In the northwestern suburbs of Carlisle, Pennsylvania sits a perfectly rectangular park. Bordered by four roads that meet at sharp right angles, Lindner Park could be either the bane or the bread-and-butter of city planning: just big enough to fit a children’s playground, rickety swing-set and several benches, but too small to be—in my city-girl’s estimation at least—a self-respecting park.
I reach these conclusions on the second floor of a hundred-year-old home across the road, where I spend most of my days looking at the park and listlessly keeping track of its visitors and their movements. There is no great reason behind this surveillance, other than the fact that the park confronts me every time I look up from my desk and out my window.
Most days by Lindner are ordinary, but in the most extraordinary ways. Where else in 2020 do antique cars rumble by so casually on suburban asphalt roads, decked in colors and plates that belong more in throwback auctions than on the streets? Why do the rabbits, fluffy and doe-eyed, scream at one another as they fight for territory on front lawns? Why—and this is the question that I ponder most frequently—do I see, on an average day, more adults riding on the swings than I do children?
On a recent Sunday, my housemates and I were eating breakfast on the porch when we saw a mask-wearing man—in his twenties? Thirties? Guessing became our little game—jump off his bike to sit on one of Lindner Park’s four swings. Deep cavities had formed in the woodchips below each swing, worn from years of feet kicking for momentum. With his bike parked at the corner where the woodchips ended, the man—helmet still on head—perched precariously on the swing closest to us and, barely perceptibly, started to move.
“Who are these people?” were the words that tumbled out of my mouth that morning. What I wanted to get at was my perennial question regarding the swings. My housemate on the first floor, whose window also looks out at Lindner Park, smirked and remarked, in between bites of quiche: “swing voters.”
We laughed, of course.
It was the kind of joke that was uproariously funny only in the fall of 2020 on a porch at the corner of Lindner Park, which shares a lawn with a bungalow displaying a blue flag emblazoned with the word ‘VOTE.’ Across the road, on the western length of the park, the owners of a towering gothic house have placed a Biden sign in their front yard, while, one or two blocks away, Trump’s name adorns someone else’s grass.
“Lucky guy,” an older man called out from a folding chair when my housemates and I—one guy and three girls—walked by that lawn one afternoon. We spent the next block thinking of what we could’ve said in response, but we had no good answers.
Then, there are the houses that say nothing. The eastern length of the park is a mystery, packed with homes with tall hedges hiding all clues regarding the existence of yard signs, if they exist at all. And there are many yard signs in Carlisle: SUBURBAN WOMEN FOR BIDEN, reads one. MAGA 2020, reads another. Science is real and Love is love, but the country is supposedly not great, at the moment at least, and some homes have no opinion.
On the morning after we’d seen the swing voter, I fell off a bike in another park a few miles away. I had fallen while trying to swerve away from two light-haired Judys, who were spending the mid-morning digging up a plaque for the Carlisle Garden Club. Together we laughed about my fall, and the Judys told me they were neighbors on the street “with all the Biden and Harris signs.” My Carlisle geography was imperfect, I confessed, because I’d just moved to town; when I told them where I was from, the younger of the Judys chirped: “I’d love to visit South Korea.”
Later, after a half-hour of small talk, she said that if I ever needed a place to go for Thanksgiving, “we’ll get some gas heaters and organize something in the backyard. We can make it work.”
Fay’s, a country diner a few blocks away, had not made it work. That’s what a Gettysburg College arts professor told me when I walked into her gallery space on West High Street one afternoon. “My husband and I used to love Fay’s,” she told me, “but the state made them shut down for a bit because they didn’t follow the social distancing stuff. Now we don’t go there anymore.”
When I asked why, she said, “I don’t know. It’s kind of political.”
We were the only two people in the entire building, and we stood six feet apart with masks hiding half our faces. I wondered if the daily mundanities of familiar places—of seeing mouths, standing close together, eating breakfast at Fay’s—would ever be the same as they were before, and if so, then when?
If not, then what?
On both walks home after meeting the Judys and the professor, I passed a big American flag fluttering in the autumn wind, standing mightily over historical plaques that detailed wars and revolutions I’d heard about but never in great detail. As expected on a regular Carlisle afternoon, there were at least a half-dozen vintage cars humming along on the road. I lowered my face under my hat when they drove by because I was convinced then, as I often am in Carlisle, that I was being looked at, or watched.
After all, there aren’t many people who look like me here.
This is probably why I prefer to do the watching, and why I can’t help but observe, as absurdities become normalities in Lindner Park, an unlikely meeting point for a mix of people doing unlikely things. But perhaps I am bringing in too many of my own preconceptions to this place, which is still not one I can call my own: here I am only an observer, a watcher, a non-resident, alien can’t-voter. I have watched the park for thirty days but have been inside it fewer than five times.
A week after that breakfast on the porch, I spent a long evening hour calling a friend working for the federal government in D.C. During the conversation, I often thought about how his job is one I—a non-citizen—could never have; the behind-the-scenes of this country is one I will only ever see through someone else’s eyes.
Yet in the fall of 2020, it seemed like he didn’t understand much of it either. After walking a clean lap from my blue-doored home to the edge of downtown, I ended up in Lindner Park, which was flushed in the light of a full moon. I was surprised to see how visible my bedroom was from the park, and I was quietly mortified because I’d believed that no one could see me all along.
While rambling to my friend about my mortification, I perched myself on a swing and began kicking against the sand chips in the ground. It felt like the only natural thing to do. Against the resistance I pushed harder and harder until the momentum built up and I was swaying, then swinging, then moving in a clean arc up and down over the playground, getting closer and closer to seeing the tip of my neighbors’ fancy house and the attic of my own home. And then I understood why that man—in his twenties? thirties?—had taken a turn on the swings, and why all the other men and women had done this too, taking up the seats that children should have in a park in the middle of Carlisle, in an act suggesting that the normal is hard to explain, the abnormal even harder, but perhaps we should get comfortable with the strangeness and maybe, if we’re lucky, find a reason to have fun again.
Nausea eventually caused me to stop. After swinging around for a few minutes, all I wanted was solid ground. I walked home in the dark, teetering a little, and told my friend I had to go. My head was spinning, and it felt like it would always be, at least in this house, overlooking this rectangular park, in this fall, in this year, with its yard signs and the distances and the watching, waiting for something to happen, but having no explanations for what does.