WHO: Princess’ 1st Birthday Party
WHAT: Decorations, Childcare, Lei-bearer
WHERE: Oakland, CA
HOW MUCH: Less than Expected
At the height of my odd job stardom, I took a gig that was vague enough that I couldn’t explain exactly what I’d be doing, and far enough from BART that I had to get a ride from my older brother. The job was for some gathering involving children. Briteney was my contact, a woman who spelled her name at least three different ways during our communication.
After a phone call, she very professionally insisted I sleep on it and let her know if I wanted the job the next day. How to explain I would eat ice cream out of a compost bin for a few dollars. … So, I called her back the next day with a resounding Yes! I’ll take it! And was given the following party instructions. I have often struggled with this idea of a dress code because, really, what’s appropriate? And who in the world has Luau gear lying around?
As always, I improvised. I whipped off the covering to my desk chair and used it as a sarong, threw on a tank top, and topped it off with a Hawai’ian Kukui nut necklace I’m sure I got for free at someone’s wedding.
My brother drove me to Bryteni’s house in East Oakland, a burgundy one-story, neighbored by similarly modest homes, all rimmed with hazardously tall grass.
“Christeeen. Are you sure about this?” my brother asks.
“Oh yeah, don’t worry, I’ll be fine, it’s safe!” I mumble while hopping out of the car.
A young man answers the door, and introduces himself as Bryteni’s husband. A few minutes later, Bryteni and her daughter emerge from the bedroom, dressed in spot-on identical outfits.
Turns out, it’s the kid’s first birthday, and the theme of the party is a Hawai’ian Luau. My job was to be Mommy’s helper: setting the picnic table, putting up decorations, and Lei-ing everyone who came in. Bryteni was not a micro-manager. In fact, she left it to me to do what I thought looked best.
This might have worked out if I was one of those people who was adept at decorating, but as it was, I might as well have been some hairy street man from the dumpster.
I do my best impersonation of a girl, and line the tables with sheets, hang up decorative palm trees, and litter the picnic tables with candles and crafts. Not bad, not bad.
Soon, kids of various ages, from 1 to teens, populate the backyard, and it’s my job to not only entertain them, but also ensure their safety.
The kids naturally group into those who like to gather, those who like to hunt, and those who like to sit and stare at the sky. I split my time blowing bubbles with the shy kids, collecting lemons with a group of entrepreneuring girls, and most importantly, controlling the hyperactive 9-year-old on the playground.
I knew immediately that this wild child was something to be channeled, not controlled, with his spastic fist throws and kicks and the way he triumphantly pulled out anything rooted in the ground. Not a bad kid, but an energetic 9-year-old is among the most dangerous creatures on earth. They’re at the stage where they’re strong enough to physically hurt you, but thoughtful enough that one can appeal to their reason and empathy.
Balancing the two deities of his unpredictable behavior was crucial: I had him ride the power wheels, assist with the lemon-collecting gals and even sacrificed my own safety by playing human basketball hoop.
After 3 hours pass, things began to settle down, and I take a break with the bubble-blowing sideliners, two girls and one boy, who had been pensively covering themselves with the goopy substance all afternoon. With each dip, at least one child spills some of the soapy liquid on themselves or on me, but at least it’s not a life-threatening offense. They are very quiet, but they take to me because I let them bubble in peace. Around the corner, the lemon girls pull up with an overflowing cart of lemons.
“Lemons for sale! Lemons for sale!” they shout enthusiastically.
“Ooh! How much?” I ask.
“Five dollars! Okay, I’ll take two.”
I pull out invisible money and hand it to them, as they happily take it and move on to the next customer.
Unfortunately, one of the many tiki torches lining the yard falls down just then. This, of course, immediately triggers wild child, who grabs the firey object and runs around with it like a forest child on the hunt. Along the way, he begins knocking the other torches down, until all tikis are on the ground. The other boys, seeing something new they can do, also pick up the sharply shaven spears and run around with them.
“No no no! Don’t do that!” I holler.
I intercept wild child, and for a second, he looks at me and stops in his tracks. Then proceeds to swing the torch at me, like this is human T-ball. I expertly grab the stick out of his hand, and he instantly drops it and stomps away. On to the next destructive adventure!
After the leader drops his weapon, it’s easier to get the other boys to stop. Sheesh. Boys.
I painstakingly stick all the tikis back in the ground, and return to my peaceful bubble-blowers. As I watch the carefully balanced chaos circling the backyard, parents seated at the table, kids swirling around them, I think about the prospect of having a child. Biologically, I’m at the ideal age for having children. But I have wrestled with the thought of bringing a life into this world, particularly at this point in time. Aside from all the practical terms of why it’d be a bad idea for me (i.e. no money, no home, no husband, absolutely no cooking ability), I considered what it meant to usher a life into this world; this planet so mercilessly drained of its resources, its communities systematically broken down, the destruction of beauty and the indoctrination of beastly individualism, and all of this wrapped gaudily in the world’s favorite pastime: hyper consumerism — made me think what kind of world I would bring life into.
Should you manage to raise a child to be a balanced, thoughtful, and empathetic human, it was still terrifying to think of how pain would mar their life: the suffering of disease, poverty, the knowledge that some things were simply never going to exist again. To face the perpetual death of culture.
Could you create life simply to rear a soldier for the forces of good, knowing full well the battle you’d be sending them to? Having a child wasn’t simply about the need to breed, or care for something, or to create a miniature version of myself to carry on my blood and my name. It meant bringing a new existence into this world, somebody who might end up being a lot like me; and did I think it was worth it?
The arrival of a pinata instantly galvanized kids from all corners of the yard into an anxious frenzy. Hung precariously on thin rope, the pinata suffered glorious blows from gleefully desperate children, until it exploded, and candy rained down. Everyone hit the deck and scooped up piles of treats like crazy.
After the pinata, Bryteni excused me and her husband gave me an envelope with cash, unfortunately for me $10 short of what was promised. The two bubble girls, seeing me leave, took my hand and tried to bring me back to bubble-blowing corner. I explained I had to go home now. They looked at me silently, then let go of my hand and returned alone.
Outside, I waited for my ride, and focused on a strong glass of scotch. The cries of children were still vibrantly ringing from the backyard, and I was relieved, if not a bit sad, to escape from the chaos. I had to admit it was fun playing with the kids, but I could walk away from them any time I wanted. I can only imagine the pain and pride of having a princess of your own was something remarkable I had to experience to understand.