Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Walking to School

There are certain beautiful simplicities to small town life, certain Norman Rockwell moments that make the deprivations of living in small town Virginia—e.g., the lack of a good Thai restaurant—seem unimportant.
Walking your kids to school is one of these. 
Which is kind of stupid, of course, because people who live in big cities also walk their kids to school, albeit in a less loving way that us small town, “Real America,” folks.  But that’s okay.  We know they love their children too, in their own gritty, heroin-addicted way. 
But it’s also kind of stupid to argue that these walks to school are idyllic because, to be frank, there are moments when our morning strolls to Waddell Elementary would make Norman Rockwell spit peas through his nose. 
Case in point:  the first thing we do every morning as we stroll to school is cross the street.  This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that our street is really really busy, at least by Lexington standards.  Seriously, there are days where I’ll sit out on our front porch and count the cars buzzing past.  Not infrequently, in the course of a mere ten minutes, I’ll see eight, maybe nine vehicles stream by.  I mean:  who knew there were so many cars?
Even worse than the heavy traffic, though, is the speed at which these cars go by.  To understand what I mean by this, it helps to know that at the very heart of Lexington is a single intersection consisting of two very narrow roads.  Head downtown at the wrong time, when too many cars are trying to make left turns or there’s a delivery truck outside one of the half-dozen boutiques downtown, and you’re liable to sit through two or three rotations of the stoplight at the corner of Main and Nelson.
Consequently, anyone looking to get to the southwestern corner of town and the country roads beyond will veer left before they hit this stop-and-go quagmire and cruise swiftly through some of the neighborhood streets on the edge of downtown. 
Streets that, in case it isn’t already obvious, go past my house. 
Which isn’t a big deal.  I get the whole shortcut thing.  Life is short, after all, no point spending any more time than necessary in our cars. 
But even so, these streets are narrow and sometimes the visibility is poor:  an oddly-parked SUV or a tall hedge and the next thing you know you’re plowing into the side of some old lady’s Gremlin.  I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve driven past the corner of Houston and Taylor and spotted freshly-cut glass strewn across the pavement. 
And oh, by the way, have I mentioned that people live on these narrow streets, behind those tall hedges and oddly-placed pickup trucks?  People with kids? 
Stated simply:  you have your right to your shortcut.  And I have the right to throw a rake at your car when you go past my house topping forty. 
Just kidding, of course.  I would never do that.  That would be incredibly immature. 
No, actually, what I do is scream, “SLOW DOWN YOU %#$@ JERK!” at every harried school mom, every pick-up driving handy man, every—I’m not ashamed to admit it—city cop who dares to hit the accelerator in hopes of the catching that green at the end of our block.   I want to make sure you can see this clearly:  you’re running late and you still need to drop your kids off at school before heading to work.  So you take a right onto Houston, heading south/southwest.  And about half-way down the block you suddenly see a very large man—roughly, say, the size of a moderately-small Bigfoot—waving his fist at you, face twisted into an obscenity-filled snarl as he points to the traffic sign posted on the telephone pole at the end of his driveway reading SPEED LIMIT:  25.  I don’t have any actual data on this, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’ve actually caused some people to transfer their kids to different schools rather than to have to drive by my house at eight in the morning. 
In my own defense, I do this not out of some abstract sense of principle; rather, I do it out of fear for the lives of my children and all of the other children walking down that street.  I’m not kidding.  Just this morning we were standing at the bottom of the drive, waiting to cross, when a black SUV with Texas plates (this means college kid, I know) came barreling by, doing well over thirty-five.  And get this:  as she passed, the driver didn’t even have her hands on the wheel.  No, she was putting her hair into a pony tale.  While—and I’m not making this up—talking on a cell phone scrunched between chin and shoulder.  I’m not an idiot:  in a situation like that, I’m well aware there’s very little chance she’d notice the forty-three inch high and the fifty-two inch high obstacles in the road before they bumped beneath her tires.  And even if she did, with her hands off the wheel like that and going at that speed down such a narrow street, there’s very little she could do to stop.
I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who acts like this.  My friend Pat, who lives just around the corner on Taylor where the situation is even worse, has been known to wave at cars as if to offer a friendly greeting, and then, when they slow down and unroll their windows, smile pleasantly and growl “Slow down!”  And there’s a couple in town, a very progressive, peaceful-minded pair with several kids, a firm belief in holistic medicine and vegetarian dining and a close connection with the Quaker faith, who take great pleasure in rolling a child’s red rubber ball in front of speeding cars on their street just to see the drivers hit the brakes and freak out. 
Not to say that there aren’t some dangers in this sort of behavior.  Last spring the kids and I were strolling toward the corner when I heard a car accelerating down the street, clearly trying to make the green light.  Turning, I could see that this Honda was buzzing—buzzing—at top speed, desperate to save a whole seventeen seconds by not having to wait.  Generally when I’m with the kids, I try to keep myself under control, but this particular time (I’ll blame the caffeine), before I knew it I’d opened my mouth and hollered “SLOW DOWN!”
Which was unfortunate.  Because she didn’t make the light.  Which meant that, when the kids and I reached the corner, she was still sitting there, window down, waiting for me. 
“I was going twenty-five,” she said. 
“No you weren’t.”  I go twenty-five.  Twenty-five is a crawl.  I know what twenty-five looks like.
“Yes, I was.”
“Who,” she said, “do you think you are.  I know my rights.  I was coasting.”
“You were accelerating.”  I could feel my face turning red.  “I could hear your engine picking up speed.”  The kids were standing beside me, watching.  The crossing guard was on the other side of the street, also listening.  Nothing like acting like a jerk in front of a total stranger you get to see every day for nine months of the year.
“$#@& you,” she said, blowing smoke out her window.  
“Not a problem,” I said, sounding much cooler than I felt.  I’m a bad enough parent as it is, without picking a fight in front of my kids, in public, no less.  “I’ll just give your license number to”—and then I named a local cop that everyone knew—“and let him sort it out.”
She swore again—even though, I assume, her kids were in the car.  Then the light turned green, and she accelerated through.  I crossed, my forehead burning—not an insubstantial act, I might point out, as my forehead is so big it basically requires the Peshtigo fire to burn that sucker.
The guard—a young, friendly looking woman with dark hair and glasses—tried to meet my eye as we crossed, but I kept my head down, pink with shame.  Who was I to try to control the world?  Did I think I was so special that I could make everyone bend to my will?
Then, when I got to the other side, the guard said to me, “She comes by here every morning, going so fast she can barely make the turn.  Most mornings she almost knocks me off the curb.”

Okay, so that doesn’t make the walk to school sound like so much fun.  But it is.  I swear it is.  In a goal-oriented, rush-and-ready world, there’s something about taking twenty minutes a day just to be with your kids, under the blue sky and out in the fresh air, that appeals to the Mr. Rogers in all of us. 
Except, of course, about that bit about fresh air.  Because right after we cross Main St., we go past a retirement home, this huge colonial affair right on the corner.  Now, I've no doubt that this place is a fine, fine retirement home:  From everything I’ve heard, the staff there are great and they really care about and take care of their residents.  On any given morning, as we stroll by, the scent of pancakes fresh off the griddle will waft through the morning air, half-tempting us to turn around and go back home in order to mix up a batch or two of our own, complete with hot maple syrup.
Of course, on other given days, particularly early in the week—garbage pickup is on Mondays—we’ll be greeted with the tasty smell of week-old trash. 
“Ew,” Lucy will say.  “What’s that?”
“Urmph,” Jamie will say through the hands pinching his nose and covering his mouth. 
“I don’t know,” I’ll say.  “Spanish rice, maybe?  Polenta?”
“It looks like barf!”
“Urmph,” Jamie will say again, sounding vaguely more gagier, if that’s even a word in any language other than French. 
“It’s just garbage,” I’ll say, as we step around or across the mass of half-rotten foodstuff stretching across the sidewalk, over the curb, and into the street.  “The bag must have broken.”
“Well they should clean it up!” says Lucy, sounding self-righteous as all get out (I wonder where she got that from, hmmm?). 
But she’s right, of course:  they should.  And sometimes they do—indeed, most of the time they do.  But a lot of the time they don’t.  So for the next two or three days, morning and afternoon, we’ll get to see the decaying process in action, as the aforementioned foodstuff goes from yellow to brown to gray to whatever color rotting gelatin is . . .
The pity, of course, is there are plenty of days where we go past this retirement home without any sign of garbage whatsoever.  And of course, on those days, we never stop and think about how nice it is of the staff or the garbagemen or whoever’s responsible for getting the bins and bags from the shelter under the stairs safely into the back of the garbage truck did such a good job of not leaving half of it strewn across the sidewalk.  And I will admit that part of me feels incredibly guilty for naming the name of this particular establishment in this context as—as I’ve already said—I’m sure the people who work there work very hard and try their very best. 
But seriously?  Clean up your garbage.

Okay, so that doesn’t sound very nice either.  I’m not kidding, though:  I love walking the kids to school, really I do, so much so that we go on foot even in the dead of winter when—by Virginia standards, at least— it’s really cold outside. 
The next block is the really pleasant part, past nice houses with well-groomed lawns.  Dr. Bill’s house is on the left and every so often I see him and wave, and next to his house is Charlie and Fiona’s, who painted their house blue just like we did (did you know that only Yankees paint their houses blue?).  On the right there’s the house that we almost bought with the nice spaniel and after that the brick house with the weird mustard trim.  This section of the walk also has the walls—low cement borders that trim the slope of the lawns from the sidewalk.  Just as Lucy did and Will before her, Jamie delights in climbing up and walking along these walls.  As recently as last year, when he was still in pre-school, he would submit to my holding his hand while he did it, just so that I could pretend I was keeping him safe.  Now, though, he refuses.  We go past my favorite house in the entire town, a two-story asymmetrical affair with a high front porch graced by a curving set of brick stairs on either side.  After that is the Beebe place, then the place owned by the Pumpkin Seeds lady (a funky shop downtown), that has, strangely, political signs for both mayoral candidates out front. 
And now we’re at the second crossing.  Here, the guard is an elderly gentleman who, for some reason, we suspect used to be a policeman.  We’ll still be twenty yards from the intersection and already he’ll be out there stopping traffic, which can be a bit of a problem since Jamie is arguably the slowest person on earth.  I’m not sure why this is:  his legs aren’t particularly short, and he’s got plenty of energy, particularly, say, when we’re at church or attending someone’s funeral.  Nonetheless, on these walks to school, when the guard steps out into the street and raises his sign in front of eight minivans full of anxious parents even though we’re still a quarter mile away, Jamie slows down to a craw.  And I do mean crawl, all but getting down on his hands and knees and imitating an inchworm. 
“Come on,” I’ll say to him before glancing at the crossing guard, the line of vehicles. 
“Jamie,” I’ll say, loudly.  A face or two will lean forward, peering out of their windscreens. 
Oh geeze, he’s bending down to look at something! 
The crossing guard will be looking at him now, peering over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.  Lucy will already be on the other side of the intersection, skipping down the hill.  Some dude in a Jeep Cherokee will be poking his front fender around the edge of the line, estimating his chances of making a left turn and jumping the line without getting arrested so that he can get to work on time. 
“Oh my god!” I’ll want to scream, feeling like we’re on display, like our family’s own little dysfunctional mechanics—can you say passive aggressive?—are on display for the whole world to see. 
Because they are. 
And I’m not kidding. 
Maybe a year-and-a-half ago, Jamie woke up and decided he wanted to wear Will’s old dragon Halloween costume for the day.  So he pulled it on, came down the stairs, ate his breakfast, and padded out the door with the rest of us to walk to school, all the while cloaked in a full-body green and purple dragon outfit complete with wings.
Later that morning I was strolling through the door of the YMCA when one of the women in front of me said, “Oh my god, I saw the funniest thing this morning:  I was driving downtown when I got stopped by the crossing guard and there in the street was a little boy all dressed up in a dinosaur costume.”
I considered pointing out that most dinosaur’s don’t have wings—none of them, in fact—but at the last second I bit my tongue.   Probably best not to advertise to the whole world the fact that it was my kid who backed up her commute every morning. 

All of which should make abundantly clear the fact that, in a small town, even simple things like walking the kids to school requires a peculiar set of negotiations.  But just in case I haven’t made myself entirely clear, consider:
Once we get to the bottom of the hill and I give the kids a hug (Lucy always reciprocates, but Jamie plays hard to get, especially when I shout “I’m a pony!” and try to lick his face), I’ll turn around and head home. 
Complicating things, though, is the fact that, whereas on the way to school we’d had our back to the constant stream of cars heading toward drop-off, now I’m heading into traffic.  Which means, for all practical purposes, that I’m now required to acknowledge the existence of the rest of humanity.  That’s right:  now I have to wave. 
Or nod.  Or do that little chin thing.  Or whatever.  But the fact is, even more than before, I’m now on display, and how I act has consequences.  Miss a small smile or a friendly lift of the fingers from steering wheel on a Tuesday and by Friday I’ll have people stopping me in the cereal aisle at Kroger, saying things like, “Are you okay?  Brad from the hardware store said he saw you walking down the street in a really bad mood.  What’s going on?”  Or:  “Are you mad at Tina?  Because I was getting a haircut just yesterday and she said she nodded to you on the way to school and you just frowned.  She’s been crying all week.”  Or:  “Colonel Valasquez has been looking for you; he says he’s going to challenge you to a duel of pistols at sunrise.”
It doesn’t help that, walking home, the sun is in my eyes, meaning it’s hard to tell who’s in what car.  Is that green Honda Pat’s, or does it belong to someone else?  Is that Stacey in the big black SUV or someone I’ve never met before who now thinks I’m a weirdo?  Because it’s a wicked cycle, you see:  if they wave at me, I’m obliged to wave back, even if I’ve no idea who the heck they are, and if I wave at them, they’re now obliged to wave at me, even if they don’t me from Adam’s second cousin.  After all, they don’t want to find themselves in the aisles of Kroger suddenly being informed by their friends that they’ve ticked off that fat Big Foot guy who throws rakes at cars.
I could, of course, simply wave at every car that goes by.  This seems like the perfect solution—it’s a small town after all, and chances are we’ll meet each other sooner or later.  So why not start the process sooner rather than later?  Well because, to be frank, despite all of my obvious flaws and my general comfort with those flaws being out there for the whole world to see (I’m a memoirist, after all), despite my reputation for being slightly south of the norm, despite my general willingness to engage in self-deprecating humor, I really really really don’t want to be known as “The crazy guy who waves at all the cars.” 

That said, here’s the thing I haven’t mentioned:  seven years ago, when we started these walks, I would push Lucy in the stroller as we took Will to school.  And then, on the way home, she and I would chat as we took our time going up the hill, as we nodded to the chatty crossing guard, as we passed the Pumpkin Seeds lady’s house, as we went past my favorite house and Fiona and Charlie’s house and Dr. Bill’s house, up past the molding food on the sidewalk outside the Mayfair, across the street and down Houston to our own house.  We’d talk about flowers and the clouds and what Lucy wanted for Christmas and what Hong Kong would be like when we went there. 
And then, when Lucy became old enough and started to go to school, I would push Jamie in the stroller, and then on the way home he and I would talk about Thomas the Tank Engine and Miss Margoth his pre-school teacher, and he would want to stop and see the spiders and we’d both laugh and hold our noses as we passed the nursing home.  And he would collect sticks and rocks, and when we got home he’d stoop and go under the porch by the back door and put them in a pile with the rest of the sticks and rocks that he’d collected on the previous days walking home from dropping Lucy and Will off. 
And now?  Will doesn’t go to Waddell anymore and he doesn’t walk to school.  Instead he bikes or takes a ride to the middle school on the other side of Nelson Street. 
And now?  When I turn back to go up the hill?  Jamie stays behind in Miss Kendall’s kindergarten class, and I walk home alone, my hands in my pockets and my head down and no one to talk to.  And I think about how my days are numbered for these walks to school, how in less than three years Lucy will be in the middle school as well, and it’ll just be Jamie and me strolling to Waddell.  And then, three years after that, Jamie will be in the middle school.  And then there won’t be any more walks to school, and I’ll just get in my car after breakfast and drive the fifty minutes to work, trying not to get annoyed at the corner where the crossing guard holds up her stop sign and keeps us all waiting through a green light as a parade of small children in orange and blue Cavalier jackets and green and gold mittens that their grandmothers knit for them, waddle across the street. 
And thinking about this?  Call me a joker, call me a fool, call me a sentimental old Big Foot who’s mourning a loss that’s still years away.  But then?  I have to have to fight hard to keep myself from raising my hand and waving at every car that goes by. 

Oh, sure, they look cute, but man can they be pokey when you're in a hurry!