Confessions of a Performative Dad

By
My accomplices.

As a father, the crucible of the morning commute to school offers more than just a chance to bond with my kids. It’s an opportunity to showcase my parenting skills for my fellow riders, bask in the glow of their affirmation, and meet my challengers head-on in the battle of the Performatives Dads — an ongoing contest in which I recently enjoyed my greatest triumph: the Battle of the Books.

ACT I: STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS, PLEASE

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a school day when I entrain at 15th Street–Prospect Park. Wild-eyed and clucking, I clutch the wrists of two towheaded sons. “Big step up!” I say as we enter the car. My voice has the distinct stentorian timbre of a carny, and it should. I’m about to put on a show.

The F train is crowded at this hour with pole hoggers, man spreaders, lady baggers (the female equivalent of manspreaders), and slumped graveyard-shift corpses. My eyes cast about, scanning the benches for easy marks. After four years, I’ve got softie radar. I look for teenage girls and older women in particular. Men are of no help. I scan faces, shoes, and uniforms with cold professional appraisal. The cheap cotton of nursing outfits is a promising sign. Sunglasses are never good. Like an algorithm, I analyze seat density. Finally, a match. There’s space open next to a nice-looking middle-aged African-American woman. As the train jolts forward, I cast my eldest son down into that hole. Perhaps, I hope, she’ll succumb not to the direct pleas of my two-and-a-half-year-old but to my own well-practiced slightly apologetic glances as the boy left standing, similarly well-trained, complains of the inequity of his brother’s seated position. Like clockwork, by Bergen Street both of the boys are sitting down.

“Daddy, I want my chocolate muffin,” the 4-year-old says. He sits directly beneath the sign that informs us this is a subway car, not a dining car. I glance uneasily at the sign and say, loud enough to form a fig leaf, “You can’t eat on the subway. You’ll make a mess.” “Please, Daddy,” he replies in that warning way toddlers do, their voice getting higher as panic creeps in.

“Them’s the rules, little dude,” I tell him, privately congratulating myself for nailing the mark twixt stern and cool.

But it doesn’t work. “Daddy!” he wails. “I’m HUUUUUUNGRY.”

“Jesus, fine,” says I, feigning a broken spirit, hoping my valiant effort to abide by the MTA’s Emily Post guidance hasn’t been lost on my fellow passengers.

I dig into a crumpled Connecticut Muffin bag and extract a chocolate muffin. Like a small, carby asteroid, it immediately leaves behind it a trail of crumbs. “But be careful.”

Never has a con man been in perfectly in tune with a plant as I am with my son. This must be how Dean and Adam Skelos felt. Like Bey, our act is flawless. In a few seconds’ time, I’ve managed to launder capitulation as altruism, saving the car from a screaming child after valiantly fighting for rule of law.

Lost in self-congratulations, I am almost too pleased to notice the woman across the car. She looks up from her Candy Crush and sighs. She’s a regular on this train, and I can tell our little chocolate-muffin pantomime is no longer fooling her. But then she takes out a set of nail clippers and with each infuriating click cedes her high ground.

ACT II: A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN

Securing seats for my children is all well and good, for the human heart is easily bent to the young. But I’m still standing, dammit. And this will not do. I do not lose hope. For every gambit, I know, there’s a counterattack, and this is no different. Time for a story.

“Do you guys want to read a book?” I ask. “How about Amos & Boris?” One shrugs; one nods. Amos & Boris is a very good book. It belongs to that collection of children’s books I keep on a special shelf for what I silently call “show books.”

Both of my sons prefer flimsy paperback adaptations of superhero stories made with Lego figurines. That’s fine at home, but in public it’s show books or no books. Some, like Amos & Boris, are part of the minor canon of children’s books. These are the lesser-known works of better-known authors like Steig and Sendak, Carle and Harper. If WFMU curated kids’ books, it would be these: Not Where the Wild Things Are, but Kenny’s Window; not A Very Hungry Caterpillar but House for Hermit Crab. It’s Tomi Ungerer. It’s Simms Taback. It’s Edward Gorey. These are the B-sides and rarities I collect now that I’ve been forced to get rid of my vinyl.

Now it’s time for a dance. I’m a healthy guy, can bend, am stretchy. But I groan like Walter Matthau as I bend down to extract the book from the bag resting between my legs. I, a former dancer, possess proprioception. I could bend my knees, but I do not, for this is my solo. Le Spectre de la rose pales in comparison. From above the waistband of my too-tight jeans, my alabaster ass cheeks emerge. My fingers graze the spine of the book, but still I moan, bend, and writhe. The train proceeds smoothly, still I sway from side to side, muttering words like woah and jeez.

What finally compels the woman next to my sons to rise up isn’t the sorry sight of my debasement, but rather the admixture of disgust, sympathy, and anger in the eyes of those sitting behind me. Just as planned, I gain a spot. I sit and begin to read.

“Amos & Boris,” I say, reading the cover. “Amos & Boris,” I repeat, reading the title page. “Amos & Boris,” I say a third time, reading the secondary title page. Each time my voice gets louder and louder, like a town crier. “Amos, a mouse, lived by the ocean,” I nearly shout.

And so the story of a little mouse named Amos and his friend, a whale named Boris, unfolds. My sons follow Steig’s tale of friendship with eyes wide, but I am not ignorant of the gallery, the balcony. And I cannot help the hunger clear in my eyes as I scan the faces of my wider audience to see how my dadness is playing.

That is when I spot my nemesis.

ACT III: A BATTLE ROYALE

In the corner, but a few feet from where I sit, a man sits with a picture book open in his hands, and two children beside him. It is another Performative Dad. Our most venomous hatred is reserved for those who reflect what we hate in ourselves. So I watch him as he reads Tomi Ungerer’s Moon Man, and let loathing course through my veins.

Fortune smiles first on my opponent. His daughter sneezes, sending ropes of snot over her chin and hands. As Performative Dads, we carry no tissues or wipes. He knows what happens next. Instinctively, the women around him begin to rifle through their purses. Like shades summoned from the beyond through black magic, leaves of paper of all sorts appear before him: brown napkins, white napkins, deli napkins, soft Kleenex, hard paper towel. And above these proffering hands: faces like out of some Renaissance pietà, so full of compassion and love-tinged sorrow. “Here you go,” says one woman, from whom he takes a tissue. “You’re doing a great job, Dad.”

For dads like us, that phrase is like when little Mario hit those brick blocks and coins came out. We swell with pride. What agony to hear the compliment paid to an imposter. These are my words. They belong to me.

I turned back to Amos & Boris. “They told each other about their lives, their ambitions,” I read, with an emotive fury, nearly weeping as Amos is carried atop Boris’s back.

My opponent ups the ante. “Every night from his drifting sphere, the Moon Man was filled with envy as he watched the earth people dance,” he reads fiercely, vehemently.

My turn: “Just as Amos had once felt, all alone in the middle of the ocean, Boris felt now, lying alone on the shore,” I read, menace simmering just beneath the surface of the words.

“They called the mysterious visitor an invader,” counters my opponent, teeth bared in panto-grimace.

“‘You have to be out of the sea really to know how good it is to be in it,’” I parry. I look directly at the Performative Dad. My sons look directly at his daughter. But they are young and innocent and do not register the battle raging above their heads. And now it is time for the coup de grâce. I turn to his daughter and smile. “Hello, what’s your name?”

The little girl looks at her dad and then at me and then at her dad. And then she says to me:

“Rose. I’m 4 years old.” She holds up three fingers. I smile kindly, my eyes traveling to meet her father’s.

He holds my gaze for a moment, but the fight has gone out of him. He turns to read his book again. “The Moon Man, who had realized he could never live peacefully on this planet, agreed to go,” he says, sadly. Then he glances toward the door and says, “Girls, grab your stuff. This is where we get off.”

Joshua David Stein is the author of Can I Eat That?, a children’s book. Songs for Kids I’ve Had, his album of songs inspired by his sons, produced in collaboration with Kyle Forester, is out now.