I was sitting at the stoplight trying to block the sounds of Twista from the car next to me by cranking the David Gray on my stereo. It was futile.
My oldest son was in the car seat behind me. He and I had just completed a morning of male-bonding, which consisted of getting my pants hemmed, buying a couple pair of new shoes for his first day of kindergarten on Monday (brown high-top Converse and plaid Sperry top-siders), and finding a gift for the three events that we were involved in that afternoon: a baby shower, a birthday party, and a wedding. We’ve had a summer without so much as a picnic and then it’s all shoved into one day. People really need to spread themselves out.
My wife was home making cakes and lasagna.
As we were sitting at the stoplight, my son noticed a kid standing alone on the sidewalk. He was holding a big neon-green sign, the kind that you see on every corner in the summer begging you to donate five bucks to get soap streaks on your car.
“Why’s that kid by himself?”
“He’s holding a sign,” I said.
“What does it say?”
That’s when I realized that the kid wasn’t raising cash for camp; he was being punished.
The sign said: I will not lie to my parents and I will not use profanity.
I started to read it to my son, stopped, and looked at the kid again. The kid was about nine, twelve at the oldest, and on the heavy side. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and staring at his feet. He was standing on the sidewalk in front of McDonald’s on the busiest corner in town. He was in the sun and it was ninety-five degrees.
He was humiliated.
Is that good parenting? Is that tough love?
There was a group of people sitting in the grass behind him, about twenty feet away. There were about six or eight of them. They looked like they were tailgating in the shade, oblivious to the endless line of traffic beside them.
Is that good parenting? Is that cruel and unusual? Whatever happened to just beating a kid?
I pretended that I could hear the kid’s thoughts. They were filled with lots of profanity and they were aimed at his parents.
I watched the kid stand there as thousands of people passed him, oblivious to his sentence, mocking him, feeling pity. I looked at the people in the shade and I hoped that this was a final straw, a bluff called. I hoped they felt worse than he did.
The light turned green and we started to make our left-hand turn, four lanes and a world away from that kid learning a lesson on a hot, concrete stage. I turned up David Gray and looked at the road ahead.
“What does it say?” my son asked again.
I met his eyes in the rearview mirror and earned a sign of my own. “It says ‘car wash.’”