Asking someone whether they have kids is one of the most over-used conversation starters. It is usually asked without even thinking, as though the banal question might have no consequences. Maybe we should give this thoughtless question more thought.
Hey, not everyone has kids. And, there are many reasons for that. Maybe they simply don’t want kids, and they know that anyone who kicks off conversations with such a question might not easily understand that. So, that’s a topic best avoided in polite conversation, as with religion or politics. Maybe their reasons for not having kids are very personal, or even deeply troubling. The topic of children should then be avoided at all costs. Why take the risk of causing anyone harm when simply getting to know them for the first time?
This question is usually asked automatically by people who have kids, looking for others with whom to discuss kids. The question assumes that having children is so much more common than not, that the answer will most certainly be yes. This strong assumption only exacerbates any concerns of the person being asked. So, why is this question even acceptable? Why are we so polite to people who start conversations this way? Maybe we should make a pariah of this question, and drive it into an exile of well-known unacceptability.
Even if the person being asked does have kids, unless they respond with a unique & creative observation about their children, the question usually kicks off one of the most mundane conversations known to man. It could lead to feeding schedules, carpooling, youth sports, braces and sleepovers. Maybe even hobbies that can’t hold kids’ attention for more than a month, and whether their pet gerbil/hamster/turtle/snake/parakeet/goldfish lasts any longer than the hobby. Well done. Banality at its best. Bravo.
And…what if the answer is no? No…I don’t have kids. The person asking the question has done so without thinking, and usually isn’t prepared for that. Now the topic needs to be changed quickly and awkwardly. No fun for anyone. Excellent work. But, even this tension won’t deter everyone. At a party, I once overheard the follow-up question; “Well, do you plan to have children?” Now, how is THAT acceptable? We all know not to ask a plump woman whether she’s pregnant. If she’s not, you’re automatically a jerk. We also wouldn’t ask a plump person whether they’ve lost any weight. No? Well, are you trying to lose weight? C’mon now. Somehow, we don’t dare cross that line, but we do cross the line when it comes to whether someone has children.
Sure, there are lots of people who have children. You could strike up a nice conversation with any one of them about their kids, if they weren’t completely sick of them that day. Yes, it’s okay to admit you get sick and tired of your kids, even though most people won’t. But, there also many, many people without children. That may or may not be their choice. Why would anyone take the risk of stepping on that conversational landmine when just casually getting to know someone?
Consider this…remember that awful story about the kid snatched by an alligator at Disney World? They found him dead a few days later. Those parents are out there. Somewhere. I forget how long ago that happened. But, to them, it probably feels like it was just yesterday. How would one feel after asking THEM…so…you got kids? I hear awful stories every day of kids getting hit by cars, falling off amusement park rides, getting attacked by dogs, succumbing to illness, drowning, suicide, whatever…and those parents are all out there, too. Just waiting to get hit with that dreaded question upon first meeting someone.
There are also many people trying to have kids, and they’ve been trying unsuccessfully for a long time. Maybe they’ve been spending every spare dime on in vitro fertilization, and it hasn’t worked. Every month they get the same horrible news, like a gut-wrenching Groundhog Day. Maybe they’ve endured multiple miscarriages. Maybe this is tearing their marriage apart, and they’re despondent. They’re suffering more silently than the parents from the tragic Disney World story. But, they could be suffering just as much. They’re all out there, too. Just waiting to get hit with that horrible question.
There are also many people going through bitter divorces. Maybe it involves a massive custody battle which they would only discuss openly with their closest friends & family. If a stranger asks this person if they have kids, the answer is of course yes. Great! We have so much in common! Next comes the barrage of follow-up questions about age, gender, where they go to school. All easy enough to answer. But, if the custody battle has driven a wedge between the parent and their kids, deeper questions about recent likes & dislikes can become painful. Sure, they have kids, but maybe they don’t have all those answers, which can be painful and embarrassing. These poor folks are out there, too.
Then, there are those who have chosen not to have kids. Probably the least understood by those who would ask this question without thinking. I once heard a brave woman at a party answer the question with a quick “Oh hell no. No, no, no thank goodness!!” Good for her. She obviously had that shut-down answer at the ready after being asked so many times.
Try this…Why not ask about someone’s greatest passions outside of work? Or, simply ask what they do for fun? They’re not forced down a conversational path about either work or children…the two-headed monster of boring getting-to-know-you conversation. If they choose to respond with “my children” or “my career” then go with it. The green light has been given. But, if they start talking passionately about painting, beekeeping, flying planes or racing cars…well, isn’t that far more interesting? And, it’s clearly what they would rather talk about anyway, which is what starting a conversation is all about.
If you don’t think any of this is an issue, then maybe you’re completely surrounded by people who live their life exactly the way you do, and it’s all about the kids for everyone in your circle. That’s absolutely wonderful. Nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But, it’s good to be aware of that when leaving the parent bubble and you decide to ask the question. And, if you simply can’t stop yourself because this what you want to talk about most…then maybe you should only ask “so…do you have kids” when you already know the answer is a happy and enthusiastic YES.
As they say in the movies, the following is “based on a true story.” It’s embellished just enough that it needs to go here in the “Stuff I Made Up” topic category. If I embellished any further, it would need to be described as “based on real events,” just like when you add enough stuff to chocolate milk, it needs to be described as “chocolate flavored milk,” or even worse, “chocolate flavored dairy product.”
Cul de Sac: From French “cul-de-sac“, literally the bottom (cul) of a bag (sac).
I had never seen a cul de sac, or even a suburban development for that matter, until I got my driver’s license at the age of sixteen. I had seen urban, and I had seen rural, and the deepest woods. I had paddled lakes of Northern Canada and Alaskan rivers above the Arctic Circle. I had been all over Europe, and in many of America’s largest cities. I had some growing street cred for a young guy in those cities. But, I had never seen suburbia. The place in between. Not one or the other. The taint of America. I didn’t have a clue about it. I had no cul de sac cred whatsoever. And, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Here is an idea which was completely foreign to me in my mid-teens: People are born and raised in suburbia. They don’t just end up there. That’s where they’re from. A planned development is their ‘hood. It’s their “normal” and many of them identify with it. Some may repel this upbringing and go elsewhere. They may leave the nest. But, they are seeking a difference from the “normal” upon which they were raised. That sense of “normal” is something I didn’t even know existed.
Soon after getting my driver’s license, I was invited to a suburban house party by my buddy Jeff. The house of some friend-of-a-friend. Suddenly with access to a car, I was able to decide on my own whether or not I would go. I was so focused on my new empowerment, that I didn’t think about whether any real adventure lay ahead, or if I was prepared for it. I just knew I would go.
Remember when you first got your license? It created a new sense of freedom. You could go wherever you wanted without asking anybody. I would drive just about anywhere I’d never been before. I was always looking for an excuse to drive, to practice my manual shifting. Party in the ‘burbs? Don’t know the people? Never been there before? Great…Sure! I wanted to venture out from the rectilinear grid of streets, avenues and boulevards that is downtown Chicago and go to a party in the ‘burbs. Road trip!
The sun went down as I left my city, guided by just a scrap of paper offering hand-written directions on how to get to a place I’d never been before. Just imagine kids…no GPS, no turn-by-turn directions, no interactive map that spins around while you turn in circles. Back then, we used landmarks, maps and a keen sense of direction. When we got lost, we asked for directions. From people. We got out of the car and asked them where the hell we were. I know, I know…totally crazy, right?
I was in my comfort zone heading out of town North on 90. That’s how we usually went to the airport. And 94 North looked the same as 90, just with a different number. No problem. Everything was fine until I turned off the expressway and plunged into the heart of darkness. Literally. That was the first thing I noticed. It was so damn dark! No blaze of light from stores or restaurants on the sides of the road to break up the pitch black. Stores and restaurants were where you asked for directions! Where were all the people? If I got lost, there wasn’t an obvious way to get found again in such a place.
I’d been to many places where there weren’t supposed to be any people at all. But, people lived in suburbia. Where were they? I suddenly realized I’d never felt so lonely before. I wasn’t out in the woods or on top of a mountain where you fully expect to be all alone. That would have been entirely different, and expected. The absence of people in a place where they lived troubled me. That only happened in Twilight Zone episodes with “last man on earth” scenarios. Suburbia was so dark. So barren.
The street lamps were surprisingly far apart, and not always the same distance between them. There also weren’t intersections at regular intervals. That made it so much more difficult to know how far you’d gone. Road signs only identified the cross roads. Not the road you were on. They assumed you knew what road you were on? Bad assumption.
At least I was still on a “road.” The same road I was instructed to use when I exited the expressway. Not a street or an avenue. But still familiar! We had roads in Chicago. We had Roosevelt Road, Cermak Road, and, and, and….well, hmm, we definitely had roads back in my lit up rectangular home, didn’t we? I couldn’t think of any more Chicago roads. That idea made me uncomfortable. Maybe we only had those two roads back home, and I was from a street, avenue and boulevard place. The name of what I was driving on shouldn’t have been so significant. But, I expected suburbia to be much more similar to the city, and I was hypersensitive to the many signs of just how different it was. I knew I had to focus and figure it out. The drive wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be.
The hand-written directions were pretty clear up to that point. There was only one traffic light I was looking for after the expressway, after which I was supposed to make my first turn. The light was about three miles after the expressway. I hadn’t made any turns yet, but I already felt lost. I had no idea how far I’d gone, and the road wasn’t straight. Roads are supposed to be straight! Why hadn’t I checked my odometer when I left the familiarity of the expressway? As the road pitched, rolled and yawed I lost my usually excellent sense of direction. It was like being out on a boat at night in a rolling sea. I was heading East when I left the expressway, but wasn’t sure if that was still the case.
Up ahead, just how far away in the murk I couldn’t tell, there was a light. That must be my traffic light. As I would crest a hill I saw it turning yellow in the distance, just before I would lose sight of it when I rolled down the other side of the hill. I was focused on the last position where I’d seen it, like a lighthouse falling out of view as you roll down the back side of a wave and also get pitched off to the left or right. When you pop back up the light is once again ahead, but it’s further off to either side than you expected. You gain confidence in your landmark, but are troubled by your inability to perceive all the constant movement. Each time I saw it, the light was just turning yellow again.
The rolling sea of the road finally abated and it brought me up gently to the light, which was just turning yellow again. And again. And again. What the hell? It was just blinking yellow. Why? No red followed by green. Was this my traffic light or not? I rolled through the lunatic flashing yellow light, ignoring its witless blinking. I downshifted so my right hand was free to scramble in the passenger seat for my hand-written directions. Dammit! What next?
The directions suggested that the “entrance to Cheltenham Meadows would be Cadwallader Court.” They lived in a meadow? A meadow with an entrance. Was there a town called Cheltenham nearby? I slowed down, straining to detect either Cheltenham Meadows our Cadwallader Court in the darkness. Why did it suddenly sound like I was in England? All the overt Britishness. What the hell was a “Court?” It was all very new to me, and confusing. With images of the Wimbledon Championships and white-wigged barristers in my head, I leaned forward and was just able to make out a sign that looked like Cadwallader…Run? Not Cadwallader COURT! Wait! What…What’s a Run?! To hell with it. Close enough.
I turned into further darkness, assuming I was headed into a murky meadow near the town of Cheltenham. There were no more overhead street lamps at all in the “meadow.” Just dim lights pointing up randomly from a bush here or there. As I pressed forward into the gloom, I held the directions up to my overhead light; “Right on Cadwallader Court then right on Higginbottom Way.” Higginbottom? Way? Was this a joke? My buddy Jeff wrote the directions. Was he riffing off some Monty Python skit and I didn’t get it? I pressed onward into the murk searching for any sign of Sir Edwin Bartholomew Higginbottom Esquire and his merry band of Arctic explorers drinking tea and being carried by Sherpas. The whole thing had to be a joke. Thanks a ton, Jeff. I was so being punked, but I pressed on.
There were dark outlines of houses pushed back a fair distance off Cadwallader Court, Run, whatever. The random up lights were sometimes illuminating a house number. Sometimes just lighting up a small tree. All the trees were unusually small, all the same size, and held in place with ropes staked into the ground? The house number was sometimes on a mailbox, sometimes on a little sign on the lawn, sometimes on the door, which you could barely make out from the Run, Court, Way whatever I was driving on! Why weren’t the house number locations consistent? And why did the houses all look the same?
As Cadwallader started to roll and pitch me back and forth, up and down, I was shocked that the forms of all the houses looming in the dark were exactly the same! There was no such thing as a unique landmark upon which to anchor yourself in the meadow. It all ran together. At that point, I actually started to get scared. The “meadow” was so foreign. So odd. It made no sense. I felt like I was playing that party game in which you bend over and spin around with your head on the end of a baseball bat before trying to run a straight line, only to fall flat on your face. I was spinning, spinning…Getting unsteady. Losing my balance.
Anxious and insecure thoughts started nibbling away at my mind, most prominently that I wasn’t a very experienced driver. Young guys don’t usually admit that’s a problem. But, the idea gnawed at me there in the meadow. What am I supposed to do if I hit an animal? I’d never dealt with that before. How would I change a flat tire without a flashlight? Would I just pull over there, or there…as close to one of those dim up lights as I could? When I looked over to the side of the road, imagining the “wump, wump, wump” of an abruptly flat tire, I noticed the most jarring thing of all. I should have seen it right away.
There weren’t any sidewalks! What? That’s insane! Maybe that was because there weren’t any people to walk on them. But, there were houses everywhere, that same exact house again and again, so there had to be people somewhere. Or, maybe they didn’t walk at all. Maybe they just left their houses by car directly from those attached garages, shutting out the world with tinted windows and air conditioning on full blast. Maybe. But, that would be deranged!
I’d become momentarily lost in the horrible idea of a world without sidewalks when suddenly another sign appeared…Cadwallader Circle. What? Circle? I was already ON Cadwallader dammit! If I don’t turn am I no longer on Cadwallader? Since I was instantly at the intersection, I swung my car right to stay on Cadwallader and accelerated with my growing frustration, grinding a gear and quickly moving past the consistently repeated shape of that same house again and again, everything blending together in repeated forms, twists and turns, the absence of light. That evil Cadwallader then threw me into a sweeping left turn which almost seemed to bring me all the way around to where I started. Wait….it had. What the hell? That’s impossible!
I must have missed something. I slowly crept into the left turn again, carefully looking for the way out, to avoid coming right back to the same place…just like that scary movie scene in which someone is lost in the jungle. That moment when they freak out over unintentionally coming back to the same spot is usually when they’re killed in the jungle. So…Don’t freak out. Try it again.
I saw an opening. An escape route! Nope, it was just a driveway with two garage doors firmly announcing the end of it. Another driveway. Another two doors. And another. Another. And, once again…I was right back where I had started. I hadn’t missed anything.
Cadwallader was designed that way on purpose! Why?? That’s madness! Why would anyone do such a thing? A street that doesn’t go anywhere? A street to nowhere. What a horribly sick joke! I was suddenly struck by that feeling of knowing you’re completely lost. My body temperature started to rise and my mind rapidly chased answers, tripping over itself. I became less certain about certain things about which I had always been absolutely certain. Stop it! We said we wouldn’t freak out. Stop thinking in circles!
I took a deep breath and calmly yelled at myself “All right now! Calm down! We can figure this out.” I decided not to follow Cadwallader back around that ridiculous never-ending left-hand turn. Needed to get off that street to nowhere. I headed back where I had come from, the only option I was given, until I arrived back at the last intersection. Where Cadwallader met Cadwallader. How do you do, Sirs? I allowed that to be funny for a moment so I would start thinking more clearly. Twin old, fat white men both dressed just like the Monopoly game guy, complete with top hats and monocles. Bowing and tipping hats to each other. The humor did help me think. I decidedly took a right to stay on the first Cadwallader, and continued looking for Higginbottom. As I passed Scrivener, Brimble, Pemperton and Birtwhistle I was openly laughing like a maniac behind the wheel.
The obvious two-by-four-to-the-back-of-the-head delivery of a British theme was brutal. Okay! Okay! I got it! The meadow was classy! Charles Dickens must have lived there! The Queen as well, perhaps? The charade had quickly become completely stupid. How could people live with such obvious fakery? Or…maybe they actually loved it? Maybe they really did think it classes up the joint to give fake British names to streets (they’re streets dammit!). Maybe they even gave their kids haughty names that sounded like where they’re from. Classing up the kid, too. Colin and Courtney from Cadwallader Court. Ha! I laughed imagining such great pride in something that matters so little, and is completely made up. My laughter was cut short. There it was…Higginbottom Way!
I scrambled for the directions and pulled them back up to my light. After totally awesomely classy Britishy Higginbottom Way was a left on Birtwhistle Lane and the house number was 36. I surged ahead with my renewed sense of progress. After passing just one street, directly ahead was Birtwhistle. Okay then! I was finally figuring out that ridiculous meadow that wasn’t a meadow! Screw you town of Cheltenham!
I turned a hard, tire-screeching left onto Birtwhistle to show Cheltenham I was serious. I was a number 36-seeking cruise missile. But, those damn house numbers were hiding all over the place in the murk, quickly screwing up my missile guidance system. Confidence retreated as quickly as it had overcome me. I thought I saw one of those little yard signs, but it was already behind me. Then a mailbox appeared on my left with a number. Why weren’t the numbers always on the mailbox? So much easier. The mailbox sign read number five. Odd number. Okay, so 36 would be on my right. Even number. Luckily another mailbox was coming up on the right with a number on it…number seven. What? Odd numbers on both sides? Why? What’s the point in make it any harder? What the hell was the matter with those people? Body temperature was rising again. Don’t freak out! Fine! We would just look on both sides. Okay! Fine!
My rapidly boiling anger insisted on crushing the accelerator and flying out of the meadow loudly screaming obscenities into the darkness for no one to hear. I narrowly resisted the outburst, and moved along at a furiously slow crawl so I wouldn’t miss any of those stupid little signs. There’s one! House number 24. We were getting somewhere! Another mailbox…with number 27! I could feel my target finally approaching and drove on with slightly enhanced poise, gathering myself again as I heard my tires crush some clumps of dirt on Birtwhistle. Take that, Birty.
I was lulled into enjoying the sound of my tires turning small clumps into even smaller clumps. It was a comforting trance from which I awoke too late to realize there were no more houses, mailboxes, up lights, no yard signs…nothing. Just pitch black dark until…what the hell was that? A bulldozer?! Directly in my path was a large yellow bulldozer with its nose planted firmly into a looming mass of rocks and dirt. Birtwhistle ran right under the mountain and out of sight, that sniveling coward. He just left me there in the dark with this large earth-mover and its mountain of moved earth. Birtwhistle was more evil than Cadwallader could ever imagine. This wasn’t even a crazy never-ending left-hand turn on a street to nowhere. Birtwhistle had viciously served up a truly cold, dead end with no warning, and no suggestions on what to do next. He just ran away and left me there. Birtwhistle was a genuine bastard.
Were they still building Birtwhistle? Maybe the mountain was all that’s left of the meadow after it had been pushed aside by all those evil, fake British streets? But, why was it right there in my path? Maybe somebody else has been through my same ordeal and escaped to inform the authorities…so, perhaps they were destroying Birtwhistle for the good of all mankind? Birtwhistle you bastard! Birtwhistle!
Shouting his evil name lit up my brain with a flash of memory, like that strong feeling of déjà vu although accompanied by a few details I could grasp. Right! I passed a Birtwhistle on the way. There was another Cadwallader. Could Birtwhistle have an evil twin as well?
I squeezed my brain like a washcloth over the sink, crushing out everything that it had to offer. I forced out the recollection that I had made two lefts after seeing a sign for Birtwhistle, so, hmm. While none of those damn lanes, ways, runs and courts were straight, if I was on a “block” like back home, then the other, or same, Birtwhistle could be straight ahead, or at least pointing in the direction I was facing. That actually made sense to me there in the dark, staring at a bulldozer and a mountain of dirt lit up by my headlights. What was on the other side of that mountain?
I needed to get on the other side and find out what was over there. My newfound recollection of the path I had taken to the base of the mountain told me to turn around and make two rights to find the other Birtwhistle. That would have worked well in my rectilinear home. But, nothing worked the way it should in the meadow. If I tried back-tracking, would I just get more turned around? I felt like I was getting close to where I should be. I didn’t want to lose that sense of progress. I was afraid that if I drove any further, I would only get more lost. Everything I tried in that strange place just made things worse. My instincts were all wrong. I didn’t trust myself anymore. Suburbia had beaten me with its darkness, curviness, sameness and loneliness.
Defeated and tired, I turned off the ignition and got out my car for some fresh air. When the loud thud of my slammed door disappeared into the night, it was followed quietly…by…by people sounds. I held my breath to hear better. It wasn’t close enough to hear well, but close enough to know what it was. Definitely laughter, music and conversation coming from somewhere on the other side of the mountain. I had to abandon my car. I didn’t trust it anymore. That damn thing was nothing but trouble anyway. Driving in the meadow just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t take it anymore. The mission would be completed on foot, or not at all.
I stood breathless with my eyes shut, confirming the direction of the human noises and enabling my sight to adjust somewhat to the darkness. Wrestling feebly with my impatience, I allowed far too little time to see any better, and climbed unsteadily up onto the lower reaches of Mount Birtwhistle. The sounds were coming from far off to the left, so I worked my way far around the left side of the mountain to avoid the larger rocks embedded in its mass. I was stumbling upon them in the dark, and didn’t want to crack my head open tripping over one boulder just to land skull-first on another. I was walking towards the people sounds, waving my arms back and forth in front of me. I could see the outlines of trees, but kept getting surprised by branches in my face as I moved forward, trying not to think about spider webs, bees nests, snakes and whatever else might be out there.
The more I thought about all those stinging and biting critters, the thicker and more densely the trees appeared to stand in my way. The darkness didn’t help my claustrophobia. Most of the branches felt shoulder height, however, so I crouched down and kept moving forward, pushing lower branches out of my way. Tree trunks and branches were replaced by thorny bushes, and I worked to carefully push aside sections of the bushes, trying to slide past while avoiding as many thorns as possible, with moderate success. Just as I was beginning to think that maybe I better give up on this painful plan and go back to my car, I emerged from the bushes onto a thick lawn. A huge open space with one of those exact same houses far on the other side, with only a castle between me and the house. A castle?
I took one step to the side to confirm that, yes, that was a castle. It had a turret with a flag on top, parapets adorned with coats of arms and a drawbridge…and…and a slide and swings. Oh. That castle was the most elaborate playset I had ever seen. I stood there stunned, staring at it and hearing the people sounds a little more clearly off to my left. Colin and Courtney of Cadwallader Court truly were being raised as fake little royals. I imagined them in little Victorian waistcoats and hoop skirts, and holding parasols as I took another step around the castle to take it all in. Instantaneously the dark yard was ablaze in blinding white light. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how wrong it was for me to be there. That was private property, and I’d been busted.
I did the only thing you should do when completely innocent and meaning no harm…I ran. I sprinted to the edge of the yard in the direction of the people sounds, crashed through the thorn bushes that bordered all around that large space and crouched on the ground trying to steady my breathing so I could better hear whoever was chasing after me. The yard was still flooded with harsh white light, but there were no sounds coming from the house. Nobody was chasing after me yet. I remained motionless waiting for the sound of urgent footsteps, but none came, and the lights went out just as suddenly as they came on, returning the castle and yard to darkness. What? Why turn on your lights when you see an intruder and then just shut them off again without doing anything? That made no sense. I decided they’d probably called the cops and I better get moving.
The people noises were much clearer. Through a stand of trees and bushes in front of me I could see another huge yard, beyond which were lights. Lights! Finally, something other than gloom and murk! The people noises were definitely coming from there! I chose an opening in the bushes from which to launch myself into another full sprint across the next yard. I was a good runner, so I wouldn’t give them time to see me like in the last yard where I stood marveling at that castle like an idiot.
I placed my hands firmly in the dirt, lowered my head, raised my ass and bolted into the yard. After just four strides the yard was suddenly ablaze in white light! Dammit! Just like the one before! That person had to be standing right next to the light switch! Horrible luck! I sprinted as fast as I could and rammed into bushes lining the far side of the yard, and quickly found the ground, once again in a crouch, taking deep breaths, listening and waiting for the chase. Again none came, and again the lights soon went out just as surprisingly as they had come on. Certain that two people had already called the cops on me, I knew I was on borrowed time. At that point, I was also acutely aware that I was not only on private property, but also creeping around in the bushes. I was a creepy, creeping creep. And, I had no good excuses for being there. My situation was unexplainable, but there I was.
I crawled towards the edge of the next yard to have a look at the lights and people sounds. There was a pool lit up in the yard, but oddly nobody was in it. A crowd of people stood around the edge of the pool, and they were all dressed exactly the same. All the guys had on brightly colored Izod shirts with collars flipped, tucked into khaki shorts. I’d never seen so much turquoise, pink and yellow on guys. Of course, they all had on top siders. They all had a drink in one hand, the other in their shorts pocket. The girls all looked like they were in tennis outfits in which you would never actually play tennis. Lots of pony tails to top off their sporty look. Dammit, I didn’t know any of those people.
I carefully and nervously scanned the crowd looking for my friends, the whole time knowing the police were already on their way. I knew I was stuck there just waiting for the cops to bust me if that was the wrong party. I couldn’t just walk into a party from the bushes to mingle in with a crowd I did’t know while cops searched for an intruder. The interloper would obviously be ME…sticking out like a sore thumb in this crowd with my T-shirt, jeans and Converse All Stars. I was so screwed.
Just as I was considering briskly walking non-stop through the party with a polite smile, right on through the pool area, into the house and out into the street is when I saw two other guys dressed like me coming out of the house. Jeff and Tony! My friends were in the meadow!
They each had a beer in their hands, said hello to a few people, but didn’t seem to engage the group much. Yeah, that wasn’t really our kind of crowd. My bad luck continued as they worked their way over to the far side of the yard and sat down near some kind of huge built-in grilling station. That put the pool between me and them, so I worked my way around the periphery of the yard through the bushes, trying not to snap too many branches, avoiding as many thorns as I could. Still had only marginal success with that. Screw it. My luck improved and they stayed by that huge grill made out of bricks while I struggled through the sharp bushes to their side of the yard. Finally, I was on their side trying to figure out how to come out of the bushes unlike a psycho killer.
A loud shout broke from the house when some guy in a bright collar-flipped Polo shirt and Ray Bans loudly announced himself with “let’s get this party started” as he walked out toward the pool. He was clearly popular with the crowd. Most of them turned towards him and he got a loud chorus of “Chip!! Woohoo!!” Sensing my moment, I crawled out of the bushes, straightened up and walked as casually as I could towards Jeff & Tony. The crowd gave Chip a golf clap as I got close enough to my friends to give them my most confident “Hey, what’s up guys?”
Tony bounced around in his chair and turned to me first, jerked backwards in surprise and squawked out a sharp “what the hell!!” He just barely caught his falling beer, spilling most of it on his jeans. Jeff turned slowly then shot up from his chair when he saw me, gasping “Hey man, are you okay?” Their thoroughly disgusted responses shattered my veneer of casual confidence.
They were both looking up and down the freakish display that I was…the mud covering my sneakers and ripped jeans, my T-shirt torn all over, the bloody scratches all over my chest, arms and neck, continuing up my horrifically puffy, sweating face, topped by my matted hair sticking straight up in the air with leaves, thorns and twigs around it like a muddy crown. Despite my attempt to be calm, I was breathing hard, and my eyes were wide with panic. That had become my feral state in the bushes. I was a disheveled, twitchy, bloody mess, and didn’t even know it. I hadn’t really given my appearance any thought until I was standing there in the sudden silence of the party and some of the Izod and tennis outfit crowd started to take me in, gawking at me and whispering. It was only then that I started to feel all the thorns. It was not my best moment.
Tony did just about the best thing he could have at that moment and sharply broke the silence by bursting out laughing at me, and Jeff joined him. The preppy crowd followed with some light, nervous laughter then turned back toward the familiar tidiness of each other to continue whatever they were talking about.
After the brightly colored crowd turned away, Jeff asked “Hey, seriously man, are you okay? Need a beer?”
“Yes, please. Thanks, Jeff. And, I think Tony needs fresh one, too. Sorry about the spill, man. This place really freaks me out. I’ve had a bad night. I need to get out of here soon.”
Jeff frowned and soft-punched me on the shoulder; “Okay. Just one beer. This place freaks you out because it isn’t a place. Tony would probably look like you if I didn’t drive him here tonight.” Tony looked around and shrugged, easily nodded agreement.
As Jeff fetched the beers, I told Tony all about how lost I was there, admittedly the place scared me, that I had to abandon my car…they really needed to help me find it, and I had to follow them out of there. No way I could figure it out on my own. The meadow was completely foreign to me, the curvy streets confused me and I’d never even heard of the town of Cheltenham.
That’s when Jeff walked up with the beers and handed them to us. He had on his serious and knowledgeable face, with his chin tucked in, saying; “Remember, Dan, this isn’t a place. You’re lost because you’re trying too hard to make it fit what you know. There is no Cheltenham. There is no meadow. There never was a meadow. That’s just the name, a theme really. Some real estate developer gave these homes and streets the name when they built this. You may as well be in a pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center right now called Cheltenham Land.”
Enjoying his knowledge of the foreign place, Jeff continued; “None of this was even here two years ago. But, if you ask any of these people where they’re from…they will say ‘Cheltenham Meadows’ like it’s an actual place. But, this development has no real history, no relevance to what’s around it. You’re used to names of towns and neighborhoods that fit into their surroundings in some way that makes sense to you. Lincoln Park is by, well, Lincoln Park. This thing was just given a stuffy name to make it sound like it’s been around for hundreds of years. That name sounds pretty good to the people who bought these homes. That’s it. No other meaning. My father lives in a place like this called Canterbury Woods and it doesn’t even have any trees. He’s in the “woods,” but he had to attach a big canopy to the side of his house to get any shade at all. He loves it there. But, the first time I spent a weekend with him, I probably looked like you, too. This isn’t good or bad. Just completely different from what you know.” He nodded slowly at me while I took a desperately long pull on my beer.
I told him about the unbelievably cruel never-ending left turn, the street to nowhere. Jeff snorted at that and said; “That’s a cul de sac. They call them circles here. Crazy, huh? You call it a street to nowhere. Well, buddy, you got no cul de sac cred whatsoever.” Tony and I both laughed hard at that one, me feeling much better already. Good, one, Jeff.
He went on to remind us that the massive city of Chicago, with all of its many streets, avenues and boulevards, had just installed its very first cul de sac in the South Loop. And that wasn’t until the mid-80’s. The intent of that cul de sac was to prevent drive-by shootings as they developed the neighborhood, to make it safer for the residents they wanted to come and stay there. Yes, the goal of that cul de sac was defensive, to slow down traffic, and ensure drivers couldn’t pass through the neighborhood, but instead just go round and round. Like getting stuck in a Roach Motel. An intentional “street to nowhere.” And so far, Chicago only had one. In the ‘burbs, Jeff explained, the cul de sac provided a quiet space where kids learned to ride their bikes without getting mowed down by through traffic. Suburbanites really liked cul de sacs. They were considered prime locations for homes in developments. Maybe the intent of those cul de sacs were defensive as well, and that’s what people who live there were looking for. If so, mission accomplished. Well done.
My first suburban adventure was as horrifying and educational as our exploration on the dark side of the moon. I would learn much more about those suburban places over the years, and I would also learn to respect the normal they represented for so many others. That works for them, and I get that now. I would also learn to deeply respect the vast differences those suburban places represented from my normal. Yes, I also had a normal. The strongest impression I gained from that night was that I am truly a city person. That’s just how I was raised, and it is who I am. I never would be entirely comfortable in suburbia. I can now easily navigate the ‘burbs without the trauma of my first visit, but I will never strive to have cul de sac cred. That’s an arena in which I will simply allow others to compete.
I went to a really nice private school in Chicago from 6th grade through senior year. Looking back now, I do realize that I was incredibly lucky to be there. That place really had the best of everything. Whatever a student might want to succeed. Not that I ever took advantage of that. I truly was a shitty student. I just didn’t study. I hardly tried at all. I didn’t get good grades until college.
My grammar & high school report cards were full of those statements which teachers hate writing the most; “Dan is capable and occasionally displays his talents, but he simply does not apply himself. Dan does not live up to his potential.” Translation: “This kid is a complete fucking waste of my time. We all think he’s one of those partiers who will never graduate from college. We just hope he doesn’t steal jewelry from customers in his future career as a drywall installer.”
While I was a completely worthless, shitty, lazy student, there was one subject that got my undivided attention. And, this is true for every teenager. Driver’s Ed. I wanted my driver’s license so damn bad. I wanted to be “cool Dan,” behind the wheel. Cruising with the radio playing loud. Going on dates. You know. We’ve all been there. I was committed to Driver’s Ed. This is one opportunity I would not blow. I was going to be on my very best behavior and ace this course.
What I didn’t expect in this upscale private school is that the biggest hoodlum in the room wasn’t me. It was the instructor. I have no idea how this scumbag got the job.
He was a bitter, old, fat, balding, racist white guy who hated the whole world. His entire wardrobe was made up of various shades of brown, accented with faded stains. Probably gravy or barbeque sauce. I think. Also shades of brown. His yellow teeth looked like they’d also be brown in a couple years, if he lived that long. He was always sweating and breathing hard. Some vital organs were working way too hard keeping him upright. This colorless, diseased, greasy presentation was the perfect platform from which to spew miserable anger.
We were all there to prove we could be trusted behind the wheel. But, he didn’t give a shit. He didn’t use his time with us to evaluate our temperament, reflexes or depth perception. We were the audience for his rants. That was our main purpose. The best way to stay out of trouble with this guy was to nod at his sermons of hatred. Give him a few “amens.” Don’t be a pansy rich kid. Don’t be a snitch. Don’t act shocked when he complains loudly that Chinese and female drivers are fucking up the roads for everyone. We’d find out soon enough, he promised. Don’t question the appropriateness of him balling up his fists and yelling at the ceiling in front of a room full of teenagers “And God fucking help me if I get cut off by another one of those God damned little Volkswagens! Those stupid fucking cars, so little you can’t even see them. Always zipping in & out of lanes. God dammit I fucking hate them!!” Of course I never to told him I would be driving a Volkswagen.
When we left the classroom for behind-the-wheel instruction with Mr. Greasy Hatred, he set the tone for how you drive on the mean streets of Chicago. Two of us would load into the red Chevy Chevette with him. Me sweating in the driver’s seat. My friend twitching with fear in the back. Once the ignition was turned, Mr. Hatred would immediately yell at me to “Just hang on a God Damn minute, Jesus Fucking Christ already.” I thought maybe I’d forgotten to check my mirrors. Made some stupid rookie mistake. Man, was he going to unload on me. But, Greasy just needed a moment to pull out his red foil pack of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes and light one up.
This was his pre-drive ritual. Mr. Hatred would take a long, deep drag and then explode with violent hacking…phlegm bursting loose somewhere deep inside him. He would quickly crank down the passenger window, grunting with the phlem rattling around in his throat, then launch out a dark yellow loogie to splat heavily on the hot asphalt. Next, he would flick the lit cigarette out the window, and turn red-face & sweating back at me; “I gotta quit these fucking things. Dammit. Don’t ever smoke, kid.” Yessir. “These things will kill you right fucking quick.” Yessir. “Well?” Sir? “Well, what fuck are you waiting for, dammit? Let’s get the fucking show on the road already! I don’t have all God damned day! Just do anything stupid. Now GO!!”
I got my driver’s license. And, the lessons I learned were don’t smoke Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes, don’t do anything stupid, and most importantly…don’t grow up to be anything like Mr. Greasy Hatred. I still have a great deal of anger towards a lot of things in the world. Sure I do. But, he taught me that you need to do a much better job of hiding it. Or, at least have a little more style when sharing your opinions about things you don’t like. You might even agree with a lot of what Mr. Hatred said. But, if you share all those opinions with everyone all the time, you’re going to end up a sick, lonely, miserable person. Thanks, Mr. Hatred. You taught me a lot. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I’ve gotta get the fucking show on the road. I don’t have all God damned day.