It’s hot as balls here in New York and, the city being the sweltering flesh buffet it is, everybody is smooshed up against each other and tetchy about it. To be in the city with two small kids, as I am, in the summer, as it is, is to have one’s skills as a father constantly tested. My kids are people and deserve to be able to move about public and semi-public spaces, like coffee shops. And yet, it is also true, as any parent will attest, that children aged four and seven can be hard to wrangle in enclosed spaces, like coffee shops.
My kids frequently do not observe common social mores such as respecting the queue, occupying as little space as possible at the counter, or maintaining a monastic silence (not that it matters, since everyone is listening to headphones and the 20-year-old behind the bar has Mates of State on full blast.) In short, they can be annoying. I know that. Everyone in the coffee shop knows that. Hell, even my kids know that.
But here arises an urge that I work hard every single day to combat. It seems so tantalizingly easy to gangpress bystanders into one’s own chamber dramas, yet nothing could be worse, for you, for them, for the kids. Here’s what it looks like when I fail.
[INTERIOR: COFFEE SHOP]
JOSHUA, a middle-aged father, stands in line with his two young sons TONY, 7, and PATRICE, 4. There are a few patrons between JOSHUA and the register. TONY, who enjoys pains aux chocolate, has rushed to the pastry display case, thereby encroaching on the personal space of the other patrons.
Tony, get back here.
Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Can I get a pain aux chocolate?
Tony, get back here now.
Tony, you’re annoying that lady. Come back here.
TONY looks at “that lady,” a cute 30-something paying for her soy chai latte. The woman looks at Tony, not unfriendly. Meanwhile, JOSHUA notices PATRICE has been slowly eating all the sugar out of the dispenser on the tables.
What just happened? What went down? Let’s make like Lawrence Durrell and take multiple viewpoints. Starting from the center — me! — I was at my wit’s end. Not trusting the authority of my own word, I banked on this cute 30-something to help enforce my rules, here standing metonymically for larger societal rules, in a play. The plan was that I would cast her as an offended party, a damsel distressed by the close proximity of my braying son. Indirectly, but unmistakably, I fed her her lines by my audible remonstrations to Tony. “Tony,” I said, “you’re annoying that lady.” This was her cue to turn to Tony aghast with a look that said, “You are a hideous trash person!” thereby completing the neat lesson that One Must Respect The Rules Set Forth By Society As It Pertains To Coffee Shops!
Now, from this lady’s point of view, here was an incredibly attractive father who, clearly, has not gotten a handle on controlling his children. “Whatever,” she thinks, “he has tattoos. I bet he’s super cool though. I should flirt shamelessly with him.” As she finishes her order, she feels the heat of a child around her legs. Perhaps, she is jostled a bit. “Oh,” she thinks, “that’s cute.” She looks at this God-like father, whose muscles seem bursting from his not-at-all stained and sweaty t-shirt. He smiles. “Dad-DEEEE,” says the child.
Without a value judgment, this woman thinks about kids. Then, mid-judgement-free thought, the woman catches something the man says. “Tony,” I said, “you’re annoying that lady.” Her first thought is, “Tony is a nice name. A little old-fashioned. I wonder if it would be weird if I gave the Dad my number.” Then with horror, she realizes she’s THAT lady. It suddenly dawns on this wonderful, complex woman who contains multitudes, that she has been typecast into the role of annoyed stranger. Rage fills her every cell. How dare, she fumes, this guy lay his shit on me? Do I look like a heavy for the Man? No! I went to Vassar, goddammit. This kid can call out all he wants about pains aux chocolates. But what should I do? Do I reinforce his sense of patriarchal entitlement or do I condone this vaguely aberrant social behavior? I know, FUCK THE PATRIARCHY! At this point, this woman — having received her drink order — looks down at Tony and winks, then walks out, shooting me a dagger-y look. Thus completing the undermining of my authority.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, let us look at it from Tony’s perspective. Dude gets up in the morning, roused by me or my wife at an hour so unnaturally early it hangs off the day like a broken arm. From his state of natural slumber, he’s hustled into the kitchen for a rushed breakfast of cereal while my wife and I cram his limbs into their various articles of clothing. He would prefer to relax at home but, hey, I have to go to work and he has to go to camp so tough titties, kid. But even though I said he didn’t have time to play with his Pokémon cards, here I am stopping for what seems like a solid hour for my morning macchiato.
For Tony what is the difference between a coffee shop and, say, a prison? One can not move in either. One must stand for interminable periods for no good reason. From behind a glass partition, one can gaze at ones loved ones but not touch them. In prison, a visitor. At the coffee shop, a chocolate croissant. At least in prison you can talk. But here, it’s as if everything Tony says is too loud. All these rules (unposted of course), surmises Tony with a child’s wisdom, are bullshit. Tony is being Tony. And then — right in the very middle of Tony being Tony — I come at him with some indirect nonsense about how he’s bothering this woman. “How does he know?” Tony thinks, looking at me and then at this woman. “Did she say something?” he worries. “Is there something I didn’t pick up on? A secret code that I am totally incapable of divining by which the rest of the world communicates that I’m a bother?” It starts to get dark for Tony. “What if I am fundamentally annoying?” Tony considers, with horror. “What if kids are pests?”
Now, I’m not proposing that kids are never annoying. Sometimes they are. And I’m certainly not saying you can never discipline your child for behaving inappropriately. But if only I could have removed the performative aspect of this discipline, if only I hadn’t sold him out to a stranger (and, even worse, attributing a viewpoint to said stranger) if I had asked Tony to stand next to me — and if he had refused, simply left — he would have internalized the same lesson but without the public shame. So next time we roll up at a counter and Tony is outspoken about his love of chocolate croissants to an annoying extent, I’ll stop him as best I can but I’ll also keep it in the family.