Friday, September 27, 2013

Question of the day

What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ruth and Jeremy

I HEAR COMMENTS SOMETIMES FROM MY CONTEMPORARIES that kids today don’t know the meaning of discipline, that there is currently an epidemic of parents spoiling their children, and so on.

While contemporary parenting probably falls short in some ways, it is worth understanding that older people have been lodging similar complaints about the supposedly easier lives of the Younger Generation since the earliest days of civilization — perhaps even before there existed lawns that kids needed to get off of — and it has always been anywhere from a wild exaggeration to complete nonsense.

About 20 years ago, I lived on the northern border of Oakland, in the Rockridge district. There was a place there called the Buttercup Café, which had food that was both pretty good and reasonably priced. I had very little money then, so I usually stopped in for a cup of soup — all I could usually afford — after work.

I was something of a regular there and got to know the waitresses pretty well. There was one waitress named Ruth, and we got to be pretty good friends, in the way waitresses and regulars sometimes do. On rainy winter nights when business was slow I would sit at the counter and we’d talk for hours about where we’d grown up and what we thought of the world.

She’d grown up hard and close to the bone, in a hardscrabble little Iron Range town somewhere in northeastern Minnesota. Her dad was a Jim Beam aficionado, and I got the sense in our conversations that his drinking was a sore subject with her. She never talked much about it, and I respected her too much to pry, but it was there in her eyes sometimes when she talked about back home.
Some people move to California for economic reasons, some for the climate. I got the sense from Ruth that Minnesota was a place from which she had fled.

We were talking one night about northern California and some of the cultural differences she’d noticed since she’d moved here from her small Midwestern town. “One thing,” she said, “is how parents treat their kids out here — they just let them run wild! No discipline at all. Back home, if you did wrong you got a beating — none of this ‘time out’ stuff.

“You’ve gotta keep kids in line. When I have kids, that’s how I’m going to raise them.”

Hearing her say that triggered an old memory. I stared out the window for a moment at the rain dripping off the awning, then turned back to her and said, “Ruth, let me tell you about Jeremy.”
When I was elementary school-aged in my old neighborhood in Richmond, I often attended a day camp run by the city in Wildcat Canyon, in the El Cerrito hills. On summer weekday mornings I would walk over to Cutting Boulevard and catch a yellow city school bus up the hill to the camp location.

Jeremy was about 7 years old, and he would always ride at the very back of the bus on the way to camp, sitting in the middle of the long bench seat so he could see everything going on in the bus during the daily ride up to Wildcat — almost as if he was afraid of missing something. He had striking eyes — light brown, inquisitive and filled with wonder. The world appeared to be endlessly fascinating to him, and he radiated a simple joy that I found very inspiring.

Each morning when I got on the bus I would look back at Jeremy — I felt a little protective of him. One day toward the end of the summer, I looked back as I boarded the bus and was immediately struck by a change in him.

He looked tired, weary, and the light in his eyes had gone out — like something important inside of him had broken.

I gave one of the counselors, a pretty blonde teenager, a look and motioned with my head toward the back of the bus. We walked back together and sat down across the aisle from each other, one row in front of Jeremy.

“What’s wrong, Jer’?” she asked.

He paused a moment, then pulled up the hem of the right leg of his short pants. On the front of his thigh was an angry purple bruise.

“What happened, Jeremy? Who did that to you?”

He looked up at us, his eyes filled with bewilderment and hurt, and said, “My daddy.”

When I finished telling this story to Ruth in the Buttercup Café, her eyes looked as if they were straining to hold back a river of tears.

“That’s … really sad,” she finally said.

“Yes, Ruth, it is.”

I moved to another town a short while later and lost touch with Ruth, but I hope she is married to a nice, sober guy — and I  hope they give their kids time outs when they misbehave.