Emmeline was gleefully munching on a bag of pretzels while we were searching for a bathroom at a big fancy downtown clothes store this morning, crumbs falling off her cheeks and onto the floor.
We had spent a few minutes examining the racks together, and I chuckled every time Emme felt a piece of cloth and said, “Oh this looks nice.”
Then, when I turned my back, she decided to hide in one of those circular racks, and I couldn’t find her for what seemed like two months. I was just about at the stage in panic when you head to the front doors and start frisking people on their way out, when I heard a tiny, muffled voice titter from behind the blouses.
“I’m hiding daddy!” she squealed.
“Where?” I asked, zeroing in, “Where are you hiding — I mean, exactly.”
“Here. I’m hiding over here. Oh doesn’t this look nice!”
Content that she wasn’t going anywhere while I was still “looking” for her, I checked my pulse, decided I was still among the living and perused some skirts and smocks. I was just about to head over to actual men’s clothes, when I saw two tiny legs under a circular rack. They were pressed together, almost as if they were trying to climb on top of each other. I pushed the clothes aside and saw her legs bent awkwardly and her hands playing underneath her underwear. She mimicked the grace of a baby giraffe who had just fallen six feet into the new world and was determined to stand up.
“Do you need to pee?” I asked.
“Just a little bit,” she said.
And so we began our search.
In this store you have to go past the dressing room to use the restroom and the dressing room clerk, upon seeing us, asked if we wanted her to hold the pretzels.
“Oh, is there not food allowed in there?” I wondered.
“Well,” she said, biting her lip, “I guess it’s OK. I mean, there’s no rules per se ….”
I had never heard of an establishment that actually banned food in the restrooms, and as much as it seems like a good idea, in hindsight, I was starting to get a little annoyed.
Who were they to tell us where to eat?
“Well, um,” she said, “I just thought, you know, if you wanted me to hold them for you, they’d still be here when you come back. Out of the restroom. Where there are toilets, and …”
I later thanked god I hadn’t put my hand on my hip and dug in, because the woman looked at me with a measure of pity and astonishment that caused immediate understanding and shame.
She began to say, “I just thought it would be kind of …” but I handed her the pretzels and grabbed Emme’s hand before the woman could finish her sentence.
That’s what she wanted to say.
“Kind of disgusting.”
Who brings food into the restroom?
Squatting in the toilet stall while Emme managed to somehow pee on her own butt, all the things I’ve taught my daughter about personal cleanliness came back in one swirling nightmare montage: Like the time during a preschool field trip to the zoo I told her to go wash her hands with all the other children and she dutifully wiped them on her pants and said proudly, “All clean, daddy!”; or the time when her Korean glass noodles squirmed off the table and onto the floor and she picked some up and mumbled through a full mouth, “two-minute rule, right?”; or how if I whisper “Hobo Guide” into her ear, it’s a toss up between wiping her hands on her own jeans or mine.
My daughter is the first and only unwitting acolyte to what I’ve come to call the Hobo Guide to Personal Hygiene.
At our playgroup, a doctor comes once a month to answer questions. The talk eventually got around to washing hands — something we maybe did last summer, on a lark — and I told him about the Hobo Guide.
“The kid hasn’t been really sick in a year!” I said, as if I had discovered a product perfect for late-night television.
Under my way of thinking, she has accumulated so many antibodies from so much daily grime – MUNI rails and lead-tainted playgrounds, scratched sidewalks and subway turnstiles — that her immune system ranks her right up there with the people who survive all those zombie movies. She’d be the person alive at the end of a Michael Crichton novel, I said.
The doctor frowned, unsure how to continue.
“Well,” he said, scratching his neck, “I’d say it’s more blind luck than anything. Wait, I’m sorry — did you say two minutes?”
When Emme was a newborn and I was in charge of fixing her bottle and heating it up, my mom always conveyed a certain measure of bemusement over the many steps I took. Sterilization, heating, testing — to her, there were too many hindrances to simply getting a bottle in the mouth.
“You know,” she told Dana and me one time, “Your grandpa had nine siblings and when it was time to feed the baby, one of the other kids would just crawl under the bed, find a bottle, dust off the nipple and stick it in. I mean, it’s not rocket science. And look how they turned out!”
Dana and I stared at her with the kind of smug, open-mouth wonder new parents often hold for their own parents.
Later, Dana said, “Can you believe that?
“Are you kidding?” I said, shaking me head, “I’ve spent all evening wondering just how the hell she fed me?”
Dana came home from work the other day while Emme and I were planting herb seeds in the sidewalk planter box out front. For too long it had been overgrown with weeds and I couldn’t even imagine how many neighborhood dogs had peed in it, or worse. So I gave Emme her tiny gardening shovel and told her to clear some space, while I hacked at the weeds with a pick axe.
We worked for an hour and when were were through, the box was a smooth canvas of coffee-colored loam. I had told Emme about all the herbs we had planted and all the food we could make with it, and she licked her lips and held her tummy.
“Oh I’m kind of hungry I guess,” she said.
Together we made dinner and just as we were about to eat, Dana saw something out of the corner of her eye.
“Did you wash your hands?” Dana demanded, grabbing the child’s hands and inspecting her palms. Emme replied by wiping her hands on her shirt.
“I did,” she said, “Like this.”
Dana glared at me. Really there’s nothing you can say in a situation like that — when your personal habits lay themselves out on the table so glaringly for dissection.
I was exposed.
“When was the last time you washed her hands?” Dana demanded.
The truth was, I couldn’t remember. I was going to tell her that maybe it was the week before, when Emme had seen sanitizing wipes at the grocery store and wanted to play with the machine. But admitting to washing through osmosis seemed like something I should keep to myself — at least until I blogged about it. (Hi Dana.)
“And don’t even start with the stupid Hobo Guide,” Dana continued, drying Emme’s hands, “Because she’s going to get really sick some day and it’s going to be all your fault.”
“Oh please,” I said, “Have I ever told you about my grandpa?”