Bennett’s First Birthday [Conclusion]

The raindrops pattered onto the clear plastic cupcake containers and sounded like tiny timpani.

Though partially protected at the bottom of the two bags, the rhythmic drumbeat augmented my steps, moving up Columbus Avenue and around 83rd Street, heading west. Fifty feet to my left, the red painted façade of Engine Company 74 glistened with silver from the moisture, and101009.jaumefernandez the flowers people had placed next to the large overhung door had oranges and yellows that popped brightly against the grey concrete sidewalk. It was Friday, September 11, eight years since the attacks in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and over a field in Pennsylvania.

I rang the buzzer on the entrance door to the right, which had a small square window at head level with chicken wire embedded in the glass for security. A man about 5’6”—three inches shorter than I—came to the door and opened it. His eyebrows were raised.

“I brought these for you guys,” I started, handing him the bag in my right hand. He took it and smiled. “I just wanted to say ‘thank-you.’”

“Hey—thanks a lot! What’s your name?”

I told him. Then I asked, “What yours?”

“Dave.”

“Dave,” I repeated. To remember. “Thanks, Dave. I really appreciate all you guys do. My family and I live on West 84th Street. All my kids go to school there—” and I pointed behind me to P.S. 9 at the corner of 83rd and Columbus “—and my church is renovating the building there—” and pointed down the block past the firehouse, “—so this is where we live our lives.”

He thanked me again. We shook hands—his, like a vice—then he went back inside, the red door closing as I turned.

I continued along 83rd Street, shifting the other bag of cupcakes to my right hand.

My face was wet.

It was my son Bennett’s ninth birthday.

photo: Jaume Fernandez

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Bennett’s First Birthday [Part 2]

After floating in the Guadalupe River near Hunt, Texas, looking for arrowheads at the bottom of the shallow water, and while eating burgers at Fuddrucker’s in Kerrville, my three sons were to return to their city of eight 091109.Wade_from_Oklahomamillion in less than a week.

We live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where in our zip code of 10024 there are more than sixty thousand people. We circulate among a few blocks: our apartment, the kids’ school, our church, the playgrounds we go to, the stores we shop in, are all within a few blocks’ radius. Their friends live within walking distance, which was not the case when we lived in a Massachusetts town of 3,000 for their early years. We might as well be in a town the size of Tuna, Texas (see Part 1), for our lives are nearly as provincial in terms of mobility.

The day before I left for the Texas Hill Country to join the Lovely K and boys, who had been there for two weeks prior, a complaint I had emailed to the headquarters of Gristedes grocery store here in the city was followed up within several hours with an email from them promising a response to my concerns, which ran from spoiled ground beef, to problems with their dairy products, to inattentive and rude staff. Normally, I am not a complainer; rather, I am a compulsive people-pleaser. But I wanted the store to improve for the sake of the neighborhood and for healthy competition among its peers.

The next morning at 7:30, there was a voice mail on my cell phone from the store manager—apparently informed by corporate late the night before—wanting to come by sometime, and by 8:00, as I was rushing to leave for work, there was a buzz downstairs. I ran down the three flights of stairs to greet two men, Sal and Chris, who had walked over to make sure all my concerns were addressed. They asked me about the litany I had emailed, no fewer than five bullet points of bold text written by a sheepish writer sitting in his leather armchair. I had launched long-range missiles, and the marines had shown up at my door to respond.

I started explaining how Karen had purchased some ground beef that was brown, not red, and was rancid.

Sal, a department manager, looked at Chris, a stock clerk, as he said, “I told Bob that he needed to stop flipping my damned meat over on top of itself.” He looked back at me, having started his (convincing) presentation. “When you flip the meat over so that the plastic wrap is the only thing that separates the two packages, the meat turns brown. I keep tellin’ the guy to stop doing that, but he ain’t listenin’. You had mentioned something about yogurt?”

“Oh. Yeah. We’ve bought a number of yogurts that have been…disturbed…when we opened them.”

“What do you mean by ‘disturbed’?”

(Me and my use of euphemisms to avoid conflict.)

“I mean they were all mixed up inside, like they’d been shaken up.”

“Oh!” Shock, and again the look toward Chris. “That’s probably [unintelligible],” as he uttered a man’s name that seemed to explain everything to his coworker—looking back at me now—“our distributor. You see, Chris here is brand new to the store and is on probation for another month. He was worried about his job when the yogurt was mentioned.”

I felt guilty at this point and basically decided to shop at Gristedes at least once more as penance. “Oh, so sorry guys, I didn’t mean to get anyone in trouble.”

“No problem. Ya see, we’ve been having problems with our night crew. Anytime they do something wrong, it affects us in the day. Anything else?”

“Well, there’s probably not much you can do about the pricing difference between you guys and Fairway, right? I mean, they’re hard to compete with.”

(There’s also a world of difference between products, as is the difference between Burger King and filet mignon. But I didn’t want to appear the Upper West Side snob, which I basically am, and decided to keep the discussion on the basis of comparing prices on staple items.)

Chris spoke up for the first time. “Let me tell you, I’m a former Fairway guy. At their upper west side store? If you pull away the produce stands outside, they got baby rats all back behind there.”

OohRah! These guys were playing for keeps. I clarified, “You mean the store at 125th Street?” I.e. not the one at 74th, where we shop.

“Yeah.”

Well, I had to hand it to them. They took customer complaints seriously, and they also pulled out the heavy artillery against all comers. So what if no one on 84th Street shops above 86th Street. Chris was confessing to the zit on their nose and diverting attention to the oozing boils hidden beneath the Oscar de la Renta dress of their competition.

Sal reminded me to personally see him between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the store and he would set me up with ground beef. Chris would be there after 7:00 a.m. I thanked them and turned to go upstairs and finish getting ready. The men walked off confident, I suppose, that they had gained back another customer. I wrote to the contact at Gristedes HQ and thanked him for the prompt follow-up.

~

Karen went to Gristedes last night—now almost four weeks since our return from summer vacation, six weeks after my visit with Sal and Chris, to get supplies for our middle son Bennett’s ninth birthday, which is today.

On September 11, 2001, when Bennett turned one, we had planned to have the requisite cupcakes at Noon. It was a Tuesday, and we were living in Massachusetts. It was a weekday, and because we lived on the campus of the graduate school for which I worked, my coming home for lunch from work was a daily benefit.

As with first son Carter, we had planned to let Bennett go crazy with chocolate-covered cupcakes in his highchair as we clicked away with our camera, getting shots of his brown-smeared face the way all 1-year-olds should be remembered.

We did take photographs, but only as the TV in the background showed images that we would watch for hours and days to follow, and as we held the camera steady against our faces—quivering flesh, wet with tears. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Bennett, whose smile revealed two lower teeth and two upper ones as well.

[To be concluded]

photo: Wade from Oklahoma