The writer’s father was anything but corporate. So when he whisked her and her siblings away to a company picnic, she braced herself for a mortifying adventure.
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Losing an accent is tough, but losing a Brooklyn accent is like losin’ your fuckin’ legs. When my father headed west to Arizona, he took his Brooklyn accent with him; it made him sound tougher than he really was, more menacing, and taller than his five-eight frame. When he said things like “fuck” and “dawg” and “Get your fuckin’ dawg off my leg!,” people left him alone. And he liked that. But employers did not. He had tough time keeping a job in Arizona. He wasn’t what you’d call a Company Man. My father never worked for a company. He never owned a company. He rarely enjoyed the company of others. Once, Dad stole a company car, but that’s another story. That’s why in 1983, when my twin brother, Paul, and I were 11 years old and my sister, Tessa, was 9, we were confused to learn that Dad was picking us up and taking us to a company picnic.
Dad’s saddle-brown 1970 El Dorado Cadillac coupe screeched to stop in front of his ex-wife’s house. He honked loudly. Somehow even the car horn seemed to have a Brooklyn accent.
“Kids! Get in!” he screamed. We ran out the door, all three of us fighting for the front seat.
“You got it last time, Tania!” Paul said, pushing me out of the way.
“Dipshit!” I said, pushing back.
“Asshole!” Paul said.
“Fucker!” I said.
“Shut up!” Paul said.
“What did you say?” Dad asked, looking like a monster awakened from a one-hundred-year slumber.
“Nothing,” I said, sliding into the front seat, like a mini mobster.
“Not you, your brother. Paul, what did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Paul said, sinking into the torn brown leather seat held together with years of duct tape and lost jobs.
“You said the TWO WORDS, didn’t you?” Dad snarled.
For most people the two words would have been asshole and fucker, but for my dad, who drove a cab in Manhattan all through the ’70s, words like fucker, asshole, and dipshit were just like saying hello, good-bye, and the meter’s running. The two words that really put Dad over the edge were shut up.
“I can’t fuckin’ believe you two. Paul, Tania, you’re almost teenagers and you’re talking like that!”
“Sorry Dad.” I said, picking at the duct tape between my thighs, exposing fluffy white fibers.
“If you can manage not to say those two words, I’m gonna take you kids somewhere very special today.”
“To buy a Cabbage Patch doll?” Tessa asked optimistically.
A few weeks earlier Paul and I had given little Natalie Vanessa—born in a cabbage patch far, far away—a lobotomy with a butter knife and a great deal of enthusiasm.
“Nah, it’s better than cabbage.” Dad said adjusting his rearview mirror, which had been repaired with duct tape so many times that the range of motion was either one centimeter to the left, or one centimeter to the right. “We’re going to … a company picnic!”
The three of us screamed in unison, “YAY!”
I’m not sure why we were so excited about a company picnic, considering we didn’t know what company or picnic really meant. But if Dad was excited, so were we!
El Dorado Park in south Scottsdale was our company picnic destination. I loved
El Dorado Park! It was like a junkyard-themed amusement park. With its dead vegetation, abundance of garbage, and unsupervised after-school programs, El Dorado Park was just plain AWESOME. It was also a breeding ground for eccentric characters like Bud, this cool guy I knew from the Rec Center. He was a man of few words, with thinning hair and a droopy cowboy mustache, and he and I would hang out and play Ping-Pong and talk about women and beer and longing. I was 11 and he was 40-something. We were actually pretty good friends which, in retrospect, leads me to believe that he either thought I was an extremely short man or he was drunk. Or both.
Later in life, I realized Bud’s cowboy vernacular was pulled from the lyrics of country-western songs, but at the time I regarded him as the Rec Center Sage. “Lordy,” he’d say, “I have loved some ladies and I have loved Jim Beam … and they both tried to kill me!” Every time he won a Ping-Pong game, he would shimmy a thin black comb from the back pocket of his Levi’s, run it through his stringy brown hair, and say, “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way!”
Dad grabbed an itchy, plaid blanket from the trunk, tucked it under his arm, and said, “Let’s go!”
He walked fast, with a sense of purpose and urgency that I had only seen when he was getting ready to go to Vegas.
“Dad, I’m hungry,” Paul whined.
“We’re almost there,” Dad said, as his eyes darted back and forth, looking for … something. In the distance something caught his eye.
“Come on!” he said, and began walking briskly, then jogging, encouraging all of us to run too.
A giant blue and white sign hung in the sky, it read: Welcome to the Motorola Company Picnic!
Dad stood for a moment, arms akimbo, looking up at the sign with reverence.
“Kids, grab a hot-dawg and some soda. We’re here!”
“Dad, you don’t work for Motorola.” I said, but my observation came too late, Dad already had a foot-long and was excitedly decorating it with a thick mustard zigzag. Paul started grabbing cans of soda from an oversize plastic tub. Tessa spotted a little girl with a Cabbage Patch doll and went over to make friends. If I had known about suicide, I would have grabbed a nearby Frisbee and began sawing at my chubby humiliated wrists.
How could my father do this to me? Didn’t he have a sense of dignity? Of right versus wrong?! I wished Bud could be my dad—he’d never crash a company picnic, unless it was with the intent to win a woman’s heart or beat up some lowdown cheater.
“Hey, Tania!” a girl’s voice said while an index finger tapped on my shoulder. I turned toward the tap and found myself trapped in slow motion. (Note: Please read the following dialogue in SLOW MOTION. This will make the moment feel as awkward and heartbreaking as it really was.)
“Oh, hi Julie,” I said, with forced nonchalance.
“Hi Tania, I didn’t know your dad worked for Motorola.”
“Yeah, he started today.”
“Oh. Wanna go get some chips?”
“No thanks, Julie, I’m just gonna stay here,” I said, muttering “and die a slow painful death by myself.”
If this had been an isolated embarrassing incident, no big whoop, but my father had a pattern of dragging us into extremely uncomfortable situations. Like when I wanted to join the Girl Scouts, but Mom couldn’t afford the dues, because Dad’s dubious employment at the time—gambling—brought in sporadic paydays, which made child support about as reliable and real as Monopoly money. But nothing has ever deterred my Dad. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve had a gun pointed at the back of your head, when Mick Jagger asks you for a ride, when you’ve driven more than 24 hours in Manhattan and have forget where you are and where you’re going. There was no way my Pop was not gonna let a cockamamie thing like Girl Scout dues be his undoing.
Dad found out where the Girl Scouts were going on their overnight and we conveniently showed up at the same campgrounds. When I say “we,” I mean my dad, my brother, my sister, and me. That’s right, my poor family, poured out of Dad’s duct-taped car and plopped down right next to the popular girls from school. With their green-felt berets perched atop their perfect heads and collective look of disgust, they were clearly the French elite and we were the Ugly Americans. And because Girl Scout Law clearly states, “Be friendly and helpful,” we sat around their campfire sharing s’mores and artificial smiles until someone poured water on the flame.
As soon as Julie left I closed my eyes and prayed in the only way I knew how to at the time. “Dear God, it’s me, Tania. Could you please provide me with a new, less embarrassing, more financially stable Dad by 3 p.m. today. That’s all. And a maybe a Shar-Pei puppy. Thanks.”
As my eyes opened I saw several fathers happily bouncing down a stretch of grass, holding up potato sacks. Maybe one of them was my new Dad! I looked carefully, and then I saw HIM. Sweat dripping down his face, threatening to expose the mustache he had filled in with mascara earlier that day. My father was potato sack racing with real fathers! And here’s the thing; he looked strong, almost elegant, like so many of the horses and dogs he had bet on—and lost with—over the years.
The field quickly thinned out until only two racers remained: My father and a company man. A company man and my dad, my dad and the company man, Dad … company … Dad … company … DAD … COMPANY …
The blue ribbon that stretched across the finish line practically jumped up to hug my father as he leaned in to win the race. For exactly three seconds I was proud of my father.
On the fourth second, I hoped that the smoke from the nearby grill would fill my lungs and kill me.
It was time to get the hell out of there. To leave that big fat lie behind and start anew. I gathered up Paul, who was stoned on carbonated drinks and Tessa, who was playing with her new friend’s Cabbage Patch doll, and went to confront my father. I found Dad surrounded by company men. He was telling them a story, drinking light beer, and gesticulating like only a guy who didn’t work for a company could. These guys were laughing, listening to my Dad—the company picnic crasher—like he was the CEO of Motorola.
“Um, Dad, don’t you think we should go NOW?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s get outta here. See you guys at the next company picnic!”
With golden mustard crusting up in the creases of his smile, Dad took our little hands and proudly marched us through the park.
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