Sunday, February 21, 2010

Eavesdropping on a Sunday Afternoon

My dad is a journalist and there are two things he does instinctively. Eavesdrop and read upside down. You can imagine how he’s used these skills to cover politicians, but let me tell you how it plays out when we go out to dinner. The maitre d’ doesn’t stand a chance—the list of names ahead of us, notes scribbled on napkins, tabloids tucked behind sign-in sheets— all fair game. Once we sit down, he has a doglike ability to sniff out the most interesting conversation and tune himself to that decibel.

“Dad, you’re not listening.”

No he is. Just not to us.

I don’t share his ability to read documents upside down, but eavesdropping, I am sorry to say, comes naturally to me. My husband has no aptitude for it: he’s from Connecticut.

So, it’s difficult, at times, when I am the only one acutely aware of some fascinating or terrifying conversation taking place within earshot. I can go on an entire emotional rollercoaster and my husband is still parking the metaphoric car.

Which is what happened last weekend at Borders.

I don’t know how anyone missed the first tidbit; it was announced over the PA system.

“Would the owner of a green Chrysler (something or other) please report to your vehicle.”

We heard this as we entered the bookstore. Five minutes later, I saw a police officer pacing the aisles.

He was the real deal, not a security guard stopping by to escape the cold. He looked upset and very determined, and stood out in the anything-goes chaos of the kids’ section. Our particular bookstore has modeled this area after the discount section of a The Dollar Store. Should we look at UNICEF’s Children Just Like Me, or whoopee cushions, kaleidoscopes and glow in the dark ducks? You can guess what my youngest chose. We had six waterfowl attached to various parts of her body when the cop stared us down. It must take at least seven to violate NJ law, and thankfully, and he moved on.

What was going down? I read the local police blotter. I’m no fool. Just last month a thief stole fifty-one T-shirts from an Ann Taylor Loft. The following day, nineteen blouses. I found it fascinating that it was the mystery-thief and not the clueless clerk who’d made the paper, but, no matter. Clearly, there was a trend. Perhaps, somewhere in periodicals, a conspicuously well-dressed man was stuffing thirty-two issues of Golf Digest down his pants and making a break for it.

My husband was off looking for a book, so I moved the kids closer to me. It was then I realized the ducks sang show tunes.

“Don’t dance,” I whispered, but it was too late. The ducks quacked and my girls hopped. “Shhh.” We needed to keep a low profile.

I looked around. Was there a gaggle of mischievous teens? No. At four in the afternoon the only people in the place under thirty appeared to be waiting for dates.

The policeman came back and walked directly behind me.

He’d found his suspect.

My girls giggled, the ducks reached a rich vibrato, and my husband approached, seeming eager to talk. I was going to have to tune out my loved ones completely if I was going to overhear any of the conversation behind me. I thought of my Dad, and summoned the strength.

“Alone in the car?” I heard policeman say. “Five minutes?’ he continued.

Who was this scofflaw hunkered down between The Grouchy Ladybug and Olivia Saves the Circus? I turned and caught a glimpse-two boys, one around five, the other eight. But the culprit stood between them: their mom.

“Are these your only kids?” the officer said forcefully. She did not answer. “Any other kids here yours?” He was shouting, which makes eavesdropping so much easier.

He took out a pad and asked her more questions. The names of her kids, their ages, how long she’d left them in the car alone. And, then he said the magic word. DYFS.

Division of Youth and Family Services. In New Jersey, the acronym rhymes with Dreyfuss, as in Richard. In mom-speak it means panic.

He was going to report her to DYFS?

Lifetime TV could not touch the scenario of angst and heartache I was scripting in my head.

But, this mom was calm and I soon realized why. She had no idea what the cop was talking about.

“DYFS?” she asked.

Could anything prove her ignorance of the campaign launched by the Department of Children and Families, “Not Even for a Minute”, more than the fact that she hadn’t heard of the department’s investigative arm that strikes fear in the hearts of most moms? They are the reason we wake up sleeping babies and haul them through downpours when we pick up older children from school. Why we ask other moms to “stand by our car” for five minutes when we rush back inside to get the lunch box we forgot in a cubby. Why we make a bargain with the car seat gods and promise that if they just let us dash into the house for fifteen seconds to double check that the stove is off, we’ll never leave the kids alone in the car, in our own driveway, with the car locked, and the windows down, ever again.

This woman must have been from out of state.

The next day, I called the bookstore. Apparently, the police officer had either seen the kids alone in the car, or was tipped off, and called the manager of the store, who then did the announcement on the PA, and, through some manipulation of time travel, the children later appeared by the mom’s side when the officer confronted her.

From what I overheard, the mom had, in fact, left her kids in the car. And, you don’t have to eavesdrop to know that, despite the fear of DYFS, this happens all the time.

“Just for a second,” most moms say, if they admit to doing it themselves.

Confessions on the internet speak of longer periods: I ran into the store to buy milk—I could see the kids from the window of the store. I live in a small town; the baby finally feel asleep in the car- I just had to run to the bathroom. Or, the woman who left her toddler in the car seat with the car on, keys in the ignition, only to return to find him sitting…. in the driver’s seat. Her errand? To buy some “ciggs”.

Ask around and you hear stories about friends of friends. Oh, yeah, there was a mom who parked in the fire lane, ran into the bagel store. She got a ticket for how she parked and a visit from DYFS every month for leaving the kids in the car.

Not just leaving the kids in the car alone, there was a woman in town who’d leave her kid at home napping while she walked her older one down the street a few blocks. Said it wasn’t any different than being in the basement doing laundry.

Obviously, when things go wrong, it’s much different. The cases we read about in the paper are usually the ones that stop us cold. It makes me too sad to even write about them specifically, but 40 kids die each year, and hundreds are injured from hyperthermia. And then there’s the possibility of abduction.

The cop I saw finally decided to let the woman go with a warning.

I interviewed a spokeswoman from NJDCF who said there is no statute in New Jersey that specifically prohibits leaving kids alone in a car. The offense falls under a broader one relating to child abuse and neglect. And, according to a police officer I spoke with a few days later, mitigating factors do come into play—how long kids are left in the car, the temperature, if the car was running. Once a parent is charged, it is up to a judge to determine how much involvement DYFS would have.

But, it sends chills down my spine to think that I could ever be in a situation where a lapse in judgment might put me before a judge. More chills to think that the consequence of that lapse might more than justify the appearance.

The police officer left the store and we eventually put the ducks back where they belonged. The bookstore offered other nonliterary distractions. Oversized books on anatomy became stepping stones for little feet, a wall of yoga mats proved more fun to tip over than a line of dominoes, and as we neared checkout, an eavesdropper might have heard this conversation between my four year old and me:

“Mom, what is this?”

“It’s a miniature Buddha.”

“Can I eat it?”

“No. You do not eat Buddha.”

All this and my children were under constant supervision. You can see why I am afraid to leave them alone.

Even for a minute.

I'd like to interview a few married couples who have chosen not to have kids. If you know of any who'd like to share their views, please send me an email: sarah's email. Also, we have some new fans on Facebook, and I'm happy they are here. Thanks to those who have helped spread the word, but most of all, thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

what a nice touch, sarah!

Houston! said...

I love the Buddha quote. Also, thankfully, I went to college in NYC and was schooled for the first two weeks in how to distrust everyone, lock everything in sight, and never open a door for a stranger. So, although my parenting falls into the laissez-faire category, in general, I don't leave them unattended in a car ever. Thanks for the reminder. I also think it would be hilarious for you to have your own reality show as a private investigator. Lunch box mom would take on a whole new light.

Good Enough Mom said...

what a story! yikes!

Anonymous said...

The Washington Post did a story last year about parents whose children had died when left in cars. It was heartbreaking but I honestly believe it should be required reading for any parent, not just those who have gotten off with a warning.