By Gary Almeter
Years from now, when I’m facing the firing squad, I will remember that distant evening when my wife and I walked to the Upper West Side to observe balloons inflate.
I will recall on that unseasonably warm November evening—Thanksgiving Eve 1999 to be precise—that we headed out from our East 81st Street apartment and walked through Central Park to the Museum of Natural History.
We were newlyweds, having been married four months prior, and this was our first Thanksgiving in Manhattan. We found the entrance to the designated viewing path and, along with about four zillion others, watched as giant polyurethane Peanuts characters, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Betty Boop get filled with helium.
Thousands of people, from every direction and with neuroses from every page of the DSM-IV, merged into the designated viewing path (hereafter “DVP”) at its origin, like human tributaries toward a giant festive river. The DVP meandered through and among the helium inflation process for all of the balloons that were to float down Broadway the following day.
While in the DVP, meandering with my wife amidst the autumnal reverie, I was kicked in the head by a boy riding atop his father’s shoulders. I saw him out of the corner of my eye. He didn’t do it on purpose. It’s just impossible to sit on top of your father’s shoulders and not have your feet head level with the person in front of you.
I was soon kicked again and turned around to look the offenders in the eye. The boy was about 3 or 4 years old, a little too big for piggyback rides, but, in light of the circumstances and our surroundings, was not completely out of the realm of acceptable human behaviors. The boy was wearing penny loafers, argyle socks, brown cords, sweater, and a puffy vest. His old man was dressed similarly, but with a shirt, tie, and blazer. They both looked me in the eye and said nothing.
I turned back around, however, I began to eavesdrop on them. The boy’s name was “Larken” and the father would say it twice every time he said it. For example, “Look over there, Larken, it’s Tommy Pickles from ‘Rugrats,’ Larken,” and, “Oh my gosh, Larken, it’s the Cat in the Hat, Larken.” These were all exclamations more than mere observations, as though each balloon was being inflated exclusively for Larken’s benefit and enjoyment.
After Larken kicked me in the head again, I turned around to confront him. The conversation went like this:
Me to Larken: “Larken, please stop kicking me in the head.”
Larken’s father (dumbfounded, as though no one in the history of Larken’s short stupid life had ever suggested he was anything but flawless): “Larken isn’t doing it on purpose.”
Me to Larken's father: “Be that as it may, Larken still needs to stop.”
Larken’s father: “Be that as it may, I can’t make his feet not touch you, buddy.”
Me to father: “Yes, you can.”
Father to me: “I actually can’t, buddy.”
Me to Larken: “Quit it, Larken.”
It was then that my brand new wife pulled me away from the conflict. I think she and Larken’s father, and probably Larken himself, knew that I could have kicked Larken’s ass. I would have too. Thanksgiving or no Thanksgiving, 4 years old or 40 years old, I don’t give a fuck. Anyway, we scurried through the DVP and away from Larken and his father. We probably missed the best balloons.
This event stays with me. I think about that kid with greater frequency than is probably healthy. I don’t do chin ups while listening to Iron Maiden with the hope and expectation of one day exacting my revenge on Larken, but I do think about it nonetheless. Every Thanksgiving Eve, in fact. (Along with the blessings, my children, the good Lord above, the cornucopia, and the blessings again, and the joyfulness, and the turkey.)
Larken is about 21 years old today. Where is he? Does he go to an Ivy League school? Why do I assume he’s attending an Ivy League school? Where does he live? Where did he live in November 1999? Did he and his mother take the train into the city to meet his father after work? If so, from where? Connecticut? Pelham Manor? Larchmont? Manhasset? Some other gilded zip code?
I thought about him shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Did he lose anyone he loved? If so, who? Was he scared? Ambivalent? Does he play sports? Lacrosse? Squash? Baseball? Does he still wear penny loafers? Does family still visit the DVP on Thanksgiving Eve to watch the balloons being inflated (and kick other unsuspecting patrons in the head I’m sure)?
What the hell kind of name is Larken, anyway? If I Googled and researched the scant information I have on Larken, would I be able to locate him? Do his parents love him? Does he have siblings? Is he loved? When did he lose his virginity? Is he gay? Straight? Bisexual? Out? Transgendered? Is he a birther? An anti-vaxxer? A vegan?
I am learning that I have a very low tolerance for people who were born on third base. I have zero tolerance for people who were born on third and think they hit a triple, but I do reserve some tolerance for those merely born on third. I assume Larken was born on third base—a safe assumption in light of the fact he was wearing penny loafers and had a smartly dressed father who looked at me with eyes that registered nary a thought, hint of analysis, or a modicum of a possibility that he would ever apologize.
How corrosive is this lack of tolerance? I’m starting to wonder, especially in light of recent electoral events that put on display kids of a famous father who genuinely think that they are superior (genetically and intellectually) to other people. That really bothers me. More succinctly, it is an injustice. I was in New York City teaching kids, many of them sons and daughters of undocumented workers who took the Subway over an hour each way to and from school, went home and took care of their siblings, and did their laundry and cooked their own meals while the parents worked. The third base kids likely would not last a day doing all that.
When I was little, my family had a plaque featuring an old Native American proverb hanging on our kitchen wall. It said: “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
This hung near the heating register, over which we stood on winter mornings to get warm, so it was the subject of a great deal of analysis. We asked questions like:
- “Mom, if you walk a mile in the neighbor’s moccasins then do you have to walk back to give the moccasins back to the neighbor?”
- “What if you and your neighbor have different sized feet?”
- “Who wears moccasins in Buffalo in January?”
- “What if it’s raining and you ruin the neighbor’s moccasins?”
Later, while teaching English in New York, I taught To Kill a Mockingbird and highlighted the passage, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
I don’t hate Larken. I don’t think I do anyway. I don’t know for certain that he is an asshole, but the warning signs were there in November 1999. It’s not his fault his parents named him Larken, bought him penny loafers and a puffy vest for toddlers, and didn’t demand he stop kicking people in the head.
But I have never walked a mile in his moccasins or his steel toe penny loafers of torment. While the Native American proverb is silent as to penny loafers, it would seem that it might be applicable. Luckily, for all of us, empathy is a learned skill.