Jan 5, 2007

A Rat in the Kitchen

Today was a rare start-to-finish day with all three kids. A hot summer in Brooklyn and no car to make a wild escape to some air-conditioned mall. We spent the morning in the playground, the middle of the day trying for a combination of downtime (baby’s nap, mommy’s attempts at thumbing through some magazines, half-hearted lunch--”sorry kiddo no white bread, will you just eat a bowl of yogurt?”), and the late afternoon helping some friends run a lemonade/cookie/art stand from their stoop on the other side of the neighborhood.

On any other day, this late afternoon plan would have morphed into a dinner with this family, but today it wasn’t possible. That mom needed some quiet time to accomplish some things, and feeding my brood of three in addition to her two wasn’t going to work for her, not this evening.

So we packed it in and aimed for home--about 14 blocks away. My five year old daughter was distraught at the defeat of eating dinner with only family members. I was a bit distraught too as it wasn’t going to be much of a picnic once we got home. Or rather it was going to be just that--a picnic. We were in the midst of a kitchen renovation, a fine dusting of plaster covered all of our utensils, and we’d be forced to eat in the living room--something that was making me increasingly squeamish now that the end-of-July ants had found us again. The baby had just begun to demand to feed herself. Somehow globs of yogurt and macaroni on the kitchen floor is easier to stomach than the same concoction smushed into the oriental rugs in the living room.

Plus, more in-home time with my older two was just more time for them to fight--awful, tearful, whine-filled, transparent (she hates tv but won’t let him watch his show) types of fights. Away from home there was a subtle us-against-them-feeling that always banded the two together. In our house the only ‘them’ available was each other. I’d considered following a friend’s technique and becoming such a frighteningly mean and irrational parent that I would be the convenient enemy and the two of them would be locked together as allies--Flowers-in-the-Attic-like--for the rest of their life. But I’m too much of a people-pleaser (ask my therapist) for this technique to last longer than the occasional heated moment, so that tactic was out of the question.

Twelve blocks from home, and no more excited about getting there so far ahead of bedtime than I had been two blocks earlier, I was growing sympathetic to my daughter’s despair--”can’t you call someone to see if they can have dinner with us?” she begged. But even with our special circumstances, this was tricky territory at 6:15. I still had some dignity to hold on to and calling around looking for dinner plans was probably going to interrupt several meals, and make me feel like a loser which is one thing when you’re alone, and another thing when three sets of hungry eyes are dependent on the outcome of these calls (and keeping track of them out loud just to be helpful--’and Henry’s mom said no, and Jaden’s mom said no, and Lola’s mom said no...’). When you’re looking for company and you’re alone you don’t have to be honest with yourself about how many rejections you’ve had. Besides, the thought that some perfect Norman Rockwell feast (surely that was the scene being played out in all of the kitchens around us) was being interrupted by a ringing phone, and that I would be at the other end with the pitiful combination of cell-phone-crackling-and-street-noise looking for some action made me cringe.

Three and a half blocks into our journey we came across a lively new addition to the neighborhood. A Cuban restaurant with a huge courtyard. An enormous expanse of lime green concrete surrounded by lime green spray-painted fencing filled with unbreakable furniture and garden swings. I did the math and realized that my three kids--aged 18 months to 6-and-three-quarters would blend in and practically disappear among the loud music and foliage. I aimed the stroller that way and seethed a warning to the kids (aimed mostly at my 5 year old)--’if anyone fights or complains or whines one bit I will know that doing something fun like selling lemonade and cookies makes you too tired and cranky and we won’t ever do anything fun ever again.’ Turns out one of the beautiful parts of having all of them out in public is that I can make these nasty threats in a sort of breathy hiss and they have to keep alive the possibility that I’ll make good on them. When they’re out of their comfort zone and I’m making these types of noises--linking their bad behavior to some really wonderful activity--they’re usually just terrified enough to behave beautifully. Even as I’m doing this I’m wondering how they’ll portray me in stories they tell when they’re older--oh sure she always seemed so nice to everyone else but under her breath she was a snake.

Once we hit the edge of the courtyard we were in paradise. My baby penguin-walked up to a sturdy picnic table and began to climb onto the bench. My older two ran to the batman ride-on car and circled it, checking it out like miniature mechanics.

“Can we...?” my son started gesturing towards the car enthusiastically. The version of ‘no’ I use for occasions like this is to indicate that I don’t have any quarters, accompanied by a bewildered look suggesting that I probably wouldn’t be able to get quarters (even if I really wanted to) any time soon.

But as I was preparing to respond, he plucked a quarter out of his pocket--heavy with his share of the afternoon’s lemonade/cookie/art earnings. This was a delightful new development. I nodded a ‘go ahead,’ he hunched over to study the coin slot, and seconds later he was shimmying back and forth to the Batman theme.

A kid in a Batman mask zigzagged up to the car and I watched as my two children (who moments earlier had been preparing to argue over who should go first) bristle together--intuitively preparing to join forces against the stranger who, in costume alone, threatened their places in the Batmobile deservedness category.

As the baby ran off to join the tussle at the batcave, I studied the menu and surveyed the yard. A trendy (that means super-skinny) bald woman in an Orange Crush tee shirt was overseeing the installation of a fountain a few paces away from my table. Some raucous groups of trendy (more super-skinny) people laughed heartily along the fence. A heavy-set woman in a loud patterned shirt sat fanning herself. An enormous camera hung from her neck. A family of four sat in the shade with their dinner. Several adorable busboys husked corn near the open-air kitchen. The cook wore a bandana--Hell’s Angel-tight and down to his eyebrows--and moved swiftly above all the action, flipping burgers, and preparing plates.

The Batmobile/stoop-sale-earnings combination occupied the kids until their food came, and the food was great. Undeniably kid-friendly fare--corn on the cob, hot-dogs, bubbly orange drinks...delicious. All that and a big fat rat.

The heavy woman with the aloha shirt jumped up and started to shout--’Over there! Over there!’ pointing to the wall near a porch swing. No one looked where she was pointing because her multicolored bouncingness was such a spectacle in itself. But then a loud clattering noise came from the wall she was pointing to and all heads moved to find the busboys and the cook slamming shovels on the ground, all bent over and determined like hockey players.

The rat scurried away from the shovel-slammers, and raced along the wall. Disappearing under the free-standing kitchen truck which, until it became shelter for the rat, had seemed like such a cute idea. The bouncing lady with the camera turned out to be a reporter from the New York Times. She bounced up onto a picnic bench, and didn’t come back down again--using the height to take even better photos of the action.

My kids and I pulled our feet up to crossed-legged positions and continued to eat. The rat led the restaurant crew all over the edge of the patio. Shovels smashed down on concrete all around it, but never made contact--which I was happy about, since I’m a very squeamish carnivore and would not have been able to finish my chicken dinner if fresh animal blood and flesh were splattered nearby.

The fountain lady came over to us and cozied up on our bench, leaning in to us conspiratorially. She didn’t seem flummoxed by the rat or by the crazed cooking crew, or by the fact that this might all end up being mentioned, with pictures, in the New York Times.

“The rat came from the subway station over there,” she said calmly, nodding towards Lafayette. I smiled like I understood, like ‘of course there’s a rat in your restaurant and of course it came from the subway and of course it’s just no big deal.’ Did being her confidante make me trendy too?

Eventually the rat proved her right, and disappeared down the subway steps. The cartoon trail of weapon-weilding white-wearing workers screeched to a halt--keystone-cop-style. They shrugged at each other, and went back to their jobs.

The kids and I floated home, lighter than air, thrilled (really) about our new neighborhood eatery. We call it ‘the restaurant with the rat’ (without irony) and aim for it often. The kids said it was like watching an adventure movie during dinner. I thought it was like a comedy. And no one thought it was much of a tragedy.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

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