sign insisting: NO LOITERING.
"Loitering"? Interesting word, "loiter." Always sounds a bit odd when pronounced. And the word has some sound-cousins with distasteful connotations: "goiter," "toilet," "hoity-toity." Plus
"coitus," of course --not in itself a distasteful concept for sure, but an ugly-sounding, medicinal term that we never use in eager invitation or sweet memory of the game itself.
But back to the park. And the ban on loitering. One dictionary defines "loiter" thus: "To delay an activity with aimless idle stops and pauses; to remain in an area for no obvious reason; to hang around."
Holy Thoreau! Guilty as charged! A good part of my day is spent delaying a given activity (such as doing laundry or writing email) with aimless stops and pauses! Heck, I'm good for as much as a two-week delay on just changing a light bulb. And almost every day, I drive past the horse farm down the road, steer off the highway to a precarious, teetering halt on the brink of the ditch, and remain in the area as long as I can, for no obvious reason that any witness could testify about. I just "hang around," watching the seven new colts nicker at each other, flex their unwieldy long legs, sprint independently away from their grazing mothers and then skitter quickly back to nurse if something startles them.
As to Thoreau himself: if my guy upstairs on roller skates has brought me the right information, Thoreau spent one night in jail on some non-payment of taxes charge; but if the local constabulary had posted NO LOITERING statutes around, Henry would have been permanently incarcerated. He was our nation's first serious Loiterer, and perhaps our best. (Well, he and E. B. White.) His idle stops and pauses resulted in observations that high school kids and retirees and mobs of other folks still read and underline and commit to memory and quote in town meetings.
So what are parks about these days? Organized family reunions, I guess; organized public protests with clearly defined reasons and appointed pickets; organized craft fairs hawking local jams and jellies and imported wicker-ware. Just be sure you have a shopping list in hand when you enter the park-fair; if you merely saunter aimlessly along, you'll be up on loitering charges, and there may not be a pro bono attorney hanging around to take your case.