Being the Cool Parent

Parents who host lose the most, read the signs and posters that I see at Kroger and Giant Eagle, especially near the beer and wine section.  Simply put, it means that if there’s underage drinking at your house, and you’ve given it your blessing (or, even worse, made the run to the liquor store for the teens), you are facing some steep legal penalties.

This concept was pretty foreign to a lot of kids (and parents) when I was in high school (I graduated in ’81).  If a parent heard that his/her teenager had been out drinking, the usual reaction was to shrug and say, "Well, thank God they weren’t doing drugs!"  (This laissez-faire attitude did not apply, however, if driving-under-the-influence charges figured anywhere in the picture.)

Earlier in this blog I described my adventures behind the scenes for school plays, working with lighting and sound.  Cast parties usually followed, and if the hosts’ parents weren’t around, it was often open season on the liquor cabinet, and usually a senior (the drinking age in Ohio was 18 for "3.2 beer" and 21 for everything else, but West Virginia was five minutes away via the Williamstown Bridge, and the drinking age there was 18 for everything) was more than happy to pass the hat for a trip to the store to buy more.

The cool parents were the ones who allowed parties involving alcohol to happen on their premises, either by going out of town for the weekend or by allowing it.

My dad was oblivious to the party-hosting laws.  He never let me host a party that involved alcohol, but one summer evening my oldest stepsister (who is six months older than I am) brought her best friend over for dinner.  We were about 15 then, I think.  We had Italian food, and topped off the meal with red wine.  The younger stepsisters (10 and 13) weren’t allowed to have the wine, and my stepmother was a teetotaler, but the older teens could drink it.  We didn’t get drunk, but we drank it.

I mentioned casually a few nights later about a party one of my classmates had thrown, with his parents’ blessing.  I said, "And his parents are in big trouble for providing the beer."  My dad looked at me like I had lost my mind.  "You mean I could’ve gotten in trouble for letting Sarah (my stepsister’s friend–not her real name) have wine the other night?"

I told him–and further research bears me out–"If her parents made an issue out of it, yes."  (They didn’t.)

When we brought home the Wii, I was afraid that our house would be the one that all the kids wanted to visit, but for the wrong reason.  Not because they want to see Susie, but because they want to play on the Wii.  When I was in elementary school, it was the kid who had the newest Hot Wheels set or the most extensive Matchbox collection.

My house became the spot to visit when I was 12 or 13, because I was almost completely unsupervised.  My dad was spending most of his time at my stepmother-to-be’s apartment, so I was living on pot pies and hot dogs–meals I could easily make myself.  He and my mother, I found out while snooping through the closets, had managed to amass a rather large collection of pornography, beyond the usual Playboy and Penthouse, so that was an additional drawing card.  (Peoples’ Books and News on Putnam St. in Marietta was the only store in Marietta that sold hard-core porn.  Many people in town called it the DBS–the Dirty Book Store.)  My friends and I looked through page after page of the magazines, but never touched the liquor cabinet (marked SIN BIN) in the kitchen.

When Steph, Susie, and I were living in Franklinton, we became the "cool parents" for an entirely different reason.  Beginning when Steph was working at Gladden Community House, word spread pretty quickly that our place was where you went if you were hungry, or if your mom’s boyfriend was putting the moves on you, or if your parents had left hours ago and not returned.  Many of Susie’s friends came over unannounced and ended up staying for dinner, or until the next morning.

And our house was a revelation to quite a few of the kids.  We weren’t/aren’t rich, and in those days I often rolled pennies to be able to go to the corner market and buy a 20-oz. bottle of pop, but the fact that Steph served meals that didn’t come out of the microwave, and which featured fruit and vegetables, was the dawning of a new world for them.  Many of the girls (they were Susie’s friends, so they were almost always female) were awe-struck at all the books in the house, many of them in the living room, but most of them in my office.  (There was an Eastern European rabbi who was killed when a tall bookshelf overloaded with Torah scrolls and volumes of Talmud commentary tipped over on him.  If I could choose the way I would depart this life…)  They had never seen that many books anywhere except in a library or at school.  They didn’t know that people could have that many.

Our lack of cable mystified them, and I have to confess that was more financial than ascetic.  I could understand their puzzlement, because when I was about kindergarten age, my dad and I visited the apartment of a colleague of his, a bachelor in his 60s.  The apartment was full of records (mostly classical) and books, and reproductions of illuminated manuscripts and great works of art hung on his wall, but there was no television.  He said the only time he wished he had a TV was to watch football games.

I had a neighbor in Somerville, Mass. who was similar.  He was a bachelor in his 50s, and he worked a blue-collar job, but was quite the autodidact.  (I used to bring him copies of The Crimson, so he didn’t have to go to Cambridge to get it.)  He had a radio, mainly to listen to Red Sox games, but no TV.  When he came home from work, he fixed himself some bacon and eggs, popped open a beer, and stretched out on his living room couch and read books.  (I used to kid him about his lack of a TV: "You’ve seen one, haven’t you?  Box with a screen?  Shows these moving pictures that talk?")

We were flattered and honored to be the place of refuge in Franklinton, but at the same time it was a little sad to be "cool" because we provided food and comfort.  Sometimes, in those cases, we wondered how many of the girls became friends of Susie’s so they could be closer to Steph and me.  (One girl, about 10, started calling me "Daddy."  I put a quick stop to that, telling her, "Only Susie can call me ‘Daddy.’"  I thought her stepfather was an idiot, but it still would have been wrong for her to call me that.)  Until the day we left Franklinton, I would walk down a street or come out of a corner store and kids I didn’t even know would say, "Hi, Susie’s Dad!"

I’ve been called a lot worse in my day.

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