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6:45 PM, Chuck E. Fargin’ Cheese: I go to the counter for a refill on my coffee. The manager is manning the till. “Just curious,” I ask. “How do you guys keep from going completely insane?”

“We go deaf,” he says.

Makes sense.

I’ve come to love CEFC, if only because it makes it easier than hating it. I play the skee-ball, which somehow connects this suburban tot-rompery with the noisy arcades of Coney Island. We get on the Euro Kart ride, where you get to drive small vehicles through idealized European cities – it’s the only game that lets you turn around and drive backwards through the traffic, knocking into other carts. Mi scusi, Gianni! Je m’excuse, Jean-Paul! Gutteral Bark, Franz! Tonight the place wasn’t too crowded, but what it lacked in volume it made up for in cerebral concussions: while we played air hockey some limber kids were hurling basketballs into the net a few feet away, and three – Three! – balls flew over the backboard and struck me in the head. A woman clad head to toe in Muslim clothing apologized; all I saw were her eyes, but they were wide and beseeching, and for the first time I wondered what it would be like to live in a culture where the eyes were all you had to read. Would it be enough? Would it be all you needed to know, really?

Long day. My Lord. Long day. We went to the office in the afternoon, then went to the neighborhood café for hot chocolate. Went to Aldi’s just to see what it was like – it’s a new grocery store right next to the upscale Lunds, and it specializes in dirt-cheap off-brand stuff. It was like a parallel universe where all your familiar brands had been replaced by cheap and unconvincing names; as you scanned the shelf you had the horrible suspicion that none of these brand names had been focus-group tested. We’re through the looking glass here, people. I mean: Mr. Pudding? All the names had the same lame third-rate sound. Baker’s Pride. Orchard’s Glory. Miller’s Hubris. Grinder’s Choice. Smegmalia (for the upscale products.) Chef’s Exaggerated Sense of Self Esteem. I saw some coffee priced at $1.99 per 12 oz, and I thought: whoa, 12 oz of coffee for two bucks! And then I thought: here be grounds that fully exploit the maximum number of rat hairs per ounce allowed by law. I’m sure I was wrong, and was simply exhibiting price snobbery, but at some point low low prices make you suspicious.

On the other hand, the square boxes of facial tissue were priced waaay below the Target price, and even if they had the abrasive quality of fine-grit sandpaper, they were a bargain. I picked up three boxes, and looked for a basket to hold my purchases. There weren’t any baskets.

Gnat to the rescue. She marched up to the counter. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do you have any open carts?”

The clerk said no, honey, we could get a card outside, and they cost a quarter.

“A quarter?” I said.

“But you get it back when you return the cart.”

Oh great. Oh fine. Hello, poor people! Need a reminder that you’re POOR? Come to the store that RENTS THE CARTS.

They also had toys, strewn in careless heaps; Gnat found a Care Bear that she wanted, and since I’d been saying NO for the last week when it came to random toy purchases, I said sure. So I bought three square boxes of tissue and a Care Bear. Did I get a bag? Noooo. Oh, they have bags. But you have to buy them.

I can’t wait to shop there again. I’m penciling in the next trip in my iCal: the Threeteenth of Never at Nix o’Clock.

Then off to CEFC. Big milestone. She went to the Girls’ Room herself. And if I can quote her directly, to ensure that she will HATE ME however many years hence when she reads this: “I can go to the girl’s bathroom by myself. You don’t have to come in, because I only have to go pee pee and I can wipe myself.” Roger that. Off she went. Of course I imagine some evil gross greasy molester hiding in the air vents, waiting to drop down and visit unspeakable evil. So I listen closely for the sound of the vent clattering on the floor, the screams, etc. Nothing. She emerges proudly a few minutes later and heads off to the air hockey table, hands swinging in boundless confidence.

She’s pretty good at air hockey. So was I, once; it used to be my game. I do not play to lose; how else will she learn? That doesn’t mean I slam them in and do a victory dance, but I go for the goal. She won, too. Because each time the basketball hit me in the head, and I got up to say HEY, she shot one into my undefended goal.

Total haul: 145 tickets. A Daddy-Gnat record.

Then Taco Bell, where I got to eat what I wanted – a Zesty Chicken Bowl, in this case. The name is at least thirty-three percent accurate; there was a bowl. The Chicken could have been pressed & formed Soylent Fowl for all I cared. Tomatoes and cheese and hot sauce; fine by me.

“How do they make chickens?” she asked as I ate.

“Well, they grow them, from eggs, and then when they’re old and tired, they fall asleep and they get turned into food.”

“On a farm?”

“Technically, yes.”

“What’s tegnigly?”

“It means it’s like a farm.”

“Do you want to be a farmer when you grow up?”

“I am grown up, and no, I don’t. It’s hard work.”

“Well if I was on a farm and the animals were there but the farmers weren’t I would make ham out of the pigs. How do you do that?”

“Well, again, you wait until they . . . ah, sleep.”

“You’re so smart, daddy.” She beamed. “You know everything. You know states and history. How did you know this?”

“I read books. But you never stop learning.”

“You don’t?”

“No. Because there’s always something new to learn, and always something old.”

“Like what?”

“Well, there’s the newspaper, which tells you about yesterday, and books that tell you about stuff that happened a long time ago.”

“Even . . . thirty years ago?”


She fell silent, contemplating the ancient mores of 1974.

Home; she watched a movie while I wrote next Tuesday’s column. Then bath / brush / book / bed; then this. Let us conclude the week with another Skinless ad, no? Because when the farmer is away but the animals are still there you can make things out of pigs.

The more they talk about SKINLESSness, the more you just think about skin. Right?