As we walked hurriedly through Ai Weiwei’s feel-good-psuedo-art beneath Washington Square Park’s famous arch, hustling towards the Uber driver in his Accord who was unconcernedly blocking traffic in at least two of the intersection’s three possible directions, John shook his hand free of mine and glared up at me.
“I didn’t even learn anything!” he snarled in that furious close-to-tears voice I’ve come to expect after everything from a lost game of dodgeball to a failed attempt at clearing a jump on his BMX bike. He’s not particularly sensitive to pain or physical effort but he anything he perceives as a loss or failure enrages him. “And you wasted five dollars of your money betting on me to win!”
“Well, John, I’m not sure that I agree with you about what we did and did not learn,” I replied, yanking the Accord’s door open and tossing him into the center seat before our driver could lose his courage and bolt from the scene, “and it’s not really my money, you know. You’ll inherit everything when I die, so that was really your five dollars, you know.” This was intended to add some humor to the situation but instead my son threw up his hands and yelled, “Why did you waste my five dollars, then! That’s even worse!”
If I had to use a single phrase to describe my life over the past twenty years, it would be “trying to pack fifteen pounds’ worth of travel and work into a five-pound bag.” This weekend was no exception. We had fifty-one hours at our disposal between the end of my work day on Friday and John’s bedtime on Sunday night. The plan was to drive from Ohio to Long Island, where the boy would test a variety of $20,000-plus miniature cars, both gas-powered and electric, at a Lotus dealership that also does a land-office business in six-and-seven-figure automotive bibelots ranging from Ferrari Daytonas to Iso Grifos to Aston shooting brakes. Afterwards we would visit the Guggenheim, the new World Trade Center building, and a few other NYC landmarks. Then we’d head to Connecticut to see some family before returning home on Sunday.
Nothing went quite as planned. Our Rowayton relations decided to decamp for Peru, of all places, making my decision to pre-pay a hotel in Greenwich on Saturday night utterly ridiculous. Our car lost a tire to an expansion joint over the Bronx, forcing us to conduct most of the day’s business via Uber at a total cost of approximately three hundred dollars and three hours’ worth of tourism time. Something in the schedule had to give, so we abandoned the Guggenheim and headed directly to One World Observatory. I could probably write a whole book about my opinions regarding the “Freedom Tower”, and Danger Girl is so nonplussed by the whole 9/11 Memorial business that she won’t even walk by the pathetic Ground Zero standing pools, but those are our hangups, not to be passed along to John. He had no such reservations and if the whole Observatory experience was offensively Space-Mountain-ish right down to the video screens that vanish at the critical moment in the soundtrack to reveal the glassed-in skyline, what crime is that to a generation growing up hip-deep in the (newly cruelty-and-racism-free) Disney canon?
From there we took the subway down to West 4th so we could eat at Ben’s Pizzeria just like saved-by-the-Weinstein-bell semi-public masturbator Louis C.K. does in the old intros to his show. While we were eating, a noisy group of West Africans came in, dumped a bag full of cash onto a table, and began divvying-up their individual shares. The minute this started I knew that it would be John’s primary memory of the trip. I was like that as a child, too. My parents would fly me down to Florida at great expense for a perfectly planned day-by-day schedule of tourist traps and I’d spend the whole time pretending to be sick so I could sit by the side of my grandfather’s pool and catch geckos. Children make their own choices as to what they’ll absorb from your curated travel experiences. It’s your choice as a parent to be infuriated or enchanted by this but you cannot prevent it.
So I sat there and told him wildly exaggerated theories as to why these fellows were splitting up a few hundred bucks in public while swearing furiously at each other. They’d robbed a bank. Maybe it was a murder for hire. “Why don’t the police stop them?” he asked.
“In New York,” I sagely but offhandedly replied, as if I’d left Brooklyn for Ohio last year instead of during the Nixon Administration, “this sort of thing happens on every streetcorner.” A couple of dough-faced white college girls in thigh-high vinyl skirts walked in with their slack-mouthed fuck buddies and sat down at the next table over from the Joseph Kony crew sans concern. Now John was really fascinated. He offhandedly assumes that he is immune from harm in my presence, but he was worried about the girls.
“What if they get robbed?” he asked.
“We wouldn’t get involved, because those are the rules here,” I told him, just about dramatically enough to conjure up a Glenn Frey song in the background. His eyes went wide. As the Africans pocketed the last few greenbacks and headed out in one direction, we walked out the other, towards Washington Square Park. The streets were full of shouting, arguments, affection. John’s head swiveled in all directions.
“This is probably,” he said, “one of the best three days of my whole life.”
The park was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded in most spots, the almost-bright children of NYU experiencing the Venerable Bede’s brief moment of sunny care-free fellowship via the sympathetic magic of family money or the sinister ritual of student debt, a vast majority of them certain to crater in a low-expectations future that has no use for ten million philosophy majors but sha-na-na-na-na-na living for today regardless. The arch was lit up and the fountain was gleaming but I dragged my son to the far corner where a ragtag bunch of men played chess on stone tables.
Earlier this year, John had started to demonstrate some interest in chess, quickly progressing to the point where he could beat or draw his mother in most games. He is very far from a prodigy but I’d like him to spend more time playing because I think it would help settle his mind a bit and teach him the importance of concentration. He has real trouble focusing on anything for more than a few minutes, and I know where he gets it because last week his mother was giving me a very detailed description of some issues John was having in school and halfway through the discussion I lost track of the conversation because I was daydreaming about going mountain biking in Moab.
We set up at the end of the bench and watched a fellow who looked suspiciously like George Clinton take a couple of games from a fidgeting middle-aged white local from the Village whose boyfriend alternated between fascination and horror for the whole time. “You touch that piece, you gotta move it,” Clinton advised his opponent in a basement baritone. “Told you that before you started to play.”
“I know, I know,” the man squeaked, and dragged his rook to h3.
“Watch this now,” Clinton rumbled, as he whirled a bishop in the air briefly before completing a c6-g2 and neatly splitting the castles, “you gonna have to give me one of those.” The game lasted seven moves after that.
“I have somebody for you to play,” I said, and I sat John down. “I’ll sit in if you don’t mind.”
“We all good, man. I’m happy to play this young dude. He knows he doesn’t know everything. Not like some of these,” Clinton chuckled, using a pawn to indicate the previous player who was still standing nervously in the vicinity. “They think they’re players. A lot of talk. No intelligence. Like the current occupant of the Oval Office. Now I don’t know that man, but I can tell you that he’s not what we would call a thinker. Now pay attention, young man,” he told John, “I’m stronger than you in this game so you can have white.”
It was a short contest. John opened with e4 and f4 which is a good way to take the center from an inexperienced opponent but against an old hand like Mr. P-Funk was certain death. After managing an early bishop-for-knight exchange to his advantage, John got very nervous and started making mistakes. “I like to get on the train by nine,” Clinton laconically stated, pushing his queen and bishop to protected positions and checking early. Yet in the endgame he gave John a chance to play it all the way out.
They shook hands and I called an Uber. I was pleased by the game — as with karting, I’d tossed the kid in the proverbial deep end then watched him demonstrate some strength of character and resistance to panic — but to John, who had expected to win the game, it was a disaster. It was yet another reminder to me that children bring their own lens to everything they’re shown.
“Listen, John,” I told him, “why don’t you spend the winter playing chess against your tablet and against me, and then in the spring we’ll bring you back and you can play him again. And we’ll repeat that process until you beat him.”
“How can you be sure that he will even be there when we come back?” That’s his mother’s practicality talking.
“If not, we will find someone just as good.”
“Well… it’s still been a pretty good day.” I thought about what had happened earlier, when I’d dragged him out of the Uber after a frightening interlude in the Bronx and an hour-long Uber ride then told him to immediately start driving a very expensive and thoroughly unfamiliar miniature Ferrari replica. I thought about how I grew up, mostly unattended and ignorantly free to waste months pursuing hobbies or diversions, a benign process that produced either rot or fermentation depending on how you view it, alone with thousands of books and no better options than to read them all.
Then I considered the occasionally blistering pace of changes and challenges that I give John. It doesn’t seem that I’m doing any better than my parents did. I’m just making different mistakes. It’s a elliptical orbit, an approach to parenting that swings through generations from distant disinterest to perihelic presence. And sometimes it feels like I’m running out of time, that John will reach maturity without having received the proper stimuli or having been exposed to the seed which would have catalyzed his own particular path towards incandescent brilliance.
we can’t return we can only look
behind from where we came
and go round and round and
round in the circle game
Still. I hope the game in Washington Square Park taught John the difference between raw intellect and focused effort, between arrogance and confidence. It was five dollars well spent. Even if it was his money all along. Now it is his to win back.