A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations

I’m at the Laundromat with my daughter washing her clothes. As Natalie sits in her car seat playing with her doll, I think for the hundredth time how I have to buy a house. My own washer and dryer would be nice.

“Hey lady,” a loud voice booms out of sight. “I want a refund!”

“No,” I hear the old woman who manages the Laundromat, say.

“But my clothes are still wet!”

“You used the big dryer,” the manager says. “They cost a quarter for five minutes. You didn’t put in enough.”

“The other dryers are twenty-five cents for eight minutes.”

“That’s because they’re smaller,” the manager says.

“I WANT A REFUND!,” the voice yells again.

Moving to get a better view I see the voice belongs to a tall, young man. Wearing a North Face jacket, jeans and construction boots, he looks pissed.

Walking away the manager says, “Don’t yell at me,” over her shoulder.

“FUCK YOU LADY!” he screams. “I WANT A FUCKING REFUND.” Then he starts walking towards the manager.

Running on automatic, I stow Natalie under a folding table, block it with a laundry cart and step into the young man’s view. The kid stops in his tracks.

The tenor of the kid’s voice and his demeanor reminds me of the psychopathic bullies I deal with on the psych ward. These types usually only go after weak and easy prey and I‘m a complication. I get into physical confrontations with patients on a regular basis. I’ll take this kid down before he knows what hit him.

Then my brain screams, “What are you doing? You can’t be mixing it up with someone half your age. Your daughter is here!” I freeze as my brain struggles with two imperatives, not putting my daughter in danger and not letting an old lady get hurt.

“You talk to your mother with that mouth?” the manager says.

“As a matter of fact I do,” the kid says, sneering. Then he casts a quick look at me, sizing me up. I remember I’m a pudgy middle-aged husband and father. I’m not on the psych ward. There won’t be any security guards and needles loaded with Thorazine to bail me out if the balloon goes up. This is the street, not work. My little girl is here. I must withdraw.

“Get out before I call the police,” the manager says.

Then the kid surprises me. “I’ll call them myself,” he says, flipping open his cell phone.

“I can’t believe this guy!” the manager says, very angry.

“Don’t say another word to him.” I say.

The kid calls the cops, complaining about theft of services. “Yeah the lady flipped me off,” he says. “I ain’t gonna put up with that.” Within two minutes three police cars swoop into the parking lot.

“Who called us?” a sergeant asks walking in the door.

“I did,” the kid says.

“Come outside with me,” the sergeant says. As the kid talks I motion one of the other officers to come inside.

“What’s up?” the cop says.

“That guy is disturbing the peace,” I say. “He had a problem with the dryer and went ballistic, screaming, ‘fuck you’ and scaring everyone in here. I have a baby here and this guy’s making me nervous.”

“Okay.”

“He also said the manager flipped him off,” I continue. “She did no such thing. So he’s histrionic and a liar. Guy who gets that worked up has something wrong with him. Probably high or coming off a high.”

A look crosses the cop’s face and I realize he believes me without question. He goes back outside and talks to the other cops.

After a few minutes the sergeant comes in and talks to the manager. “The kid wants his two bucks back.”

“No way,” the manager says. “The dryers work fine.”

“Then it’s a civil matter,” the sergeant says. “He can sign a complain and you work it out in court. I don’t care either way, but is it really worth all the trouble?”

“I’ll refund him fifty cents,” the manager says. “Then I want him to get out of here.”

A deal is made. The kid gets fifty cents and is allowed to finish drying his clothes. Then the cops line up three abreast and give him hard stares for five minutes. He isn’t saying anything now.

I put my daughter back on the folding table and say, “Wave to the policemen, Natalie.” She smiles and waves. One of the cops waves back. As I look at the towering young men bristiling with batons, bulletproof vests, Tasers and handguns I feel old and diminished.

The cops leave. The kid leaves soon afterwards. As he drives away the manager thanks me. “I’m glad you were here.”

I feel ashamed. I like this old lady but if the kid had gone after her there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done. I would have let him attack her and gotten Natalie out of Dodge. Or would my temper have gotten the better of me?  I don’t know and I’m glad I didn’t find out.

Laundry finished I drive home. Looking at the baby mirror I see my daughter giggling and laughing as she watches the world flow past her, totally unaware of the dangers it holds. Then the words of Harry Callahan ring in my ears.

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

My greatest joy and limitation is gurgling in the car seat behind me. She comes first, always and forever – even if that makes me feel bad about myself.

My Dirty Harry days are over.

Tightrope

I’m driving to work when my wife calls me on my cellphone. Answering using the hands free gizmo my car is immediately filled with the wails of a crying baby.

“Natalie burned herself,” my wife says, choking back tears.

“How?”

“I was in the kitchen,” Annie says,” I turned my head for a second…”

“What happened?”

“She touched the radiator.”

“Which one?”

“The small one in the dining room.” We don’t have a “dining room.” A tiny table for four sits in the hallway connecting the kitchen with the rest of our two-bedroom apartment.

“Where’s the burn?” I say, going into “calm dad” mode.

“Her left hand,” Annie says. “I didn’t know what happened at first. She was just sitting on the floor crying. Then I figured she tried pulling herself up by holding onto the radiator.” My daughter has become highly mobile. Upright bipedal locomotion is around the corner. Now the fun begins.

“Run her hand under cool water,” I say. “Don’t put any salve on it.”

“I’ve been running it under water.”

“Good.”

“Then what?”

“Does the hand look waxy or weirdly discolored?”

“No. Just red.”

“Probably first degree,” I say. “Just keep running water on it. Cool down the heat trapped in the epidermis. Give her Tylenol for the pain.”

“I feel terrible,” Annie says.

“This stuff happens,” I say. “If she gets a blister call the doctor and then call me.”

Annie hangs up to tend to Natalie’s wounds. Knowing my daughter’s not seriously hurt I go decide to go to work – on a psych ward filled highly acute screaming patients. Just great.

A couple of hours later my wife calls me. Natalie has a blister the size of a jellybean on her hand. The doctor told her to keep the hand clean and dry, continue to medicate the pain and make an appointment for the next morning. When I get home that night my daughter won’t show me her left hand. She’s instinctively not using it. Welcome to the big bad world, little one.

“We’re so careful,” my wife says. “I can’t believe this happened.”

All the steam radiators in our apartment are blocked from Natalie’s probing hands by furniture. But the radiator in the dining room is a tiny two-fin affair that’s hidden under the “dinning room” table. Out of sight, out of mind. I turn it off for good.

“It’s good you assessed the situation so fast,” I tell my wife. “Good job.”

“I still feel guilty.”

The next morning I take my daughter to the doctor who’s not concerned. “I’m prescribing you a salve,” she says. “Just apply it when the blister pops, wrap it in gauze and cover it with a sock.”

“I’m glad it’s not serious.”

The doctor smiles. “This is nothing, trust me.” As I pop Natalie back into her clothes she’s smiling and laughing, having forgotten all about the pain of the previous day.

“You have a very happy daughter,” the doctor says, looking up from her computer.

“Everyone says that,” I say. “People in diners, strangers in the store. I think she was born that way.”

“Nonsense,” the doctor says. “You and you’re wife are doing something right. Don’t shortchange yourselves.”

Feeling quite pleased with myself I pay the bill and exit into the waiting room. A young mother is there with a tiny infant.

“How old?” I ask.

“Two months.”

“Time for her shots.”

“Yes,” the mother says. “I’m dreading it.”

“It’ll be over before you know it.”

“How old is your little girl?” the lady says.

“Ten months,” I say. “She burned herself. All better now.”

The mother looks at me in shock. “How did you let that happen?” I say nothing.

The receptionist calls the young mother inside. When she disappears another waiting parent says to me, “Don’t worry. She’ll find out soon enough.”

When I told people about Natalie’s incident I got my fair share of judgmental comments. Most of them came from people who did not have children or parents who blanked out their own child-rearing fuck-ups. Other parents, however, were happy to tell me guilty stories about misfortunes they failed to protect their children from. I heard about, electrocutions, kids slipping out of high chairs, falls down stairs, Olympic diving off beds, dog bites, burns and a toddler falling out of a moving car. The common thread in all these stories was, “I just turned my head for a second.”

I turned my head for a second when I was babysitting my six-month old nephew and he rolled off the changing table and bounced off the floor. I screamed so loud that my landlord’s police officer son charged upstairs to see what happened. As he was checking my nephew over all sorts of horrible outcomes ran through my head. A passing psychiatrist would have committed me on the spot. I was completely prepared to throw myself in front of a train. Luckily my nephew was unhurt.

Now that I’m a father my brother likes to joke that I made all my parenting mistakes on his kid. “If Ethan doesn’t get into Harvard,” he likes to joke, “Blame Uncle Steve.” But when I called him that day to tell him I dropped the most precious thing in his world, he was amazingly gracious. I later realized why. He had dropped his son too. He knew what I had gone through. When he heard about Natalie’s burn he cracked wise about calling Family Services, but he understood. You can’t protect your children 100 percent of the time.

But we sure as hell try. When my daughter was born my wife and I became like AWACS – the radar planes militaries use to scan the airspace for threats and vector fighter intercepts. With eyes constantly revolving like radar domes, we’re always on the lookout for anything that can threaten our little girl. I’ve learned to hate pennies and pieces of fuzz. I dropped a bottle of prescription pills last week and spent half an hour on my knees with a flashlight until every last tablet was accounted for. We’ve installed corner guards; cabinet locks and taped the battery compartments on the remote controls shut. We’re relentless. But that damn radiator was like a stealth bomber, cruising through our defenses and scoring a direct hit.

Like good commanders, my wife and I debriefed after the screw up and adjusted our battle plan. When Natalie’s roaming free we have to be eyes on her. If not we’ll throw her into the playpen. Of course when she’s capable of getting out of her playpen we’ll have to come up with a new plan. But the risks will continue to escalate. Eventually Natalie will demand to climb the monkey bars, do gymnastics, walk around the block alone, date boys, stay out late and drive a car. Life is going to be a constant series of adjustments and risk calculations. I hope my heart can take it.

My wife and I are in agreement that we can’t protect our child from every risk. We’ve seen how helicoptering parents do as much damage as neglectful ones. We have to protect Natalie from everything now, but eventually we’ll have to let her roam free. Or at least give her the illusion of roaming free. I’m still holding out for those implantable tracking devices.

Technological fantasies aside, I know no parent can watch his or her child 24/7. You will “turn your head for a second.” Besides, you have to sleep, crap and have sex sometimes. If you worry about every possible bad thing that might befall your kids you’ll end up in the booby hatch. You have to be vigilant but also trust that things will be okay. The tension between those opposites is the tightrope parents must walk across everyday. I just hope that my wife and I will continue “doing something right.”

As I write this I’m watching Natalie sleeping peacefully. One day I know she’ll come to me crying, wracked by a pain that my sweet endearments and caresses will not heal. I’ll have to raise her so she can heal herself or have the brains to turn to the right people when she can’t. I will have to teach her to be vigilant but trust in the goodness of the world. My wife and I will have to show her how to walk that tightrope.

But for now Mommy and Daddy are going to circle you like a pair of AWACS.

Burn and Rave

I’ve been floated up to the geriatric psych ward and I’m not happy. When I was younger I didn’t sweat working with old people. Back then old age and death seemed impossibly far away. Now, with my fiftieth birthday in sight, the demented elderly chattering around me are a reminder that the clock is ticking.

“I’m looking for my keys,” a woman says to me, her voice quavering. “If I can’t find them I can’t go home.”

“Okay, Gertrude,” I say, taking the woman by the arm. “Let’s go look for them.” There are no keys. Gertrude is sun downing – the agitation many people with dementia and Alzheimer’s suffer when daylight fades.

“I know someone stole my keys,” Gertrude hisses. “You can’t trust the people around here.”

“Let’s keep looking.”

Gertrude and I walk up and down the dayroom, looking under every table and in every drawer. Outside the window the setting sun is flaring magnificently as it makes way for night.

“Are these your keys?” I say, pointing to a plastic knife and fork.

“You found them!” Gertrude says, clutching them to her breast. “Thank you.”

“All part of the friendly service.” I’m not above trickery.

“Now let me go home,” the old lady says.

I shake my head. “I’m sorry Gertrude. I cannot do that.”

“Let me out of here! I have to cook my husband dinner!’

Gertrude has forgotten her husband’s dead and is becoming agitated. To calm her I sit with her and hold her hand. Looking at the patient bracelet dangling from her thin wrist I see her birthdate was November 1914. Gertrude is one hundred years old. Born at the start of The Great War, she was my age when Eisenhower was President. If I reach the century mark my daughter will be fifty-five. One day she might visit me in a place like this, tricking me with fake keys.

The unit is noisy, filled with confused old people complaining about pains and indignities real and imagined. Barely rising above the din, an AARP commercial plays on the television, showing robust and impossibly good looking elderly people singing and dancing. The director of this slick commercial decided to avoid the reality of ageing clamoring angrily around me. I guess decrepitude and adult diapers put a real damper on eternal life fantasies. But let’s face it; even death is packaged with ruthless commercial efficiency. Pre-plan your funeral, buy insurance for your final expenses and, for God’s sake, die a “good death.” Don’t make a fuss.

What the hell is a good death? The patients around me must be failing in this regard. They’re not dispensing quaint tidbits of wisdom or letting go with quiet dignity. They’re pissing in their pants, tormented by failing minds and bitching about the food. They’re going out kicking and screaming.

Perhaps that’s they way it should be, not the narcotized version the media tries peddling to us. “Man is not only the victim of pain and the progressive deterioration of his body,” the Fathers of Vatican II wrote. “He is also and more deeply, tormented by the fear of final extinction…. he rebels against death.”

I’m on record saying I’m not afraid of death, but watching my daughter come out of her mother’s womb changed all that. Watching new life catching fire cast my own life into shadow. That day I realized with absolute certainty that I was going to die. And as I held Natalie for the first time the words of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem thundered in my ears.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
Oblivion suddenly became terrifying. And how, I thought to myself, could this new life in my arms ever, ever fade away? In my heart of hearts I knew it was impossible. The words of the church fathers I once studied took on new meaning. “But the instinctive judgment of (man’s) heart is right when he shrinks from, and rejects, the idea of a total collapse and definitive end of his own person.” On that day my gut told me Natalie would not end. I will not end. Maybe those guys in pointy hats were onto something.

Of course I have no idea what this all means. I haven’t dusted off my old breviary and started going to church. But I know if Natalie visits me when I’m a hundred I’ll probably be an old crank fighting to hold on until the end. That’s how we’re built. That’s what it means to be human. Don’t worry about dying a good death.That’s all pre-packaged bullshit. You’ll die how you die. What comes afterwards? I don’t know. There’s no law against hoping for something more.

Holding Gertrude’s hand I remember Dylan Thomas was also born in 1914. Maybe he’s drinking double whiskeys in Elysium right now, enthralling the Seraphim with his dramatic Welsh brogue. That’d be hilarious. Suddenly I’m glad to be among these old people, listening to them burn and rave as day draws to a close.

“Rage,” I say, silently joining their chorus. “Rage against the dying of the light.”

Mean Little Spaces

It’s five-thirty and I’ve just finished the lovely sandwich my wife made for me when Hakim sticks his head in the break room.

“Can you do me a favor?” the young nurse asks.

“Sure.”

“You know that new patient in 308?”

“He’s been in bed all day.”

“He came in at three in the morning and the night shift didn’t check his belongings. Could you do it?”

Checking a patient’s belongings is the shittiest job on a psych ward. You have to count every stitch of their clothing, log it on a belongings sheet and then place anything remotely valuable into a special envelope and drop It off with the hospital cashier. Then you have to have the patient sign a receipt – no mean feat when they’re paranoid as hell.

I groan. “Does he have a lot of shit?”

“His suitcase is locked up in the utility closet.”

“Suitcase?”

“When he got picked up he said he was going to Denver.” Hakim says. “So yeah, it’s a lot of stuff.”

“Is he a hoarder?”

“Don’t know. I haven’t seen his bag.”

Nine times out of ten patients come in with only the clothing on their backs and some form of ID. If their family can’t supply clothes the patient can do laundry on-site or wear disposable clothes made of paper. But every once in a while we get a hoarder – usually a homeless person who, despite their lack of domicile, manages to carry the contents of a small apartment in their luggage. I’m sure that’s what I’m about to face.

“I’lll take care of it,” I tell Hakim. “But if I find moldy food in his bag I’m going to get even with you.”

Hakim smiles uneasily, not sure if I’m kidding, and leaves. A few years ago I had to go through a shopping cart filled with dripping wet possessions a homeless lady brought in. I found three pounds of moldy luncheon meat wrapped in her dirty underwear. I still have nightmares about it.

Sadly, it looks like I’m in for more of the same. The man’s suitcase is old dirty and bulging at the seams. To keep it from bursting he’s wrapped the whole thing up with surgical tape that’s taken on a lovely shade of brown. A walking cane hangs from the busted handle. Inventorying all this stuff will take forever.

I drag the suitcase to an empty therapy room, close the door, and then assemble all the items I need to perform a search – lots of latex gloves, patient belongings bags, garbage can, clear plastic bags, the requisite paperwork and a pen.

The charge nurse looks at my bundle of supplies and chuckles. “This going to take long?”

“I hope not.”

My hope are dashed the moment I open the outer pocket of the suitcase. Like most street hoarders the man’s wrapped all his items in napkins, paper-towels and then triple bagged them in supermarket plastic bags tied shut. Since I can’t see what’s in them I have to take them apart one by one. This will take hours.

I’m also on high alert. Homeless people often carry weapons. I’ve found razors and knives of every description doing this job – even a bullet. Never found a gun, though. That honor went to a co-worker some years ago who dug a .32 automatic out of a sock. I go slowly though the man’s possessions, careful not to cut or stick myself on anything that might be in there. I’m very happy I got the Hepatitis vaccine.

Just as I finish logging the contents of the first pocket the group room door swings open and a dirty and very large man walks in. “Who the fuck are you and what are you doing with my stuff?” he yells.

I forgot to lock the door. Stupid. The man rushes in and grabs his suitcase. “You’re gonna steal my stuff. Get the fuck out of here.”

I calmly stand my ground. “I have to check every thing that comes in here. I will make a record of everything I find.”

“Fuck that. I’m gonna watch you do it.”

“You can’t be here as I go through it.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“Because if there’s a weapon in your bag I don’t want you to use it on me.” I don’t say that, of course, and ask the man to leave the room.

“Fuck you asshole,” the patient says, pushing me aside.

I take a deep breath. I’m not going mano y mano with this guy. He’s very big and has got a mass of crude tattoos and scars. He’s been in the shit. He’s a street warrior. I hail a passing orderly and tell her to bring help.

The man grabs a pack of smokes out of his bag and tries to light them. Surprising myself I snatch the lighter out of his hand.

“Don’t touch me asshole,” he says.

“You can’t smoke in here,” I say. Actually I don’t care about his cigarettes. I’m worried about the lighter. Patients can and do start fires.

The man responds by snatching up his cane. Considering the confines of the room he’ll probably try and poke me in the gut instead of swinging. So I grab it.

“Give me the cane,” I say. “When you get a doctor’s order you can have it.”

The patient’s face flushes red and his body tenses. He’s going to go for it.

I’ve been trained how to defend myself against violent patients. Using a variety of holds, the object is to get the patient on the ground as safely as possible and wait for the calvary to arrive. But “therapeutic jujitsu” isn’t going to work here. The man’s too close, too big and I’m in a confined space. I’m in danger. Then the cold part of my brain tells me to deliver an elbow strike into the hinge of the man’s jaw.

I let the thought flicker in and out of my mind. Instead of breaking the patient’s jaw I hold up my free hand.

“Play it cool, brother,” I say. “I don’t want to tangle with you. I will not mess up your stuff.”

The man relents and lets go of the cane. Just then two security guards arrive.

“Any of you guys touch me and I’ll fuck you up,” the patient says, looking very scared.

The younger security guard is built like a light heavyweight and snorts. He’s not worried. The older guard, who’s even bigger, just shakes his head. “We’re just here to help you.”

“The guards at the other hospital beat me up!” the patient yells. “I have nothing to lose. Bring it.”

“No one’s going to beat you up,” I say. “We also don’t want you attacking us.”

“I just want to be left alone,” the patient says. “Let me out of here.”

Hakim arrives holding a hypodermic. “What’s that for?” the patient asks.

“Something to help you relax,” Hakim says.

“Fuck that.”

“You said you have nothing to lose,” I say. “What did you mean by that?”

“I got nothing,” the man says, his voice breaking. “My dog died five months ago.”

“What kind of dog?”

“A Jack Russell.”

“How old was he?”

“Eight.”

“You lost him to soon,” I say. “I have dogs. When my oldest one was sick I thought I’d have to put him down. I cried for hours.”

“So you know what it’s like, kinda.”

“Anyone who loves dogs isn’t all bad.”

“No. They aren’t.”

“Let us give you the shot,” I say. “You’ll feel better. Take a break from what’s eating you.”

The patient acquiesces and Hakim administers the shot. Within minutes the man is out cold. I go back to checking his stuff.

After two hours, in addition to clothes, food and a million pens, I find two knifes, a utility razor, screwdriver and two hundred Fentanyl patches that I could sell for a fortune on the street. No wonder the patient was so worried about his stuff.

When I get home I put my clothes in the hamper and take a long shower. Then I fix myself a dirty martini on the rocks and flop down on the couch. My wife comes out of the bedroom holding Natalie. She’s asleep.

“Sssshh,” my wife says and puts the baby in her crib. Then she tiptoes over and plants a kiss on my lips.

“How was your day?” she says. I tell her.

“Would you have hit that man?” she asks.

“If I had too,” I say. “I’m very glad I didn’t though.”

“But it bothers you that you thought about it.” My wife knows me very well.

“Yes.”

“You’ve never hit a patient,” she says. “Ever. You always manage to talk them down.”

“Not always.”

“True. But when you do put your hands on people you’re not brutal. You’re not violent.”

I nod. The martini is starting to have it’s effect.

“You got hurt recently,” my wife says. “Remember?”

Two weeks ago a guy went nuts and tried throwing a chair. I intercepted him and slapped him into a hold. But I didn’t roll him to the ground as per the manual because he had a preexisting head injury and I didn’t want to hurt him any further. As a result he managed to get a shot in and I ended up in the ER and out of work for five days.

“You got hurt so the patient wouldn’t,” my wife says. “Not everyone would do that.”

“I guess so.”

Annie kisses me again and goes to bed. She knows I have to be alone. I fix myself a second drink. I want to be in the bag. That’s a rare thing for me these days.

I watch television and let the vodka work its magic. When I finish my drink I look at the ice cubes and think about that cold part of my brain. It’s always been there. Ruthless. Calculating. An icy bastard. Today he peeked out of my unconcious and looked around.

Then I remember a line Lawrence Block once wrote. It’s something I tell new staff when they’re wrestling with the violent urges the patients sometimes incite within us.

‘Everyone has mean little spaces inside of themselves. It’s the ones who are not aware of them who fly off the handle.”

Quite drunk, I go to bed.

Zombies and Tacos

If you’ve ever waited tables, at some point in your nocturnal life, you’ve had a “waiter dream.” These nightmares usually share common thematic elements; you’ve got a hundred customers who all hate you, the restaurant’s layout is bizarrely different, the menu’s a hundred pages, written in Cyrillic and you’re perpetually in the weeds. Often it’s just your brain clearing out the myriad of details ricocheting in your brain after a bad shift. (“Man, I forgot to bring that soda to table twelve!”) Sometimes its your subconscious telling you to get out of the biz.

Six years after hanging up my apron, I occasionally have these dreams. They usually mean I’ve forgotten to do something in my waking life, but last night I had a very different dream. A dream from the customer’s perspective

My wife and I are eating at The Four Seasons in Manhattan when I spy Phillip Johnson sitting at his regular table in the Pool Room.

“Isn’t Phillip Johnson dead?” I say.

“For a long time,” my wife says.

“They must miss him. They hired a lookalike to take his place.”

As my wife peruses the menu I look around the Pool Room. I took a date here twenty years ago and man, the place has changed. Designed by Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, it used to be coolly elegant space with large windows, trees, subdued lighting and that iconic “pool.” Now it looks like a low rent Hofbräuhaus with sawdust on the floor. Shrugging, I look at the menu and spy something outrageous.

“Look at this!” I say. “Beluga Caviar Tacos for 7800 dollars!”

“That’s insane,” my wife says.

The waiter comes to our table and we order $300 worth of stuff. An expensive lunch to be sure, but we’re treating ourselves. To my surprise the entrees come out first. Annoyed, I ask the waiter what happened.

“You wanted your entrees first,” he snaps.

“No we didn’t.”

“Yes,” he says, showing me his dupe pad. “Before you get the Beluga Tacos.”

To my utter horror I see “Tacos! KaChing!” written on his pad and “$7800” circled in heavy black marker.

“We didn’t want those tacos!” I almost scream.

“Yes you did,” the waiter says. “I heard you talking about them when I walked over.”

My wife bursts into tears. “We’re going to have to dip into the house fund to pay for this!”

“Go to the kitchen and tell then we don’t want those tacos,” I say.

“It’s too late. You’ll have to pay for them.”

“Get me the manager!”

The manager, a middle-aged lady wearing a yellow Century 21 jacket, runs up to our table. “Is there a problem, sir?”

“You bet there’s a problem!” I say. “I didn’t order $7800 worth of anything!”

“You’re on the hook for it,” the manager says. “Too bad.”

As my wife sobs hysterically I try comforting her. “There’s no way we’re paying for this.” I say. “They’ll try arresting us for theft of service but since we didn’t eat the food the charges won’t stick. And they’ll have to spend more than $7800 to cover their legal costs.”

“Please come with me, sir,” the manager says. “The GM wants to talk with you.”

My wife and I walk to the back of the house and we’re soon locked in a small windowless room with three people; the nattily dressed GM, a chain smoking old lady, and a 6’5 bald bruiser wearing an ill fitting double breasted suit with a sinister bulge under his left armpit.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the GM says. “You owe us $7800. Will that be cash or credit?”

“We didn’t even eat the fucking tacos!” I shout.

The GM shakes his head. “Once we enter an item into the POS system the terms are non-negotiable.”  Great. I’m dealing with the restaurant version of ISIS.

“Okay,” I say. “I hate saying this, but do you know who I am?”

“You look vaguely familiar.”

“I write the Waiter Rant blog,” I say. “My book was a New York Times Bestseller and I’ve been on Oprah and the Today Show. I have Frank Bruni’s phone number on speed dial! Do not mess with me!”

“Well,” the old lady cackles. “Doesn’t that you make feel powerful.”

“Listen toots, even if I was rich I’d never order a $7800 dish.”

“Of course you would,” the old lady says, waving smoke out her face. “That’s what rich people do.”

“Actually,” the GM says. “This does change things.”

“What?” the harridan says. “Make him pay like all the others!”

“We can’t afford the bad publicity,” the GM says. “Mr. Johnson wouldn’t like it.”

“Phillip Johnson is dead,” I say.

“Oh sir,” the GM says. “This is the Four Seasons. We simply reanimated him.”

“You guys are nuts,” I say, putting on my coat. “Here’s the deal. We don’t pay and I keep my mouth shut.”

“That’s fair,” the GM says. Then he turns to the bruiser in the bad suit and says, “But I feel sorry for you. You don’t get to play today.” The bruiser looks pissed.

“What does he do?” I ask fearfully.

“Sir, you do not want to know.”

I wake up to find my wife playing on her iPhone. When I tell her about the dream she laughs. “Those are expensive tacos.”

“I know what the dream was about,” I say, heaving myself out of bed.

“What?”

“The car.”

A few days ago my car refused to budge when I depressed the gas pedal. After I had it towed to the service station I was consumed with worry, thinking I had a multi-thousand dollar repair on my hands. Luckily my mechanic is honest and diagnosed a ruptured hose and low transmission fluid. It only cost three hundred dollars to fix.

“We were lucky,” my wife says. “I thought we’d have to dip into the house fund to pay it.”

“And my mind turned a transmission job into Beluga Tacos.”

“Did you really say you had Frank Bruni’s number on speed dial?”

“Honey, it was just dream. Besides, Frank’s not the food critic for The Times anymore.” Just to be a wiseass I grab my phone and show her Bruni’s number on my contact list. He interviewed me a few years ago and I saved the number. I doubt it still works.

“Well,” my wife says, smirking. “Doesn’t that make you feel powerful?”

“Your husband just saved us $7800,” I say. “Show some respect.”

All the characters in this dream are fictional. Phillip Johnson is not a zombie employed by The Four Seasons. The restaurant has not been remodeled to look like a German beer hall. The last time I checked Beluga Caviar Tacos weren’t on their menu. But I wouldn’t put it past them.

Halloween Isn’t What It Used To Be

Having a baby has made 2014 a year of firsts so, when Halloween rolls around, my wife and I get into gear.

After dressing Natalie up as Snow White we run over to an arts and crafts store, hit up Target for candy and go home to decorate our front porch. “If you don’t have any Halloween decorations,” my wife warns. “People won’t know you’re giving out candy.”

My wife is very creative and, with a minimum of supplies, casts a large spider’s web over our front porch – complete with with spiders made of yellow and black ribbon. Add a few pumpkins and voila! A house ready for trick or treaters.

When I was a waiter I wasted Halloween serving costumed Yuppies so I make it a point to hand out candy to the kids every year. Knowing children will hit the streets the moment school lets out, I fix a cup of coffee, leash Buster to the railing, and sit outside with a large stainless steel bowl full of candy. My wife will join me but she’s busy changing Natalie. Because two sets of grandparents have to see my daughter’s outfit in pristine condition, diaper duty has taken on the tension of a bomb disposal scene from The Hurt Locker.  One slip and it’s all over. Damn those white tights that came with Snow White’s costume. Yellow or brown would have been better.

A gaggle of children walk past. They see me but, to my surprise, keep going. As their parents bring up the rear I say, “Hey, we have candy over here.” The adults don’t even look at me and push their brood around the block. I’m pissed. Do I have a sign that says, “Child molester” hanging around my neck? I’ve lived in this neighborhood for eleven years.

Annie joins me. “Natalie is conked out,” she says. “I want her to sleep before your parents arrive.”

I tell my wife about the paranoid parents. “I’m glad you’re here now. Maybe having a woman here will lower their anxiety.” Then another group of children walk right past us, their parents ignoring my offer of sweets.

“What the hell?” I almost shout. “What’s wrong with these people?’

“Calm down,” Annie says. “”These parents are probably sticking to the homes of people they know. Nowadays it’s all about safe trick or treating.”

“So what do they think we’re doing?”  I sputter. “Putting Drano in the Snickers Bars? On the hunt for kiddie kidneys? We’re not on any sexual offender lists.”

My wife shakes her head. “You’re getting too worked up over this. When Natalie gets older we’ll know more parents and they’ll come around to our house.”

“That’s horseshit.”

The idea of “safe” trick or treating pisses me off. After working the locals once or twice, my brother and I would walk for miles until until we bagged enough candy to last us past Easter. Everybody gave out candy on Halloween back then – even the barefoot hippie pot-smoking weirdoes with the long hair and beads.

“What can I say?” Annie says. “People are worried about their kids getting poisoned.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I say. “We had that when I was little. They told us sickos put razor blades in apples and rat poison in the candy. Do you know there had never been a documented case of that happening? Not once.”

“So you’ve told me, many times.”

“If someone was stupid enough to do that,” I say. “Parents would burn the house down with the guy in it. Cops would probably stand by and say, ‘We didn’t see anything.”

My wife shoots me a dirty look. “Chill out, now.”

Eventually some normal parents come by with their children and help themselves to our candy. That makes me feel better, but not by much. Halloween isn’t the holiday of my childhood. Less and less children come around every year. Being a dad this time around makes the contrast more poignant.

“It’s a shame when you think about it,” my wife says as the children walk away.  “This is a time for people to get to know their neighbors. A chance for little kids to interact with adults they usually don’t have.”

I say nothing. Parents have been cocooning their kids from every possible form of risk for years. Wonder why young people are having such a hard time today? Most of it has to do with economics, but helicopter parents haven’t helped. Last month a schoolboy asked me for directions to his house as I was walking my dogs. The child lived four blocks from where we were standing! Shocked, I asked why he didn’t know where his own house was.

“My mom drives me everywhere,” he said. That’s messed up.

I’m not afraid of raising a child, I’m afraid of other parents. Dealing with over-protective nitwits will test my patience. I’ll be that contrarian father at P.T.A meetings. I’ll be the voice saying, “That’s nonsense!” Teachers will groan when they hear my name. Oh. That guy. For Natalie’s sake I’ll have to bite my tongue for the next eighteen years. I don’t know how I’ll manage.

My parents arrive and we walk Natalie around the block to get a few token treats.  Most of the houses aren’t giving out candy and I notice the costumed children we’re tailing aren’t from my town. Not unusual. The city across the river isn’t the greatest. I notice one of the visiting fathers has a flashlight. So do I. The greatest danger to kids isn’t poisoned candy; it’s the automotive dolts and drunk drivers. As the sky darkens I pray everyone gets home safely.

When we get home we discover Natalie has peed though her outfit and discard it. As far as she’s concerned it’s just another day. In a few more years I hope Halloween will be as exciting for her as it was for me, but it won’t be the same. The old days are long gone. But no matter how much I grouse about change, I’ll have to make Halloween a nice day for my little girl.

My parents are hungry so we go out for dinner. Before we leave I place the candy on my stoop so the kids can help themselves. When we get back two hours later the candy is all gone. So is the bowl.

“They took the fucking bowl!” I say, forgetting my mother is right next to me.

“That’s the bowl I use when baking,’’ Annie says.

“I don’t mind the candy being gone, I’d have just eaten it. But the bowl? Unbelievable.”

Halloween isn’t what it used to be.

Mischief Night

I’m on the checkout line in the supermarket when a teenaged boy comes up to me with an extra large carton of eggs.

“Excuse me, sir.” he says. “Could you buy these eggs for me?”

My shopping cart is loaded with stuff. “You have one thing.” I say. “You can go ahead of me.”

“Could you buy them for me instead?” he says, offering me a ten dollar bill.

“Why can’t you buy them yourself?”

“Uh,” the boy says. “Because tomorrow night is Mischief Night and they might not sell them to me.”

Realization dawns on me. “No way,” I say. “You want to do the deed you’ve got to take your chances.”

The boy waves the money in front of me. “You can keep the change.”

“Kid,” I say. “I’d be more understanding if you wanted me to buy you beer. But the answer would still be no.” I should be glad they didn’t ask me to buy them porn.

The boy is about fifteen, has braces, pimples and is wearing some kind of school uniform. Behind him his partner in crime is looking at me like I’m an clueless old man. He’s not far off the mark. I completely forgot tomorrow was Mischief Night.

Cabbage Night. Goosey Night. Mischief Night. Whatever you call it, I’m against it. My parents kept me locked up tight on the night of October 30th – forbidding me to participate in any youthful hooliganism. I never wanted to anyway. When I was small I left my Big Wheel in the driveway that night and awoke to find it buried in a mountain of shaving cream. I also watched my neighbors cleaning eggs off their cars, getting toilet paper out of trees and scraping the scorched remains of burned dogshit off their stairs. Not my idea of fun.

The next night I finish work at eleven o’clock and my wife picks me up. My car’s in the shop and I’m without wheels for a few days. As we drive home and see bands of kids wandering the streets I’m suddenly glad my car is behind a chain link fence. Maybe the owner of the shop has a German Shepherd on patrol. Or even even better, a retired Secret Service Belgian Malinois attack dog. Grrrr.

When we get home I change Natalie, give her a bottle and put her to bed. By the time the milk is half done she’s zonked out. Then I take the dogs outside, give old Buster his evening meds, tuck my wife in and grab my computer, Jim Beam on the rocks, a cigar, and head outside.

As I puff and surf the web, several police cars coast past. The cops in my town take a dim view of Mischief Night. They’ll have to be more vigilant. We passed a toilet papered house on the way home.

Listening to music, I tab through the days news stories and sip my bourbon. Then I realize I have a can of dog crap in front of my house. A few years ago I bought a miniature garbage can to hold all the poopy bags my two dogs produce. Unfair to leave it in the regular garbage and gross out my town’s sanitation engineers, don’t you think? But when I pick it up I realize it’s empty. My wife, fearing the poop could be used against us, is way ahead of me.

It’s a nice night. Not too cold, not too warm and bourbon’s making me feel no pain. Shifting in my seat, I feel my military grade Surefire flashlight jab me through my coat pocket. If any vandals come calling they’ll be greeted with a 500 lumen blast of eye searing light. That’ll teach ‘em. My cell phone is also with me; ready to call the local constabulary if any kid tries egging my wife’s car. Yeah, I’m turning into a cranky old dude.

Twenty minutes later, a trio of young boys walks past my house. Illuminated by my porch light they can see me and I can see them. Giggling to themselves they walk by and I give then a friendly wave. I see you little bastards. 

Then an evil thought hits me. Why don’t I call out, “Hey kids! Is this Mischief Night or The Purge? I get the dates mixed up!” That would send them running.

I’d probably end up only getting probation.

The Fires of Hell

“Stephen, dear,” Connie says. “Please refill my ice water.”

I don’t even look up from my chart.  “Connie, the water machine is right over there. You’re perfectly capable of getting it.”

“I’m too old. Be a nice young man and get me my water. A cup of tea would be nice too.”

Connie is in her seventies and has mistaken the psych ward for the Waldorf Astoria.

“Did you hear me?” Connie shouts. “I want some water! Make it snappy.”

“Why don’t you shut up already,” another patient says. “I’m sick of your yelling.”

“You shut up,” Connie hisses. “I am very rich! I demand respect. I will not be trifled with.”

I groan inwardly. Connie is imperious, vain, opinionated, and loud – a real diva. She’s also deluded. With her hair in disarray and wearing a hospital gown over adult diapers, no one’s going to mistake her for a long lost Vanderbilt. She’s also the worst kind of patient to have on the unit. The tongue-lashings she doles out sets off the other patients, making my life harder.

“Yo lady,” the aggravated patient says. “Cut the shit.”

“Roger,” I say, my voice brooking no argument. “Come over here.”

Roger shuffles over, smiling back at his clique of younger patients. “What up?’

“She’s an old woman,” I say. “Ignore her.”

“She gonna get in trouble talking like that.”

I look Roger right in the eye. “You will not bother her in any way.”

“Listen I don’t take no….”

“She’s here because she can’t control how she acts,” I say, cutting him off. “You can control how you act. Leave her be.”

Roger shrugs and walks away. He’ll be a problem eventually.

Connie explodes again. “Tell that girl to stop looking at me! I don’t want her near me.” The poor girl in question tears up.  Time to shut Connie down.

“Connie,” I say gently. “You will stop yelling at the patients.”

“You can’t tell me what to do. I can buy and sell you!”

“Listen to me, Connie…”

“No, you listen to me! I won’t be treated like this. I….”

I raise my hand. “Other people are hurting here. I know you don’t mean too, but you’re making them feel worse.”

My words hit home and Connie shrinks in her seat. “I know, I know. I’ll be quiet. Sorry.”

“Thank you Connie.”

I go to the break room and make Connie a cup of tea and get her ice water. When I place them in front of her she says, “I love you.” Connie probably has dementia or Alzheimer’s on top of a preexisting psychiatric condition. Life can be very cruel. I can only imagine what she’s gone through.

“When you’re done,” I say, “I’ll open the shower and you can get cleaned up. Get you a new gown. Fix your hair.”

“Thank you.”

“Just keep your voice down.”

As I walk away old words echo in my head. “When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in; naked you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” The psych ward gives you ample opportunity to do all these things. I’ve forgotten that.

I’ve had a rough time on the psych unit. Last week I went home with blood on my clothes. There’s been violence, threats of violence and the patients never seem to get better. I lost my mojo, my edge. The patients became the enemy. I almost quit. Then I had a few days off to think about things.

I realized I had become complacent on the job, too confident in my skills. My co-workers often tell me they feel better when I’m working and I believed my own legend. My skills atrophied and when the storms came I missed the mark.  Suddenly I was no longer the rock, the one people turn to when the going gets tough. I felt humiliated.

That wasn’t the only thing that upset me. People who do this kind of work usually believe they’re good people. When I was in the seminary I noticed those who did “charitable” work for a living were often jerks. Being good 9-5 seemed to give people license to be immoral during their off hours, proven by the scandals which rocked the Catholic priesthood. But anyone who espouses worthy causes or gives to charity can fall into this trap. Altruism can be used as a drug to forget our shortcomings.

My complacency at work was a symptom that I had become complacent in my own goodness. An old theologian said there’s a possibility hell is empty, but we’re not sure. And while it’s good to hope for all men to be saved, never be too sure of your salvation. In the end it’s out of your hands. Hellfire should tickle your conscience and keep you humble. Otherwise you end up like that smug Sadducee praying, “God, I thank You that I’m not like other people–greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

I try and take fatherhood day by day, but when I hold my daughter in the quiet early morning hours the enormity of my responsibilities overwhelm me. Now I think I know why. Natalie’s forcing me to accept that what I do now will have enormous repercussions for her later. “Don’t fuck it up, Dad.” I should always worry if I’m a good father. I should always worry about my goodness. I can’t be complacent. Thinking you got it covered leads to trouble.

Connie finishes her tea and I pop her in the shower. To my chagrin she hogs it for an hour. When she finally emerges a nurse gives her a new diaper, clothes and meds and puts her to bed. Within minutes she’s fast asleep, temporarily freed from the demons that haunt her.

Later, as I watch the patients milling around, I remember how bad things were a few weeks ago. I felt like I was working in a long-term hospice, managing the damage until these people died. Like that Sadducee, I was glad I wasn’t one of them. I had forgotten everyone is hungry and a stranger; everyone is thirsty, naked and sick. We are all in prisons. Standing in the dayroom I bask in the fires of Hell and remember hope springs from brokenness.

It’s good to get burned now and then.

Coffee,Tea and Pills

It’s 7:00 PM and I’m tired so I go into the staff room and brew a pot of coffee. Within minutes the smell of java fills the nurse’s station. Normally I take it black but, as I’ve gotten older, I like it with milk and sugar in the evenings. After fixing my cup I sit at a desk to write my notes. Then a hand flashes in front of my face and grabs my cup.

“What the hell!” I yelp, watching as a patient shotguns the coffee, sending rivulets of hot fluid coursing down his neck.

“I want more!” the patient says, tossing the cup behind his shoulder.

“Holy shit!” I say, still in shock.

“I WANT MORE COFFEE!”

“Marty,” I tell the patient. “That was not cool.”

Marty is a psychotic bi-polar patient with OCD and a raging hard-on for coffee. Every five minutes he asks for a cup, forcing us to limit his intake to four a day.

“Gimme coffee,” he says, seething.

“Not after what you just did,” I say. “You could have burned me.”

“C’mon. Just another cup.”

Psych wards can be boring places. The sole television is behind shatterproof plastic and there’s no access to computers, smartphones, WI-FI, tablets, or other digital distractions. There is also very little to read. Last year I donated thirty books to the patient library and within a month they were gone. I didn’t begrudge when patients took them home, but the guy who tried to eat one pissed me off. Because of the lack of stimulation food, sugary snacks and coffee take on outsized importance.

“Then give me tea,” Marty shrieks. “Hot water with lemon. C’mon!”

“What’s going on here?” Hubert, one of our nurses says in his clipped British accent.

“He leaned over the counter and snatched my coffee,” I say, awed by the depth of the patient’s addiction.

“You cannot do that!” Hubert says.

“Tough,” Marty says. “I can do whatever I want.”

Sighing, Hubert walks into pharmacy. “I’m going to give him something.”

“I don’t want meds!” Marty shouts.

“You’re flying high,” I say. “You need something to calm down.” We normally serve the patients decaf and Marty’s just guzzled eight ounces of hi-test. That’s not good. Saying he’s high-strung is epic understatement.

“You better call security ‘cause I’m not taking anything.”

I get up from my chair, trip the electric lock and walk out of the nurse’s station. “Let’s go to the quiet room,” I say. “You need to calm down.”

“No way.”

Jorge, another staff person, joins the party. “What’s up?”

“Marty needs to get some meds,” I say, surveying the physical postures of the other patients in the dayroom. When a patient goes ballistic you have to worry about other patients joining the fray. In this case they might want to help us. Everyone’s sick of Marty begging for coffee.

“Let’s go to the quiet room, Marty,” Jorge says. “No trouble, okay?”

Marty isn’t terribly large, but he’s hard, sinewy and, as he aptly demonstrated, very fast. He could pop me with a left hook before I could react. Seeing him tense up I nod to the Jorge and we rush him, securing his arms behind his back.

“Let me go!” Marty yells, struggling. “I want coffee.” Ignoring his request, we march him to the quiet room.

The quiet room is on the other side of the unit. With the exception of a chair bolted to the floor, it’s devoid of anything patients might use to hurt themselves with. After we propel Marty inside, Jorge and I take up position in in the hall.

“Dude,” Jorge says to me, “Your shirt.” Looking down I see coffee stains all over it.

“My wife just bought me this shirt.”

“Why you should wear scrubs like me,” Jorge says.

“I look like a beach ball in scrubs.”

“That’s ’cause your fat, asshole,” Marty says, giggling manically.

During my time in psych I’ve been punched, kicked, spit on, bit; had shit, semen and blood thrown at me, bleach tossed into my eyes and even got hit upside the head with a frying pan. I’ve also been called every name in the book. Marty making remarks about my weight don’t bother me. But I’m pissed about my shirt.

“Sit down,” Marty, I say, professionally shoving my anger aside. “Try and relax.”

Hubert arrives carrying water and a cup filled with pills.

“What are you giving him?” I ask.

“Everything.” Hubert says, dryly.

I’m not taking it,” Marty says, backing into a corner. Just great.

“Take the pills,” the nurse says. “Or I’ll give you a needle.” Hubert does not mess around.

“I want more coffee!” Marty yells.

“Hang on a sec, guys” I say. “I’ll get him something.” I return with a cup of weakly brewed, lukewarm tea.

“Take your pills with this,” I say, handing Marty the cup. The patient downs his pills and the tea with a single swig.

Hubert smiles and shakes his head. Sure, I gave into Marty’s bullshit, but I didn’t feel like holding him down and seeing his butt. Besides, the pills he just took will knock him out for hours.

“Stay here for half and hour,” Hubert tells Marty. “Let the meds work.”

“Can I have more coffee?” he says.

“NO!” we all shout in unison.

Half an hour later Marty is out cold on the quiet room floor. Considering all the nervous energy he cranks out he was due for a crash. For the first time in hours the unit is quiet. I cover him with a blanket and let him sleep. Then I go home.

The next morning I wake up to find my wife holding up my shirt. “I just bought this for you!” she says. I groggily explain what happened.

“Sound like you in the morning,” Annie says. “You’re a monster until you’ve had your first cup.”

“Give me coffee,” I groan. “Give me coffee!”

My wife returns with a steaming mug. “Already made, dear.”

Sitting up in bed I sip the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world. Compared to Starbucks, Pablo Escobar ran a lemonade stand.

After the caffeine jolts me into sentience I help my wife load the baby into the car, eat breakfast, write for two hours, clean the house and shower and shave. Clipping my ID badge to my freshly ironed shirt I make the short drive to the hospital and clock in. When I walk onto the unit the first thing I hear is Marty shouting. “Steve! GIMME COFFEE.” God give me strength.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve never stopped being a waiter.

Carousel

I’ve got the baby all to myself and a Nor’Easter is blowing outside. If I don’t take Natalie outside for a walk she won’t take a nap. That means Daddy won’t get a nap. Not good.

When there’s a lull in the storm I load my daughter into the car and head over to the mall. Protected from the elements I can wheel Natalie around until she gets overstimulated and knocks out. I can also do some shopping, grab a snack and, if there’s a fecal emergency, utilize the changing stations the mall thoughtfully provides. Retailers don’t want diaper meltdowns putting a dent in their profits.

For two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon the mall is awfully crowded. Looking at the throngs of young mothers pushing baby carriages I realize we all had the same idea. As far as I can tell Natalie and I are the only daughter/daddy team. A mom with twins in a double stroller passes by and nods at me approvingly, probably wondering what her husband’s doing. I guess I’m a new age male.

Freed from having to go to any stores my wife likes, I head straight for the cool stuff – Brookstone, Art of Shaving, Victorinox, Tourneau Corner – and look at baubles I shouldn’t buy. Passing the hip clothing stores with their window displays of bare-chested Aryan supermen, I shake my head. I’m too old to pull off those fashions and besides; nothing would fit anyway. Their idea of large is a 32’ waist.

After a power-wheeling for an hour I stop outside a restaurant and look at the inviting bar inside. I love bars on a rainy day. There’s something about the sound of the rain and the tinkle of glassware that’s very relaxing. As I watch a bartender in a crisp white shirt mix up a martini I decide it’s too early for an alcoholic snack. Judging from all the men inside, however. I think I’ve found where all the other dads went. I virtuously walk away. Sitting at a bar with a baby carriage is a good way to have the Family Services SWAT Team ruin your buzz.

Stomach rumbling I change course and head for the food court. On my way I pass a carousel. The baby immediately perks up, gurgling and pointing at the flashing lights and spinning horses. My wife told me on the way over that Natalie loves to watch the carousel. Seeing a parental opportunity I decide to take Natalie on the carousel. It’ll be her first amusement ride. What could go wrong?

I plunk down my money. Two rides for five bucks. Since I don’t know how Natalie will react I decide to sit on a sedate looking bench. When the ride starts to spin Natalie’s eyes widen in surprise and she jumps up and down with delight. I spend most of the time on the phone with my wife who’s annoyed she’s missing the moment. “Videotape it!” she says, but I decline. Holding on to a squirming infant and being a videographer is beyond my skill set. Drop the kid and it’s back to dealing with Bad Parent Swat Team.

The first ride ends and Natalie’s unfazed so I decide to kick things up a notch and plop her on top of a wooden horse. When the ride starts again she’s on cloud nine. Laughing in the way only babies can laugh, she starts waving as the horse undulates up and down. The ride operator waves back. At this point I should be reveling in my daughter’s joy but I’m not.

I feel sick.

A cold sweat breaks over me and my stomach lurches. I don’t believe it. I’m getting sick on a kiddie ride. And I was worrying about my daughter puking. Maintaining a good hold on my child, I stare at the back of her head and fight down the urge to hurl. If I do everyone’s going to think I was drinking in that bar. Ugh. How will I take my daughter to amusement parks? After three minutes the ride stops. With great care I step off the carousel and head towards the carriage parking area.

“You don’t look so good,” the ride operator says.

“And I used to love roller coasters,” I groan.

Ten minutes later my stomach is still spinning so I forgo the food court and head back to the car. After I strap Natalie into her seat I decide to rest until my equilibrium returns. But before I can close my eyes a horn honks.

I wave the driver on but the horn honks again I scored a great spot in the indoor garage by the main entrance and this person wants it. Tough shit. Reclining my chair I shut my eyes and wait for the spinning to stop. The impatient driver responds by obnoxiously leaning on the horn. Looking out my rear window I see a massive SUV with a tiny middle aged woman behind the wheel. Yakking on her cell phone, she’s stabbing me with her eyes.

Anger displaces my nausea. When I worked in restaurants I dealt with legions of entitled people. Now another person who wants what they want when they want it makes an old bitterness return. I want to fuck with this lady until she strokes out from rage. Maybe I should get out of my car, pop the hood, check the oil, kick the tires, make Natalie a bottle and change her on the trunk of my car. That’ll teach the bitch.

Feeling my blood pressure build, I take a deep breath and shove the passive aggressive fantasy out of my mind. Ever since Natalie arrived I’ve has a short fuse with entitled assholes. A few months ago a driver talking on his cell phone almost clipped my wife in a parking lot. You could have heard me yelling in Connecticut. Chastened, the driver wisely drove off but, instead of congratulating me, my wife said, “That’s how people get shot in Florida.”

I’m hardwired to give entitled people a hard time. That’s good because I don’t let people dupe me or push me around. It’s bad because I get hot and bothered. So I struggle with maintaining a balance. At some point my daughter’s going to see me confront a person’s egregious behavior and I had better set a good example. Becoming as asshole myself isn’t a good strategy . And while conflict in life is inevitable, avoiding conflict is a fine strategy too. Some battles aren’t worth it. This woman in the SUV is not worth it. Drive away.

Leaving the parking garage I nose my car onto the rain slicked highway and head home. As the wiper blades beat in a steady rhythm I take another deep  breath. Despite my queasy stomach Natalie enjoyed her first carousel ride. I made my little girl happy. That’s the memory I want to take home. SUV lady’s not going to wreck it. My daughter is infinitely more important.

Fatherhood’s going to be an interesting ride.