My friend Carol and I got coffee after lunch one day recently. Since there weren’t any seats inside the coffee house, we braved the withering triple-digit heat to go outside and talk. We settled onto a bench that was flanked by two other benches at right angles and another bench that faced us.
If anybody had asked whether we minded company at the other benches, we would have said no. After all, we didn’t own the space. It was public.
We didn’t get the chance to answer, though, since the couple who sat next to us plopped down without saying anything. The man, who was roughly in his thirties, was fussing with a camera. The woman, about the same age, deposited their kid, who was four or five, on the bench opposite Carol and me and parked the stroller nearby. Then she proceeded to stare into space.
Fine. Welcome. It’s a free country. We’re big liberals.
The man continued to mess with his camera and the woman looked ga-ga, maybe from the heat, maybe from catatonia. The kid, stretched out on the bench, started to scream.
Half a minute into his continued wails, we raised our eyebrows at the woman. She broke the surface of her fugue state and shrugged. “He’s tired,” she explained over the screams. “It’s naptime.”
Naptime — oh, yes. That would be the exact ime when you’d want to take a screeching, unruly child home so he could sleep in air-conditioned comfort. You might be worried that his crying was bothering people nearby. Well, you might be, but these people weren’t. Mr. Cartier-Bresson continued fumbling with his camera, evidently wanting to capture an indelible image of the kid in mid-tantrum. The woman appeared to be in a coma again. I wasn’t too sure about them, to tell the truth. I’d heard of attachment parenting, but maybe this was the latest rage — detachment parenting. It takes a village, you know.
“Excuse me,” Carol said over the blood-curdling screeches. “We can’t talk with your son screaming like this.”
The woman looked at us like we were common criminals and child-haters of the lowest common denominator. “Children cry,” she said placidly. “That’s the way they are.” She looked pleased with herself for educating a couple of old bags about one of the unchanging laws of nature.
“It’s rude to interrupt people like this,” Carol insisted. Being more of a social coward, I nodded supportively.
So, finally, the woman carted her hysterical kid over to another bench, farther away, where he continued to wail. The father, smart man, took his family photos from a distance.
So, Carol and I sat there and talked for another few minutes. By that time, my mind was filled up with numbers. Not with temperature or heat index or decibel level numbers — but with dollars. Sometimes I do that when I’m around screaming children in movie theaters or restaurants or public places. I try to add up all the money my husband and I spent on babysitters over the years instead of taking our kids to places they were too young and unruly to go to. It would have mortified us if they had disturbed other people. So, we spent a small fortune, instead.
Hey, it’s called parental responsibility. Some new parents ought to think about trying it sometimes.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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