Castle Island - Playgroundby Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter February 1999 and The Boston City Paper 6/2007

So our washing machine is broken, and I’m lugging three baskets of assorted clothes, a family sized box of TIDE, and a jug of bleach to a Laundromat near where I work in Quincy. I’ve loaded the clothes into various triple capacity spin-o-matics, and inserted a large number of quarters into the machines when I hear the following:

“Shut up. I said shut up! Sit down before I belt you.” My eyes discretely wander to the owner of the threats: He’s a guy with a couple of kids, and while waiting for the laundry, he’s reading a school textbook to one of them.

“I said sit down! You think I’m reading this for my health? Spit that gum out before I shove it down you throat!”

The guy hasn’t actually hit the kids, and continues to read to them. The kids, for their part, look clean, well-fed, and well cared for. They’re just bored in the Laundromat and their attention keeps wandering. Dad continues to make an effort to read the school book out loud, occasionally snapping, “Pay attention” or making another derogatory comment or threat of punishment.

What makes this situation so interesting is the paradox — here’s a guy who obviously cares about his kids, who’s reading to one of them, yet peppers the quality time with threats — sometimes violent threats.

I leave to get a soda. Almost an hour goes by; I return and pack up my laundry. The guy’s still there, still yelling. I don’t say anything, neither do the other people doing laundry. Parents yell at their kids. Happens all the time. The kids aren’t upset; just bored.

But here we are in a year where kids being removed from “houses of horror” seems to be daily news. The other night “20/20” ran a story about a little boy whose parents kept him in a cage for several years. Stories of child abuse and cruelty are everywhere. Kids are so powerless, and rely on their parents and guardians for everything.

And I kept thinking back to the guy in the Laundromat.

Now it’s a week or so later and I’m at the gym. Just got back from swimming, and there’s a Dad in the locker room with his two little kids, they’re maybe three and four years old. Dad is juggling trying to get himself dressed as well as two happy and hyperactive kids. They’re raving about how much fun they had swimming, and trying to get dressed with only mixed success. Throughout it all, despite the minor chaos, Dad seems to be happy.

“My hair okay?” One of the little kids asks.

Dad laughs. “It’s a little poofy, I can comb it if you want.” Then he addresses his other boy and praises him for getting his shirt on correctly. “Good. But put the pants on before your sneakers. It’s easier.”

“Why?” the little boy asks.

“It just is. And you have to wear sneakers.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s cold out and you’ll look silly walking around with no sneakers on,” he explains patiently.

“Oh.” The little guy says.

Two different days, two different situations, yet alike. And in both, the same thought hits me: What will these kids remember years from now?

Memory’s a funny thing; we grow older and can forget a hundred good events but take a single bad one with us through life, like so much excess psychological baggage. What do you think these kids will remember?

I’m betting the kids at the gym will remember how Dad used to take them swimming with him when they were little, and how much fun they had. But the Laundromat kids? Will they remember that Dad spent time reading to them, or that he kept threatening them if they didn’t sit still? I’m betting they’ll remember the threats. And that’s a shame, because a parent reading to his child is a special and sometimes rare thing.

Kids never forget anything. And some day, that Laundromat guy may wonder why his kids never come visit him anymore. Here’s hoping he figures it out sooner than later.

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