Friday, September 30, 2011

Road Test

I was about 17, when I went to my first concert. I was with a bunch of friends and we drove what seemed like a million miles from suburban New Jersey to the Nassau Coliseum to see Jethro Tull. There were maybe eight of us and we situated ourselves inside of a flower delivery van that one of the kids drove for his job. There were no seats in the back of the van, just hard corrugated metal and errant Baby’s Breath. The drive was long. It was raining. And I remember that bumpy, endless trip as being not only one of the first times I felt really grown up, but also my first introduction to that particularly unpleasant trifecta of physical conditions: hungry, cold, and wet.

Fast forward to last Friday, where I find myself in a similar state, although this time I am not in the back of a cold, steel flower truck, but rather in the driver’s seat of a friend’s Honda Civic, parked at the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, trying to kill time with my now-17-year-old while we wait for an hour for the MVC Gal to emerge from the small concrete building beside us and take my son for his road test.

I am wet because it’s pouring. The conditions couldn’t be worse for driving except maybe if it were a blizzard. We’ve borrowed my friend’s car because you need a hand brake between the two front seats in order to take the test and my car has an emergency brake accessible only by foot. There is no back wiper on this car and it’s raining so hard you can’t see out the rear window. “Am I going to be able to parallel park?” my son muses. “You’ll do the best you can,” I say.

I’m cold because I’m not dressed appropriately. The tee shirt I have on is too light and the denim jacket I brought is not warm. We blast the heat but it’s barely addressing the problem, because my jeans are soaked from ankle to thigh due to my myriad sprints from the small concrete building to the big concrete building along with my hemispheric jogs around the car from passenger to driver’s side and back.

These sprints and jogs are the result of my major shortcoming in life: I am plan-impaired. I tried to overcome my handicap for this particular excursion, but I failed.

My first mistake was not paying a driving instructor the $100 fee to just pick my son up from school, bring him for his license, and then deliver him back home again. When they told me $100, I thought it was outlandish. Highway robbery, if you will. And I resolved to find a car with an appropriately positioned break and do it myself.

Finding the car took two minutes. My friend was happy to oblige. I also prided myself on taking my son’s Learner’s Permit out of my glove box and sticking it in my wallet, as I suspected he might need it and wouldn’t I feel terrible if we’d gone all that way only to find his paperwork was left in the wrong car?

I was also proud of myself for researching what documents were needed to obtain an initial license. I was surprised to find that the Six Points Of Identification were required for 17-year-olds, although I don’t know why I should have been. No matter. I had plenty of time to fish out his birth certificate and Social Security card, get a school report card the bore his address along with a school ID card. I even called the school to say I was signing him out for the day and the secretary armed me with a letter verifying his enrollment. “Sometimes they ask for this,” she said.

I retrieved him from school, stopped at the deli so he could get a bacon-laden snack, and we headed off. We waited our turn in line and it wasn’t until we had pulled right up to the Road Test Stop Sign that I could read the instructions underneath: Please have your Registration and Insurance ready.

I knew right away they did not want my registration and insurance; they wanted the ones that went with my friend’s car. This was the one stone I’d left unturned.

In a somewhat miraculous turn of events, my friend had just yesterday put her registration card into her glove box, a habit that I never subscribe to (and, I guess, neither did she). However her insurance card remained with her.

The MVC Gal was about to make us reschedule, but then she said my friend could have her insurance company fax a letter (to the big concrete building) and I could pick it up and bring it to her (in the small concrete building) and once that happened, my son could take his road test.

When I picked up the fax, I did not stop at the vending machine to get myself a snack because it was 11:50 and I was trying to get back to the small concrete building before noon, which is when the MVC Gal takes lunch. Miracle Number Two was that, in spite of out-the-door lines and stolid bureaucracy, I actually had the fax in my hands exactly four minutes after I called my friend to arrange it. However, by the time I reached the small concrete building again, it was 11:56 and the MVC Gal had already reheated last night’s General Tsao’s Chicken and sidled up to the folding table. I watched her tuck her napkin into her collar as she gave me an almost authentic look of regret.

“Come back at 1:00,” she said.

I was afraid to leave our spot in line, so we stayed put while she had her lunch inside the warm, little concrete building and I ate the only thing I’d taken with me from home: Trident gum.

Once she showed up, the rest went pretty smoothly. My son made only one mistake (put your blinker on for a K-turn) and I committed a few social faux pas, but two hours later, we walked back out into the rain, license in hand, and I snatched my rattling last breaths (with deep-sea-diver sound) as I watched my baby’s world expand in vastness before my eyes.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


(A slightly modified, pg-13 version of article appears on Patch today with the subhead: I’m no longer an Accents With Flowers virgin. This is the original, R-Rated director's cut.)

There’s a store on Church Street that I’ve never been in. By all accounts it looks like a florist. This is mainly because the sidewalk in front of the store has been filled with plants, planters, birdbaths and various other things you might find in front of a flower shop. Also, it has the word “flowers” in its name. I was stalking a new friend the other day and saw her slip in there, so, despite not needing flowers, I decided to follow.

The entryway of the store is filled with little gifty things – indeed, the type of thing you might find in a flower shop. There were a few racks of greeting cards and within the glass counter was a display of fancy chocolates. “Oh, you can get candy and flowers here,” I thought, filing the information away as if I were a Gatsby-era suitor rather than an eating-disordered matron.

I presented myself to my new friend and she was appropriately startled to see me. We’d just had lunch on Church Street the day before and something felt peculiar about seeing her here, exactly 24 hours later.

“Do you come here often?” she said, meaning to the store.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in here in my life,” I said.

“I love this store,” she said, and then just to make sure I understood, “I really love it.”

I glanced around once again and noticed a few odd accoutrements on the display table to my left. There were several small glass vials with cinnamon-infused oil that didn’t seem to “go” with the rest of the display.

“Everything in here is so random!” she said with unmistakable giddiness, and once she pointed it out, it was as if the store transformed into some kind of secret treasure before my very eyes.

Yes, there was a refrigerator full of cut flowers, and yes, there was a glass case of decorated chocolates, but there were also lamps and throw pillows and candles and clothes. In fact, it felt a little like someone had taken American Sampler, Dobbs and Copabananas and smushed them all together into one big eye-candy extravaganza.

I wandered into the adjoining room. Sleepwear, jewelry, handbags, tea sets, linens, kitchenware. Shelves of items that celebrate dogs and cats, including Christmas ornaments hanging on a near-bare tree. Art, books, mirrors, change purses. Blackberry jam. Barack Obama toilet paper.

The actual display layouts are as fascinating as what’s displayed. There was a table with a smattering of novelty g-strings, a journal-type book in which you could record your thoughts about parenting, and then a small stack of Bubba’s Butt Soap. Of course, I was instantly drawn to the Butt Soap. On the back of it, the directions provided simple instruction: “Insert soap bar into crack and move up and down a few times, rinse and repeat ‘til clean.” I tried to imagine that type of package copy being approved in a Proctor and Gamble brand meeting, but faltered.

“I could stay in here all day,” my friend said as she gathered up her purchases and left.

Me, too, I thought, as I went on to discover the Baby Section, the Candy Cane Section, the Naughty Section, the Other Naughty Section and then quietly tried to imagine what it would have been like to actually live in a house decorated in chintz and fringed lamps that look like they should be in a bordello, which is just where I was headed, years ago, before my husband steered me to Stickley.

Eventually, sensory overload set in and I stepped out of nirvana and back into my life. “You can get flowers and butt soap here,” I said to myself as I left – making a mental note of all the upcoming occasions where either – or both – might come in handy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Breakfast Conversation With The 12-Year-Old

HIM: Does it cost money for the bike store to take something off your bike?
ME: I don't know, I guess it depends what it is. Maybe we could just take it off here.
HIM: Ok.
HIM: Can I tell you what I want to take off?
ME: Sure.
HIM: The brakes.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Welcome to Middle School, May I Please Take Your Sanity?

My youngest went off to a new school last week and the preparation made me sigh. My preparation. For revisiting that strange planet called Middle School with its unique brand of intrigue.

Not so long ago, The Teenager introduced me to the finer points of Middle School during a shopping expedition and I remember thinking, Lewis Carroll, step aside.

We were off to buy sneakers, a once simple activity that had suddenly become highly complicated. He’d asked me to take him for weeks, and I’d put him off. He already had a pair of sneakers, and I didn’t understand why he needed another one. Finally, I relented.

As we got into the car he asked if we could pick up one of his friends (I’ll call him James Dean). Then, thirty seconds after we arrived at the store, another friend sauntered in. I’ll call him James Dean’s Cousin. James Dean and my son both acted like it was a huge coincidence that James Dean’s Cousin had just shown up.

“Are these two here for a fashion consult?” I asked my son, marveling that teenage boys would want to shop together.

“They have to make sure they’re real,” he said.

I walked gingerly up to a pair of sneakers perched regally atop a Lucite pedestal. I gave them a little poke. They seemed real enough.

“I don’t think this store is going to sell counterfeit sneakers,” I said. Three pair of eyes rolled.

We were not shopping in a bona fide sneaker store. It was a skate store: skate shoes, skateboards and skate clothing. There was an element of “cool” to the store that seemed to make James Dean feel right at home. Another friend bounded into the store out of breath. This boy lived over a mile away, but it appeared that he had run over quickly in order to partake in the activities.

James Dean gave the okay to a pair of green on green, leather and suede high tops. “I like those,” my son said. “But I can’t get them.”

“Why not?” I asked.

He explained that another friend already had those sneakers.

“How about these?” I asked, picking up a pair of multicolored Nikes with a gold Swoosh.

“Taken,” he said.

“By whom?”

The same kid: Marlon Brando. Brando evidently had the green ones, the gold swooshes and six other pair. The boys all agreed: You can’t get the same shoes as someone else. They told me a story about a reasonably popular kid who showed up at school with the same shoes as another boy and was instantly branded a “biter.”

I used context clues to determine that a Biter is a middle-school version of a Copy Cat.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But if a kid has eight pair of sneakers, he’s not allowed to say that no one else can have the same sneakers as he does.”

The boys all shook their heads, pitying me my cluelessness.

I made an eye-contact appeal to the store clerk. A look that said, Even though I’ve been an adult since before you were born, we still have in common that we are no longer in middle school. So can you please help me out here?

The clerk caught on right away. “My friends and I wear the same shoes all the time,” he said to the boys.

This idea so repulsed James Dean and James Dean’s Cousin that they just up and left, muttering something about looking at sneakers in another store down the street.

The store clerk went on, “That kid with eight pair of sneakers needs to get a life. He’s in here every day!”

This had the exact opposite effect on my son as I had hoped. His eyes lit up and I could already see his little brain working hard trying to figure out how he might organize his life to be in this store every day; how he, too, could own eight pair of sneakers. How, perhaps, if he did own eight pair of sneakers, middle school would not feel like such a mystery planet after all.

I launched into my speech: “I don’t understand. People sell fake sneakers? You can’t have the same as anyone else? There are only so many designs! How can everyone have a unique pair of sneakers?”

These are the types of questions that get asked just prior to your innocence being peeled away. Questions that usher you from that blissful land called ignorance and into the mayhem called middle school. It happens gently and quietly and, if you’re lucky, privately. With any luck, you’ll be wearing the right shoes for the trip.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Lovely Rita

I was almost late for an Emergency Coffee Date today because I was having A Moment with the meter maid. I’d put my quarter in and nothing happened and while I was cursing, I saw her walking to her car. I yelled, “Excuse me,” in that voice I reserve for people at whom I’m about to launch a hissy fit – although she didn’t know me, so she was unaware that my usual voice is not so shrill.

“I just put money in the meter,” I called over to her, “and it didn’t give me any time.”

She started toward me. “This happens all the time,” I added in a voice you could tell was exasperated whether you knew me or not.

“Is it jammed?” she asked. By this time we were both at the meter in question and she could see for herself that it wasn’t. “You can just leave your car here,” she said, and then she called me sweetheart, as if she were my grandmother and not an Hispanic woman 15 years my junior. “I won’t give you a ticket when the screen is blank like that.”

This certainly took some of the fight out of me and I realized that I was not going to be able to take out my crappy day on this particular civil servant. She gave me a sweet smile and told me I should go off and do my errands; my car would be fine.

“Do you want another quarter?” I asked, holding out the second coin I would have fed into the meter.

“No, sweetheart, you just have a good day,” she said.

I started thanking her effusively – too effusively, perhaps – and then I started to apologize. I told her I was having a crappy day and I didn’t mean to take out my bad mood on her or her parking meters. I had been apologizing for things all day already – a misunderstanding I’d creating in a hasty email exchange this morning, all the awful shots I made during my tennis game – and felt there was far more to apologize for. For not being the woman who lost her husband to a brain aneurysm or the mother who had to treat her child’s newly diagnosed leukemia, as was the case with two old friends this week. For acting petty and small with my family to cover up the fact that I’m feeling really vulnerable and scared about money and new schools and impending college searches. And soon, to my Coffee Date, for being late because I’m having A Moment with the meter maid.

I thought the meter maid was going to smile again and be on her way, but instead she stood right in front of me and said, “Sweetheart, sometimes we all have days like that.” Then she told me about her mother who had Stage 4 cancer and another family friend who just lost her 12-year-old in a car accident. I was still stressing out about being late for Coffee, so I had to re-play what she’d just said to me before it sunk in. For a brief moment, I stopped thinking about myself and I looked at the meter maid. She was dressed like a cop and had a beautiful French manicure. She looked like she had a little gem pierced into her face – it was tiny. Maybe it was just a mole. And her eyes were dark and sparkly; she looked right at me when she spoke.

“I’m telling you all this because we always need to remember that no matter how bad our problems are, they could be much worse,” she said, and then repeated one of my favorite little axioms about how people, when invited to drop their problems into a well and pick anyone else’s problems to take home with them instead, all invariably choose to take back their own.

I then hugged the meter maid and let her go back to her work. And I went in to meet my Coffee Date and ended up having the most delicious cup of coffee I can ever remember.