Deadbeat Dad knows a thing or two about prison. Not that I’ve ever done hard time. No, the only real spell I’ve done in the clink—besides being popped for public drunkenness in Boulder, Colorado for trying to steal the American flag from the police station—was the time I got busted smuggling hash from Antwerp to London via the Eurostar. I was 21 and had 100 grams of Morocco’s finest taped to the inside of my thighs. Long story short: I was busted—big time. The combination of Jew-fro, filthy clothes and stoned demeanor had the same effect as if I had been wearing a sandwich board that read, “I AM SMUGGLING NARCOTICS.” Needless to say, the next 24 hours were humiliating. There was the body cavity search; a jumpsuit; holding pen with a group of Belgian skinheads who were sharing a tuna sandwich and eye-balling me like a piece of meat; my appearance before the court; a huge fine and order for immediate deportation. I was driven directly to the airport and banned from the country for three years. Oh, well, shit happens. I’ve done worse since. I’m just more careful now.
What was my point? Oh, yeah, the playground. It’s an awful place and dangerous for the new fish who dares to enter without knowing its rules and rituals. In short, it’s just like prison. And despite my brief stint as a guest of Her Majesty in a London lock-up, my real knowledge of how to navigate the jungle gym is from watching hours of prison movies and shows like Oz.
The first person to approach you on the playground is not your friend
Be wary of this person as she comes in two separate dispositions: desperate or predatory. In prison, this person takes the same form; he is either trying to “punk you out” by making you his bitch, or is seeking some kind of refuge from those wanting him to “toss their salads.” As a “new fish” you are ignorant of the politics of prison and lack any frame of reference to know what agenda the person approaching you is seeking to promote. On the playground this takes the form of the overly chatty parent who is all too willing to bare her deepest issues to a perfect stranger. At first, the new parent will be thankful for the company. But slowly, this person will have wormed her way into your life and—like herpes or a subscription to Maxim—these people are hard to shake. On the other side of the coin is the predator. She is the Alpha Mom of the yard and generally is outraged by something or other—it’s anyone’s guess—on a daily basis. If you give her an inch she will “turn you out,” until you’re signing a Facebook petition to ban trans fats in school, or have agreed to support her crusade to shut down your favorite dive bar because it’s next to a school and the drunks may yell at the kids from time to time around 3 p.m. As if that’s a bad thing…
You have to cut a sucker
Both the Alpha Mom and Desperate Dad need to be stopped dead in their tracks. The first days are crucial as it determines your status in the hierarchy of the park. In prison they suggest you “peel somebody’s cap” on the first day so people know you are not to be fucked with. Now, Deadbeat Dad would never suggest you punch Alpha Mom or crazy, desperate Stay-at-Home Dad. But if you could convince your wife to “beef,” that would fucking rule. In both cases, your metaphorical “shiv” is your Blackberry or trend-forward iPhone. The moment they approach—and believe me, they will—excuse yourself by saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve just got to take this call.” Then pretend to talk about something business-y while they walk away. Sometimes they will wait, which makes it all the more awkward, in which case you will have to walk away. It’s a delicate dance as the whole yard will be watching. The key is to be firm without coming across as an ass-hole. You will be living with these people for a long time. Your kids will go to school together and you will dine in the same establishments and share the same Starbucks. At the same time you will have gained yourself a rep and the attention of an appropriate clique, or “set.”
You must ride with your crew
Once you establish a semblance of dominance over the playground, it’s time to establish contact with an appropriate gang. Now, my playground lacks the presence of Crips, Bloods, Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood or Cosa Nostra, but we do have certain identifiable cliques, most of which I wouldn’t dare try and claim membership to, either out of personal defect or desire. I look for the dads who obviously have no idea what they are doing at the playground. Their kids are usually bullying other children, eating other people’s snacks, or have their heads caught in the bike rack. They are confused and irritable, possibly hungover and most definitely stoned. A trip to the playground is stressful. Deadbeat Dad suggests “a tit,” or a surreptitious trip to the men’s room to light the one-hitter. But beware of the “hacks” or park district employees who will most certainly rat you out.
Wear your colors
I find it helpful when seeking out “a set to ride with” to wear my colors. Because I’m an ass-hole and provocateur, I make it a point to wear my Suicidal Tendencies hoodie whenever I might be headed to the park. Not only does it make me look like a thug teenage skater, but it sends a message that I’m a chill casual dude who, despite the presence of an adorable child, still gets heavy with some early ’80’s hardcore, and if pressed would beat you down with a 40-ounce malt beverage on the slightest beef. On the other hand, you also want your outfit to repel the various Alpha Moms, Super Dads and other “Peckerwoods” who would dare to make your time any worse than it already is. Thus, I sometimes don a T-shirt from Soldier of Fortune magazine suggesting a fondness for firearms and vaguely reactionary politics. This alone is enough to be excluded from all the organic potlucks and Obama victory parties you can shake a stick at. And if this isn’t doing the trick, I’ll generally throw on a vintage number I have from Juggs magazine. Never fails. From this point on, you will be met with whispers and a wariness saved for the neighbor with a Rottweiler on a bike chain.
In the joint nobody messes with a psych case. You can’t tell what they’re going to do, which makes them dangerous and of little use to the protracted power games that go on in the pen. On the inside, you can “gas somebody down,” which is slang for throwing a cocktail of human excrement at your enemy. On the playground, you can actually do nearly the same. Just wait till junior needs his diaper changed and dispose of the soiled item in Alpha Mom’s purse. On a hot day it will create quite an odor, but she will likely not notice until she’s returned home. Now, this will not get you ahead in terms of playground politics, but it will put a smile on your face, considering junior had his first Polish sausage earlier in the day. Easier—and this is if you want to avoid any human contact beyond the attention of your child—is just to go apeshit crazy and be the guy who chases his kid around screaming his lungs out like the town drunk in an Irish novel. Use the jungle gym, swing on the swings, hang from the climbing frame and spin your boy too fast on the merry-go-round. Not only is it fun as hell to act like a complete moron, your kid will love you and the other parents will give you a wide berth.
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