The Fulton St. Foodtown is playing Motown and I’m surprised
at how quickly my daughter picks up the tune. And soon
the two of us, plowing rows of goods steeped in fructose
under light thick as corn oil, are singing Baby,
I need your lovin, unconscious of the lyrics’ foreboding.
My happy child riding high in the shopping cart as if she’s
cruising the polished aisles on a tractor laden with imperishable
foodstuffs. Her cornball father enthusiastically prompting
with spins and flourishes and the double-barrel fingers
of the gunslinger’s pose. But we hear it as we round the rice
and Goya aisle, that other music, the familiar exchange of anger,
the war drums of parent and child. The boy wants, what, to be
carried? to eat the snacks right from his mother’s basket?
What does it matter, he is making a scene. With no self-interest
beyond the pleasure of replacing wonder with wonder, my daughter
asks me to name the boy’s offense. I offer to buy her ice cream.
How can I admit recognizing the portrait of fear the mother’s face
performs, the inherited terror of non-conformity frosted with the fear
of being thought disrespected by, or lacking the will to discipline
one’s child? How can I account for both the cultural and the inter-
cultural? The boy’s cries rising like hosannas as the mother’s purse
falls from her shoulder. Her missed step from the ledge
of one of her stilted heels, passion loosed with each displaced
hairpin. His little jacket bunched at the collar where she has worked
the marionette. Later, when I’m placing groceries on the conveyor
belt and it is clear I’ve forgotten the ice cream, my daughter
tries her hand at this new algorithm of love, each word
punctuated by her little fist: boy, she commands, didn’t I tell you?
At thirteen I asked my father for a tattoo.
I might as well have asked for a bar mitzvah.
He said I had no right to alter the body
he gave me. Aping what little of Marx I learned
from the sisters down the street who wore torn
black stockings with Doc Martens, I said
I was a man because I could claim my body
and the value of its labor. This meant I could
adorn it or dispose of it as I chose. Tattoos,
my father said, are like children: have one,
you’ll want another. I knew there was a connection
between the decorated body and reproduction.
This is why I wanted a tattoo. Yet I reasoned,
not in so many words, his analogy only held
in the case of possession, i.e., I possess my body,
but can not possess my children. His laughter
was my first lesson in the human Ponzi
scheme of paternalism, the self-electing
indenture to the promise of material inheritance,
men claiming a hollow authority because,
simply, their fathers had claimed
a hollow authority. Knowing I had little
idea as to what my proposed tattoo might
resemble, my father sent me to my room
to sketch it using the pastels he had given me
for Christmas. Based on his critique, he said,
he would consider my request. But he had
already taken the shine from my swagger.
How can I beautify what I do not possess
and call it anything but graffiti? Chris Rock says
my first job is to keep my daughter
off the pole. Although I have expended
great energy arguing the autonomy of strippers,
I have to agree with him. As a father myself
I now see every mutinous claim of independence
as the first steps toward my sweet pea’s
falling in with a bad crowd. Richard Pryor
says we are bound to fuck up our kids
one way or another. My father would
split the difference: I made you, he’d say,
I can un-make you, and make another one
just like you.