Fighting the Playground Patrol
“Hey friend,” the biggest guy said.
It was very clear he did not want to be my friend. Neither did his three buddies.
“Hey?” I answered.
“What are you doing here?” Big Guy asked.
Big Guy looked at his friends uncertainly. They were all in khaki shorts and polo shirts. Thanks to a morning of gardening, dirt and sweat covered my shorts and old t-shirt. This was the first time I felt under-dressed in our neighborhood park.
“Why are you sitting here?” Big Guy’s wingman asked.
“Because sitting on the ground would ruin this Armani outfit.”
I sat on a bench near the toddler sandbox. This was the only shady area with a clear line-of-sight to the play structures and swings. In the distance my seven- and five-year-old daughters swung a lot higher than gravity and mom normally allow.
“So you’re just checking email?” Big Guy asked suspiciously.
“Well …” I tapped my phone while pondering. “I was thinking Netflix next, but I’ve used up a lot of data this month. Maybe I should play it safe and stick to Words with Friends. What do you think?”
“This isn’t a good place for that,” Big Guy concluded. “You should go do that someplace else.”
“Do what?” I asked. “Netflix or Words with Friends?”
Big Guy glanced at his friends for some kind of encouragement. Bullying probably looked easier on TV.
“Just leave,” Wingman said. “We don’t want to make this tough for you.”
“Does tough mean a fight? You all look a lot slower than my sparring partner. Or does tough mean a lawsuit for assault? Assault is just the threat of violence, and I could litigate this in my sleep.”
My combat and legal knowledge all comes from bad TV. I’ve never physically engaged in either. Obviously my four new friends hadn’t either. They sulked away.
I watched them join four women picnicking with toddlers. The women eyed me angrily. Maybe the men had caught some bullying virus from their wives. After a brief discussion, three women stayed with the toddlers and their leader marched the men back to me.
“You have to leave now or I’ll call the police,” Lead Mom snapped.
She also snapped my picture with her phone. I smiled and posed, so she could get a better shot.
“I mean it,” she growled.
“She means it,” Big Guy echoed.
I think he meant to be intimidating. That’s hard to do when you’re just repeating what your wife says.
“I’m not leaving,” I laughed. “And I’m not joining your Old Navy gang, either.”
“I’m giving you one more chance,” Lead Mom said.
“Just one more chance,” Big Guy added.
“Are there hidden cameras somewhere?” I asked. “Seriously, am I being punked? Because it’s not working — probably because you have the worst writers ever. Big Guy has to do more than repeat whatever Lead Mom says, or it’s just not realistic.”
The four dads looked very confused. Lead Mom was furious.
“If you want to intimidate a stranger in a park on a Sunday afternoon,” I continued, “you have to change your character. They’re totally off. You should dress as bikers, or drug dealers and crack whores. Lead Mom could pull that off. But middle-age parents in cargo shorts and collared shirts and designer flip-flops? Terrible choice.”
Lead Mom dialed 911 and hit speaker phone.
“Mountain View police department. What is your emergency?”
“I’m at Cuesta Park,” Lead Mom said, her eyes locked on mine. “There’s a suspicious lone man here. He looks homeless and he’s talking about drug dealers and crack whores. He’s just sitting here staring at the children and I’m worried.”
“We’ll dispatch an officer right away, ma’am. Which area of the park are you in?”
“We’re near the sandbox — ”
“If I may shed some light on this,” I interrupted.
I stood up and called out: “Ricki! Josie! Come back for sunscreen!”
“Dad!” Ricki complained. “I put some on when we walked over here!”
“And Mom put some on us this morning,” Josie added from afar.
“Never mind kids,” I replied while looking Lead Mom in the eye. “I obviously didn’t have all the facts before I spoke. Go back to what you were doing and have fun.”
My girls ran off. My new friends considered doing the same.
“Is everything resolved, ma’am?” the police dispatcher asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Lead Mom mumbled with a mouthful of crow. “I was mistaken.”
Lead Mom put the phone away and looked genuinely sorry. And angry, but not at me.
“He didn’t tell me he was here with kids,” Big Guy whispered.
“Did you specifically ask him?”
“I asked him what he was doing… He just said email.”
“So you didn’t ask him are you here with children like I told you to.”
“Don’t say not exactly when you really mean not at all. There’s a big difference.”
I recognized this dynamic. At home I’m always Big Guy, minus the dorky polo shirt.
“It’s really okay,” I interrupted. “Now that I know you were looking out for your kids, I’m not offended at all. In fact, I’d do the same thing.”
“But you’d first ask do you have children, right?” Lead Mom pressed.
“In the heat of the moment,” I shrugged, “I’d probably say the same thing as Big Guy here and be in the same situation. And hopefully the homeless-looking guy who’s actually a decent dad will laugh it off like I’m doing. So don’t worry, and don’t beat your husband up over it. This will be a funny story over drinks some day.”
Lead Mom and Big Guy and the sidekicks seemed to like this answer.
“Drinks …” Big Guy mused. “We’ve got a picnic and a few bottles of wine. Do you want to join us? We’ve got plenty of food for your girls too.”
Three months later, my wife and girls met the other four families in the park for our regular picnic. This time my clothes were clean, but I still wasn’t shaving or wearing a collared shirt on the weekend.
Big Guy and I walked up to a solo man who appeared to have been loitering for the last hour.
“Hey buddy,” I smiled. “Are you here with a kid or just sitting by yourself?”
“I’m watching my nephews for the day.”
He pointed at two boys in the sandbox. One looked up and smiled. The other dumped sand on his brother’s head.
“Ian …” the uncle sighed. “That is not how we behave.”
“Good luck with that,” I said and walked away.
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