Monday, August 30, 2010

Booted Out Of Restaurant Cringe

When recalling cringeworthy circumstances, I’ve discovered an unsettling pattern— that of damsel-in-distress.

Around the time my younger son, Brendan, was smearing poop all over his crib (summer 2007), he got us kicked out of a diner. I’ve been in restaurant settings where parents have let their kin run around like rabid dogs. I’ve heard crying, screaming, stamping, smacking. I’ve seen kids throw fistfuls of food at their families, at passing waitresses, and at innocent customers. I’ve wished that children would be ejected from restaurants. But I never thought it really happened.

It was a muggy August day. Brendan had just turned one. He had a big drool-drippy grin with a few teeth, and a new habit of shrieking. It was an irritating yet happy cry-- an affirmation that he had vocal chords, and that his high-pitched yelp caused a reaction. I cringed each time he crowed. Strangers laughed or threw dirty looks. I fantasized about creating and marketing a baby muzzle.

I had no prototype yet for the baby muzzle when out to lunch that day with my kids and my two cousins. We were seated at my favorite place in town--a small luncheonette with hearty food. I had spent nearly every Sunday morning of my Brendan pregnancy there enjoying greasy, magnificent breakfasts.

We ordered. The food took longer than usual. Brendan squirmed in his high chair. SHRIEK. Shhhhhh!!!! My cousins distracted him with silly faces and crayons. I figured the food was coming, and the antics would end once his chubby mitts hooked around grilled cheese.

“Just leave your drinks and leave!” a loud voice bellowed behind me. I turned to see the cook owner, red-faced. Confused, I looked from him to my cousins, and waited for someone to make sense of the scene.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“This is the worst kid I’ve ever seen. You’ve got to leave. Just leave your drinks and go.”

No one at the table moved. My cousins appeared baffled. Sure, Brendan had screeched here and there, but he was seated, giggling, happy, and hungry. We were all hungry.

The angry cook disappeared through the swinging kitchen door. Our waitress cringed. She avoided eye contact, mouthing that she was sorry as she wiped down the counter with a rag.

“Is he really kicking us out of here?” I asked, stunned. No one answered, except four- year-old Christopher, “But we haven’t had lunch and I’m hungry!”

The other customers watched as we shuffled out, cringing over their own dilemma: continue listening (uncomfortably) to the high notes of the famished baby or defend the group from mistreatment?

On the sidewalk, I wanted to vomit. As I buckled car seats and heaved a stroller into my hatchback, the humiliation gelled. I had just been hurled out into the street. My blood pumped crazily-- I could hear it pulse in my ears.

I punched the restaurant phone number into my cell phone and demanded an apology from the jerk.

“Apologize?” he snorted. “I’m not apologizing to you--- you need to go read some parenting magazines.”

I would have preferred a wasp fly into my car window and sting me.

I viewed Brendan in the rearview mirror and imagined visiting him at a baby reform school. He smiled and waved.

I argued with the mutant cook for a few minutes. Then I hung up and cried. I gulped and hyperventilated and batted tears and a runny nose with the back of my hand. I was a shitty mother who had a kid who needed a muzzle. I dialed my husband, Marty, at work. I’m not a big crier, so he immediately thought some horrible tragedy had occurred, like a car wreck. “What’s happened? Are you okay? Tell me….are you okay?” he sounded panicked.

I sputtered, cried, and huffed out the story. The line was quiet while I explained.

“What’s this asshole’s number?” he said, getting his Jersey-boy up. I wonder if he was cringing, weighed down by a wife who managed to complicate retail transactions in a quiet shore town. It was just about one year since the gas station incident….


Saturday, August 21, 2010

C.C.D. Sign-up Cringe

I recently enrolled my first grader for C.C.D. -- the Catholic equivalent to Sunday school or Hebrew school. It is the pre-requisite for receiving Holy Communion and Confirmation. For most people, signing up would be a mundane task…filling out a few forms at the local parish. For me, it caused acute cringe.

As I stood in front of the religious education secretarial desk last week, hesitantly handing over the forms, my heart raced and I felt faint. I couldn’t believe that I was signing Christopher up for a program that tortured me so as a child. My sixth grade self would be astonished—speechless-- horrifed. How did I turn into a grown-up who no longer enjoys rollercoaster rides and would force an innocent six-year-old down the plank to dreaded C.C.D? I am certain that 1983 Tracy promised that she would never exact this punishment on her offspring. I believe I shouted that each week at my mother as she drove me to my captivity.

My husband, Marty, doesn’t understand this dilemma. He went to Catholic school for twelve years, and never had to set foot in an uncomfortable classroom (it was always either too hot or cold at C.C.D. afterschool) at 4 p.m. for eight grueling years. He could ride his bicycle afterschool on Tuesday afternoons and laugh with his buddies until dinner time. He wasn’t a hostage in a metal seat.

My eight years of C.C.D. caused a condition called Post Traumatic Boredom Disorder (PTBD). I become symptomatic when entering any religious establishment. My brain chemistry has been permanently altered—mapped to fall into a boredom coma at church. I try to listen to the sermon. I really do. I attempt to enjoy the choral music. The problem is I revert back to that vexed sixth grader—I return to the stifling classroom at St. Mary’s on Valley Road. I can see the utilitarian clock above the blackboard, its hands never moving. I can hear Sister Kevin’s robed shuffle down the speckled hallway, her sinister face peering into the door panel. The PTBD is so debilitating it renders me unable to daydream in church. I am a person who can daydream anywhere. I have a daydreaming dependence problem. Church overrides it. A component of PTBD is pseudo-dementia. I can never remember the prayers, chants, or the order of the stand-up-sit-down routine.

The secretary at the C.C.D. office looked up at me, her face registering concern. I must have appeared woozy.

“I’m having a hard time with this,” I stammered. She shifted her head to the side in puzzlement. My throat felt dry as I continued.

“I really hated C.C.D. as a kid. It was so….boring,” my vocabulary returned to that of a sixth-grader. “I’m having a hard time thinking that I’m sending my son to this. C.C.D. turned me off to religion.” I exhaled. I had said it.

The secretary was kind. She assured me that C.C.D. had come along way since the 70s/80s. She whipped out the first grade workbook and showed me the creative projects inside. I tried to concentrate, but the PTBD was blocking comprehension. I thanked her and jogged to my car. There are few things that compel me to jog.

At home over dinner, I told Marty about my experience. He cringed. Bigtime. Due to twelve solid years of Catholic school and regular church attendance, he suffers from Catholic guilt.

“You really said that?”
“Yeah…I just couldn’t help it.”

His shoulders raised with a sharp inhalation of breath. I know what he was thinking. The C.C.D. secretary probably stamped “Heathen Mother” in our file. It was on its way in an inter-office envelope to the Monsignor.

Please feel free to share your C.C.D. experiences in the comments section!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Obsessive Compulsive Innkeeper Cringe

All jobs are not suited for everyone. In my case, I would be hopeless at a career working with animals. I often blame my uneasiness around four-legged friends on an ill-fated night of babysitting when I was thirteen. I was attacked by a psychotic cat-- great material for another cringe. But really, my hesitation around pets was evident much earlier. There’s a photo of me at eighteen months surrounded by a litter of new puppies. I’m screaming bloody murder. My father’s persistence to have me ride the pony at various fairs during my childhood would result in full-blown distress. I recently took my kids to a sad little rescue zoo and made the absurd decision to take a stroll through the attached animal adoption shelter. As vicious looking dogs barked and snarled from their cages, jumping so high that I thought they might clear their metal fences and massacre everyone, I lost the feeling in my limbs. I was still engaged in some type of hyperventilation and panic thirty minutes after our departure. Marty had to repeat, “Are you sure you’re okay?” as I gulped air from my passenger side window. No veterinary, circus, zoo, shelter, or pet-sitting jobs for me. I’m aware of my limitations.

This past weekend marked the fifth annual Wetherill Family Reunion. This three-generational gathering rounds up forty cousins, aunts, and uncles from across the United States. It’s a challenge each year to find a location that provides affordability, easy travel access for the majority in the Northeast, and fun/nice/scenic/private setting.

We almost nailed it this year. The price, location, and atmosphere were stellar. The drawback was one neurotic innkeeper named Randy. Randy is as ill-suited for the career of purveyor of human lodging as I am for lion tamer. Regrettably, Randy is not cognizant of his own limitations.

The sign posted at the front desk was the first clue to Randy’s issues. See above. People in violation of Randy’s rules faced expulsion. It was unnerving to sign your credit card receipt and accept your key with this word lurking over Randy’s shoulder. Perhaps expulsion could be an appropriate warning and consequence for some venues, say, Panama City, Florida during spring break. Randy’s place was one step above camping in fifteen immaculate units nestled by an inlet on the sleepy coast of southeastern Connecticut.

Randy was an enthusiastic concierge, describing many local activities and points of interest. It wasn’t immediately obvious, even despite the expulsion notice, that Randy was desperate to have guests off of his property during daylight-- the thought of having us use his pristine pool turned out to be debilitating for him. He mentioned the availability of kayaks for guest use with caution. If you want to use one of my kayaks, you must sign a hold-harmless agreement. He was quick to add: that means if you slip and fall and die, you can’t sue me. As I hugged and greeted my relatives, Randy insisted on personally showing Marty to our room. Marty was instructed on the proper way to open and close the shower doors to keep the floor from getting wet. Slide open. Slide closed.

Randy spent the weekend skulking around the corners and locking the pool gate whenever it was temporarily empty of swimmers. At first he feigned he needed to treat the water with chemicals. Our pre-arranged clambake event, provided by an outside caterer, really put Randy over the edge. He spoke to me several times about the need for all children to wash their hands thoroughly after eating shellfish because he was concerned about lobster entrails on his bedspreads. He also clarified, three times, that his picnic tables were to be wiped down, and that the clambake company would remove all garbage from the premises. Yes, I assured Randy as best as I could, taking notice that he was developing a tic when he spoke of dirty hands. Shortly after the clambake was under way, Randy ran to the pool gate and threw down the lock. He feared lobster claws and mussel slime floating in the blue oasis.

“I’m locking up the pool for your group. I might open it for someone else if they need it,” he mumbled as he walked up the hill back to his quarters. We were collectively confused—there were no other guests but us reunion kin.

The children gathered around the pool gate the next morning, antsy to enter. Some had their goggles on already. Randy stood above with his hands on his hips, pacing. He moved down the hill slowly with a grave expression.

“There are rocks in the pool,” he declared. “I can’t open it up until my guy comes to remove them.”

“The kids can jump in and get them for you,” one of my cousins suggested.

Randy’s whole body reacted. He recoiled. “Unless you want to pay me $10,000. for a new pool liner, you have to wait for my diver to come.”

My Uncle Bob answered for all of us. “No, No. Randy. We don’t want to pay you $10,000. No-sir-yee.”

At this point, more than a few of us were worrying about expulsion. It was the last day of our affair. It seemed prudent to pack up our cars and speed out of this peculiar little man’s cove.

“I sure hope you come back again,” Randy told me as we checked out. He even shook my potentially lobster-juicy hand. “You were a really nice group. The kids were all very well behaved.”

It was true. The fifteen kids had been quite good.

I thanked Randy and felt a stir of empathy for him, and of course, a pang of cringe. He really is in the wrong line of work, and working very hard at it. Given his limitations, he was getting by. He was doing far better than I would on the canine squad.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Another Cringe At The Same Station

….Continued from last post, At The Station That Night Cringe…..

There was no satisfying resolution to my gas hose mishap. My cringe would have had a stronger narrative arc (“good story”) if my money had been returned. I was out $120. and now uneasy about living in a town with public protection in the form of Porncop.

My only recourse was to tell my embarrassing story with the goal of convincing locals to boycott that particular station. One of the people I told was Ted, a friend I wrote about in a previous post entitled, Ferry Cringe. It turns out that Ted had a run-in with Mean Old Gas Man at that station too. However, Ted’s resolution was so satisfying that I have adopted it as the footnote to my own tale:

Mean Old Gas Man runs a sideline business on his premises—a gas grill propane tank exchange. A few years ago, Ted bought a new grill that came with a gleaming white virgin tank. Many hotdogs and hamburgers later, he went to the Shell Station for his first propane trade. Mean Old Gas Man took Ted’s perfect tank and handed him a rusted, chipped, and dented poor replacement. It appeared as if bowling balls had been thrown at the ancient vessel.

“I just gave you a brand new tank. This one’s shot.”

Mean Old Gas Man dismissed him with an impatient toss of hand. “Then you bring this one back and you get a different one. It doesn’t matter. So what?”

Ted had guests waiting for barbeque ribs in his backyard. He took the crap tank and hurried home.

A few weeks later, the crap tank ran empty. Ted returned to the station to exchange. Mean Old Gas Man wouldn’t accept the rusty tank! An argument ensued. The swindler denied that he had peddled the old tank weeks before. Ted called him a liar. Chest puffed out with righteousness, Mean Old Gas Man continued to refuse, adamant that he had never had the crap tank in his possession.

Ted got back in his car and drove to Home Depot. He purchased a spanking new white tank. He didn’t drive straight home. He pulled into the evil Shell Station, opened his driver door with the car still running, and stepped out. He grabbed the dilapidated crap tank from the backseat. Locking eyes with the Mean Old Gas Man, he extended his left arm. With one powerful motion, Ted hurled the crap tank up in the air. It rocketed over the hood of his car and bounced like a creaking bed across the pavement of the gas bays, sputtering and clanging as Mean Old Gas Man watched its trail.

Ted exited the station contented.

I like to think that a tiny current of my spirit soared with the flying crap tank.