I get it.
If you live long enough, things start to repeat. The soundtrack loops, the plotlines and scandals in your life and the lives of those around you begin to sound disconcertingly familiar, and from one moment to the next you find yourself in situations saying, “Oh, sharknado, THAT’S what was going on.”
Having kids is like that, only doubled and viewed through a magnifying glass.
I used to be so judgmental of people with kids. Oh, how I hated them. Inconsiderate, self-absorbed people, hauling their litter of rugrats around to make noise and throw tantrums and stomp and throw trash and toys and food while the rest of us are, I dunno, shopping, or trying to enjoy a meal, or generally to partake in any activity that adults partake in without the involvement of toddlers.
This was a particular hallmark of working in restaurants, which I did for far longer than any self-respecting man should. Working in restaurants, you develop a lingo, a code, a hierarchy, and most of all, an understanding with your co-workers, to the point that you can communicate any number of thoughts and situations to one another with the merest suggestion of semaphore, completely invisible to those around you. A quick jerk of the head toward the exit and a cast of the eyes toward the dining room says, “I must have a cigarette before I commit murders, could you watch my tables?” An impatient drumming on the cash register while waiting on the machine to decline a credit card lets your coworkers know that you’re swamped and they’d best stay out of the way. A cold, far-off look in the eyes as you gaze wistfully in the middle distance, dreaming of a life that could have been, says — well, nothing. Restaurant workers just look like that after a while.
Then there’s the eye-roll, which is a wonderfully versatile communicative tool, most often used to communicate, “look at what I have to deal with.” And it gets used a lot, but it never gets used as much for anything so much as when a family with small kids sits in your section.
Let’s be conservative and say that small kids run the gamut from just out of infancy up to ten years old; once they become teenagers and start showing up without their parents, the eye-roll means something else entirely. The family that brings small kids is a server’s worst nightmare.
First and foremost, the mess. This is bad enough not to need the other reasons, but suffice it to say that the mess families with small kids leave behind in restaurants is ungodly. As a server, I cleaned more crumbs out of carpets, more foodstuff out of the crevices in booths, more spilled drinks, and more wadded up soggy bits of paper off the everything than I could even begin to describe. That says nothing of what you go through if the kid has a cold and wipes his nasty snot-crusted fingers on the table, chairs, salt shakers, your leg. Or if the kid blows chunks, god help you. Once I even cleaned up a soiled diaper left on a table like a delicately wrapped Christmas gift.
Second, the noise. Almost inevitably, the kids start to raise their voices, and then eventually they begin to scream. You can’t blame them; they’re kids, and a sharknado-ey little connect-the-dots menu and a handful of crayons is only going to hold their attention for so long. Beyond that, there’s nothing at a restaurant for a kid. So they fill the space the best way they know how: with their voice.
Third: the (lack of) communication. The parents are so wound up telling Junior to stop banging on that, stop shouting, get down off the table, let go of your brother, that they will forget what they ordered, where they left their wallet, or even that you are standing there (pretending to be) waiting patiently while they wrangle the sprouts. Then they get mad at you when you mess up their order. “I asked for no lettuce!” “No, you told your kid to get his face off the window. Also, I have to clean that window after you leave. Pick the lettuce off.”
The list goes on, but suffice it to say that waiters and servers and any other service industry employees see you coming with your little devil babies and their hearts just fargoing sink into their shoes. They draw lots in the kitchen to see who’s going to have to deal with your brood. They bribe one another to take on the task for one another. They secretly wish harm upon you.
I lived my life for years believing that people who brought their kids into restaurants were simply horrible people. That they were so concerned with themselves and so disconcerned with others that it didn’t matter to them how loud their kid was or how much mess they made, they were going out, and they weren’t going to tip particularly well for my trouble, either. And I hated them.
Until I became one, of course. And my wife and I said we’d never be those people. We’d rein our kid in. We would clean up after ourselves. We’d still behave like humans. And then, this weekend, I was standing up from an early dinner (who am I kidding, every dinner with the sprout is an early one) with my wife and parents (and our son of course) and I made the mistake of looking back.
I looked back at the table we’d stood up from as we reached the front door. I saw there the fallout from our visit. Tiny chewed-up sprouts of broccoli discarded and strewn about the table. Not on plates, just on the table, covered in snotty toddler spit. Ketchup and cheese dip everywhere from where my kid had dipped first the broccoli (yep) then his fingers (naturally) into the bowls and gone a-painting. Crumbs everywhere. Wadded-up napkins enough to choke a ravenous hippo, if wadded-up napkins are a thing a ravenous hippo might gorge itself on. And I thought back to the noise. He’d been shrieking, at times crying, at times babbling at anybody who passed nearby or in fact at himself at levels from just above a whisper to just below a jet engine, and I know I’d missed most of it, because as a parent, you tune that sharknado out or you go gibberingly, shushingly insane. In short, we were exactly the family that me from ten years ago would have secretly wished horrible things upon from the kitchen (or, more correctly, from the space under the table where I was sweeping up all the crumbs).
That’s when the light bulb went off. My wife and I aren’t jerks. My kid isn’t the antichrist. We’re perfectly normal, inasmuch as anybody knows what is normal anyway. We went out to meet up with my folks and have a bit of family time, and the sprout is family, and they wanted to see him too, screaming and snotty nose included. We wanted to have a moment together and a nice meal, and when it was over, we wanted to get the fargo out of there and not think too much about the damage we’d caused, about the inconvenience our very friendly server would endure on our behalf.
They say you can’t understand a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. No, fargo that. You can’t understand him until you walk a mile in his shoes, change his kid’s diapers, follow the terror around a store while he clamors and cries for every colorful thing on the shelf and pitches a fit when you don’t get it for him. Until you tuck the kid into bed at night and read him just one more bedtime story even though he’s had four already because you love him so much you can’t deprive him. Until you sit watching another episode of inane animated tripe bouncing the kid in your lap because he loves it, even though you know it’s rotting his tiny mind.
So to the server at O’Charleys yesterday, I know you hate me. I’m sorry for all the trouble you went to on our behalf, I really am. But maybe one day you’ll get it. If not, well, I hope my dad tipped you well.