For many years I worked two or more improbably-paired jobs at once, the basic premise being I did something that paid the bills alongside something else that was more interesting or fulfilled some inherent manifesto that I was supposed to operate “outside of society,” which had to do with a vague notion I had of what it meant to reject societal norms. It’s also always been one of my favorite Patti Smith quotes.
For a long time, I assumed I wouldn’t be allowed in normal society even if I wanted to. I’d been brought up to believe I couldn’t, just by the nature of who I was, whatever that is.Although it felt like a conscious decision I was making, the truth was I had been too afraid to give myself that choice. Out of all my exotic jobs and gigs, and there were many, it would be babysitting during the winter months of 2008 that I’d later reflect on the most, when considering where it was I thought I belonged. Nothing that anybody would consider to be especially remarkable actually happened, but I believe that’s part of what made it so special.
When I got an e-mail from Linda, the owner of the catering company I’d worked with in the past, I assumed it would have details about the next wedding event, sweet-sixteen, or Upper East Side bar mitzvah. Instead, she wondered if I was available to pick up her two boys from their after-school program in Cobble Hill, and to watch them until she could get home later that night. I told her I could be there — those catering gigs could be quite lucrative, and I wanted to make sure I was left in the loop. It had been a while since I’d had steady income, and the beginning of the month was starting to rear its ugly head. I’d researched tenant’s rights so I at least knew how long I’d have to vacate the premises should I be threatened with eviction. Threatened with eviction really just meant, in this case, that my Craigslist roommate-and-leaseholder casually and politely asked me to get the hell out.
At some point I’d started modeling for full body casts at a sculpture studio in Greenpoint, which required me to shave my entire body so a team of artisan hands could then grease me up and pour slimy vats of Plaster of Paris over me. With nothing but two long straws poking out my nose, I was buried alive until the plaster dried and I was chiseled out again, which felt equally transcendental and terrifying. The last project was a Richard Jackson piece that imitated Jacques-Louis David’s painting, “The Death of Marat,” except the sculpture version, when installed, would include an open laptop, as opposed to a feather quill. After the studio was finished with me, I had nothing to do but wait for my hair to grow back so I could apply for some more, longer-lasting “pedestrian” jobs. There was always this struggle and disconnect. I’d been late to many of my more subdued appointments trying to wash off all the glitter I was still covered in from go-go dancing the night before. What I’m trying to say is, I was totally available, underemployed, and glitter is extremely unforgiving.
Linda sent me the school’s address, a pick-up time and two names that sounded like they’d better belong to a couple of middle-aged men: Pete and Larry. No additional information. It’s not that I needed their complete biographies, but some tips and pointers would have been nice, like their bedtimes or scheduling basics: eat at 6, an hour of television before bedtime at 8, possible allergies or when I might expect the parent to be home, etc. I was gonna have to wing this one, and I was anxious. What if they thought I was strange, or could tell I didn’t know how to be around children? I didn’t really have much experience with kids. Although I was the oldest of four, we were all extremely distant growing up and kept to ourselves. It wasn’t the most loving household, to say the least.
PS 122 was a simple transfer on the G train from my less glamorous corner of Brooklyn. I always thought New York’s system for numerically labeling their public schools was boring and militant. When I was growing up I attended institutions with names like, “Highlands Ranch,” “Godsend,” and “St. Elizabeth,” which seemed much more fanciful, if not inappropriately religious, but that’s a side note. It wasn’t until I entered PS 122 that I realized I couldn’t have picked these boys out of a line-up, and before I was able to problem solve, a frenzied adult greeted me in the large, open foyer. There were three tiers of classroom doors spread and stacked before me. I felt like I’d been called to “come on down!” All I had to do was choose the correct door. If I chose incorrectly, as I understood it, an avalanche of strange offspring would spill forth from every door, in unison, throwing their bodies over the railings like a stampede of buffalo herded from a cliff.
“Hi, are you picking somebody up from “Youth Club?” (Again, I found this oddly militant — I pictured Hitler Youth: A gymnasium of short haircuts with fades on the side, trouser-shorts and button up boots.) I gave her the names of “the youth” and she repeated them into her walkie-talkie. Larry, the youngest at 5 years old, was the first to come barreling out a set of doors on the second door, and straddled the banister. He slid down expertly, right to the bottom of the steps where I was standing. I already felt confronted with some sort of moral dilemma, as well as the curious eyes of the “real” parents and/or baby-sitters. How would I handle this? It felt like a trick. I was paranoid, which made the fact that I looked like a hairless tweaker all the more real, or at least I thought. They probably pictured me shaving my eyebrows off during a hysterical, weekend-long speed-binge. These were the types of crazy thoughts I had in most “heteronormative” spaces, let alone an elementary school, my last experiences in which were still being worked out with a professional that thankfully charged on a sliding scale.
I plucked Larry off the stairs as carefully as I could and placed him back on his feet and said something casual and non-threatening about how he shouldn’t do that, although I wasn’t entirely sure. He was surprisingly light and didn’t fight back or disintegrate into a pile of ash under my maneuvering, which was the encouragement when I needed it the most. I was definitely being watched, and I knew that. I was a queer, radical faery sex-worker with an interest in subversive art. I was body positive, sex positive, and although I’d never even seen speed, I probably drank too much. I just knew the jig was about to be up; I’d been deemed unfit. Pete, three years older, certainly wasn’t impressed. He was much more skeptical than his gregarious kid brother.
“Who are you?” he wanted to know as he approached me. An unbelievable amount of clothing spilled from his backpack and dragged on the ground behind him like Linus’ blanket, although I suspected this had become commonplace for him. That is, I knew how his mother functioned, and I’m sure she’d wrangled plenty of people to come to her rescue last minute. She was a single mother, a not so successful business owner, but more importantly, she was a full-time partier and skated by the skin of her teeth. I always thought she looked like a young Marianne Faithfull, with the British accent and bad habits to boot.
At this point I’d been surrounded on all sides by the “real” parent/ baby-sitters, and Pete’s inquiry wasn’t necessarily comforting for them to hear, I imagined. After a quick introduction, and a relative assurance that I had the correct children, I made for the door with Pete and Larry in tow. I had the same nervous trepidation a shoplifter might have, not knowing if at the last moment the metal detector would go off or not. Some white lady did stop us on our way out to let me know how much she loved Pete and Larry, although the boys, by all accounts, didn’t appear to feel the same. She then asked me if I was their father. Again, in my heightened anxiety, the question seemed to posses a certain amount of suspicion. I thought, briefly, about making a run for it, a kid tucked under each arm like that funny little video of the raccoon running away on its’ hind-legs with the stolen cat food in its paw-hands.
“Nope. Just a friend of their mother’s,” I replied with a calmness that completely surprised me. Maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult, after all. Maybe this lady was just really nosy, but in this fantasy world of children and moms I’d already decided I wouldn’t let it bother me. Anyway, my kids looked elfin and spritely compared to her kid — they were almost whimsical. The boys had swaths of choppy, moppish hair that appeared to have been cut by themselves at some point, unless Linda nodded out with the scissors in her hands after each blunt snip. Their clothes were well-worn and generic. Layers of plain-colored T-shirts and sweatshirts peeled off, or tied around their waists like half-shucked husks. Larry’s shoes had strips of Velcro pulled well beyond their tightening duties, the extra bit resembling the winged shoes of Hermes. Pete’s were simply adorable puddles of loose shoestrings. As I tied them, my vantage point oddly supplicate, the prying lady’s daughter stared down at me with dumb curiosity. I caught myself as a “What are you looking at?” almost slid past my lips unchecked, a dormant instinct activated. In my earnest position she must have thought I seemed non-threatening, but as soon as I stood back up the condescending sneer fell from her face and she inched closer to the protection of her mother, who was still giving unrequited adoration to Larry. If anybody caught that psychic stand-off I figured I’d just say, “She started it.”
Leaving the school grounds, at last, it hit me. I didn’t know where we were going. I didn’t bring their address with me. It had started to snow. It was getting dark. Wind from the Bay lapped at the shores of Cobble Hill, whipped up the icy flurries into a stinging swarm. I swore I heard the encroaching howls of a hungry wolf. In retrospect, it was probably just a pit bull, but still. Since this was before the “smart phone,” my resources were already exhausted. I entrusted Little Larry to be the captain of our caravan; I had no choice. He said he knew the way, and I believed him, but Pete promised to put his coat on if I made him the captain, so after some careful negotiating we were soon steadfast. It was a wonder Larry was so agreeable.
It didn’t take long for Pete to lose his suspiciousness — about two blocks. He was suddenly full of trivia he was dying to share. He told me scientists found a jellyfish in the Atlantic the size of his school. “Luckily it doesn’t have stingers,” he added, with real relief in his voice. We both tried to guess how deep the Atlantic was. He said 2,000 miles and I said that was probably too deep, and suggested we Google it when we got home. Little Larry had dropped behind to pee on a tree, and an odd serenity washed over me when my immediate reaction wasn’t to yell or tell him to stop. I shuddered to think what my own mother would have done in that situation, but I was pretty sure I could have guessed. Pete must have been anticipating my reaction to Larry relieving himself in the middle of a populated street, and his 8-year-old-self appeared to approve of my nonchalant understanding. Pete was a smart kid.
“He pees on himself if he doesn’t get to go.”
I shrugged my shoulders, “When you gotta go, you gotta go,” and we let Larry catch up.
With both of them by the hand I started to lead them across the street, only to quickly pull them back onto the curb as a car sped past, running the stop sign. There was a mother pushing a stroller nearby. We both looked at each other with utter disbelief for the idiot behind the wheel.
“If they didn’t go so fast,” she said, disappointed in humanity.
“In a school-zone!” I shouted, extra-vigilante style, and felt a total kinship with this woman vis-à-vis the children; a complete stranger. Weird. But also, were we even still in a “school zone?” What’s the radius on something like that? If I were to be frisked right now and the cops found my overseas Xanax knockin’ around in my pocket would I get a harsher penalty?
As soon as we got to what they promised me was their house, Larry whipped out a Superman cape and started body slamming Pete. Pete responded by putting on a wizard’s cloak then squeezing Larry’s head while looking like he was having an epileptic seizure, then they both came at me with drop kicks off the couch. I tried to diffuse the situation by telling them they would have to go to bed if they didn’t quit. That, of course, had zero influence, so I opened my messenger bag to see what I could possibly use to entertain them with. I figured Xanax was a bad idea, plus I was running low. Earlier that day I’d bought some vitamin C effervescent tablets because I’d been feeling under the weather. I plopped a couple of them into a glass of water and we watched them dissolve. It was like they were hypnotized by it. I gifted them the entire canister as ritualistically as possible. They kneeled with heroic, bowed heads and promised to use this “magic” for good, never evil, before the “potion” could safely be bestowed upon them.
While they were distracted I Googled the Atlantic Ocean on their dial-up desktop. I looked at Little Larry and Pete crouched down on the hardwood floor, staring into a water glass filled with bubbling immune booster. They had the sort of curiosity and excitement only children possess, and I decided not to tell them the Atlantic was actually only five miles at its deepest depth.
Linda e-mailed me the following day. She said she wasn’t sure what I’d done, but getting them to school that morning was way easier for her than what she was used to, and she wanted to know if I’d be interested in babysitting part-time. I assumed I was really just short-listed, her other options having already turned the offer down, but it still felt nice. I took the gig. I figured it would at least always be interesting, and it paid the bills at the same time. I knew that the Vitamin C tablets were gonna lose their mystique, so we kept our eyes peeled that winter for different kinds of magic, and every once in a while we found some.
I continued go-go dancing at queer parties and non-conforming spaces where I loved being around other weirdos and rabble-rousers, as well as being a part of whatever alternative family we were all trying to create. I was able to stop worrying so much, though, when outside the temporary comfort of this community of mine, at least for some truly memorable moments when everything really was beautiful. Turns out, kids love glitter too.
Robert Smith has been published in Evergreen Review and Bird’s Thumb. He has presented original material at New Museum in New York, and Housing Works, SoHo.