Archives for category: Parenting

IT’S IN THE JEANS

“Blue jeans are for farmers,” said my father.
I heard that pronouncement throughout childhood, first directed to my older brothers and, eventually, to me.
Lou Sanders’ Menswear in Philadelphia stocked Wranglers and Levi’s for customers but never for home consumption. There were few things my father, who had been born to a poor family in Ukraine, felt so strongly. He had no objection to selling work clothes to laborers, but his children were not to appear like proletarians. This belief was ironic, given that my father was far more sympathetic to the politics of the Red Army than to the White Army when the two alternately over-ran his childhood neighborhood.
I never managed to understand my father’s fickle political philosophy. I recall him reading the Socialist Workers’ newspaper when I was little. He was so sympathetic to Communist ideals I wondered, sometimes, why he ever left Russia in the first place. I understood, on some level, that it was a matter of economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution, but he would not express distaste for the Soviet Union even in the face of Stalin’s obvious depredations. Perhaps, he held an idealized memory of his childhood there. But considering his family chose to flee the country, how ideal could it have been?
On the domestic front, my father disliked Johnson and despised Nixon, but he complained bitterly about those who demonstrated against them, too. He was equally dismissive of politicians on the liberal side, such as Humphrey or McGovern.
The picture painted above is more negative than I mean to depict. When my father skewered someone or something, it was, fortunately, usually leavened with wit and insight. A listener might wince at first, but a nod or smile often followed.
In race relations, he appeared colorblind in his dealings with customers. He found something negative to say about whites, blacks and hispanics, without discrimination. He derided members of all the world’s religions, including his own, without distinction. In fact, the more devout a person, the more harshly they would be criticized for their presumed hypocrisy. Somewhere, in his rarely-discussed formative years, my father developed deep skepticism of human motivations.
None of my father’s commentary prevented him from being an effective salesman, however. Anyone who shopped at his store was treated like a prince, at least until they were out of ear-shot. Thus, it was difficult to know exactly where he was coming from. His positions were strongly-held, even if they were completely contradictory. “Consistency? Ech, who needs it?” he would say, if confronted.
The subject of blue jeans bridged the gap between my father’s two realms, the store and home. Of course, he supplied his sons’ clothes. When he was young, my oldest brother, Barry, was indifferent to his wardrobe. Whatever my father brought home was okay with him. But David, two years younger, fashioned himself a rebel, relatively-speaking. In most families, he probably would have been “normal.” If my father would not bring home jeans, David earned his own money to buy them. This teenage flashpoint presaged subsequent battles over car choices (my father preferred a staid Buick; David a red Camaro), facial hair (David grew a full beard during a college-era camping trip which my father made him shave as a condition to re-entering our home), and girls. My father conveyed his disapproval wordlessly in that area, with just a withering stare. But that’s a different story.
I observed the fashion and other disputes from the advantageous position of being ten years younger. Some suspected and others declared my conception had been a “mistake.” Nowadays, the euphemism is “unplanned.” According to family lore, my father, who was fifty at the time, fretted during my mother’s pregnancy that I would be born with grey hair. Once I was born, however, he was dutifully positive and loving towards me, if rarely home. He worked, after all, seven days-a-week.
I grew up lacking rebellious impulses. I figured if my father worked everyday to feed, educate and clothe me, why should I aggravate him? Thus, my warm-weather pants were khaki and my cold-weather pants were corduroy. This wardrobe never struck me odd as a child but, as I reached my teen years and, especially during college, I realized I was unique. This fact appealed to me — initially self-conscious about my “squareness,” it gradually occurred to me I was the true non-conformist among my classmates, thanks to my over-arching conformity. (If the reader is confused, I understand. Any psychologists out there are welcome to weigh in).
In my twenties, several female friends took note of my lack of “style.” They bought me “designer jeans,” as gifts, with elaborate stitching and buttons. Depending on what I judged my prospects with a particular girl, these were either returned immediately to the store or placed in an obscure corner of my closet, just in case a desire for continued romance in the future made my stubbornness expendable. But the necessity of wearing jeans never became clear and, by the time I reached thirty, it appeared I would lead a jean-less life.
My father sold the store a few years before he died. Many things had bothered him, including: politicians; stale rye bread; cold coffee; and, rock-and-roll. Several things about me had also bothered him, such as: my lack of interest in the store; my lack of enthusiasm about practicing law; my choice to attend a college other than Penn, which he called “The Greatest University in the World.” But my wearing blue jeans was never one of them.

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WHERE WERE YOU WHEN YOU HEARD?

The fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination has revived the question that has meant only one thing to most Americans over the age of fifty. More recently, 9/11 has taken on the horrific role for a younger generation. Still others, with their focus on other aspects of the American experience, may apply the question to the OJ Simpson verdict, the Space Shuttle explosion or Magic Johnson’s first retirement from the NBA.
I heard about President Kennedy’s shooting during morning recess from second grade on the playground at Gompers Elementary School in West Philadelphia. A first grader interrupted my idle pondering of a frozen puddle with my friend Bruce Levin to announce “the president got shot.”
“Did not,” said Bruce, who was inclined to disagree with anyone’s pronouncements, especially those of a lowly first grader. If the kid had told him three plus three was six, he’d likely have responded: “Is not.”
When we returned minutes later to the classroom, however, we instantly knew the report was correct. Our teacher, Mrs. Stein, who we thought was about eighty, but was probably forty-five, appeared ashen before us.
“Something terrible has happened,” she said, daubing a handkerchief to her eyes.
I don’t remember what else she said, exactly, but I do remember Eileen Johnson, a tall dark-skinned girl with two stunningly long pig-tails on either side of her head, collapsing with hysterical grief. It was as though the President were her father. I have a vague recollection of school closing early, and my mother retrieving me that day, just as I was to retrieve my fifth and sixth graders thirty-eight years later when violence again rained from above to sear our collective sense of security. I knew the assassination of John Kennedy was a bad thing but I could not comprehend how it affected my immediate life.
The 1962-1964 years were not bad from the perspective of my youthful self. I knew there was a “Cold War” going on and the opposition was vaguely called Communists. I recall huddling in the hallway at Gompers during drills attached to the threat of their attack. But I didn’t know what a Communist was, exactly, and I couldn’t comprehend how the scary photographs of Hiroshima I’d seen could possibly have application to leafy West Philadelphia. My father listened to news radio each morning and I detected tension, especially when the talk was about Cuba, where I knew my parents had traveled for their honeymoon. But I was more interested in the dire performance of the Phillies; what could be worse than rooting for them?
We occasionally assembled in the “audio-visual room” at school to watch films of nuclear testing taking place out west, somewhere. These newsreels seemed to involve a lot of our soldiers hunkering down in ditches wearing sunglasses, watching a mushroom cloud and the resultant windstorm sweeping over them. More often than not, the film broke or the projector malfunctioned, and we were returned to our regular routine of arithmetic and reading.
Bruce was my best friend at school, but he did not live within walking distance of my home and my mother did not yet drive. At home, the ONLY kids near my age in the neighborhood were Danny and Stevie O’Malley. They were my exclusive playmates after school, on weekends and during the summer. They were one year older and one year younger than I, respectively. In appearance, picture Dennis the Menace and Timmy from the Lassie show, both bountiful in blondness and freckles. My neighborhood and Gompers Elementary School were populated almost entirely by Jewish people and black people, but the O’Malley family was Irish Catholic. As such, Danny and Stevie did not attend public school but instead went to a school called St. Mathias. It was located on the other side of City Line Avenue, “in the suburbs,” and may as well have been across the ocean.
Danny and Stevie’s house had pictures of the Pope and President Kennedy in every room, along with a cross that I knew had something to do with their religion. My parents were both upset when President Kennedy was killed; I observed my mother wipe her eyes and saw my father’s grim and sad expression, but I was warned that the O’Malley’s felt grief beyond the ordinary.
“Be sure to behave quietly at the O’Malley’s today,” my mother told me shortly after the assassination. “The President was very important to them.”
“Wasn’t he important to us?” I asked.
“Yes, very, but he was like a…” she hesitated, and continued, “…a special family member to them.”
Their stone-clad house was larger and older than ours, and it held several major, intriguing attractions. A huge swing set dominated their large, grassy yard, and we could fly “to the moon” and “over the mountain” to our hearts’ content. Even better, they had an old, detached garage containing an abandoned coal pit along with several rooms that were grist for our imaginative mills. We could be cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. In the pit, we could dig towards China. We did not have a plan for what we would do when we arrived on the other side of the earth, but we dug deep enough that Mrs. O’Malley eventually made us cease, lest the foundation of the structure be undermined.
“What do you boys think you’re doing?” she asked. “You could bring down the entire building. Don’t make me have to tell your father about this.”
We obeyed her thankfully; I rarely saw Danny and Stevie’s father. When I did, he was a non-speaking, gruff-appearing presence behind a newspaper and a pipe. I recall thinking I would not like to see him angry. Their mother was nice, though. She made grilled-cheese sandwiches just the way I liked them and sometimes included a slice of Taylor ham I would never have been served at home. The boys and I never discussed religion, but I knew mine was different, and food had something to do with it.
In the basement of the O’Malley home was a huge bar, carved to resemble a ship’s prow. We spent hours and hours fighting pirates there. A shadowy water stain on the ceiling brought to mind ghosts and goblins and further inflamed our fecund minds. If we chose to watch television, my house had a rabbit-eared set in the basement where we enjoyed the Three Stooges and cartoons like Mighty Mouse and Underdog. I was not a fan of Felix the Cat, but Danny and Stevie were, and this difference provided one of our only bases for dispute.
The most tangible evidence of the Cold War for me was that at some point in 1962 or 1963, the O’Malley family constructed a bomb shelter in their backyard. That was the coolest thing ever! A green, square metal hatch, adjacent to a ventilation pipe, signaled its location. For several months, after the shelter was finished, the garage and swings and ship-bar were nearly forgotten in favor of this play-space from heaven. Danny, Stevie and I used our combined muscle to pull open the hatch and climb down twelve feet or so (it seemed like thirty) on a metal ladder to the concrete floor below. There, constructed in the same stark, green metal as the entrance door, were six bunk beds screwed into the walls and shelves holding cans of food.
I am not certain we were “allowed” to play in the shelter. But we were not expressly forbidden, either, as far as I knew. In that space, we could be space travelers, or soldiers, or explorers, or the meanest prisoners in Alcatraz. We could survive for years on the cans of food that surrounded us, we imagined, while we beat back the Communists or space aliens, or whoever it was that might attack us. I don’t recall there being a specific plan for HOW we were going to fight back from our subterranean position, but the seven-year-old mind need not necessarily work out all the details.
Perhaps, it was the innocence of the times, or the lack of complication from such a small trio of friends, but Danny, Stevie and I were self-sufficient in our play. Parental involvement was non-existent, in stark contrast to modern-day parenting, where the parent/chauffeur/coach is integral. It was only when we decided to take off the wrappers from the canned food that we got in trouble. Mrs. O’Malley was not pleased when she happened to come down and notice it was now impossible to tell canned corn from baked beans. Even after we explained that we were trying to find a secret code that spies might have written on the cans, she was not satisfied.
“I won’t tell your father about this,” she warned the boys. “He would be EXTREMELY angry. But you can’t play in the shelter anymore, or he will hear about it.”
“Please don’t tell dad,” said Danny and Stevie. “We won’t go down here again.” I noted how fearful they were of their father’s wrath. Duly chastened, we returned to above-ground activities. One hot day in the summer of 1964, Mrs. O’Malley set up a sprinkler on the lawn for us to play in. After she went inside the house, we found some metal supports from an old badminton net underneath a bush. We wielded them ecstatically from opposite sides of the stream, slashing through the water as though each drop of water were a fly to be swatted.
“I hit one to the street,” I yelled.
“I hit one even further,” shouted Stevie.
“Whoa, I clobbered that one,” said Danny.
Our shouting and laughing reached a crescendo when I swung as hard as I could through the sun-splashed stream and connected with a solid object that felt like a watermelon; Stevie and I stood in stunned silence when Danny collapsed to the ground clutching his head. He began to moan as Stevie dropped his stick and ran towards the house. “Mom, mom,” he shouted. “Stuart hit Danny with a stick.”
I dropped my stick, too, and ran towards my house in the opposite direction, experiencing my introduction to the effects of the adrenal gland. No one was home when I arrived, my heart pounding. I went upstairs to my room and shut the door.
“I’ve killed Danny,” I thought to myself. “I’m going to jail. I’m going to be punished by Mr. O’Malley.” I wasn’t sure which fate was worse.
My mother came home shortly thereafter. I said “hello” but didn’t tell her what had happened. I thought a police car would show up at any time. I stayed in my room picturing terrifying scenarios, with Danny dead, his father chasing me around the block. I tried to concentrate on studying baseball cards, but I was trembling with fear. Once, the telephone rang, and my heart pounded anew, but I heard my mother engaged in normal conversation with my aunt. An hour or two later, my father came home from work, and I was called down to dinner.
“Is everything alright?” my mother asked me, apparently noticing my discomfort.
“Yes,” I said, trying to appear nonchalant.
“Did you play at Danny and Stevie’s this afternoon?” she asked.
“Un-hunh,” I said.
The conversation turned to my father’s day at the store. Now, I was starting to wonder if we would ever hear from the O’Malley’s or the police. Not hearing was almost becoming worse than hearing. Finally, after dinner, while I was upstairs trying not to think about Danny’s demise and my new role as a murderer, I heard the doorbell ring downstairs. I heard my mother open the door and exchange greetings with a man.
“Oh, no,” I thought. Either a policeman or Mr. O’Malley had come for me.
The adults spoke for several moments until my mother’s voice sounded from the bottom of the staircase.
“Come down here, Stuart,” she said. “Someone is here to speak with you.”
I exited my room and approached the stairs like a prisoner going to the gallows. At the bottom, looking up, were my mother and Mr. O’Malley. He was dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, with black glasses and a blond crew-cut that matched the severity of his expression.
“Did you happen to hit Danny with a pole this afternoon?” he asked, his tone neutral, when I reached the third step from the bottom, and met his gaze.
“Yes, I did,” I said. It occurred to me that he did not look grief-stricken, just angry, but I didn’t know him well enough to be sure. Perhaps, Danny was still alive. “I didn’t mean to,” I added.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” said Mr. O’Malley. “You must have been scared when it happened.”
“I am, uh, was, uh, am, uh, scared,” I stuttered.
“He has quite a bump on his forehead,” said Mr. O’Malley.
“He’s alive?” I said, feeling a huge boulder of worry lifting off my head.
Mr. O’Malley’s face dissolved into laughter.
“Did you think you’d killed him?” asked my mother.
“I wasn’t sure,” I said.
“His head is harder than you’d think,” said Mr. O’Malley, smiling. “How ‘bout if you come over and tell him you’re sorry. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“That’s a good idea,” said my mother sternly, clearly unhappy I had not told her what had happened.
I followed Mr. O’Malley through several yards to his house, taking the short-cut that Danny, Stevie and I usually used. We didn’t exchange any more words. When we arrived, he ushered me into the living room, where Danny was laying on a couch as though he were a knight on a casket in Westminster Abbey. A bag of ice clung to the side of his head. I noticed that Mrs. O’Malley and Stevie were on another couch watching television. The Pope and President Kennedy gazed down upon us from their photographs on the wall. Stevie gave me a small wave.
“Sorry I hit you,” I said to Danny.
“It really hurts,” he said, grimacing.
He pulled down his ice-pack to reveal an ugly knot just below the hairline.
“I was afraid you were dead,” I said, my nervousness making me begin to giggle.
“I thought so, too,” interjected Stevie, laughing.
“It’s not funny,” protested Danny, fighting hard to sound angry, before he started laughing, too.
“Oh,that hurts,” Danny added, catching himself.
The incident of the hit-in-the-head is the last I remember from my relationship with Danny and Stevie. They moved to the suburbs shortly thereafter. I’m sure it wasn’t because I hit Danny in the head, though it probably didn’t help, either. My mother arranged for me to play with them two or three times after they moved, but we were in different orbits. They had tons of new friends and I felt awkward. Life changes a lot in just a few months when you are seven.
The former O’Malley home fell into disrepair over the years. The shrubbery around the property grew out of control, and the yard was not even visible for a period of decades. But in my last visit to Philadelphia, I saw that a new owner had recently renovated the house and brought the landscaping under control. I stopped my car adjacent to the side yard and gazed in. The swings were gone, of course, and the garage was rebuilt nicer than it had ever been, to match the main home, like a formal carriage house. But poking up in the middle of the yard was the green ventilation pipe from the bomb shelter, the last vestige of a time gone by. It summoned memories of a dangerous time for our country, of a world scary and on edge. I pondered the hugely important incidents which took place, largely beyond my comprehension, and I recalled a less earth-shattering, but seriously scary incident for me, too.


ICE CREAM

Among the major food groups in my diet is ice cream. I have come by this naturally, having been raised in a family that considered a trip for ice cream the “go-to” activity for those occasional Sunday afternoons when my father was willing to indulge. In his seven-day-a-week work schedule, Sunday afternoon was his leisure time.
The childhood ice cream routine, circa 1963, doubtless shaped my later ability to negotiate as a lawyer, parent and husband. My mother was co-conspirator in prevailing upon my father, and she taught me to over-ask initially, while being prepared to accept an inevitable counter-offer. For instance, if she suggested we go to the Guernsey Cow, a massive ice cream and confectionary emporium an hour away, my father would typically offer to drive to Miller’s, a less-august shop thirty minutes away. If she suggested Miller’s, we would be prepared to accept a visit to Leof’s, a drug-store with an ice cream counter just three minutes away by car, or a ten-minute walk.
If my father were resistant even to Leof’s, my mother and I would resort to the freezer where there was a likely a half-gallon of Breyer’s ice cream. In those days a half-gallon was really a half-gallon, before manufacturers figured out they could make sleek packaging that SEEMS to be a half-gallon but is tapered to actually contain significantly less.
There was also a Baskin-Robbins shop near our home, but it never entered the negotiations. B-R was our ice cream target of opportunity, when passing by. Such a treat could occur on any day of the week and did not usually involve my father. The essential flavor at Baskin-Robbins, though thirty-one were touted, was mint chocolate chip. Some of the other flavors were doubtless delicious but, as far as my mother and I were concerned, there was only one flavor.
When my father occasionally surprised us by agreeing to go to the Guernsey Cow, it was actually a Pyrrhic victory for me. Truthfully, I did not particularly like their ice cream. There was no compelling flavor and, in order to make the long ride worthwhile, we usually ordered banana splits. Now, I realize there are people who love banana splits, just as there are people who love jelly in cookies or chocolate, but I have never enjoyed fruit with my ice cream or jelly with my cookies or chocolate.
The other specialty at the Guernsey Cow was homemade butterscotch taffy. Though I have a weakness for most sweets, I was not a fan. I feared that taffy, like Sugar Daddies, Tootsie-Rolls, and their ilk, would pull out my fillings. I do not recall this calamity actually occurring, but my fear of dentists was enough to sour me on taffy. Alas, my fear was apparently not compelling enough to make me brush my teeth thoroughly and consistently enough to avoid having fillings in the first place.
Later in life, my own family lived in Ramsey, NJ, a community where Baskin-Robbins franchises grew like trees. Stopping for ice cream was a staple of the post-soccer practice routine for all three of my children, but particularly for my daughter, Sarah. The health benefits of the soccer may have been outweighed by the diet shortfalls of the ice cream, but the psychological benefits to both of us made the trade-off worthwhile; anyone familiar with adolescents knows that a cheerful and cooperative 11-14-year-old daughter is priceless.
Scientific tests have not been undertaken, to my knowledge, but I believe preferences in ice cream flavor are inherited. From birth, Sarah never deviated from mint chocolate chip as her flavor. And it had to be from Baskin-Robbins. Imitations by other manufacturers, often labeled “chocolate mint chip” were specifically NOT acceptable. Along with subtle taste distinctions in the mint ice cream, the key to B-R MCC (as it was sometimes called in our efficiency-minded household) was, and continues to be, its tiny, melt-in-the-mouth dark chocolate flakes. Other brands, with their white ice cream and/or large chunks of chocolate, or imitation chocolate, were simply unacceptable.
I take pride in my daughter’s perhaps-excessive devotion to B-R mint chocolate chip. While I may have fallen for the occasional pralines and cream, vanilla or chocolate, Sarah’s devotion is PURE. When she went to college, I mailed her coupons for Baskin-Robbins. Among the advantages of the off-campus apartment where she lived in Wilmington, NC, was its proximity to a Baskin-Robbins.
So it was not entirely a surprise, last week, when Sarah, who moved last spring to nearby Raleigh, had a specific request for her birthday which falls on Halloween.
“I want a Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake,” she said on the phone, a few days ahead of the event.
My initial response was flat-footed: “There isn’t a Baskin-Robbins in Chapel Hill. Would Ben & Jerry’s or Cold Stone Creamery be acceptable?”
The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. It occurred to me I should appreciate how amazing it was for me and my wife, Katie, to have the exclusive opportunity to share her twenty-fourth birthday. As a Halloween baby, Sarah’s youthful celebrations were always dominated by the hubbub of trick-or-treating and parties. Now that she is a young adult, and given her tendency to be involved with a boyfriend, her unattached status this year may prove to be a one-time event.
“I’ll find a Baskin-Robbins,” I recovered to say.
“Good,” she said, fully aware of her advantage over her defenseless father.
After I hung up, Katie said, “We drive past Ben & Jerry’s every other day, but I don’t know of any Baskin-Robbins around here.”
“There has to be one,” I said, confidently, though I was aware that the concentration in North Carolina does not nearly match that of New Jersey.
I Googled Baskin-Robbins locations and, sure enough, there was a shop in Durham, only thirty-five minutes away.
“That was easy,” I declared, recalling the busy shops in Ramsey with their freezers full of ice cream cakes from floor-to-ceiling. “I’ll go pick up a mint chocolate chip cake.”
“You’d better call first,” said Katie, wiser than I in the ways of local businesses. After all, she’s dealt with the “authorized appliance repairmen” who consult the manual, and the plumbers who put spigots in backwards.
“You don’t think they’ll have a mint chocolate chip cake available?” I asked.
Sure enough, they did not.
“We can order one,” said the girl on the phone. “It’ll take a week, though.”
“Her birthday is in two days,” I said.
“Sorry,” said the Durham Baskin-Robbins.
I located one other shop in the semi-vicinity, in Apex, a fifty-minute drive, and called.
“Do you have a mint chocolate chip cake available, for Halloween?” I asked, with trepidation.
“We don’t,” said the girl on the telephone, “but let me see if we can get one.”
I waited in suspense. A different voice came on the line.
“Hi, I’m the manager. We can custom-make a cake for you,” she said. “You can pick it up on Halloween after one o’clock.”
“Thank you,” I said, with relief. “Do you want the details?”
“No, we’ll have the designer call you for those,” said the manager.
“Designer?” I said.
“Yes sir,” she said, with pride. “We have an off-site specialist come in to make our cakes.”
“Wow,” I said.
After I hung up, I related the discussion to Katie. I concluded, with amazement: “It’ll be a small cake. There’re only three of us. What kind of training is involved to become an ice cream cake specialist?”
The next day the phone rang.
“Hi,” said a pleasant voice with a soft, southern accent. “I’m Carly, the cake designer for the Apex store. Tell me what you have in mind.”
I explained the relatively small size of the cake, Sarah’s devotion to mint chocolate chip, and her preference for chocolate crust over graham.
“Okay Mr. Sanders,” said Carly. “Tell me more about your daughter. What does she love? What are her passions?”
“You mean besides mint chocolate chip ice cream?” I asked.
“Yes, I want to know about her as a person,” said Carly.
I took a moment to contemplate how this discussion could be taking place with a stranger in regard to an ice cream cake. I wondered for a moment if I were the butt of a practical joke. I wondered what this cake was going to cost. But I couldn’t cheap out on this; I’d already come too far.
“Um, Sarah loves her dog,” I said. “That’s probably her main passion right now.”
“What kind of dog?” asked Carly.
“A cocker spaniel,” I said. “Her name is Stella, and she’s brown, with caramel-colored eyebrows,” I added, trying to anticipate her next questions.
“Great,” said Carly. “I’ll start working on it.”
“By the way, not that it matters,” I started to say, also anticipating Katie’s next question. “How much….”
Carly had already hung up.
After lunch, on Halloween, we drove to Apex. When we arrived at the store, in the corner of a small shopping center, we noted that the property looked new. The shop was bustling with three young women behind the counter.
“I’m here to pick up an ice cream cake for Sanders,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said the manager, a tiny Chinese woman, smiling. “Carly made a very special cake for you.”
She reached up to the top shelf of the freezer behind the counter and brought down a box, twice as high as it was wide, perhaps eight inches across.
“Look,” she said, pointing through the cellophane top.
I peered into the package and beheld a work of art, a square cake topped with brown icing and orange trim, including a doghouse and a dog that looked remarkably like Stella, floppy icing ears and all, holding a banner from her mouth that read “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” I was truly impressed.
“It’s perfect,” I said, brandishing my credit card.
“Carly will be so pleased,” said the manager. “She takes great pride in her work.”
“That’s clear,” I said.
The manager accepted my card. “Fifteen dollars,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. “This was a custom-made cake,” I said. “How can it only be fifteen dollars?”
“That’s what it is,” said the manager.
I felt a strange sensation, that of enjoying a job extraordinarily well-done, for significantly less than expected. I felt embarrassed to be paying such a small sum with a credit card. I grabbed two additional pre-packed quarts of mint chocolate chip from the freezer to bump up the total.
“Can I leave a tip for Carly?” I asked.
“No,” said the manager, “but you can fill out the on-line survey and say something nice about her.”
“Absolutely,” I said. We completed a tribute to Carly as soon as we returned to the car.
If he were alive, my father would probably not find much that is familiar in modern-day North Carolina. However, he would certainly relate to the 1963-like price of an ice cream cake from the Apex Baskin-Robbins. In fact, there is a small, delicious piece of cake in the freezer that Sarah accidentally left behind. I think it has my name on it.


A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER
Jeffrey Levin wanted pants. This unremarkable fact propelled a forgettable soccer weekend into the annals of awful parenting experiences.
It all began innocently. My son, Sam, was invited to join a North Jersey-based 12-year-old soccer team. Most of the players and their families were originally from Central America and lived in and around Newark. They approached soccer with intensity far beyond what Sam had seen in our suburban community. We were delighted he would have the opportunity to experience such a level and, incidentally, be exposed to different cultures.
Though the regular season would not begin until April, the coach entered the team in a tournament in Richmond, Virginia in early March. He acknowledged the distance might present a hardship for some families and said a new player could commence playing after the tournament. However, Sam wanted to get started, and I was anxious to spend time outdoors after the long winter, so I cheerfully offered to chaperone. I expected Richmond’s early-March weather to be mild.
A week before the trip, the father of the only other non-Hispanic player called and asked if we would join them for the ride. “After all,” Steve Levin explained, “my wife and I have a large van, and it’ll be great to enjoy adult conversation. Our son, Jeffrey, will share the ‘way-back’ with your son.”
“That’ll be great,” I said, thinking Sam would be pleased to have someone besides me to talk to, and I would be able to share the driving.
“Good,” said Steve. “Jeffrey loves to make new friends. If you come at mid-day on Friday, we can get an early start. Considering the traffic, we’ll let Jeffrey skip his afternoon classes.”
“Sam will love that idea,” I said.
When we arrived, as scheduled, at one o’clock, Linda, Jeffrey’s petite, Asian mom, met us at the door with three pieces of news, delivered matter-of-factly: 1. Steve was still at work; 2. Jeffrey did not want to miss his afternoon classes; and, 3. their van was in the shop, so we would be traveling by car.
“If you want to go on ahead,” she said, “we’ll understand.”
I was disappointed, but decided to stay the course. After all, we had driven to their house in a two-seater that was not comfortable on long trips and Sam would have been disappointed, I thought, to travel without his peer. Surely, the Levin family car was large, or Linda would have appeared upset. Linda ushered us into their den and showed us how to operate their small television. Ominously, she requested that we turn it off just before Jeffrey’s anticipated arrival. “Jeffrey is not allowed to watch television except for public television programs that we have pre-approved,” she explained.
At 3:30, Steve and Jeffrey arrived home together in what appeared to be a Toyota Corolla. It was hard to tell, because the front hood was held shut by a rope that blocked the manufacturer’s logo. The color was formerly either silver or blue but had been degraded by age into a blotchy, grey-like hue.
Steve, a tall, thin journalist with salt and pepper hair, tried to address what must have been a stricken expression on my face: “It’s surprisingly roomy, once you get in.”
Jeffrey was built like his dad, with his mom’s dark hair. He appeared mature for a twelve-year-old, gravely offering Sam a handshake while his parents looked on.
“Jeffrey,” said Steve, “Gather your math and science books for the trip. There will be a lot of learning time this weekend.”
Sam gave me a “what have you gotten me into?” look.
We squeezed our luggage into the Corolla’s trunk and I was offered the front passenger seat.
“You’re tall,” said Linda. “I’ll sit in back between the boys.”
“Between?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “so they can concentrate on their books.”
“I’m afraid Sam hasn’t brought any books,” I said, feeling like a cretin. “He takes it a little lighter on soccer weekends.”
“On any weekend,” said Sam.
I glanced at him, wide-eyed.
Steve and Linda paused for a moment, before Steve said: “That’s okay. Jeffrey will share.”
“Dad!” said Jeffrey, upset.
“Jeffrey,” Steve said, sternly, “Sam is a new friend. You need to share.”
Jeffrey rolled his eyes and plopped angrily into the back seat. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey was like when he was not trying to make a new friend.
Finally underway, we entered the Garden State Parkway in its typical Friday afternoon parking-lot mode. Steve described his parenting plan while I focused on the bouncing hood and wondered how much jostling the rope could withstand. Once, I looked back over my shoulder at Sam, who had an algebra textbook open in his lap, but his withering return stare discouraged me from doing so again.
“Jeffrey is an only child, of course,” said Steve. “We feel proper parenting can only be done with the focus that one child allows. Sam is your only one, right?”
“Well, actually, he’s the third,” I said.
“Oh,” said Steve. “That’s too bad. Jeffrey plays on this team so that he can supplement his Spanish lessons. Also, being able to play soccer at a top level should be attractive to the Ivies.”
“You’re already looking at colleges?” I asked.
“It’s never too early,” said Linda. “Harvard and Yale have top-flight soccer programs. If they are not ascendant when Jeffrey is ready to attend, his bassoon should also be attractive.”
“Jeffrey plays the bassoon?” I asked.
“And the oboe,” said Steve, “just for fun.”
Sam’s foot collided with my resting elbow.
“Oops,” he said, unconvincingly.
Afternoon turned to evening and finally to night as we crawled south. The Baltimore-Washington corridor of congestion segued into the Washington-Richmond region of construction. Steve chose to do all the driving while Linda doled out occasional portions of “healthy snacks.” My lifetime intake of baby carrots was tripled.
Steve’s voice wafted over me with explanations of Jeffrey’s interests and needs. I nodded or occasionally said “un-hunh” when it seemed appropriate, but I’m sure such social niceties were unnecessary. Steve would have told me about “vocabulary enrichment” and “biology boot-camp” regardless.
I felt electrical charges emanating from my nearly paralyzed lower back as the hours passed. It was well after midnight when we arrived at the suburban Wayfarer Inn where the coach had reserved a block of rooms. By then, the boys had fallen asleep, having hardly exchanged a word. We ushered them zombie-like into our respective rooms.
The next morning, the team met, as suggested by the coach, Giovanni, at a local restaurant several steps from the motel. Its sign promised: “Hot Dogs and Other Fine Foods.” The boys and their families were happily attacking the breakfast buffet when we arrived, and Giovanni introduced Sam around the room. I hadn’t slept well, still feeling as though I was in motion after the endless car ride. But I was proud of Sam for mixing immediately with his teammates, even though they were strangers who spoke primarily in Spanish. Sam established an easy camaraderie with them. I noticed that Jeffrey and his parents were sitting at a table by themselves, and I felt their eyes on my back, so I joined them.
After a few moments, Giovanni rose to speak, first in rapid-fire Spanish, then in halting English, for the benefit of us and the Levin’s. “We have two games today and, if we win both, the semi-final and final games tomorrow. These teams are very good, from Pittsburgh and from Boston. Juan Carlos,” he said, addressing directly one of the boys who appeared to have adult-sized musculature, “you will have to play smart.”
I looked at Steve for an explanation.
“Juan Carlos is not disciplined,” he whispered. “It sometimes becomes a problem.”
“How old is Juan Carlos?” I asked.
Steve shrugged. “His birth certificate says he is twelve. His puberty may be a little advanced.”
After breakfast, Sam and I joined the Levin’s for the short ride to the field. I was bundled in layers to protect against a chilly drizzle, the hoped-for warmth still weeks away, apparently. Jeffrey did not speak during the ride and appeared catatonic; Linda noticed me look quizzically at him: “He’s visualizing,” she explained. “It’s a technique he utilizes for exams and recitals, also.”
At the field, events proceeded as usual. The teams warmed up on their respective sides and the parents clumped together in anxious knots. Several of our team’s parents graciously greeted me, but nearly everyone was pre-occupied with what I had come to believe were the main parental concerns of youth sports, namely: what position will my child play, will he start, and how many minutes will he play?
Sam started on the bench, which was normal, given his newness to the team. After several minutes, however, he was substituted in on defense, taking the place of Jeffrey, awkwardly enough. I could not avoid noticing that both Steve and Linda were keeping track of such developments with stop-watches.
“Six-twelve,” said Steve, shaking his head.
“I’ve got six-eighteen,” said Linda, looking grim.
I edged a few steps further from them and was vastly relieved when Sam performed satisfactorily. Our team prevailed, 3-1, against the team from Boston, as Juan Carlos led the way. The Levin’s marked each entrance and exit of Jeffrey in a notepad (hand-written in those days) and conferred throughout as though they were observing a delicate operation.
The afternoon game against the Pittsburgh team was different. Their players were not supervised during warm-ups and lobbed hostile looks and remarks towards our team. Several pointed at Juan Carlos, conspicuous by his size, and were obviously taunting him. Only moments after the game began, Pittsburgh players fouled Juan Carlos and they continued to do so with dubious degrees of legality at every opportunity.
“Ref! Make it a whistle!” shouted Giovanni, calling for a penalty. Whether he was understood or not was unclear, but the referee, thin-legged and red-faced, in a striped shirt stretched over an ample belly, was disinclined to take action.
I was happy that Sam was playing a peripheral position as the mid-field action became heated. Eventually, Juan Carlos kicked at one of his tormentors, who shoved back, and shouted: “Get off of me, you stupid Mexican!”
A melee ensued, with punches delivered frantically, with Juan Carlos in the middle. “I’m not Mexican!” he shouted above the fray. “I’m from El Salvador!”
The coaches and referee ran to separate the boys. Descended from generations of Russian Jews who had observed competing bands of Cossacks, Sam was gingerly edging farther and farther from the scrum. If the fight had continued much longer, he might have been found in the parking lot. Once a degree of calm was restored, and the teams returned to their respective sides of the field, the referee pulled a red card from his pocket, and waved it in front of Juan Carlos, throwing him out of the game.
“Dios mio!” shouted Giovanni. “Eso es ridiculo!”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the referee, “but you’re outta here, too. Game’s over. You forfeit.”
He flashed a red card at Giovanni, who threw his clipboard to the ground and had to be restrained from attacking. The referee strode off the field leaving angry and bewildered parents to gather their sons.
I looked at Steve and Linda who were standing protectively around Jeffrey.
“We’re going home immediately,” Steve said. “We will not stand for this sort of exhibition. With the coach red-carded, the team can’t win the tournament, in any event.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“What else could go wrong?” I asked myself, thinking of the ride down, the poor sleep, Jeffrey’s unfriendliness, Juan Carlos’s torment, the fight and the forfeit.
As we walked towards the Corolla to pile in for the long ride home, Sam asked quietly: “Do we have to go to more of these tournaments?”
“No way,” I told him. “We’ll have a one hour driving limit.”
“Good,” he said.
All three Levin’s were silently seething about Jeffrey’s playing time, or the fight, or the result, or all of the above. I didn’t want to ask.
Just one hour into the eight-hour ride (if we were lucky) I was enjoying the fact that no one felt like talking. Sam settled into his seat for a nap, Steve stared straight ahead at the road, and I tried to relax, when Jeffrey’s voice piped up from behind, like a small bird deep inside a well: “I want to get some pants.”
“What, honey?” asked Linda.
“I want some pants,” he repeated.
Steve looked at him through the rear view mirror. “What kind of pants?” he asked.
“School pants,” said Jeffrey.
I thought this discussion was amusing. What twelve-year-old boy wants to buy pants? Surely, Linda would assure him they could go to the store at home sometime during the week.
“Well,” said Steve. “We’ll have to find a mall.”
I was horrorstruck. We were going to actually exit the highway near the start of a four hundred mile drive so that Jeffrey could go shopping.
“Ummmm,” I protested, unable to form a coherent sentence.
“It’s important to honor this sort of personal need,” said Steve. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”
Two malls and two hours later, we were back on I-95 headed north. Jeffrey held a bag with two pairs of khakis and speculated with his mother which shirts would go well with them. I wondered how much stomach acid it took to create an ulcer. When we finally arrived at the Levin’s home that night, Sam and I mumbled insincere thanks and stumbled towards our car.
“What do you say, Jeffrey?” asked Steve.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeffrey. “I hope you’ll come to my bassoon concert next weekend.”
Sam looked at me aghast. “We’ll have to see if we’re available,” I said.
In the safety of our car, with the only alternative being to cry, Sam and I began to laugh.
“We’re not going to his concert, right?” said Sam.
“I promise,” I said.
Pondering whether this was one of my worst experiences as a parent or one of my strangest, I placed it in the top ten in both categories.


SMOKING

I took my first puff when I was about eight. It was also my last puff. I was in the breakfast room when my mother gave me a cigarette and I still remember the resulting coughing fit. How she devised this anti-smoking strategy, I never knew, but it certainly was effective.
My disdain for all things tobacco prevailed throughout my youth as I helped to badger my father into limiting his habit to the outdoors and, eventually, to forswear it altogether. As a young adult, I despised the smell on my clothing and did not hold back expressing my feelings to co-workers. My family happened to be traveling in 1991 on the first day smoking was banned on airline flights in America and I was interviewed by a local television station at the San Francisco Airport. I’m sure I said something pithy about my relief that the scourge of smoking on airplanes was finally over. Think about it; it has only been twenty-two years since fellow passengers could light up in an airplane under the ridiculous fiction that their odious odors were confined to the rear.
We were clear on the issue of smoking in raising our children. When they were little, they were not allowed to refer to any other person as “stupid,” but an exception was made with my wife Katie’s somewhat reluctant assent. If we passed a smoker on the street or were in line at a store when someone purchased cigarettes, our young children were encouraged (by me, at least) to declare aloud, “they’re stupid.” Their synapses were, thus, effectively wired. In restaurants, I was apt to wave a napkin conspicuously in the direction of puffers. Fortunately, that is rarely necessary anymore.
I’d always maintained I would never date a smoker or even an ex-smoker. Besides the fact of the smell and filth of the habit, I felt it evidenced a serious character flaw. A smoker was idiotic, and/or unable to resist peer pressure, and/or suicidal. My determination lasted until I met a Greek airline attendant during an otherwise bleak vacation in Paris (well, we weren’t technically “dating”) and, several years later, further gave way when I learned that Katie had, in fact, smoked while she was in college, a decade before we were married. Yes, I can be flexible.
Barry Goldwater once stated: “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” I adapt his thinking to the issue of smoking, namely: “Intolerance in distaste for the indefensible is no vice.” Rarely exposed to indoor smoke for decades, imagine my shock during a recent drive through South Carolina. I stopped for breakfast at a luxurious Waffle House and, in what seemed almost choreographed, all the surrounding patrons lit up around me just as my pecan waffle arrived. Apparently, the ban that adheres in Charleston’s lovely establishments does not extend state-wide.
Now that they have taken us back to 1963 in so many ways, I hope the nuts in our North Carolina legislature don’t get any new ideas.


SUMMER CAMP

Adults are often teary-eyed remembering the joys of their childhood summer camps.  They recall campfires and marshmallows, frogging and fishing, crafts and friends.  The singing, the swimming, the painting and ashtray-making all float out of the mists of memory to rekindle pleasure.  They were young and carefree, happy as though those days would last forever.  I was an exception.

To me, Sesame Day Camp represented unmitigated tedium and stress.  There were long waits in gnat-infested grass for mere seconds on the noisy and smoky go-carts.  There was pointless shooting of BB guns and arrows.  There were fruitless swim lessons and long rides to and from camp in counselors’ cars where I was subjected to the moronic music choices of my fellow travelers.  Or, if the radio was not sufficient torture, they sang about beer bottles on the wall.

All I wanted to do in the summer was play ball.  Not tether-ball or the special version of volleyball for the physically delayed called newcomb (one tries to catch the ball and throw it back instead of hitting it).  I wanted to play baseball.  And I wanted to do it with others who were passionate about the sport and capable of performing above a minimum level of skill.  At Sesame, we never played baseball.

One legacy from my time at day camp sets me apart from most of society.   Apparently, despite a level of coordination that was admired in athletics, I missed the developmental milestone that would have rendered me able to tie my shoes prior to camp.  Thus, I was subjected to remedial instruction; I still remember a large, wooden practice shoe.   The method they finally taught me involved double-looping, a technique I have never shaken.   Whenever someone notices how I tie my shoes they shake their head in disbelief.

Another memory from Sesame Day Camp was “bug” juice.  If it was not made with bugs, why did they call it that?  Although I recall heat and humidity worthy of the tropics, I never overcame my literal interpretation to partake in the thrice-daily refreshment ritual.   My fellow campers liked me best when I gave away my drinks.

While one could have the impression from the foregoing that I was a forlorn camper, there were actually several co-sufferers worse off than I.  One was a sickly slip of a boy who everyone called “Powerhouse.”  Teased mercilessly, he sniffed and sniveled and carried himself as though he were invertebrate.  He was even miserable during crafts hour, when I would have expected him to thrive.  He probably ended up as a body-builder.

Another victim of juvenile insensitivity was an overweight boy named Tom Divver.  “Moon River” was a popular song at the time and everyone serenaded him “Tom Divver, wider than a mile, his clothes are out of style….”  No one ever thought of a second line, so they just repeated that over and over and over.

Singing was somehow important at Sesame.  The counselors taught us a ditty that I still remember.  On reflection, nearly five decades later, I think the words were intended to be: “Hi-yike-e-yike-us, nobody’s like us, we are the boys of Sesame!”  But we all sang:  “Hi-yike-e-yike-us, nobody likes us….”  I’m still not sure.

My camping career ended when I was about ten, after three summers of abject complaining finally wore down my mother.  I was allowed to stay at home and throw a ball incessantly against a wall and was infinitely happier.  I was confident the camping experience was put to rest forever.  Twenty years later, however, I married into a family that believed firmly in the value of summer camps.  In spite of my scoffing or, perhaps, because of it, my oldest daughter adored summer camp and upgraded from local day camp to six weeks of stunningly expensive overnight camp, as soon as possible.

“Isn’t it muddy and buggy?” I would ask.

“We have so much fun,” Kelly would reply, not actually answering the question.

“Isn’t the food awful?” I would ask.

“I love my counselors,” she would reply.

It was as though we were speaking different languages or acting in a modernist play by Samuel Beckett.

My second daughter, Sarah, was more reticent and attended local day camps for several summers, with minimal enthusiasm.  She was not fond of mucking horse stalls and eating hot dogs for every other meal.  She was not hankering to stay up all night giggling with bunkmates.  Still, when she was ten, encouraged by her sister and mother, she signed up for a summer of overnight camp where Kelly had graduated to being a senior counselor.

Bearing in mind Sarah’s need for sleep and her love of comfortable circumstances, I fretted:    “Are you sure she’s up for this?”

“She will be fine,” said my wife.

“What if she hates living in a cabin?  What if the girls are not nice?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, Kelly will be there,” she said.

I tried to contain my skepticism and I waved good-bye with a fake smile when my wife drove off to deliver the girls to the camp only slightly less distant than Siberia.  The campers were not allowed to call home during the first three weeks and that made me uncomfortable.  I wanted Sarah to have a good time but I still harbored a strong aversion to summer camp.  Imagine my cognitive dissonance several days later when the camp director called my wife to say Sarah was “having a hard time.”

“I’ll go get her,” I volunteered immediately.

“She will be fine,” said my wife.  “It is important for her to work through this.”

“Did you remind the guy to let her have access to Kelly?” I asked.

“Of course, and I’m sure that will calm her down.  She just has to get used to it.”

Several days later, the first letter arrived from Sarah.  In block letters, she wrote:  “This place is awful.  I can’t sleep.  There are mice in the walls, and spider webs.  I want to come home.”

“I will go get her,” I offered again.

“The letter was written five days ago.  By now, I’m sure she is adjusting.  We will see her at parent visitation after the first three weeks.  I have no doubt it will be okay,” said my wife.

The next day, the phone rang again and the caller i.d. indicated it was the camp.  I raced to the phone.  It was Kelly, calling from the director’s office.

“Sarah’s driving me nuts,” said Kelly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She only wants to hang by my side.  And I have forty other girls to take care of.”

“Can’t the director help out?” I asked.

“They’ve tried,” said Kelly, sounding more discouraged than I had ever heard her.

“Is there any hope?” I asked, trying to sound sincerely hopeful.

“Doesn’t look like it,” said Kelly.  “She’s miserable.  I think you will have to take her home at visitation day.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound disheartened, while squelching the urge to pump my fist.  “I’ll tell mom.”

A week later, on the long ride to visitation my wife was hopeful Sarah would change her mind.  Her optimism was dashed, however, when we arrived, to find Sarah happily greeting us in the parking lot with her bags packed.

“Don’t you want to show us your bunk?” asked my wife.

“No,” said Sarah.

“Are there any friends you need to say ‘good-bye’ to?” I asked.

“Did it already,” said Sarah.  “Let’s go.”

“We want to spend some time with Kelly,” said my wife.

“Okay,” said Sarah, impatiently.

We found Kelly after a few minutes.   She was “in her element,” happily and effectively handling the needs of her forty other campers and their parents.  We gave her some favorite candy and fresh T-shirts and hurriedly said “good-bye.”  Kelly hugged Sarah tightly, but her relief to see her sister go was clear.

I tried, but probably failed, to tamp down my smugness on the ride home.   We were both relieved to have Sarah happy again.  We agreed it would not make sense to argue our views on summer camp again.  We concluded, finally:  “Different strokes for different folks.”


HOME REPAIR and MR. BROWN

Observing my father shaped my attitude towards people, business, politics and religion.  He inculcated me with disdain for hypocrisy and those who project a “holier-than thou” attitude.  He taught me to be skeptical and to delve deeper than what appears on the surface.  I appreciate those lessons, whether intended or accidental; however, he taught me absolutely nothing about home repair.

When I was young, changing a light bulb represented the pinnacle of expertise in repairs.  Words like “gasket” and “connection” are recognized as mundane to society at large; in our household, they were mysterious and scary.

The tradition of helplessness in the realm of repairs continued into my adult life.  Regretting my ignorance, and hoping to ingratiate myself with a particular girl, I once enrolled in an adult class in lamp wiring.  I learned enough to know that I never want to wire a lamp.  There was something about “black goes with black” and “green with green,” etc., but the message I received had everything to do with “shocks.”

When I married, my wife brought a varied collection of garageanalia (a newly developed word) including:  a mallet, a sander, a power saw and a vice.  I initially believed this dowry conferred at least a modest level of expertise, but I eventually learned (as the rust and spider webs on the objects hinted), these tools were not so much mastered, as inherited, by her.  We share an inability to fix things though, admittedly, she is more knowledgeable.  If this situation were analogized to height, she would be on the second floor of the Empire State Building and I would be in the basement.

I freely admit my lack of ability in this realm is unfortunate.  The amount of money wasted and opportunities lost as a result are incalculable.  When I once invested in a fixer-upper to rent out, it was maddening to be consigned to pulling weeds outside, while an expensive electrician or plumber ran up bills inside.  I painted several times, but was asked by co-owners, tenants and spouse alike, to desist, lest the subject rooms be ruined forever.

My father’s solution to the money pit of home repair and maintenance was twofold:  first, ignore the situation and hope that no one will notice or care enough to require action; and, second, when finally hiring someone to do the work, negotiate so hard that the person who is willing to take the job is desperate and/or incompetent.  These strategies combined to prevent satisfactory solutions to almost any problem.

Mr. Brown was the usual bête noir in my father’s maintenance struggles.  Whether it was a driveway that needed paving, a toilet that needed sealing, or a patio that needed pointing, Mr. Brown eventually got the call.  He arrived in an ancient truck, a slight, light-skinned African-American man, wearing a pair of paint-spattered overalls.  He walked around the house with my father, like an always-hopeful bird awaiting crumbs from an extraordinarily fastidious diner.  At each project, he would estimate the cost, and listen patiently to my father’s howls of indignation and disbelief.

Because my father and Mr. Brown could not always reach a deal, some projects, like our basement bathroom, were never completed; the room remained in a state of “rough” plumbing without fixtures for fifty years.  Other large projects, like the re-covering of our sun-deck, were completed in such a manner that we never used the area again.  The materials used (concrete!), and the low level of workmanship, suggested strongly that walking on the deck would result in the collapse of the entire structure.

Generally, Mr. Brown was willing to work within my father’s fiscal constraints and was resourceful enough to handle most small jobs with a passable degree of success.  One day, while I watched a ballgame on television in the adjacent room, Mr. Brown labored in a bathroom trying to fix a faucet leak that was staining the kitchen ceiling below.

“Mr. Sanders,” he called to my father downstairs.  “I know what the problem is.  The spigot was installed wrong and it’s dripping backwards inside the wall.”

“Can it be fixed?” asked my father from the bottom of the stairs.

“Well,” said Mr. Brown.  “I’m afraid I’ll have to open up the wall to get at it, but it shouldn’t be too bad to patch up.”

“Accchhh,” said my father, possibly skeptical of the diagnosis and/or simplicity of the cure, but absolutely wary of the cost. “Will it take long?”

“Not more than an hour or so,” said Mr. Brown.  “And I’ve got wall cement in the truck so I won’t even charge you for materials.”

My father grumbled assent and returned to reading his newspaper.

From my vantage point I could see Mr. Brown as he worked.  Though I was only about ten, and nearly as ignorant in the ways of adults as of repairs, I sensed he was not as certain as he’d indicated to my father.  There was something about the shrug of his shoulders, the furrow of his brow, and the sighs that only I could hear.

While chipping away at the wall with a chisel, Mr. Brown was accumulating an impressive pile of dust and debris.  Eventually, he exposed the pipes and commenced manipulating them with a wrench.

“Hmmmm,” he said.

“Ummmm,” he added.

“Well, well, well,” he concluded.

I went over to watch; after all, the project seemed more interesting than another Phillies’ defeat.  Mr. Brown did not address me directly.  In fact, we never shared any words during the decade or so that I was acquainted with Mr. Brown.  After a final twist, he put down the wrench and declared aloud:  “That should do it.  I’m going to patch up the hole.”

When he returned with cement and spackling tools I wondered if he was going to turn on the water before restoring the wall.  It appeared not.  I wordlessly willed him to do so.  Instead, he applied himself to enclosing the plumbing with wallboard and caulk and spent an hour sanding and spackling.  I had never seen Mr. Brown work so carefully, like Michaelangelo at the Sistine Chapel.  Finally, he called downstairs:  “Mr. Sanders.  All finished up here.”

My father bounded up and immediately turned on the faucet.

“It’s flooding down here!” shouted my mother from the kitchen.  “Turn it off!”

My father glowered at Mr. Brown.

“Didn’t you test it?” he demanded.

I knew that Mr. Brown had not, and Mr. Brown knew that I knew.  Our eyes met, just for a moment.  I felt loyal to my father but also a tug of sympathy for Mr. Brown.

“Of course,” he finally said to my father, his eyes downcast.  I felt a pit in my stomach.

“He did,” I blurted spontaneously.  “I heard the water.”

My father looked doubtful.  An awkward silence ensued.

“I’ll open it up again,” interjected Mr. Brown, anxiously.  “I’ll adjust it until I get it right.  I won’t charge for any more time.”

“All right,” said my father, satisfied, before returning downstairs.

Mr. Brown and I exchanged one more glance.  I returned to my ballgame, and he resumed working on the faucet.   After several hours of re-configuring and much testing, the leak appeared fixed.  At least, it was several months before the kitchen ceiling resumed dripping.

I derived two lessons from that day.  As to plumbing, my original intuition was correct:  never enclose the repair without verifying its effectiveness; and, as to life:  lying to one’s father is hard for a kid to justify, but in some rare circumstances where no one is hurt, perhaps it is okay to extend a lifeline to a fellow human being.