It’s the last Saturday in August, and the local water park is in full panic mode. Despite the humidity, the baking sun, and the shimmering undulations heaving up from the tired pavement, the general feeling is: This is it, folks. Summer’s over. Great clouds of visitors make for the pools, like the storm-swept lovers in Dante’s Inferno, brown, red, and pink bodies swirling along in search of water, looking for one last great dip before the snow flies in the morning.
I’m trying my best to keep up with my adopted son, Sam, who is hurrying along before me in all his 7-year-old excitement. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of his mahogany-colored shoulders, dipping to the left and to the right, as well as his large eyes and pointy chin, as he glances back to see where I am. I don’t want to lose him in this crowd; you never know who’s out there.
The wave pool is more packed than usual. As I pull my t-shirt over my head, I see that Sam is already swimming, immersed in his own pleasure as much as in the water. Normally, I don’t get wet if I can help it: my French-English skin doesn’t handle the elements well, turning greyish in the sun and almost pure white in any kind of cool breeze. But I wade right in, up to the waistband of my neon orange shorts, trying to stay within arm’s reach.
It’s been three hours since I took my Strattera, and I’m as focused as a hawk. The wife would be proud.
My concentration is only broken by a medium-strength smack on the back of my shoulder. I turn, and a man is looking fixedly into my face. He’s about my age, maybe a bit younger, and stocky. The first impression I get is that he might have come to the park on a motorcycle.
“That your kid?” he asks, hands on his hips.
As any father can tell you, those words are the start of many a great conversation. So I puff my chest up a little and say, proudly, “Yes it is!”
But then he turns to Sam, who has just surfaced, and says to him, “That your old man?”
Uh, oh. Please, Sam, I think, don’t be a smart-ass now. But Sam just wipes the water from his face with both hands, glances over to me, back at the stranger, says, “Yeah,” in an impatient sort of way, and dives again.
“Well,” the biker says, “you can’t be too careful. There’s too many pedophiles around these days.”
Now, it’s nice to know that people are keeping an eye out for the kids. As both of my children are adopted through Child Protective Services, I’m a mandated reporter myself. Plus, I know that if I were to ever start a fight, it would be with someone abusing a child; I’ve often stood off to the side in a store or other public place, silently daring an apparently violent grownup to take the fateful step and make me intervene.
So I thank this guy for watching after the world’s children, and he splashes off into the crowd. But then my blood starts to boil a little, and a few snappy comments bubble up in my mind: What do you mean by “too many” pedophiles, anyway? What gave it away, the shorts? If I ever do decide to become a pedophile, I’m chasin' the white kids.
This is what the French call l’esprit de l’escaliers, or ’stairway wit’, and it’s best kept to one’s self. Still, I was steamed. I had been moving blithely, even proudly, through my day, not even thinking that, as I was watching my child, someone was watching me. I was being critically assessed due to my skin color, and judged to be a threat. Fortunately, the guy believed me and didn’t call the cops, so I let it go.
What will happen, though, on the day when Sam, a Black child in a White community, is riding his bike in the driveway, and Someone comes up to him and says, “That your house?” Or when he gets older, and bigger, and is pulled over for the first time in his life, and Someone says, “This your car?” Or even, “What are you doing here?” When that day comes, will he be aware of the possible consequences of snappy comebacks to the guys who keep an eye on us? Will he know, on that day, what to say, and what to leave on the stairs?
Please, Sam, don’t be a smart-ass then.