So rather than make the default homemade pizza this week, I opted to treat the kids and go get Little Caesar’s, which is just six blocks or so down the hill from my house. Kirsten begged and pleaded to come with, so I let her. Although, when we got there, she wanted to just wait in the car while I went and got the pizzas. What she really wanted to was to sit in the car and enjoy the enclosed fresh pizza smell. I let her, parking in the nearest parking space to the door that wasn’t a handicapped spot, some thirty feet away from the door.
When LCs actually does have their “Hot and Ready” pizzas at the ready, it’s just a minute or two to get what you want, pay, and be on your way. Tonight, no cheese on hand. So, I’d have to wait. I had them throw in a Hawaiian for me since it’d be a few minutes anyway. I pay and sit down, one of only two customers in the store, wave through the glass at Kirsten, and pull out my phone to read more of an article while I waited.
I barely got the thing loaded before a man who’d been smoking outside the Smoke Shop next door ducked his head in and asked me “Is that your little girl in the car there?” I nodded. “Cuz I think that dude’s calling the cops on you.”
I walked outside, took the ten or twelve paces to my car and stared the guy down. Kirsten did look a little timid, but it was because she was looking at this stranger leaning down by the window across from her who was fixated on her for some reason. When the guy sees me and figures out who I am, he throws up his hands.
“I’m a mandatory reporter–I have to call on stuff like this.”
I tossed a thumb toward the guy who’d given me the heads up.
“Well, that guy just tipped me off about you. Maybe I should report that.”
“I’ve already called, and they’re on their way.”
“We’ll be right over there behind that big window you can clearly see into from here. If my pizza’s done though, I’m not sticking around.”
As it happened, the cop arrived shortly thereafter as the pizzas were being set on the counter. The teller pulled them back and held on to them awkwardly.
“Just wanted to talk to you about your child. You can’t be leaving a child in the car by herself. It’s not safe,” the officer said.
“If it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t have done it. She’s six. She’s in grade school. She knows how to work the door and the window. We had eyes on each other. It’s 6 p.m. and it’s in the upper fifties.”
“It’s not the best choice. It can be hazardous.”
“There’s a higher percent chance we’d both get smeared by a car walking in the parking lot.”
“This isn’t a real great part of town,” he said.
“Where I live isn’t a great part of town? This is my neighborhood.”
“Can I see some ID?”
Normally I might have chosen to contest this, but since I know that my ID shows I live in this “not great part of town” and that I have not one damn thing on my record — no fines, no tickets, no nothing– I handed it over with pride. And they did, of course, run a check on me, which got me wondering what might have happened if I DID have anything at all in my history. I wondered if this WAS now part of my history. Nosy Samaritan was was still hanging about, waiting to confer notes with his fellow civic servant.
Satisfied, the officer returned my ID and told me “Just be smarter in the future. Bring the child in with you, or if you find out you’ll have to wait a bit for your food, go back out to the car and get her.”
“Yes, you never know when strange people might take an excessive interest in one’s child, it would seem.”
“You just need to think about it, okay?”
“Thinking about stuff is what I do. And writing about stuff. And sharing that writing with lots and lots of people.”
“All right then,” was his goodbye before walking out the door.
Since the pizzas are ready, we’re shortly behind him. I unlock the car so Kirsten can hop in and buckle herself in. I set the pizzas in the seat next to her, but she no longer cares about them.
“Did we do something wrong?” she asked.
“Technically, yes, I guess. Minnesota statutes say otherwise, but I suppose it’s a judgment call.”
“Why was he here? Why was he talking about me?”
“Because they thought you were all alone with no one to watch over you.”
“I don’t have to go with them, right?” she asked hoarsely.
“No,” I said flatly. “You stay with me, because I have pizza.”
She laughed, and the tension drifted away. Still, when we got back to the house she said “Sorry I asked to come, Dad,” and now I know that this has made some sort of a mark on her. Something has become diminished in her eyes. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the police, maybe it’s herself. Maybe it’s all of it.
But because I know my child–what she can and cannot do, how she thinks and how she acts, what scares her and what calms her down–because I know my child more than anyone in this world and I know she knows it, too, I could see something switch inside of her mind, in many ways like mine. Before today, to her, police officers were helpers. Today they have become people who might come if a stranger thinks you made a mistake and will get you in trouble. So thanks for that, City of Mankato.
And now, you get your wish. My kids will be by my side every step I take, of any errand or diversion they might be along for. I might think twice before I let Kirsten go inside women’s restrooms, think three times before bringing her inside a men’s bathroom with me, and ultimately make a complete map in my head of all family restrooms in the city for future reference. But you need to know, civic servants, that we won’t be doing any of that from fear of what some phantom miscreant or danger might do. We’ll be doing it for fear of what you might do.