It was Marsha the Moose in mufti, it had to be. Even though she wasn’t wearing her antlers, her bright purple jumpsuit with puce piping was a dead giveaway, as was her smug grin as she climbed into a BMW 540. While she looked at me and my gaggle of kids, she undoubtedly saw birthday-party bait, a gang of likely marks for her next thousand-dollar extravaganza. But the joke was on her: the reason I was rushing everyone home from the playground was that we-my wife and I-were putting on our daughter Chloe’s fourth birthday party ourselves, in our Upper West Side apartment, in just two hours. Without Marsha the Moose. And there was still a lot to do.
Yes, we decided that for our Chloe, we’d do it all ourselves. There would be no light-saber-balloon-twisting maniac for us this year, just good old parents putting on a good old party for kids having good, clean fun.
“I ordered the balloons,” my wife said. “Why don’t you take the car and get them?” And she handed me the claim ticket.
She had discovered a bodega in the lower reaches of Harlem that sold helium balloons at a discount. Once I got there, I was faced with so many balloons that, when the wisp of a woman behind the counter handed them to me, I was afraid she might actually be lifted off the ground. I wrestled them out of the store.
As soon as I got on the sidewalk, I heard gunshots and ducked. Then another round ripped, this one dangerously close to my left ear. I knew this was a dicey neighborhood, but I never imagined a buy-and-bust operation could go so horribly wrong in the middle of a balmy Sunday morning like this. Then I realized that what I heard were balloons popping. Old ladies laughed out loud at the sight of me corralling a bunch of helium balloons (a pride of balloons? a gaggle of balloons? a passel?) into the hatchback of our much-dented minivan.
Fwap! A gigantic pink one exploded directly into my right eye.
I popped open the van’s back door. Grasping the balloon ribbons in my mouth, I managed with one hand to fold down the back seat and start pushing them in. No sooner would I push in a bunch (a swarm? a plethora?) of balloons than another few would escape. I was starting to gather quite a little crowd by now; I think a cuchifrito guy even wheeled his cart over to capitalize on the traffic I was generating. I closed my eyes and lowered the hatch. The muffled sound of another St. Valentine’s Day Massacre greeted the sealing of the car- pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop!
As I strode back to the apartment with the remaining balloons in hand, I endured the sanctimonious smiles of people on my street, who were looking at me like some kind of cute idiot. “Look at that cute idiot!” I could see them thinking, “Look at that cute-idiot daddy trying to put on his own birthday party and marshal all his own balloons all by himself!”
“Do I have big scratches on my retina?” I asked my wife, who was busy with a watermelon.
“Is that 40 balloons?” she asked.
“Look, one popped right in my eye-I think it might have detached something.”
Finally, the guests started arriving. To kick off the party, I trumpeted, “O.K., everybody, we’re going to play some Hot Potato!”
“I don’t wanna!”
“PlayStation!” yelled a kid dressed head to toe in New York Giants regalia, looking up at me with a scowl.
“It’s gonna be fun! You’ll see,” I said. And then I realized that I didn’t know how to play, and I didn’t have time to Google “Hot Potato rules.” All the parents’ eyes were locked on me, gazes that screamed: Who is this guy, and who is he trying to fool with that wrapped potato?
I had to wing it. I got them into a circle on the floor. “Ready,” I said, “go!” Tiny hands started passing the silver lump around; it tumbled out of laps, rolled out onto the floor, whacked into tiny glasses, but it moved. All the kids were enjoying it, and I think I even saw a few of the parents unclench their jaws. But the game had to go somewhere; something had to … happen. So, I did the unthinkable. I yelled it.
Little Sebastian was caught potato-handed. Little Sebastian had to leave the circle. Those were the rules, right? Sebastian’s father glared at me. Sebastian anchored all 20 pounds of himself to the floor and wouldn’t budge. “Come on, Sebastian,” I said, “it’s just a game. Don’t worry, other kids are going to get the hot potato, too. You’ll see.”
“You made me lose!”
I looked to Sebastian’s father for some kind of support. None was forthcoming-I think he was too stunned, maybe hurt.
“Come on, you’ll see, we’ll play again …. “
“You coulda picked Chloe, but you didn’t because she’s your daughter, you let the potato skip her!” Sebastian protested and started to cry. And then I finally understood: We don’t live in a society where there are winners and losers-not at children’s birthday parties. I’m sure the parents were thinking that this wasn’t what they were spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on private schools for, to have all that self-esteem-building work ruined by some cheapskate dad who pulls out a scrap of tin foil and uses it to wreak havoc on their beautiful, pure, never-gonna-lose kids.
“O.K., Sebastian, you win. This isn’t really such a fun game.” I mussed his hair and scanned the room for my wife, but I think she was off calling Marsha the Moose to see if she could make an emergency visit.
But after what dragged on like a day of C-SPAN, the clock finally struck 2. We did it: With a combination of elbow grease, refined sugar, and the late addition of a SpongeBob SquarePants piñata I had managed to buy at the last minute, I salvaged the afternoon. As the parents filed out, one of them said to me, “You were a real Mister Rogers up there. The kids were hanging on your every word, your every move.”
I collapsed on the couch. I kind of missed Marsha the Moose. I’d probably get her next time. God knows she’s driving a better car than I am.