Monday, February 8, 2010

fear and loathing under a blanket of snow


For three days Washington, DC area residents have literally been under the weather. Close to 30 inches of snow buried the region over the weekend and, in the process, launched the populace into a considerable span of stir craziness. The National Weather Service is predicting another 10-20 inches tomorrow and Wednesday, a concept that makes me want to drink Drano. In any case, aside from sledding, foraging, and shoveling snow, most of us have been relegated to the confines of our homes (well, those of us fortunate enough to have shelter), where eventually our lives have begun to resemble the plot of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre's fantastic and dark play, No Exit.

In No Exit, in case you are not familiar, three characters are confined to a hotel room and, after driving each other up its walls, come to realize, in fact, that they are in Hell and will spend the rest of eternity together. The famous line, Sartre's epiphany, is dispensed at the end by the male resident: Hell is other people.

Unfortunately some of us, myself included, are occasionally known to carry that mentality around like a bag of bricks on our back, bristling when forced to interact with other citizens. This is especially true when we're all living in the midst of our own private Siberia, which brings me to today's misadventure.

As I've mentioned, we live in Washington, DC's Chevy Chase neighborhood - a part of town sometimes and hysterically referred to as Upper Caucasia. We've been in these parts for three years and, barring any dramatic shifts, will be for a long time. It's a kid friendly prairie, laden with cute families led by young parents who, for the most part, are happy to meander and figure it out as they go, eschewing text book guidance in favor of real experience. In other words, every mom and dad seems comfortable enough in his or her own skin, and if they fuck up somewhere along the line, they acknowledge it and move forward. At the far end of the spectrum is a faction of crusty neighborhood veterans - the goats who might be five days older than dirt and generally affect a suspicious scowl when I offer a smile and a hello. I know, that sounds ageist in flavor, but I will point out that there are some incredibly pleasant and wonderful elderly neighbors around me. Unfortunately, my awkward encounters with the aforementioned crusty neighbors cast a wider shadow. As they say though, it takes a village.

My office is in the Chevy Chase Pavilion, a mixed use center in the fold of several retail, dining, and hospitality venues on Wisconsin Avenue, five minutes from home. When the cabin fever vibe in the house reaches a boiling point and the boys are poised to off each other, I decide that my 4 year old Jack and I will roll over to my office for a change of scenery. Even though it's closed because of the weather, I need to bang out a few emails and scope out the work week, assuming there will even be one. Always the eager co-pilot, Jack is glad to join me, especially since I throw a Borders run into the package. He digs the kids section in the back, which makes me smile.

After an hour in the office and 27 times being asked if it's time to go to yet, I pack it in. As we stroll down the block hand-in-hand, my mind replays a montage from the night before of Saint's quarterback Drew Brees holding his son in the wake of the Super Bowl victory, kissing his little hands, soaking him in, tears of joy lining his eyes. That will go down as one of the most touching images I've ever witnessed, by the way, because as a father, I can relate to sharing real moments with my children. Walking down the street to a big box book store, allowing yourself to really feel your son's small hand in yours can be everything, and it is.

As expected, Borders provides a serene shelter from the elements, a peaceful change of venue. A friendly worker and I exchange opinions on David Benioff's City of Thieves, which I read a week ago. We both marvel at how the bitter winter and scramble for food taking place in town right now bares some resemblance, though not nearly as dire, to the plight of the novel's co-protagonists. Eventually he turns me on to The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (which has already reeled me in). All the while, my smiling Jack patiently endures our banter, in spite of the ants in his pants that want to hit the kids' section in the back. Finally I follow him back there and don't even mind that he's running in the aisles since the place is virtually empty.

In the end, Jack opts for a Spider Man Lego helicopter instead of a book. To my slight chagrin, half of the kids' section has become a toy store. Whatever, I decide, Spider Man it is. After all, he's killing me with cuteness. On our way to the front, I grab a new piece of foodie nonfiction for my wife -- Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals - and we're ready to roll.

The Borders checkout protocol, which I assume to be universal for the entire chain, requires that a line form at a far end where customers wait to be called by the next available cashier. As Jack and I approach, an older couple, mid-50s, hovers about 5 feet from the waiting point. The wife, arms full of what appear to be coffee table books, wears an uncertain frown and snipes at her husband over their selection. To me it sounds like a case of pre-purchase cognitive dissonance in action -- debates to the effect of will so-and-so like this one, or should we look around more, etc. Either way, I don't sense they're committed to checking out yet, and since ample space exists between them and the queue, Jack and I stroll up and wait.


Immediately Jack spots a shelf of toys (yes, more toys up front) and candy opposite the row of cash registers and dashes over to check it out. Such product placement schemes can be the bane of parenthood, as they often ignite emotional and embarrassing debates between parent and child, which often end with the parent wasting $5 on some worthless piece of plastic just to quell the storm and exit with some shred of grace. I'm about to call for Jack when I feel her sweaty breath on my neck. "Are you aware that I was in this line?"


Willing to concede that I might have misconstrued her noncommittal vibe a moment earlier, I sidestep and turn around with the intention of letting her pass. "Sorry, I wasn't sure...I uh--"


"Yeah, right. Are you blind or just a jerk?"


Now I just want to get away from this woman, so I immediately move forward when the cashier calls, "Next in line."


From 20 feet away, she apparently decides this mole hill will make a perfect mountain and raises her voice: "That's what I thought! You're a jerk and a terrible father!"


Like I said, it's not a packed house, but the few heads bobbing around the area begin to turn toward the scene that's unfolding, Jack's included. He's holding some piece of junk -- was it silly putty? -- and "confused" is written all over his face. This sparks a hot flare in my stomach and gives birth to a slight ringing in my ears. I want so badly for this cashier to expedite and get us out of there, but she's handcuffed by inane policies that slow the process. "Do you have a Border's rewards card?"


"You heard me - pathetic excuse for a man!"


"Ummmm, I don't know, it's okay." I reply, imploring her with a desperate shot of eyes to drop it and let me go.


She doesn't catch my hint, nor does she seem rattled by the nasty comments polluting the air around us. Like me, perhaps she's used to the elderly, entitled bands of snobs that litter the neighborhood. "What's your email address? I can look it up for you."


"Next in line please," calls the cashier to her right. I recognize his voice and look up to see the clerk I chatted with earlier.


From the corner of my eye I catch her approach and turn. She's tall, broad across the shoulders, hair crisp from too many blowouts and bad dye jobs over the years, and she lurches toward me like some Frankenstein drag queen. Only she doesn't stop to confront me; rather, she lunges toward Jack. Suddenly all bets are off.


Let it be known that I make a regular practice of chivalry. I'm old school in this regard and take a certain degree of pride in the fact that I still hold doors, pull out chairs, listen intently, rub feet, write letters, et al. I have incredible respect for women. Add to it that my wife is a rock star executive who commands respect and looks damn good while at it, and you could say I'm something of a worshiper. It goes without saying that I view laying violent hands on women as reprehensible.


Here's the catch: if you threaten or intentionally harm my child, to me you are no longer man or woman; you are a monster. At the risk of coming off like some lame action hero spewing hyperbole, I think (hope) I speak for all parents when I say that without hesitation, I would kill or die for my child if the moment called for either.


Jack's face wrinkles with fear and I can see his eyes watering when she grabs his shoulder and screams, "Don't you grow up and be like your horrible father!"


Instantly I grab a handful of her black leather jacket and spin her around to face me. As she turns, she stumbles and leans against a candy shelf to collect herself. Her eyes are darting everywhere, but they freeze when she catches my cold stare. "Don't. Touch. My son."


Jack edges past her and hides behind me. I can feel him shaking, which incenses me even more, but I'm trying to maintain a grip, trying to salvage a shred of a good example out of this.


"He assaulted me! You witnessed it!" She shrieks to the clerk, but he has no sympathy for this devil. He's my ally; he has my back.


"I witnessed you attack his child, miss."


"Noooooo!" She tries to convince herself that she didn't just project her anger on an innocent child, but her tone suggests to me that she can't spin this one.

"What the hell's going on here?" I'd forgotten about her husband since he disappeared after she hen-pecked him earlier. Now he's coming to her defense with an unmistakable limp in his gait, and I'm thinking, I hope this doesn't escalate physically, but if it does, this motherfucker's going to be an easy out.

I stand tall, and when he draws near, I put my grill right in his and explain in my best Dirty Harry tone, "Your wife went after my child because she thinks we cut in line. It's ugly enough already, so you should just walk away."

Thankfully it works. He limps away, and I suspect he wanted nothing to do with having her back in the first place. Part of me feels for him because, if his wife attacks strangers so viciously over perceived line cuts, she probably castrated this poor guy long ago.


"Don't be like your father!"


"Do not talk to him. Go home and take your meds." I jabbed.


"Miss, you need to pay or leave now." The clerk has had enough of her. We all have.


Outside, I zip Jack's coat then hold him close to me as I gulp the cold air. It cools the fire in my throat, but my head still pounds. We hold hands as we walk to the garage. His grip is intense, palms sweaty. I look down to see that he's studying my face, so I flash the silly buck-toothed grin that always induces a giggle or two.


"Did you protect me in there?"


"Yeah. Did you feel safe with me?"


"I always do."



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