Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Going Down

Hey, you say, isn't it about time for another one of those delightful Dispatches from Babyville from that powerhouse of a local mag, The Park Slope Reader? As a matter of fact, it is.


I used to complain constantly about what a pain it was to live in a walk-up with two small children. But since moving into an elevator building, I have come to see that the pain in my behind was from the kids and not the stairs. As it turns out, it’s still a three-ring circus whenever we enter or exit our house, although for entirely different reasons. In fact, the elevator, which I’d counted on as a cure-all, has created problems of its own.

Don’t get me wrong: I love our elevator more than it is reasonable to love a steel box. But while it has liberated me from the physical burden of being a pack mule, it has saddled me with a mental strain. Walking up stairs is simple, one foot in front of the other, but riding an elevator, like any other situation in which you must share a confined space with strangers, requires your behavior to adhere to certain unspoken rules. Of course, there are always individuals who shrug off these conventions: on the subway these are the people that eat stinky, messy food or tell detailed stories about their sexual exploits or sing to the music on their headphones at full voice On the elevator, these people are my children.

It works like this: as soon as the doors close on the elevator, a signal is released in my 3 and 5 year-old’s brains to say something odd, inappropriate or just really god-awful loud.

This might just be the uncouth sound of a bodily function, or the announcement of future body functions, as in, “I NEED TO DO A HUMONGOS POOP!”

But usually the off-putting words are spoken directly to our fellow passengers. The best case scenario is that Primo, my sociable son, will be friendly, super-friendly, so friendly it is almost an assault, like the time we stumbled upon a pretty middle-school girl in the elevator after-school.

“What’s your name?” Primo asked, instantly interested.

She was busy looking at her cell phone and didn’t hear him.

“What’s your name? What’s your name?” he repeated.

“GIRL!” shouted Seconda, “Say your name, girl!” My kids have a serious good cop/ bad cop thing going on.

“Lauren,” she mumbled, staring at the elevator doors.

With this, Primo fired forth a barrage of questions, leaving nary an opportunity for her to answer: “How old are you? What school do you go to? Where’s your mother? What’s the number you live in?”

This last question, it was clear, was the most pressing, and he asked her again “What’s your number?”

“SAY YOUR NUMBER GIRL!” Seconda shrieked. .

Lauren, clearly wishing she’d taken the stairs, asked me, the official Crazy-English translator: “What do they mean?”

“What apartment number do you live in?’ I explained.

“Oh,” she answered as she stepped out on the 3rd floor:”3B.”

The doors closed again and Primo announced: “I am going to write that girl a letter and bring it to her house!”

I tried to dissuade him. I tried to distract him. But at the end of the day I walked him over to 3B and helped him slide an anonymous letter which read “her is a pictr av the sun. you r nis,” under her door, if that was, in fact, her real apartment number.

As elevator behavior goes, friendly advances from a five year-old, no matter how persistent, are generally beyond reproof. Where I get into trouble is with my daughter.

Secibda looks like she just stepped off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: golden hair, rosy cheeks – the whole nine yards. But when she opens her mouth, it’s a different story.

“What beautiful eyes!” people on the elevator often exclaim.

“I don’t like you!” she snaps back with venom, “Go away!”

This response usually works to paralyze her appreciators, but if they persist in making conversation, she’ll pull out the big guns: “You can’t talk to me!” “This is my elevator and you can’t be in it!” “You’re annoying!”

It’s not that she’s cranky or upset. In fact, she’s at her happiest when she is berating and scolding others in a small box from which there is no escape. I know this because of the grin which spreads over her impish face afterwards.

I’ve come to accept the fact that my daughter is, at present, just really, regularly unfriendly. Ok, hostile. Ok, more belligerent than a drunk who’s been cut off.

This is shocking to me because I’m a people person. When I board an elevator (and I’m not doing damage control for Sec) I make light, palatable, diverting small talk, the conversational equivalent of muzak. I’m as amiable as a Southerner except I know when to stop talking. Yet, as with so much in parenting, this friendliness has caused a backlash in my daughter.

I’ve grown so accustomed to Seconda’s gnarly, snarly elevator bit that when I see children who are perfectly nice to others for no reason whatsoever, I can’t help but conclude that they are either cuckoo for cocoa puffs or under the influence of Children’s Benadryl or a similar mind-altering substance.

One morning last week, I was rushing Sec off to school and we got on a crowded elevator. Among the many riders was a brother and sister, about Seconda’s age, with their pregnant mother. I smiled at the children. The children smiled at me. The children smiled at Seconda. Seconda growled at them like a rabid dog. Then she informed me, “Betsy doesn’t like them!”

Betsy is Sec’s imaginary sister, and frankly she’s a bad influence. Where Seconda is mischievous, Betsy is nefarious. Betsy has a lot of opinions about things and they all fall under the “I hate it” category. I am currently filing paperwork to have Betsy excommunicated from the family.

The little girl on the elevator had a nicely-maintained black bob and was wearing an adorable flower-print sundress, making me have second thoughts about how I’d allowed Seconda to dress herself for school in pink penguin pajamas. She had been wearing a fetching frock this morning, but only because she’d put that on to sleep. She’s like an infant with her days and nights switched, only with wardrobe. But I’ve learned to pick my battles with this iron-willed child, and the battle at hand was over Sec’s habit of saying “Go away! I hate you!” to each and every person she encountered. She was under strict instructions not to direct the word “hate’ at anyone, period.

So now, I stood in the elevator, holding my breath and hoping we could make it to the lobby without an incident. But Seconda said nothing, Instead it was the girl who spoke, turning to her brother and saying: “I love you, Jack.”

And little Jack said, “I love you too, Pearl.”

Everyone on the elevator, including me, oohed and ahhed. Who wouldn’t? It made your uterus hurt, it was so cute.

Encouraged by the response, Pearl went on: “I love Jack and I love my Daddy and I love my Mama!” she said, flinging her arms around her mother’s legs. Then she put her hand on her mother’s pregnant midsection and said, “Hello little baby! Hello! I’m your sister!”

Seconda squinted her eyes and cocked her head, which I knew from experience did not bode well.

“Do you have a baby in your belly?” she asked the mother, innocently enough.

“Yes, I do,” the mom replied with a smile.

“Oh,” Sec answered thoughtfully: “I hate that baby.”

Every passenger on the elevator, including but not limited to Pearl, Jack, the mother, me, and probably the in-utero baby – gasped audibly.

“Seconda!” I exclaimed.

To make matters worse, my daughter broke into a huge grin which stretched from one blond pigtail to the other.

Thankfully, at just that moment, the doors of the elevator opened and I bounded through them, exclaiming, “Sorry! So sorry!” over my shoulder.

Wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last time I have to make a hasty exit after a doozie like that. Though I’m inclined to make a big show of being shocked and aghast – you know the show I mean, where you exclaim loudly, “I don’t know WHERE you learned to talk like THAT! You know BETTER!” in defense of your parenting skills — I’ve learned it only fans the flame of bad behavior, so I try, whenever possible, to just let the mortification roll over me and subside, before reminding my daughter that it is not kind to tell a mother that you despise her fetus.

But it does make me remember fondly the days when we lived in a walk-up, where the only people who suffered in the freak-show of my family getting in and out of the house, was me. And so I’ve decided that until the reigning Mean Queen of the Elevator can soften that razor-sharp tongue of hers, we’re hoofing it up the stairs. Not only it is rehabilitating, it’s good for the glutes.