Jan 4, 2007

The Patsy in Me

I take gorgeous pictures of my children. I zoom in really close, and am as happy to capture tears and screwed up faces as I am smiles. They are Brooklyn babies and I celebrate that in every roll. I click away while they cavort on playground equipment in front of brownstones. They pose for me in front of graffiti-streaked walls, with faces stained red from the Italian ices the man with the horn sells in the park. I have the pictures developed at a professional place where the people know my name and print my pictures with great skill and attention. You can’t always see the tops of their heads but you can always see what they were feeling. I take pictures in triplicate, of everything they do.

It may seem odd, then, that I had been harboring the seedy fantasy of taking my special subjects to one of those mall portrait studios. The thought of someone plopping them down on a carpeted countertop in front of a blue mottled background and yanking a gorgeous portrait out of them actually excited me. The thought of a regular portrait of the two of them--one with a hand on the other’s shoulder, perhaps? both with far away looks?--thrilled me. But we live in a hip, progressive community--proud of art and individuality--so I learned to keep this trashy temptation to myself.

Then one day at playgroup I got a vibe from my new mom-friend Kate. We were comparing secret obsessions with sordid suburban stuff like wall-to-wall carpeting and free parking lots and my lurid longing just leaked out. Kate confessed to having had her own curiosity about the suburban ritual of the wallet picture. Thrilled almost to tears, we patched together a plan.

Several weeks later, awash in guilty giggles, Kate and I plucked our four children from the playground, scrubbed their faces with slobbered-on mom thumbs, dressed them in coordinated outfits, and nudged over the Brooklyn Bridge and through the Holland tunnel into a New Jersey mall to realize our dreams. Our husbands, busy at their artsy jobs in Manhattan, had no idea where we were or what we were about to do to their children.

We were two rivers and twenty-seven minutes from Brooklyn but we may as well have traveled to another country.
Air conditioning flash-cooled my skin; muzak-versions of my prom songs set off tiny bells of memory in my brain that conflicted with the bonging gongs of motherhood; oddly lit store fronts boasting racks of rayon things I could live without beckoned me with red SALE signs.

We stumbled upon the store by accident--having been misled by the color-coded system on the You are Here! map at the mall entrance (Brooklyn is not color-coded). I was disoriented and nervous, but hopeful that something magical was about to happen. Finally! A gorgeous portrait of my kids that would require no exhausting work. Finally! A regular picture of the two of them together, beaming in unison. The pictures I take are candid close-ups. These would be centered, full-bodied traditional poses. Pictures my mom’s friends would appreciate.

In the seventeen minutes it took us to fill out the financial forms our children were plopping themselves down adorably all over a giant baseball mitt on an enormous sheet of Barney-colored paper that was suspended in the air at one end. They were giggling and holding each other and climbing on things and looking sweetly over their shoulders. I was encouraged. Our credit cards were swiped for the sitting fees, and it was time to get started. I was given the option of staying on the purple paper with Tina the photographer-slash-friendly cashier, or following a grubby hallway to another studio with an as-yet unseen alternate photographer. I chose not to trade our store-front spot and clean-cut teenager for who and what were behind Door #2, so Kate and her children were whisked into the back for their session. My kids and I awaited instruction. We were ready for the magic to begin.

Thinking that I wouldn’t have to be involved, I’d brought along a couple of magazines. I assumed that Tina--our teen photographer--was hired for her ability to pull magic from my young children. I assumed wrong. Following Tina’s orders, I spent the entire session millimeters out of camera range, on my knees, begging and pleading and bribing and smiling and talking in a falsetto ‘standing still can be FUN’ kind of clown-voice to my unimpressed toddlers. The film wasn't even in the camera yet and I was exhausted.

In the first pose, three-year old Amos refused to sit on the turqoise bean bag. After minutes of begging, we1 finally put his eleven-month-old sister on it and asked him to stand behind her. While she teetered off the edge (rocking her body to gain momentum sufficient enough to get off the damn thing) we explained to Amos that Etta would fall and be very, very hurt unless he could be a good big brother and hold her still. Snap!

One down. This was a cute pose. Neither was smiling, but Amos was taking the job of saving his sister’s life very seriously. A few more life-threatening scenarios involving cute props, a few more reasons to ask him to save her life, and we'd be done.

Wrong again. As my two precious angels waited in front of the camera, glued to their special spots on the purple paper, increasingly apathetic Tina made an awful mistake:

“If you don’t smile, I’m g-o-n-n-a have to tickle you!” she threatened.

Amos’s bemused non-smile collapsed into a frown. Etta started to make whiny puppy noises and looked at me nervously. It wasn't a hollow threat. A young man with spiky white hair appeared from the back and started to poke at my children with a long stick. Sure, it had a rainbow striped poof on the tip of it, but it was still a weapon and it was weilded by a strange man saying “tickle tickle tickle tickle tickle!”

Amos bolted from his spot and grabbed my leg, Etta started rocking faster and propelled herself off of the squishy sack.

Tina looked at me, disappointed. She reminded me that she’d only taken one picture. I tried not to worry that my kids were letting her down-- but the Patsy Ramsey inside of me knew that my children had failed her and disapproved of the little free-spirited rascals.

While we regrouped, my daughter took her first ever really good steps--but she took them away from the little set, off towards the tumbled mass of cables and extension cords. In an effort to show Tina that I was on her side (and not, God forbid, on that of my children), I made a big deal about being annoyed by this. Even though I was recording these steps in the baby book in my brain, out loud I was saying things like “wouldn’t you know, she’s never walked before and now she’s walking away!” I made heavy sighing noises to prove my disapproval.

After trying and failing with some new props (Amos wanted the wagon, Etta wandered away, Amos didn’t want the wagon, Etta wandered away), Tina conjoured up a wooden ice cream parlour type of chair. She turned its back to the camera and ordered me to ‘lock’ Etta’s legs between the rungs. I snapped into action. I stuffed Etta's doughy thighs down into those spaces and helped Amos straddle the chair behind her. I took a step back and...(aha! Here’s the magic, I thought)... Etta grabbed two rungs and poked her head through the bars and gave Tina a full and glistening beam. Amos cocked his head and looked at the camera soberly, in an adorably un-self-conscious turn-of-the-century-paper-boy/tough-kid kind of look.

I was imploding with anxiety. I tiptoed away until I was curled into a ball on the floor by the register, chanting "take-it take-it take-it take-it take-it" with my fists scrunched up next to my temples. I was peeking out of one squinty eye--the other just couldn’t handle the suspense. Kate--finished in the back room and spectating with her two kids--cheered from the sidelines “quick quick quick quick quick!” Tina took her time adjusting the camera, and then--as we chanted and winced because the pose was just too perfect--she put her hand up in the air and said “look up here, and smile...smile...smile...Amos, woo-hoo, look up and smile...smile...smile...” (take it take it take it take it take it quick quick quick quick quick)....

It never happened. Etta and Amos continued to beam and glower while Tina waited for a smile and my fingernails made sharp dents in my palms. And then they had had enough. Amos backed off the chair, Etta started rocking...it was over. The moment had gone. I wouldn’t survive another pose.

Tina let me know that she hadn’t taken the required number of pictures, but that she didn’t think we would get any more. Kate and I packed up the kids and took them to the food court and then to the Disney store. Despite my inner Patsy’s disappointment with the way he’d behaved, I bought Amos everything he wanted. He had batter and ketchup for lunch, and Buzz Lightyear and the Emperor Zurg for dessert.

We returned to the portrait studio an hour later and Tina arranged us at a table so that we could peruse our packages of portraits. The children frolicked lovingly and adorably on the props on the Barney paper. The portraits were packaged in black folders that served as frames for the 8x10 glossy of each pose, but that held all of the already-printed sizes as well. Behind each 8x10, there were four 5x7s, and a dozen or so ‘wallet size’ portraits. The paperwork we’d signed promised us six poses from which to choose. Kate was handed seven packets, I was handed four. I couldn’t complain since my kids had so clearly let Tina down. Only one of my packets was passable (despite the sheared-off tippy-top of Amos’s head) so my decision was easy. I only had to spend another thirty-seven dollars to get to keep this so-so pose. Kate’s hell was just beginning.

Lola and Eli had posed beautifully--beaming sunflower faces shone from inside wagons, from atop alphabet mats, from underneath piles of yellow fabric held aloft in happy hands. After trying to multiply thirty seven dollars by three and then by four (no easy task) Kate realized she would go broke buying all of the poses; eventually she settled on two of them. I tried to keep quiet about the fate of the unpicked packets but I felt that someone had to speak for them. I asked the spiky guy what time they took the trash out--I thought maybe he’d sneak us the doomed portraits. He didn’t pick up the hint. Kate just wanted to leave.

Our husbands weren’t nearly as excited about the fruit of our surprise outing as we’d pretended to think they would be. My mom’s friends weren’t as impressed by the resulting picture as I’d pretended to want them to be. In it, Amos just looks wistful and stunned and Etta looks earnest and confused. But he is saving her life so it’s a noble shot. Heroic two year old brother and damsel in pink dress.

In some strange way, and despite what Patsy thinks, I thank my kids for their performance. They proved to me that I do take the best pictures of them. Somewhere in a dumpster in New Jersey there is a stack of lousy pictures of my kids. I can live with that. But somewhere in a dumpster in New Jersey there is a stack of amazing 8x10 glossy photos plus wallets of Kate’s kids. I don’t know how she sleeps at night.

My hunger for the portrait studio experience has been satiated. Things in Brooklyn are back to normal. And I can go back to feeling slightly superior about the character-filled riches that my city has to offer. Except, of course, when my friends from the ‘burbs send me the wallet-sized shots of their kids--sometimes three smiling babies in the same shot--and I wonder why I am the mom who has children who are afraid of a rainbow poof on a stick. And I wonder what the teen photographers in the malls in their towns know that our Tina didn’t know. And I wonder sometimes--and the Patsy in me gets really excited when I do--if we should do it again next year.

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