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Return to lately 2014.
run that red light
september 1, 2014
The older we get, the more our childhood seems an island, moated by ocean from the lives we wind up with, as a teenager, young adult, family person, member of the community, retiree, old person shuffling around their home, wiping kitchen counters, waiting for test results.
Would the child we were be surprised by the adult we became?
Probably. Children know so little about the world. But I suspect in most cases, the child we were would happily sit on the knee of the adult we became. However, there'd be a lot of politely-phrased questions.
One way I can definitely connect with my three-foot former self is that both of us loved to call in sick. (And isn't that strange, that we not only get older, but we get bigger? Why don't we stay small? Wouldn't that make more sense?)
I didn't like going to school. The regimentation of it, the rigid grids of school desks in a classroom, having to be quiet until an upraised hand was acknowledged (and often, it wasn't.)
I never, ever discovered as much in a classroom as I learned alone, reading in my room, lost in a book, or sitting on my ass in the grass of my backyard, staring up at the slow clouds. And the food was terrible. The lunch room was in the basement, no windows, the women serving our meals hired by the parish because they couldn't get jobs anywhere else. And God bless them. But I didn't want to eat the food they prepared. There was no standard of cleanliness. Long strands of gray hair in sandwiches, like a forced flossing. Every other day, the lunch was a tuna fish sandwich, the filling stirred in a tall vat that was maybe twenty percent tuna fish, eighty percent mayonnaise. You'd bite into the bread and the white filling would waterfall out the sides.
But then I found out about snow days.
I grew up in Connecticut. Connecticut gets a lot of snow over the winter.
I remember the excitement, watching The Andy Griffith Show on our black and white TV, meteorologist cutting in during a commercial to say a Big Storm was headed our way. I'd leave the window up in my bedroom, cold, crisp air coming in through the screen's hatching, wondering if we'd get so much snow school would have to be cancelled. And I do remember, even all these decades later, my nose to the hatching, that there'd be a special, crystalline smell to the air if snow was nearing.
The next morning, first thing I'd do is throw off the blankets, barefoot to the window in my pajamas, looking down from my two story bedroom window to see what the rooflines, the ground looked like.
Sometimes, it was thick whiteness. There couldn't possibly be classes today. I'd already anticipate not having to go to school, trudging up the neighborhood's snow-covered side street, a hill, to where my friends lived, like traveling to a white Mars, to throw wet snowballs at each other. Any day you build a snowman on a front lawn is a good day.
And it would be such an exciting journey! Blue hood cinched around the top of my head, visible breath, trees heavy with snow, branches bending, sometimes to the curb. Yellow streaks in the sugar of sidewalks, from dogs and boys.
Greenwich had a system where, at seven o'clock in the cold white morning, the sirens would sound a certain number of times if all schools in town were closed that day. I'd grudgingly start getting ready for school, brushing my teeth, stacking my stupid schoolbooks, but boy was my ear cocked for that wailing sound. At seven, I was always up in my room, face to the window, breath held.
And if the siren didn't sound? The depths of despair!
But if it did sound? That wail spreading across the white burial of my hometown? A surge of extraordinary joy. I could go back to sleep! I could watch Match Game! It didn't matter I didn't finish last night's homework!
That heart's elation. To be out of the system for a day. To do what I wanted to do. Not what someone else wanted me to do.
Of course, there are only so many snow days.
But then one morning, dreading going to school, because I'd much rather stay home watching TV, eating real food instead of Catholic cafeteria food, it dawned on me.
Pretending you're sick is one of the greatest gifts we're given in life.
And it's not hard to do.
When you're still a kid, you just have to convince your mother, and that's easy. I became (as we all do), such a great little actor. Show up for breakfast, but with a lack of enthusiasm. Taking longer than normal to cross over the kitchen floor to the table. Eyes slanted up, to make sure she noticed the trudge. One word answers. Looking down a lot. Not eating much of your breakfast.
"Bobby? Are you feeling okay?"
Mother's palm on your forehead. "Do you have a stomach ache?"
That large-eyed look up at your parent, plaintive as a kitten's meow. "Could I lie down for a while?"
And once she decided to call in sick for you, that bomb burst of excitement inside, but of course you had to hide it. Go upstairs and lie in bed for half an hour, then come downstairs coughing. "Is it okay if I watch TV?"
Even better were those times when I actually was sick, and a doctor came out to our home, carrying a black bag, declaring I had the measles, or scarlet fever, the mumps. That was good for a week of staying outside the system, lying on the living room couch like Marat with a blanket over me, getting served a slice of bread soaked in milk or ginger ale.
It was the best while my mother was working, where I'd have the entire two-story house to myself, like a little adult. I remember one time when I stayed home fake sick for two days, and the first day, all alone, deciding I was going to extend my illness to two days, I made some Lipton's Beef Stroganoff for myself, then ate it out in the living room, in my pajamas, watching some weird game show where the contestants had to row to an island of merchandise in the center of a small, studio-made lake. I have no idea what the show was called, I've Googled descriptions of it but haven't been able to find it, but I would love to watch an episode of it now on YouTube, so many decades later. That day, all alone in the house, Lipton's Beef Stroganoff, game show featuring an island heaped with glittering merchandise, I felt in charge of my life.
Because once we start working, part of the adult world, we don't really feel in charge of our lives, do we? So many obligations. Rent, food, faulty electronics, children. So many heavy hands on the back of our neck. Having to say, Yes Sir to a boss. Someone we know doesn't even like us. How did that ever happen? You were a kid who could do whatever you wanted.
Which is the glory of a sick day. A sick day is a Fuck you to whomever you report to. Today, I'm not going to do what you want me to do. I'm going to do what I want to do. It's my life! Just for a sick day.
Of course, when you're an adult, deception isn't necessary with your partner. All you have to do is say, Want to stay home today? It's like saying, Wanna fool around?
I would call in for Mary; Mary would call in for me. Because, of course, we were too "sick" to call in for ourselves. "She/He was sick all night. They're sleeping now, but they keep waking up and running to the bathroom. I'm concerned."
Works like a charm.
I remember one time Mary and I woke up in the middle of the night, separately, and eventually became aware, maybe breathing patterns, that the other was awake. That's probably happened to you too, right? Us in bedroom darkness. Are you awake? Yeah. You can't sleep? No! Can you? No. So we decided to watch TV. Remote in my right hand. Bedside light on. What's showing at two o'clock in the morning? And in fact, Angels in the Outfield, starring Danny Glover. Little boys, baseball. During sunlit hours we would never choose this, but you know what? At two o'clock in the morning, it's probably the safest movie you can watch. And at some point while watching that movie, we could sense, without words spoken, like a couple can sense that they're about to have sex, that we would be calling in sick once it got light outside.
If I had to call in for myself, I had a perfect sick voice. We all know the sick voice, right? Scratchy throat, low register, interrupted by fake coughs. "Somebody sneezed in my face at the supermarket. Maybe that's how I caught it?"
And then the world is ours, again. The way it once was, the way it should have turned out, but doesn't.
You, home, freedom.
Don't get me wrong. Mary and I were conscientious workers, we cared about what we did, and in fact the quality of our work caused us to rise to the top ranks of our companies, to where we were able to retire early.
But every once in a while, it is nice to run that red light.