"The Green Thing" was the universal name on my cul-de-sac for the place where the neighborhood kids would meet. Technically speaking, "The Green Thing" was a "pad mounted transformer", a device used to step down long distance voltage for the usage of the homes on the street. It was more or less cube shaped, two or three feet on a side, rested on a small concrete foundation, and was made out of metal, and painted a dull green color.
There were seven homes on our street. In my childhood, five of those had children between the ages of 6 and the teens. (I had only a vague idea about the lives of the teenagers, because at 7 or 8, the junior high age students would have still seemed incredibly old to me.) One of the houses had a variety of people living in it, while the other was the home of a retired football player who was the subject of jokes for his obsessive lawn care, back when a football player's retirement would only be enough to afford a ranch house on a cul-de-sac. On the adjoining street that our cul-de-sac branched off from, there was also some kids our age: a kid two years older than me who loved Ronald Reagan, punk rock and Marvel Comic books, and a religious family who would still sometimes play with us. There was always a kid to play with on our street, and even with the shifting alliances and constant fighting of childhood, even though the kids in one of the houses were "the weird kids" (although, to be honest, we all might have been "weird kids"), we could always walk out into the street at random and find someone to do something with.
And this is where "The Green Thing", as it was universally known, came in. About waist high on a child, sitting squarely in our across-the-street-neighbor's front yard, and always warm and slightly humming, it was our natural meeting place. There were no parks close enough to our street: the closest park, part of a school complex, was half a mile away, which even in the days of free range children required parental notification and appropriate levels of daylight. So by default, the meeting place because "The Green Thing". It was there that we would imitate the wrestling moves we saw on the World Wrestling Federation, discuss which comic book hero could win in a fight with which other comic book hero or arrange trips to the fields and woods next to our suburban neighborhood. (Using the miracle of google maps, I've just measured that woods as being about 20 acres: a veritable wilderness when you are eight years old). Or we would go into one of our friend's house who had cable television (a luxury in the mid-80s). Or we would go to look for pollywogs in the ditch that ran along the main road. There was always possibilities, and they always started on that ugly green piece of metal.
One of the most interesting things to me is how naturally people create public spaces and public communities. In the Pacific Northwest, most towns grew up quickly after World War II. The neighborhood I lived in had probably been built, all at once, not more than a decade before I moved in. None of our parents had grown up in that town, or in that region. We were all strangers, thrown into the inward-facing world of the suburbs. Without parks, without common churches, without parents belonging to the same clubs, without any of the things that might connect us to each other, we instinctively had an idea of a community, and of public spaces. I think that at least one time, during a fight, the children that lived at the house with "The Green Thing" would forbid others from using it, but such a prohibition would have been laughed off as ridiculous: whatever the property lines were, we automatically knew that "The Green Thing" was for all of us, even though we would have followed an order to stay away from the rest of their property.
I don't overly sentimentalize my childhood. In some of our casual crueleties to each other, and to the constant level of danger we were allowed, I am sometimes just glad I escaped with most of my mental and physical health. But still, when I look back on those early years, I remember an instinctive feeling of belonging, a feeling that could be centered around something as commonplace as an ugly little green metal transformer humming along in our neighbor's yard.