Ryan has been working me recently to go out for dinner at Hymie’s Deli, one of our favorite spots.
I was initially agreeable to this, uh, request. Hymie’s has one of the best Reubens in North America, after all, and an amazing complimentary pickle bar.
And although there is nary a five-year old who can drain your wallet at a restaurant faster than the Woog, I love taking him out to eat. It’s quite an event.
I was about to consult with Mommy to see if a Dada-Ryan Hymie’s run worked for her and the Munch when I found out why Ryan actually wanted to go to Hymie’s.
“When we go to Hymie’s,” he informed me, “we have to get a toy out of the machine.”
Hymie’s has a wall of coin-operated machines near the front door. And no matter what they have inside of them — gumballs, trinkets, candy — coin-operated machines have mesmerized the Woog since he was a toddler.
In fact, if you absolutely need this child to occupy a certain space at a certain time, load an episode of PJ Masks or set up a coin-operated machine. He’ll stare at either like a lion watching a herd of gazelles.
“Yeah I don’t think so, Woogie. I’ve told you before we’re not getting any of that junk out of those machines.”
“But, but … you have to. Those are the rules.”
I’m condensing these conversations — or the Woog’s part of them, at any rate — mostly because they follow a uniform protocol. To wit:
First, Ryan stipulates that he’s going to get something he wants — something which, naturally, I haven’t agreed to give him (“When we go to Hymie’s …”).
It’s a move which (privately) earns my admiration for brass, for gall, for sheer bravado.
Good for you, Woogie. It’s a hard knock world. Gotta be assertive to get what you want.
But then, being a five-year old (or maybe being this five-year old; I can’t tell since thank god I’ve only got one of them) he piles on something else he wants — this time, something I’ve specifically said he cannot have.
Ryan’s going to get this second, verboten, thing because (insert made-up, adultish-sounding rationale).
I’ve held firm against these entreaties, however, for a few reasons:
First, his mother and I have become a little concerned about his recent fixation on toys.
It’s not something I could quantify, exactly. Tell most people that a five-year old really, really likes toys and you’re liable to get a blank stare. Maybe a question asking when exactly you arrived here on Planet Earth.
It’s just that Mommy and I have a sense that Ryan’s current orientation with respect to toys is something which could go sideways if some balance isn’t introduced.
Ryan has his own Amazon wish list. As an occasional reward, he’s allowed to browse toys on Amazon. He likes to add his favorites to his list. I can state unequivocally that the browser on your device would lock up before you got to the end of Ryan’s list.
Ever since some birthday or Christmas gift was delivered via Amazon, he scouts the front porch like a bird dog, on the lookout for boxes.
If he sees one, he nags me or his mother to open it, even after we explain that it’s just baby formula or diapers or 24” galvanized carriage bolts.
For a brief period, Ryan decided to help himself and would try to open the boxes without our permission or assistance, using a ten-year old pair of IKEA scissors he dug out of the junk drawer in the kitchen.
The scissors were as sharp as a tombstone, and not infrequently the boxes would look like a battered piñata by the time he was done poking and gouging them to death. We put a hard stop on that entrepreneurial activity.
Second reason is that Ryan already has closets full of toys, most of which occupied his attention for a nanosecond before they became hopelessly incidental, and frankly we’re tired of warehousing all of this crap.
We want to make space for our crap. Actually, we’re on a mission to get rid of the crap we currently have in our house, not add more crap. Especially crappy crap.
Third reason is that Jack puts everything (and I mean that literally) in his mouth.
Ryan’s pretty good about keeping choking hazards out of the living room — the Munch’s domain — but he gets excited to show his brother stuff and sometimes forgets he’s left something within reach and, well.
You get the picture.
Very recently, however, I’d had a change of heart about Ryan getting something out of the coin-operated crap machine at Hymie’s, for reasons I’ll get to.
The latest hustle occurred on Saturday. It’s late afternoon, and we’re all in the living room. The whole fam-dam. Mommy is cross-stitching (or needle-pointing, I can’t keep them straight) Jack’s Christmas stocking. I’m reading an article on fence post embedment next to a retaining wall. The boys are playing on the floor.
Suddenly, Jack lets out an outraged yawp. He can’t get one of his toys to do what he wants it to do. His intentions, it seems, outstrip his capacity.
Welcome to the party, kid.
“It’s okay, Munchie,” Ryan tells him. “You get what you get, you don’t get upset.”
This line is from the book Pinkalicious, which Ryan’s Kindergarten class recently read. It’s about a girl who eats too many pink cupcakes and turns pink as a result. When she protests that there are no more cupcakes left, her mother replies, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
Ever since his class read the book, Ryan has been running around telling us that we get what we get, etc.
Naturally, his mother and I think it’s great. Even though the book is kind of a meandering chronicle of rainy-day gluttony, it’s a favorite of parents — in part because, as a parental reply, “you get what you get, you don’t get upset” is eminently more promising than “tough shit.”
Not everyone’s down with the Pinkalicious wisdom, however. Some grinchy reviewers feel that “you get what you get, you don’t get upset” is little more than a glib-sounding version of “tough shit.” One writer for the New Yorker suggested the line is something Kim Jong Il might deliver to his subjects.
I disagree. Or, rather, it depends. I’m quite sure some parent, at some time, in some place has bellowed at their child who happens to be in the throes of a whiny pester-tantrum, “YOU GET WHAT YOU GET, YOU LITTLE BASTARD!”
But to play the believing game for a moment, the line represents for me one of the most profound, and most difficult, truths we want our kids to be able to negotiate: that in life you often don’t get what you want, you often don’t get what you expect. You get what you get. And if you “get” upset, usually you’re getting it from yourself.
Ryan comes over to where I’m sitting. “When are we going to go to Hymie’s?” he asks.
I’d already worked it out with Mommy. “How about tonight, Boogie Woogie?”
“Okay!” he exclaims.
Not missing a beat, he adds, “And we need to get something out of the machine because those are the rules. You’re not allowed to eat food at Hymie’s without getting something from the machine.”
I smile and nod. “The rules, huh.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Everyone who eats at Hymie’s has to —“
I hold up my hand. “I got it, Woogie. All right. You can get one thing out of the toy machine.”
He gazes at me, shakes his head, and repeats the litany of reasons why every Hymie’s customer must get something out of the machines or they’ll be hauled off to jail and never allowed on the premises again.
I turn to his mother, who’s laughing. “I think he’s confused that I said ‘yes,’ ” I tell her.
I turn back to Ryan, who is still lecturing me on his version of civil law covering tortious malfeasance and coin-operated machines.
“Woogie! I said you can get something out of the machine. You’re only arguing with yourself.”
He peers at me suspiciously. “I can get a toy out of the machine?”
I see why my sudden change of heart might be confusing. Who is this agreeable alien life form who looks like Dada? So I add some conditions he’s more familiar with.
“If you’re well behaved, and a good listener, you may get one thing out of the machine,” I say.
There’s the old Dada. “Okay!” he exclaims again. “Let’s go!”
As we approach the restaurant, Ryan offers to scout for parking, since I have “old eyes.”
He’s not wrong, but kids have a fascinating way of talking, so I ask him what makes him say my eyes are old.
You’re old, the Woog explains, so your eyes must be old too.
“Huh.” I shrug. The logic is unimpeachable.
Ryan belongs at Hymie’s. They have long spacious booths and plenty of crayons for him to color with as he absently swings his legs under the table and chatters intently about a kaleidoscope of topics.
Every time we go in, the Jewish grandmothers who make up the bedrock of Hymie’s evening clientele pause at our table on their way out to purr and fawn over the Woog.
“What a beautiful child,” they say to me. “His hair is such a rich and deep red.”
By now, Ryan takes these sorts of ovations in stride. If he had a quarter for every grandmother who complimented his hair, we’d be at the coin-operated machines so long his arm would be in a cast.
The Woog finishes swallowing, takes a long sip of water and returns to coloring his place mat. “Thank you,” he replies.
“And he’s so well-mannered.”
I smile courteously. “His mother’s a pretty good parent.”
A knowing grin, a twinkle. “I’m sure you’re a pretty good parent too.”
I lean in a little. “Well,” I say, “I was taught that it isn’t polite to brag.”
“Go right ahead. If you don’t, no one else will.”
I lean back and smile again. “A fair point.”
When the last grandmother bids us a good night and I reply the same, the Woog asks, “What’s ‘brag’ mean?”
“It means to say good things about yourself.”
A pause. “Oh.” Not interesting enough to warrant examination.
“All right, Woogie. I’m going to the pickle bar. How many pickles would you like?”
He nods. “Uh-huh. Yes. Ten pickles.”
“You can’t eat ten pickles.” This is an untrue statement. “You can’t eat just ten pickles” would be a true statement.
“I can eat ten pickles,” he says.
“Do you know what would happen if you ate that many pickles?”
A grin is emerging on the Woog’s face. “No. What?”
“You’d turn into a big pickle!”
“No I wouldn’t!”
“A big red-headed pickle!”
He giggles. “Pickles don’t have red hair. You’re just kidding, Dada.”
“And people would … eat you up!”
He lets out a laugh. “That’s silly.”
“Let’s start out with four pickles,” I say. “If you finish them we’ll talk about more.”
He shrugs in an “it’s your funeral” sort of way and goes back to wolfing down his fruit bowl.
I return with four pickles for Ryan and three for myself. “Here you go, Woogie.”
“Ooh,” the Woog says as I deposit the pickles on his plate. “I love pickles.”
“Me too.” I begin eating one of my pickles, pull out my phone and type out a text to Mommy with my free hand. I look up. Maybe a minute and a half have passed.
The Woog’s pickles are gone.
The check is paid and we’re standing in front of the coin-operated machines. Ryan is rifling through his pocket for the quarter I gave him before we went in.
“Hey! I can’t find my quarter.”
“Other pocket, Woogie.”
He retrieves it and approaches the toy machine with a zealous grin. Suddenly something occurs to me.
“Hang on a second, Woogie.” I lean down. “Are you trying to get a specific toy out of that machine?”
He nods. “I want that steam-shovel key chain.”
He points at the back of the machine to the item in question. It’s buried under a mound of cheap plastic tennis balls, soccer balls, and baseballs.
As I watched him approach the machine, I realized he’s under the mistaken impression that in exchange for his quarter, he’s certain to get the specific thing he wants.
He understands how the machine operates, in other words, but not how it works.
“Woogie, once you put your quarter in that machine there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get the specific toy you want. In fact it’s highly likely that you’re going to get one of those little plastic balls.”
“But I don’t want one of those little balls,” the Woog says. “I want that steam-shovel key chain.”
“I understand that, Woogie. I’m just telling you how the machine works. There are a lot more balls inside of that machine than there are steam-shovel key chains, so you’re a lot more likely to get one of the balls than a key chain. Do you understand?”
He’s shaking his head.
“You get what you get,” I tell him. “And you’re probably going to get a ball.” Then I shrug. “If you still want to put your quarter in, then go ahead.
He nods. “Yeah, I want to.”
“Okay.” I stand aside and brace myself. I meditate on how strange it is that certain inevitabilities exist in parenting which do not exist anywhere else in life. And I ruminate on how unfortunate it is that knowing what’s coming often doesn’t make it easier to take. In fact, frequently it’s the opposite.
Ryan puts his quarter in, turns the knob, and a little yellow tennis ball rolls out of the chute.
“Hey! I don’t want that. I want the steam-shovel key chain!”
I draw in a breath and produce a weak smile. “You get what you get, right?”
He’s staring at the machine. His lower lip begins to pout and his face elongates the way it does when he’s fighting to control his emotions.
“But I just … I just,” he begins in a quavering voice, and then it’s too much for him. He grinds his knuckles into his eyes and cries softly.
I put my arm around him and rest my cheek on top of his head.
He steps aside and looks up at me indignantly. “We have to try again!”
“That was it, Woogie. That was your quarter.”
“I have a penny I can put in it.”
I smile. “I’m afraid it doesn’t take pennies. It only takes quarters.”
“But, but … we can try. We can be persistent.”
I laugh a little and give him a kiss on his forehead. He’s got me there. Using my words against me. One of the most difficult lessons to teach little kids is that persistence is necessary but not sufficient.
I gently smooth his hair. “Tell you what, Woogie. I do have another quarter.”
His head snaps up hopefully. The light has been turned back on. He’s about to clamor for the coin, but I hold up my hand.
“Hold on,” I say. “How do you think you’ll feel if you put another quarter in that machine and get another plastic ball instead of the steam-shovel key chain?”
“I wouldn’t like that,” he says.
“Do you think you’d feel upset like you were the first time?”
“So do you still want to spend your quarter, or do you want to save it for something else?”
We all know the answer to that question.
“All right,” I say, “but this is the last quarter. And whatever comes out of that machine, whether it’s a plastic ball or a cool steam-shovel key chain, you get what you get. You don’t get upset.”
I crouch lower and look into his eyes. “Right?”
He looks at the floor and nods. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” I hand him the quarter.
He puts it in machine, turns the knob, and a baseball rolls out of the chute.
“Oh, look at that,” I say. “A baseball. That’s cool.”
He looks distraught. He’s starting to cry again.
“Okay, Woogie, it’s time to go home.” I lead him out of the restaurant. The evening air is cool, and traffic whizzes past us on Montgomery Avenue.
On the sidewalk he implores me to go back in and “try again.” There’s a desperate quality emerging in his voice. It’s getting late, and the possibility of him having a meltdown in front of the restaurant is palpable now.
I gesture to a bench to the right of the entrance. “Come over here and sit down with me, Woogie. I want to talk to you for a second.”
He follows me and sits.
I hold the balls in my hand. “I know you’re disappointed about not getting the key chain. I’m sorry about that. That’s why I told you about how the machine works. Because I didn’t want you to be surprised when you didn’t get what you wanted. I guess it doesn’t make it any less disappointing.”
He sniffles and nods. “I just really want that steam-shovel key chain to put on my backpack when I go to school.”
“Well, maybe we can ask Santa to put a key chain in your stocking.”
He looks at me. His eyes are red-rimmed and shimmering from his tears and he nods eagerly. “That would be cool.”
“What I want to say to you, and this is my —” I pause. “— this is the way I feel about it.”
He’s watching me now, listening.
“These are just things, Woogie.” I nod at the plastic balls I’m holding up in front of him. “They’re cheap. They’re not valuable. They’re not important. Experiences are the most important things in life, and do you know why?”
He shakes his head. “Why?”
“Because people are what’s important, and experiences are about people, even if that person is only yourself. People are precious. People are irreplaceable. Everything that Mommy and I have means nothing to me compared with you, and your brother —”
“I was just getting to Mommy, yes Mommy.”
“And Grandma? And G-Pa?”
“And Grandma, and G-Pa, and all of your amazing teachers and your friends, and Aunt Biz and Uncle Will and Cora and Evie and Donna and Dave, and all of the wonderful people we know.” I gesture at the balls again and shrug. “People are the only thing that matters, Woogie.”
He’s sniffling and staring into the distance. He’s close, but he’s not letting go just yet. I wonder if he’s picturing the key chain hanging off of his backpack. “But we, we … we could —”
“Did you have a good time tonight, Woogie?”
“Uh-huh.” He nods vigorously. “I did have a good time. Did you have a good time?”
I smile. “I had a wonderful time. I had the best time hanging out with you. I always have the best time with you. My sandwich was really yummy. Was your food yummy?”
He nods again. “Yes, it was very yummy, but I could eat more pickles.”
I laugh. “I believe that.”
I hold up the plastic tennis ball and baseball in my hand. “These balls are kind of crappy,” I say.
“That’s a bathroom word,” he says. He tilts his head and asks, “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
I laugh. “No, but you’re right: that is a bathroom word. I’m using it to make a point. Do you want to know what my point is?”
“Uh-huh, yes,” he says.
I rest my hand on his shoulder. “My point is that I will always cherish these cheap, stupid, crappy, plastic toy balls, because they will always remind me of tonight, when I had the chance to go out and have a fun time, a yummy dinner and a great conversation with my wonderful Boogie Woogie. My point is that you have single-handedly transformed two pieces of junk into priceless treasure.”
He smiles at me, and I lean in and nuzzle his neck. He starts laughing.
I stand. “All right, it’s late,” I say. “Let’s flex.”
He stands up. “I have a question,” he says.
“Is it a question, or a statement?” I ask. This is a sort of game we play.
“It’s maybe a question, maybe a statement,” he says.
“All right, Woogie. What’s your question or statement?”
“Can we … can we look for another quarter in the car?”