Let me explain how Alex drank from the sewer.
A late-June heat wave had snapped by Saturday, and I struck out for my semi-monthly Free-Jill-From-Her-Fetters Day. On these weekend days, I wheel the guys out mid-morning, the stroller festooned with diapers, balls, sandbox toys, extra water shoes and clothes, until it looks like a jeep in the front lines of France. We hit McD's for breakfast, then a playground, then maybe I do a local errand or two, then we have lunch in a park somewhere, then another playground (preferably on the West Side or downtown, so there's a long stroll involved).
Then I wheel the guys home and strut around the house like an athlete after a big game, with the sore hams to match. I call these "two-a-days," after the NFL's twice-a-day practices in early-summer training camp. This is a tough day for a daddy who's 41 and a half, and who thinks the word "gym" is meaningless unless it's preceded by the word "Slim." Still, the day keeps the boys outside for up to seven straight hours, , even if they're often riding. They usually skip a nap, and the outdoor air works like a mallet for getting them to sleep by 7:30. Get them asleep my 7:30, and historically I've got 12 hours of peace on top of having Jill owe me. A good deal, minus the price of half a tube of Ben-Gay.
On Saturday of the Sewer, we'd done the McD's and the first playground stop. We'd also done lunch; after Ned rejected the sidewalk vendor hot dog. As the old watch on my sweaty wrist crawled past 3 p.m., we were at Playground Two, on Central Park West. This playground has a sprinkler, several swings, a sandbox, and three jungle-gyms complete with two tall twirly slides. I parked the stroller in the shade and unclipped the boys' seatbelts.
Alex bolted for the sprinklers, Ned for the jungle gym, me for the nearest bench. My method of watching my guys on the playground usually works. I sit on a bench and watch for glimpses of their shirts. Mostly I have to watch Alex, who likes to root in the back of other people's strollers for junk food. Ned has become comfortable and confident on even the tall, twirly slides.
Unless, that is, you ask the woman suddenly barreling toward me from the jungle gym on which I'd last seen Ned climbing. "Excuse me, but is this your son?" she said. She pointed to the top of the set, where Ned was wiggling into position to slide down. I said yes.
"Well he's gonna get hurt! He's too young to come down that slide!"
I assured her he was familiar with, if not certified on, this particular piece of playground apparatus.
"It's wet!" she pointed out. "If I hadn't helped him just now he would have gotten hurt."
The slide was indeed wet. I thanked her, and helped Ned zip down. He ran off toward the parallel bars, the general area where the woman and her three girls had gone, and I headed off to help Alex into the swings. I got Alex going, then returned to find this same woman coming toward me, carrying Ned like a seed sack in her outstretched arms.
"Here we go!" she said to me. "He hurt himself! His ear's all red. I don't know what happened but you have to watch him!"
This woman seemed to love to speak in italics. I decided to use some of my own. "Thank you!" I said.
I returned to Alex and gave him another push while Ned played with the hinges of the iron gate. I tried to get him away from that, while across the babble of the children on a summer's day I could see my overseer talking to a companion, shaking her head and making swift chopping motions with her hands.
I did a little chasing and a little sitting and a little you have to watch him!, and a while later I found myself with Alex back at the swings, and who should be next to me - letting her girl stand in the baby swing, incidentally - but Ms. Overseer.
"Mister," she said to me, "I didn't realize you had two little ones to watch. It's hard with two ..."
I agreed, and, to demonstrate I held no playground grudge, I chatted about how the parks department had removed the tire swings until it was time to let Alex out and go find Ned.
Something told me then to start packing up soon. I corralled Ned and buckled him in, promising pizza I had and my aching legs had no intention of stopping for, and I turned to find Alex when here, my god, here again came Ms. Overseer with one of my kids in her arms.
I was about to tell her she had touched my kids way too often in the past hour when she said: "This is just a comment, but he was drinking from the sewer."
I considered trying to explain, but you can't explain things to some people. (July 2003)
Wing Ning Ning
This sunny Sunday, Jill thinks we should take Alex and Ned on a train ride. She suggests a half-hour ride to Westchester County on Metro-North, a local commuter line.
I guess it'd be something to do, and they'd probably love it. They're always playing with the wooden train set from grandma. I've since added a plastic set from eBay; Jill recently came home with a Thomas the Tank Engine roundhouse and, believe it or not, an engine-washing garage. As little Americans, all they need to complete their railroading empire is a tiny toy herd of buffalo that their passengers can shoot wantonly as the train rolls by.
The subway has often taken us on urban rattlerides to other boroughs of New York. The boys love the subway, especially the emergency brake lever. But they've never taken a long train trip, which in this part of the United States tends to involve Amtrak, America's dining car-equipped alternative to hitting the freeway. Vistas from passenger trains in this part of the country, excepting the scenic ride up the Hudson to Albany, look like a moving mural about the wrong side of the tracks: tenements, vacant lots, abandoned factories, the thrill of an occasional boat on a canal or splash of color of a strip mall, but mostly it's just the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.
One stretch of tenements and lots that Metro-North commuters get a view of, however, is ours: The line runs elevated along the section of Upper Park Avenue near our apartment building. Often, as I wheel the boys through East Harlem in their stroller, we see the train flashing by, and I make my train noise.
"Boys, train!" I say. "Wing ning ning..."
The subway gets us to Grand Central, where Jill buys tickets while I take the boys on a tug around the concourse. We pass the many cops leaning against the wall and the many National Guardsmen in combat fatigues. One plus about the post-9/11 world: Your odds of getting mugged in a New York transit center have dropped to almost zero. I'm admiring a sergeant's M-16 when Alex, a hand-to-hand combat expert in his own right, lifts his own legs from beneath him and lets his body weight fall on my arm and shoulder. Apparently he wants to break free and discovers what in fact is under a commuter train as it pulls from the station.
Jill comes back with our tickets. "Twenty-two bucks!" she says. "Maybe next time we won't go so far." She doesn't know where we get the train, so we head for Grand Central's famous information booth, the round one topped with a clock, where millions of dates (including some of mine and Jill's) have begun. Jill gets the track and time, and we dive underground.
The silver train hisses at the platform. Heads and eyes peering from many of the bright windows. We board, me tugging Alex and Jill bringing Ned, and Jill holds out until we find four seats facing each other. The car smells of cheap upholstery and passing strangers. We get all settled in, the train pulls out. Alex looks out the window at the lights of the tunnel flashing by.
Ned explodes. He's pitching a fit; he's kicking; he's crying. Probably hungry. We dig out his jelly sandwich. I start to open the Baggie, but Ned wants to do it. He's kicking; he's crying. Every screech makes me want to become one of those passengers who hates passengers like me. Across the aisle, a Chinese couple with a little boy about Ned's age politely ignore us.
A conductor stops over Ned, a portly man in a blue kepi and sagging worn black leather belt. He starts punching a ticket. He punches and punches as a flurry of white paper ticket pieces flutters onto Ned's leg. "Here," the conductor says, handing the ticket to Ned.
Ned quiets down as he studies the riddled ticket. I pass him a wedge of cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwich. He slaps it to the floor, where it lands on a cigarette butt; so much for that, unless we get desperate. Ned accepts the second wedge, and I root in the diaper bag for my own ham-and-cheese. By the time the train is into the tunnel leading north from Grand Central, Ned has a corner of sandwich in his mouth. He's having a little trouble, though, and I lean in to help him.
"Don't touch him!" Jill says. "He's like a little quivering, poisonous snake. He's like an asp. Don't touch him." I look across the aisle at the Chinese boy. He's doing math. In Chinese.
Ned munches his sandwich as the train surfaces. Alex looks out the window at the slums flying by. One of them is probably our building. "Ned, look," says Jill. "Look, there's our street! That's where you stand to watch the train!"
Wing ning ning. The train surfaces above East 96th Street in Manhattan. Ned clambers up to peer out the window alongside Alex, and together they watch the scenery evolve from overused New York and South Bronx to a landscape that slowly becomes cleaner and richer. Brick gives way to trees. Grass replaces broken glass. As the stops go by, pricier cars twinkle in the parking lots.
The boys are glued to the window. Jill is reading a book. I'm sated on what Jill likes me to call "one of my wife's excellent sandwiches," off my feet at least on cheap upholstery, savoring a few minutes' peace even though I'm with my kids, and wondering why we didn't do this sooner. Twenty bucks is a bargain to let our boys watch the world zip by, a moving mural painted, on this Sunday, just for them. (July 2003)
Hogging the Bed
Jill and Ned have taken off for the week to Jill's cousin's house in Cape Cod, leaving me and Alex on our own.
Last time I had the house to myself -- sort of -- was 1996, when Jill went somewhere PK (Pre-Kids) and a friend called me the first night and proclaimed, "So, you're a bachelor again this week!" I was, except then there was no Alex.
Day One: Jill and Ned leave about 10 a.m., and I kick off my week of single fatherhood by calling in a babysitter and going to see Pirates of the Caribbean. Great movie, just my stuff. I'm nagged throughout the movie, however, by wondering if Alex is having a good afternoon. I get home around 6:30 and pay the babysitter, who says Alex had a good afternoon and went to the park and already had a bath, and I try to take Alex out to the corner for ice cream. Instead, he wants a detour to the snack bar in nearby Central Park for chips. He sits on a bench and munches them while I finish his cone. We go home, and he gets a second bath. He falls asleep around 9 p.m., and the house goes oddly silent. Definitely easier having just one screaming child at home. Plus Ned is gone, too.
Day Two: Me and Alex alone today. We strike out about 9:30. It's soupy and humid, so I decide he'd be better off with short runs on several playgrounds rather than longer runs on fewer. His attention span is shorter than Ned's, whose needs I don't have to consider (for the first time on a playground in two years), so Alex and I hit five playgrounds. He eats well, too: cheese off a slice of pizza, and six McNuggets. We return home, and find the place weirdly just like we left it. We do laundry and watch Elmo until about six, when he gets an early bath. I eat early: pork chops, which Jill never makes. We watch "Enterprise," which Jill never watches. Again Alex fades around 9 p.m., and I get ready for the overnight, during which I'm sure he will come in to pounce on me at least once. In the nighttime hours before he does, I hog the bed and pillows.
Day Three: Alex's school bus never shows, so I take him to school and walk to work after. Along the way, I wonder if I shut the air conditioner off in our (my?) bedroom, and so plan to shoot home at noon before picking him up at school around 2. In keeping with the growing tradition of this week of single fatherhood, a babysitter is coming at 4.
When she arrives, I head out to buy groceries, and run smack into our weird and violent August weather: downpours, thunder, and sun showers. This is the strangest early August I can remember. I have a wife and two kids, but she and one of the kids is three states away. Day turns into night without warning. And it rains hard enough to obliterate the other side of the street. I duck into Barnes and Noble and buy Ned a Finding Nemo sticker book and Alex a book on construction trucks.
That evening, I watch "Hornblower," while Alex ignores his new truck book and giggles into the phone to Aunt Julie. Jill calls to say she's coming home Wednesday. Overnight, I hog the bed and pillows.
Day Four: I take Alex to some rides in Central Park. He kicks and squirms at the idea of going on any, however, so we have to leave. He elects instead to climb the rocks nearby, with their 5-foot drops, broken glass, and probably crack needles. We also hit an expansive playground, where he runs he ragged in the high humidity. Then it's McD's chicken, and home. Overnight, he gets up a couple of times. Next morning, I have to run home at noon, convinced I forgot to lock the front door. I'm not cut out to be a bachelor anymore. (August 2003)
Once again the sharp air of fall has flushed the heat waves, the sun shines clear, and the breeze tingles after the welter of summer. To step outside is to feel alive.
Time again to sit in front of the TV and watch football.
"You still on this football thing?" Jill asks. "I would've thought you'd have moved on from that by now."
"Watch 'Star Trek'!" says Ned. Alex brings me the tape of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."
Tonight the New York Giants play the New England Patriots. Being a Washington Redskins fan, I obviously don't follow professional football - they've stunk for a decade - but any two teams provide a chance to bond with my guys.
"Watch 'Star Trek'!" says Ned.
My boys have history with America's fall violence. Alex was barely home a few years back when I deposited him in front of the TV and we watched the Patriots and the New York Jets. I spent the second quarter slopping apple-blueberry stuff into Alex's face. He showed more ability than some Jets receivers as he pulled in the spoon and extended himself for the Fisher-Price gym even while being tackled by dad. That's the kind of spirit that wins Super Bowls.
When we were expecting Ned, Aunt Julie suggested naming him Joseph, which I liked because it sounded good with Stimpson and was the first name of a great coach in Redskins history. I also suggested "Bailey" since the Redskins have an outstanding player named Bailey. "'Bailey' it isn't!" my wife Jill replied. Tonight she's agreed to snap some pictures, but she clearly doesn't understand football. She hasn't convinced a string of girlfriends to care passionately about a group of gargantuan strangers playing football in Washington for obscene amounts of money.
I squirm into a Redskins T shirt, setting the mood if though they're not playing. "I'm not taking your picture in that thing," says Jill. Ned does seem initially excited -- "Ga wa futba!" -- until he realizes that we can't watch football and "Star Trek" simultaneously. Alex positions the "Great Pumpkin" box in front of my face. I prop them both beside me on the couch.
The announcer booms his welcome to the following presentation of the National Football League. Ned murmurs to himself ("...'Star Trek' ...?"); Alex squirms off the couch and starts rattling the window blinds, which he knows annoys me. Then he studies his toy school bus as the Patriots kick off to the Giants, and the Giants fumble the ball.
A commercial comes on, with guys drinking beer and watching boxing. Ned looks bored, despite being assured that it's Miller Time. Alex tries to pry the mirror off the dining room wall. Neither will sit on my lap for a picture.
The Patriots score. I expect Ned to cheer. He doesn't. He gets off the couch and looks for a toy. Maybe he'll cheer when the Redskins play. Maybe in the playoffs. Maybe now we'll watch "Star Trek." (August 2003)
Lately my boys have made me happy as a father.
"Watch 'Star Trek'!" Ned says, right out of their evening bath. "Oh yea, watch 'Star Trek'!" The Next Generation's Enterprise looms across our TV screen and flies into a big blue thing. "It's coming ... it's coming ... it's coming," says Ned, as the ship gets bigger. "Oooooo!"
Never too early to mess with their heads. "Ned, say 'Klingon.'
"Ned, say 'Captain Picard.'"
"Picarrrrd," says Alex. He likes hard consonants. He always hit the final T hard when I asked him to finish the "Would you, could you, with a goat?" part of Green Eggs and Ham. We never have time to read that anymore.
"Watcha 'Elmo?'" says Alex.
The other night Ned was sitting on the couch beside Jill during the one where the Enterprise receives a radio signal no one can explain from a planet that is supposedly uninhabited. Actually, most of them were like that. "Dada!" Ned cried. "Dada!"
"What's that, Ned?" said Jill. "You want daddy? He's right over there, in the recliner."
"Daddy's right over there, Ned."
I watched Picard and his bridge crew try to unravel their mystery, then I turned to Jill. "He's not saying 'dada,'" I told her. "He's saying, 'Mr. Data.'"
The boys seem to like "Next Generation." They haven't seen the old show yet. Ned doesn't like "Enterprise." No matter. To hear them say "Klingon" is bliss, but to hear them say "Captain Picard" very heaven. "Star Trek" is special. I remember when I was a freshman in high school and one of our local stations finally put the original show back on in syndication. Whole school went home and watched it. I was a real fan: I had many of the books, and had seen every episode several times and knew them all by name. And in which of the show's three seasons it aired. A little much, but I guess it was better than drugs.
I once had a whole fantasy life about serving in Starfleet. Not with this crew or with the Shatner bunch, but with my own crew that included a Canadian first officer, an Hispanic helmsman, a Russian doctor, and a blue alien. I was naturally the captain, I was from Boston, and my name was Thaddeus, which was my grandfather's name in my "real" life. I grew up, of course, and stopped fantasizing about this kind of thing months ago after Jill caught me in the bedroom making little explosion noises.
"Next Generation," which airs right after "Seinfeld," makes my life complete. A world with a ship, which I like, and characters who live in regimented order. Everybody on "Star Trek" does what they're supposed to when things go wrong. And all their stuff works.
Says Picard: "We may be able to use the ship's main deflector dish to emit an inverted tachyon pulse to repair the rift in the space-time continuum."
"No, no," says Ned. "Fall down!"
"Watcha 'Elmo'!" says Alex.
"And the characters notice when things go wrong," Jill adds. I sold her on the show early in our relationship, though she isn't above the occasional snippy comment. The other night, for instance, aliens had taken over the bodies of three characters, who then phasered everybody in sight. "Don't you think this is just a little silly?" Jill asked.
As a matter of fact I didn't -- she's always coming in at the middle and can't pick up the story -- but I shut the TV off anyway when Ned picked up a plastic toy pea pod and began brandishing it like a phaser, making zapping noises and then collapsing like those who'd been shot on the show.
I never used to believe that violence-on-TV-and-kids stuff, but now I'm careful to pick pacific episodes, and let the boys sit on the couch or nestle with me in the recliner. Alex often falls asleep across his stuffed Elmo, but Ned will wag his head over and over at suggestions that he go to bed after the first commercial break. Jill thinks they want to watch just because I do, but I hope the show remains special to them long after they can spell "Romulan."
She could be right, though. Ned came out of his bath last night, for instance, and said, "Oh yea. Watch 'Seinfeld!'" (September 2003)
Jill and I rise in the darkness of the morning to get Alex to his school bus, and Jill stumbles down the hall to the bathroom while I grope for my morning shorts. Then she splits the dark with screams. Oh oh oh! Over and over, breathless pistol shots.
You'd never guess this noise could come out of a relatively small person. Must be something special. Once when we lived in upstate New York and had a chimney and two cats, Jill woke me one morning with, "There are bird parts all over the living room!" That was special.
So's this: "THERE'S A MOUSE IN OUR BATHROOM!"
I immediately realize that this isn't another giggly domestic chestnut about a dad chasing a mouse. The dad has become me, and the domicile my apartment. "A mouse?" I inquire.
"AmouseorawaterbugIdon'tknowwhich!" she says. "It's big!"
How big could one mouse be? I'm hoping it's a water bug, because you can spray for those, and they make a really cool sound when you smack one with your shoe. Kind of like a board. I remember one of my first domiciles in New York-
A furry gray bullet with a slithering tail runs right at me across the black and white bathroom tiles. Then down the sideboard past our closets and into a pile of crap Jill really should've picked up by now. Where's the broom? Where's the broom? Always go after a mouse with a broom. Moves so fast it's hard to remember it's a mammal.
I shift the pile of crap, but there's no sign he ever existed. Why do I assume he's a male?
Bugs I kill. Mice I kind of like; I had a pet mouse once, saved from a lab that studied the eating habits of snakes. For much of our childless time together, Jill and I had cats, and they also like mice. We don't have cats now. We have two small boys. What if he bites the boys?
We had a mouse a few months ago. I bought two traps then, and smeared the little copper triggers with peanut butter. (My mother used peanut butter on traps, muttering things like, "I'll fix you, you little Christer...") We caught that mouse a while ago, and unlike my mother I throw away successfully used mousetraps. So we have one trap left over, and I swiftly bait and slide it behind the pile of crap.
Maybe we should call an exterminator. "An exterminator will lay glue traps," says Jill. My old roommate used to say of glue traps, "People say it's cruel, but I don't care." My imagination won't allow me to abide glue traps. So I buy four more spring traps, and that night smear a glob of Jiffy on three, keeping two in reserve in case Mickey turns out to be smarter than I think.
I pull the spring-trap back, thinking it's easily capable of cracking Ned's finger. I slide the little thing into the little thing, and ge-ge-ge-ge-gently ease my fingers off the trap in case it hasn't really caught thereletgo!, then I take the handle of the Swiffer mop that Jill never put together ("I feel it could change my life!" she said) and slide the 99-cent traps under the radiator and couch, feeling like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Check it out, Mickey! You gotta little surprise coming to you!
I try to slide the trap well out of reach and sight of the boys. Alex often gets up in the middle of the night, and isn't above nosing around. "I think you'll find out kids are why people use glue traps," says Jill.
Next morning, in the darkness, as she heads to the bathroom, Jill calls out, "Okay. Here I am on my way into the bathroom!" No Mickey. We get our coffee and shake out Alex, and we're relaxing over "The Wild Thornberrys" when Mickey shoots around the TV unit, straight across the living room, and under the couch. Jill lets out a single yelp and flees. Alex doesn't notice, even though Mickey almost runs over him. I chase Mickey along one bookshelf and, zip, into the kitchen.
"Brazen little Christer," I tell Jill later.
"He isn't 'brazen,'" Jill says. "He's terrified. He doesn't know what to do. He's just trying to stay out of our way." Her attitude is softening from the morning of "It's big!" Why do we assume it's a male? "Because to be honest I can't bear the thought of killing a pregnant female," Jill says.
By the third morning, I've also softened, whispering gruff but gold-hearted dialogs with Mickey to mutter instead of catching him ("Aw c'mon, mouse, give me a break ..."). I try to not kick myself for spending little time shopping for traps, for missing the covered traps, the human cage traps, the let's-work-this-out-Mickey traps.
I lay my landmines, and each morning find them untouched. Each morning, I trip the ones I thought the boys might find. Once, Alex was rolling on the kitchen floor when he stopped, his eye caught by the trap under the radiator. Another day I discovered when I got home that I'd left a cocked trap by the couch, within easy range of little toes, all day.
"Did you catch anything?" Jill's mom asked.
"So do we still have a mouse, or what?" Jill asked.
After four mouse-less nights and mornings, I detonated the traps and put them away in the cabinet. I hope I got all the Jiffy off. It could attract bugs. (November 2003)
Go to Chapter VIII.
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