Amid a puzzling pandemic, they started posting riddles outside. Here’s what came next
Back before everyone wore masks in stores, back before elbows were needed to press crosswalk buttons, back before it was clear the school year was history and bad hair days were the new norm, the Larson family started pondering ways to spread some cheer in their neighborhood.
The epiphany came in mid-March when one of their two kids, 6-year-old Reid, suddenly offered up a riddle.
“Dad, do you want to know a difficult question?” Jay Larson recalls Reid as saying. “What letter holds the most water?”
Thus the riddles were born.
Soon after, the Larsons started posting riddles on a sign board on their lawn, far enough away from their front door that they could safely interact with neighbors. Kate Larson and their kids, Reid and 4-year-old River, hand-paint the riddles each day, posting the answers on the back of the sign. This was the first one:
1. What letter holds the most water? (Answers at the end).
Soon it took off. Others in their Mar Vista neighborhood started adorning their yards with riddles, jokes and brain twisters. Stir-crazy house dwellers organized their daily walks around visiting the yard displays, often meeting neighbors they had never met before.
The family has been posting riddles for 40-plus days, but Kate Larson said it has yet to get old. She looks forward to awaking each morning and helping her kids choose and paint that day’s riddle. She’s incorporated it into their home-schooling routine, and feels good about creating a conversation starter.
“At times like this you are craving the social interaction you are lacking everywhere else,” said Kate. “It is so important to have those distanced relationships that are still meaningful and fun. Something lighthearted.”
Across Los Angeles and beyond, sheltered-in-place people are finding ways to cope and connect with others amid the coronavirus pandemic. Yard art, dad jokes, sidewalk chalk drawings and poetry are all part of the mix.
For the Larsons, they initially thought they’d be posting their riddles for two weeks or so. But the lockdown dragged out, and things took a turn for the worse.
Two weeks in, Kate learned that her employer, a New York-based jewelry company, was furloughing her and hundreds of other employees nationwide. Jay, a stand-up comedian, no longer had gigs, but had fortunately just started a job writing for a streaming service, which suddenly was in high demand.
“First it was like — two weeks. OK, two weeks. We can handle that. And then — boom — everyone is furloughed. Then, boom, it is going to be another month. And then everything was shut down. And then masks.”
2. What are the best kind of jokes during a quarantine?
The Larsons, like many Americans, have struggled through the reality that friends and coworkers are sick, and that some may not survive the pandemic. But they say they’ve tried not to dwell on the darker sides of the moment.
“I don’t think I ever let my mind get there,” said Kate.
“We were like, let’s not get upset about things we can’t control,” said Jay. “Let’s focus on the things we can control, and make that our best world.”
3. Where do you take a sick pirate ship?
Nearly every day, Kate takes her kids on a walk through Mar Vista, where she and Jay have lived since they married a decade ago.
Sandwiched between Santa Monica and Culver City, Mar Vista is one of many L.A. neighborhoods in transition. On many blocks north of Venice Boulevard, speculators are buying up modest ranch houses, tearing them down and replacing them with lot-filling, multi-story modern homes that sell for $3 million or more.
The most expensive homes have a vista of the mar, perched on palm-lined streets such as Grand View Ave. But the 90066 area code also includes families of more modest means. Nearly two-thirds of the area’s 42,000 households are renters.
During her walks with the kids, Kate makes a circuit by other joke and riddle houses that have sprung up.
Dana and Robbie Schwartz and their two kids have started posting daily jokes, inspired by the Larson’s handiwork.
On Monday, they posted this joke on their tree.
4. What happened when the butcher backed into his meat grinder?
Hanging out on the front lawn, their kids Nina, 11, and Peter, 8, have been known to pepper passersby with jokes.
5. Why couldn’t the koala get a loan?
Peter burst into giggles while sharing this one, more edgy than some others.
6. What borders on stupidity?
From there, the Larsons stroll by the “AT-AT house,” so named because its front yard includes a giant blow-up replica of the All-Terrain Armored Transports in the Star Wars movies. Then they stop by the “chicken house,” where the Rodriguez family have three chickens scratching around the front yard.
On Monday, Caleb Rodriguez, age 11, showed off his latest hand-drawn posters that describe the three chickens, named Cargo, Frankie and Rocky. “I thought it would make people happy,” he said of his sign.
Kathy Rodriguez, who works as a nurse at UCLA, said the neighborhood is starting to feel like it did back in the 1990s, when they first moved there. People are out and about more, and have more time to chat — from a distance.
“We have met so many lovely people,” said Rodriguez, still in her nurses scrubs after getting back from a shift. “Kate being one of them.”
As she was talking, a neighbor, Kelly Covato, stopped by with a bag of flour for Kathy.
“This has been the hit of the neighborhood,” said Covato, pointing to the chickens and Caleb’s hand-drawn sign.
Back at the Larson home, the school lessons are done, Jay’s work day is behind him and the sun is starting to drop in the sky. The family sometimes sits out on the lawn and chats with whoever is strolling by.
“So many good things have come out of this,” said Kate, who said she previously would travel for work about 80 days each year, leaving little time for the family. “Now I sit with these kids every day, and I realize how many things I missed out about their lives, because I was gone all the time.”
Asked to share their favorite riddles, the Larsons included this one.
7. When times get tough, what do you have that you can always count on?
1) C; 2) Inside jokes; 3) To the dock; 4) He got a little behind in his work; 5) Because he wasn’t koala-fied; 6) Canada and Mexico; 7) Love.