A soundtrack to early fatherhood

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2015.

Mrs. Chase was hard of hearing, a fact for which I was grateful to God on this particular evening.

At midnight, I slid “London Calling” by the Clash into the CD player and cranked up the volume. About two dozen people were jammed into my less-than-palatial third-floor apartment off Chalkstone Avenue in Providence, including my fiancée, Deb. My grandfather owned the property, and I was fortunate to live there for a very reasonable monthly rent.

The party was thick with smoke – cigarette and other kinds – and a parade of beer cans and liquor bottles marched across the kitchen counter. I opened a window. It was the middle of winter, but everyone was sweating. The shock of cold air coming into the room felt life-giving.

Some people shouted over Joe Strummer’s ranting vocals. Others abandoned conversation altogether and started pogo dancing in the living room, causing the floor to heave.

Mrs. Chase – in her 80s, barely five feet tall, and no pushover – lived alone in the apartment below. We were familiar in a way that is inevitable in a triple-decker. She knew I went to the drug store every day for a pack of Merits and would sometimes enlist me to buy her snacks or a quart of milk.

On the day after the party, I started down the back stairway with a profound headache and a trash bag full of clinking empties. Mrs. Chase’s door creaked open. Bad hearing notwithstanding, she must have registered the blowout raging above her the night before.

“I am so sorry,” I said, stopping on her landing. Mrs. Chase looked at me funny through her filigreed, cat-eye glasses. She was holding a dollar bill.

“The noise last night,” I said, rolling my eyes and pointing upstairs.

“The hi-fi was a little loud,” she said, matter-of-factly, handing over the dollar. “Would you mind getting me a bag of Funyuns at the Rite Aid?”

And that was that. I wanted to hug her.

Such was life for Deb and me in our carefree mid-20s. Back when I couldn’t play Talking Heads or the Replacements loud enough. Back when people had speakers the size of small refrigerators.

Then we got married, bought a house, and had our first child – the time-to-grow-up trifecta. Late-night parties gave way to early-morning feedings. Empty bottles of soy formula were now more likely to gather on the kitchen counter than Rolling Rocks. I quit smoking.

Sleep, or lack thereof, consumed our thoughts. In a moment of early parenting foresight, Deb and I splurged for a battery-powered baby swing over a cheaper, wind-up model. It was worth every cent. We’d nestle baby Pete into its quilted seat, flip the switch, and watch him succumb to the swing’s never-ending sway. It was a sure-fire remedy for crying, whining, crabbiness – or whenever Deb and I just needed a break. My wife christened the swing the Neglect-o-matic.

Our repertoire of sleep-inducing tactics omitted the most obvious one: keeping the house quiet – specifically, the “hi-fi.” We hardly lowered the volume, thanks to sage advice from Deb’s older brother, a lifelong musician and father of three. “Don’t turn it down and you’ll never have to,” Steve said. “Pete will grow up thinking all that noise is normal.”

He was right. We played music in the house and on the road, pretty much all the time, and it rarely disturbed our son’s dreams.

I did, however, modify my playlist – less head-banging stuff, more acoustic guitar. Sweet songs about early fatherhood resonated as never before: “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon; “Daddy’s Baby” by James Taylor; “St. Judy’s Comet” by Paul Simon; “Pony Boy” by Bruce Springsteen.

As I shared Cheerios, one by one, with baby Pete in our kitchen, these pop gems connected me to wisdom of the ages: being a young dad is wondrous and tiring, humbling and transformative.

And that came through, loud and clear, at any volume.

My Father’s Day playlist on YouTube, including the four songs referenced in this piece.

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