My daughter will be eight years old in three weeks and she’s convinced she knows with great precision how the entire world works.
“Gay means a boy likes a boy or a girl likes a girl,” she announces with confidence one day. “And what’s the word for the regular way again?”
“Straight,” I tell her.
“Oh, yeah. Right.”
“How does a woman get pregnant?” I ask another time.
Her shrug says, duh. “She gets married.”
One August afternoon, we took her for lunch to Peanut Butter and Company by NYU. My wife and I shared an Elvis Presley — peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon on grilled bread. My daughter had peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. We expected a big smile, but the bread slices were huge and the sandwich didn’t thrill her.
She’s peanut butter jaded, I thought. Wait till she’s in college and missing the comforts of home. With NYU students coming and going around us, I had another thought and raised the subject of profanity. I requested a verbal rogue’s gallery, awaiting the forbidden list that I imagined she was already exchanging with friends.
My daughter scrunched her face and blushed. “I don’t want to say, because, you know, they’re bad words.”
But even her sainted mother was urging her on. I guess the summer before third grade seemed like a good time to assess her moral dissolution.
“You know,” my daughter said, “there’s the S-word…”
I nodded. “What’s the S-word?”
She rolled her eyes and whispered: “You know, Daddy.” Dramatic pause. “Stupid.”
“Of course! The S-word is Stupid.” I breathed. “What else?”
“It’s bad to hold up this finger.” She couldn’t extend it all the way, though. It was too bad.
“Why? What does it mean?”
We were on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear THE WORD.
She said, “I don’t know what it means exactly, but it’s like sending a bad message to God.”
My wife changed the subject and we walked from Peanut Butter and Company with unexpected parental satisfaction, even, one might say, a certain giddiness.
We live in Delaware. But in the West Village, where we keep an apartment, there are sights and sounds that don’t discriminate between world-weary old ears and innocent young ones. There are still some explicit video stores around, for example, shops in the Village that sell sex toys and the kind of lingerie you don’t see in the Victoria’s Secret catalog — at least, not in the edition that comes to my house. My daughter walks by them in sweet oblivion.
There are gay and lesbian bars, of course. When we see the patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, my daughter never asks why someone forgot to invite the opposite sex.
With some frequency we also pass a certain S&M shop on Christopher Street, and the window displays don’t resemble anything from Cartoon Network or recall any of London Tipton’s adventures on “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.” We quicken our steps whenever we pass that store, but one day, I know, the leather-clad mannequins will cry out to my daughter through the plate glass.
Then there are the real live people on the street. We were in town the morning of Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary. Crossing Hudson after brunch, we passed close to a pair of heavily made up, strapping, broad-shouldered drag queens in heels and boas. My daughter didn’t even lift an eyebrow, and not because we’ve had that conversation.
Speaking of drag queens, a week after our curse-word review at Peanut Butter and Company, we went to see Billy Elliot on Broadway, in which a couple of boys cross dress and the lead character’s family accuses him of being “a poof.”
My daughter is rather sophisticated when it comes to stories, having seen and analyzed every Disney show and read most age-appropriate bestsellers. She sat riveted and only asked one or two questions during the performance. None of these questions featured the word “poof.”
At intermission, she declared that she already liked the show so much she wanted to return with a friend. Her mother and I looked at one another. The script is laced with the word “fuck” — pronounced “fock” by actors playing British miners — and there are some shits and a shite in there for good measure.
I said, “We’ll have to check with your friend’s parents first, because some parents might object to the bad words.”
Astonished, she wondered. “What bad words are in this show?”
But the whole script didn’t go over her head. She was conversant with the story when we discussed it afterwards. And days later she recalled in great detail the opening of Act II and asked me to remind her what the closing scene of Act I had been. Yet certain words just didn’t seem to register.
We took the subway home to the West Village late that afternoon. Walking down Eighth Avenue, we came to a gas station on the corner of Thirteenth Street. At that very moment, a yellow cab pulled out, the driver looking back at the station through his side view mirror and flipping someone the bird. Before he departed, he half turned and shouted, “You don’t have one!”
My daughter was all ears. Naturally, she had some questions about what just transpired.
“He’s angry at someone,” my wife said curtly.
That wasn’t good enough. “Why did he say, ‘you don’t have one’?”
I clarified: “Probably the other guy said something unflattering about a member of his family.”
“About who?” my daughter wanted to know.
“His mother,” I said.
She took my hand. “What about his mother?”
I gathered myself. “Some people think the worst thing you can say to someone is to insult his mother. Probably, someone at the gas station said something in anger about the cab driver’s mother and the cab driver wanted to say something worse back. So he said the other guy didn’t have a mother.”
My wife acknowledged this verbal dexterity with an enthusiastic nod. Wrapped it up, I thought, patting myself on the back. Put a bow on it.
But my daughter frowned, unsatisfied. She pressed: “Like what would you say about someone’s mother?”
We were heading west, not far from the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel, which is currently famous for the free peep shows that some guests are providing to strollers along the new High Line Park.
To remind you, we had just come from a show that featured a boy whose best male friend sported women’s clothes, was accused of being gay because he wanted to dance ballet, and used more F-words than a trucker in heavy traffic. And, I might add, we were maybe four blocks from where my daughter had failed to notice the drag queen. Wouldn’t this kid have to learn sometime?
Like most adults, I cannot recall a time when my vocabulary didn’t include the word “motherfucker.” In this context, though, it seemed like a foreign language.
We maintained our pace. I said, “You know, when Grandpa was a kid, one of the worst things you could say to someone was, ‘Your mother wears army shoes.’”
Just then, we came to the children’s clothing store on the next corner. The window display was trim and bright. No S&M equipment. No strapping bare-chested men ready to get dirty on video posters. No need for the F-word.
Best of all, without any effort my wife could change the subject. When we paused to look, the word “fuck” left the corner unspoken.
Not long after that, I told my father this story.
“I hate to mess up your essay,” he said over the phone, “but ‘your mother wears army shoes’ wasn’t the worst insult you could hurl on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, even when I was a kid.”
Huh. “No shit,” I said.
I hung up before he could tell me he wears a dress.