Finding Fidelity — Downtown Train
Josie and Drew had suffered a slew of white-trashy daycare providers. It occurred to me that Brandon and I had as well. In Minnesota, white-trashy daycare providers were a rite of passage for latchkey kids. Most of them were divorced women with deadbeat ex-husbands, multiple kids, and shitty jobs. As such, they could barely afford daycare for their own kids. To remedy this, they quit their shitty jobs and turned their homes into daycare centers. They got paid to watch other folks’ kids while keeping their own little angels at home—two birds obliterated with a single stone.
Our first daycare provider, Ruth, was more like an asylum warden. Her home was a hovelish rambler in a lower-middle-class suburb near Mercede’s salon. It was situated just off a trunk highway on-ramp. Clearly, Ruth had triumphed in the eminent domain battle, Thus, the highway was retrofitted around her hovel. From her fenced in backyard, a scant 50 yards from the traffic, a boy could tally the endless procession of cars whizzing past—I oft did.
After parking in Ruth’s gravel driveway, you had to ascend a flight of crumbling cement stairs. At the top of the crumbling cement stairs, was a crumbling cement path. As you traversed the crumbling cement path toward Ruth’s front door, you couldn’t help but notice the pair of rusty wrought iron railings. The railings seemed planted in the unkempt flower bed, which encircled the house like a moat. Due to their unconventional placement, the railings were useless as railings, yet neither were they attractive folksy decor. They looked as though they had fallen from space and landed right where they ended up.
The crumbling cement path ended at a second shorter flight of crumbling cement stairs. At the top of the crumbling cement stairs, was a crumbling cement landing. The passageway into Ruth’s living room lay at the end of the crumbling cement landing. The crumbling cement stairs and crumbling cement landing had once held the wrought iron railings. This was evidenced by the rusty wrought iron stumps that jutted up from the crumbling cement. After too many harsh Minnesota winters, and the passage of too much time, the railings had rusted their way to freedom; they had escaped as far as the dirt moat.
The smell of stale cigarette butts was the first thing that slapped you upside the head when Ruth swung open the creaky storm door. Her dull yellow-toothed smile was the second. Seeing her at 6:00 AM was always a jarring and somewhat terrifying experience. At the time, she looked to me like Velma Dinkley after splitting from Scooby and the gang to prostitute herself at the far end of the Vegas strip for a decade or three.
What Ruth lacked in comeliness, she more than made up for in ambivalence. Daycare providers in the late ’70s were held to a much lower standard than modern counterparts. If Brandon and I weren’t burnt, bloody, or broken when Mercedes picked us up, Ruth had met expectations. And although I’d seen my share of tetherballs to the face, fights over the best Matchbox car, and kids tripping over the single step that lead from the kitchen up into the living room—or stumbling from the living room down into the kitchen—I never witnessed a major medical emergency during my stint in Ruth’s toddler gulag.
Ruth was a master of doing what was barely necessary to keep a dozen kids alive for eight or so hours. She perched herself atop a barstool at the counter that separated her living room from her kitchen. From that vantage point, she could simultaneously monitor both rooms and periodically glance out the sliding glass door toward the fenced backyard. Unless she was feeding us, putting us down for naps, or tending to a bawling child, she’d mount one of the barstools and chain smoke Virgina Slims. She’d dash out the nub of each spent coffin nail and adroitly extract a fresh one in a single left-handed motion. She’d do this while flicking her Bic to light it with her right hand. She was truly the Chrissy Evert of smoking Virginia Slims.
Besides smoking, Ruth spent a copious amount of time on the mustard-yellow rotary phone mounted on the wall near the bar. When she did this, the mustard-yellow phone cord stretched across the step between the living room and kitchen. This made what was already a perilous transition even more so. I was awed by her ability to concurrently rest the receiver between her shoulder and ear, hold up her end of the conversation, fire up heater after heater, and file her nails. I imagined the part of her brain responsible for multi-tasking was exceptionally muscular.
Besides surviving, at Ruth’s, I mainly missed my mother. The fact that Brandon was there didn’t allay my longing to be back in her orbit. Ruth was gruff at best and abrasive at worst, but never abusive. For a woman, she could man-handle kids with precise efficiency. I’d marvel at her ability to extract a toddler hugging her leg and strap them into a high chair in under 10 seconds. But I’d cower in my chair awaiting the almost violent motion she employed to push us up against the table edge to prevent us from dribbling saltine crumbs onto her floor.
Everything about the experience at Ruth’s was institutional. The meal times never varied by more than a minute regardless of hunger. Nap time always lasted exactly two hours regardless of restlessness. Outdoor play time always lasted one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon regardless of weather. And TV time always featured the same channel with the same shows regardless of preferences. If nothing else, Ruth was a stalwart of consistency. And the routine was depressing at best and demoralizing at worst. Without knowing it at the time, I knew what it was like to be incarcerated. My years at Ruth’s would prepare me well for the public education I’d subsequently endure, and later my indentured corporate service.
As I pulled up to the home of one of Marie’s slightly white-trashy neighbors, I couldn’t help but flashback to my days at Camp Ruth. Sheryl—the trashier spelling of Cheryl—was the twenty-something gal who had provided summer daycare for Josie and Drew. She also provided daycare for many of the other kids in the neighborhood where I used to live.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley