My ornery side drove us to Pappy’s, a Highway 101 truck-stop-diner popular with meth-toothed rednecks with eyes like burn holes. The last time we visited they stared at us until I stared at them. I parked near the sign with busted lights and misspelled slide-in words: STEAKS, MILKSAKES, AND OTHER SPECAILS. After lunch we’d visit the La Purisima Mission outside Lompoc, 27 miles south of Santa Maria. But first I had three little bellies to fill.
We walked through the front vestibule into the dining area, a mix of tables and booths. The hostess took us to the back. Craig, my four year old, climbed into the booth and I slid next to him, draping my arm across the back. Adriana, my six year old, and Javier, who’d turn nine in a few days, sat opposite us in straight-back chairs. All 40 people in the restaurant knew we’d arrived.
When I was exiled to Santa Maria (forced out of a job by a superior who disapproved of my adopting as a single parent), I heard Santa Maria had a problem with “all the Mexicans.” An employee at Pulitzer Newspapers in Santa Maria, where I became vice-president of advertising, told me his neighborhood was great until “the Mexicans” came. A business owner, not knowing that I was adopting three chocolate children, told me he didn’t do business with “the Mexicans.” After my newspaper published a story about a young fieldworker arrested for burying her stillborn baby in her backyard it published a letter-to-the-editor from a woman imploring fellow citizens to get rid of “these animals." The woman evidently preferred burning the baby into a sippy cup of ash ($1,000) or burial in a field of strangers ($5,000).
The young woman was released and went home.
A few months earlier, millions marched against immigration "reforms" that singed the word ‘criminal’ onto the foreheads of people like my children. Politicians like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested we bus to Mexico three million adult illegals (1% of the U.S. population), but not their four million American born citizen children (1).
At 50 people per 50 foot bus and the space in between, the 1,136 mile long caravan would stretch from Arizona to Seattle, visible from space. It was nasty out there and getting worse.
Adriana picked up the children’s menu and said, “Listen up, everybody,” a phrase I used. She read aloud. Dressed in her favorite pink jacket, she wore the earrings I got her for Christmas. Every time I put them in I winced.
Listening to Adriana, Javier pushed up the sleeves of his dinosaur print shirt to reveal two watches, a digital watch and the new secret agent watch my sister, his Aunt Diana, gave him. The scrawniest child, he savored the thought of each menu item. To Javier, food was sacred. When I first met the kids, in a rare mention of his “real” house, he said, “When I was little, I sneaked into the rabbit cage, got the carrots, washed them and ate them.”
Craig wore a blue Winnie the Pooh shirt and Buzz Lightyear tennis shoes. One heel had a flashing red light I covered at night so it wouldn’t scare him. At 24 pounds, he was like a baby, but bigger.
After my children moved into my home, he and Adriana had nightmares about “the robbers.” I was often awakened by Craig’s little knuckles rapping on my bedroom door. I knew it was him and I knew why he was there. His hair wet with sweat, he’d scream as I took him back to his crib. I’d sit on the floor for 30 minutes at 2 a.m. with my forearm touching him so he’d know I wasn’t leaving. I whispered, “No more robbers,” like a lullaby until he fell asleep. Then I tiptoed away.
Adriana didn’t sleep without a ray of light. A noise outside? The robbers. A light on when we got home? The robbers. On the way to school I told them the robbers will never come into our house and if they do, Bam! I’d slug ‘em. We made it a game and we played it often.
“Daddy, after you slug them, then what?” said Craig.
"I’ll kick them in the stomach.”
Javier, from the back seat with caution, “Then what?”
“I’ll rip off their arms!”
“And throw them in the river!” Craig added.
“And, Daddy,” Adriana said, “If you throw them in the river will the crocodiles get them?”
“Oh, yeah,” like a world famous expert.
“Yeah!” with glee.
After a year squishing robbers, knowing their old family had nothing worth robbing but guns or drugs, I asked Adriana what the robbers took. What was the loot? What scared and scarred for so long?
“What did the robbers take?”
“They take us, us kids.”
That’s not good.
“Who are they?”
“The social people. And the police.”
Imagine. Night, sirens, black boots and guns, screaming, strange guys hiding in the closet or jumping out the back window. And then, the robbery, children in pajamas in separate police cars, peeled apart, placed in foster homes and then worse, returned to the place they were rescued from. And, um, imagine: Me tearing the arms off the police and throwing them into the river…
Without care that her baby teeth were gone, Adriana ordered a hamburger. Javier picked grilled cheese. Craig wanted the usual—macaroni and cheese. Each child ordered with a smile and a “please.” We practiced manners at home. I ordered meatloaf and extra napkins. I’d already used one to dispose of the sand in one of Craig’s shoes after he’d dumped the contents of the other onto our seat.
We got the usual stares, from truck drivers, tattooed girlfriends, and a lady around fifty years old who looked like she dried her hair at an automatic carwash. She ate lunch with her potbellied husband. His white t-shirt was clean and tucked into his jeans. I didn’t know what they were thinking, but we had their attention.
A Hispanic woman using her cell phone at a table fifteen feet away turned and watched me and Craig play rub-the-face, his favorite game. I opened my hand wide, stretched my thumb and index finger apart, placed them on his temples, and then slowly dragged my hand down his face. She smiled. Craig climbed onto my lap and gave me a blue crayon to color the reindeer on his placemat.
Adriana finished the find-the-word game without help, she announced. Then she and Javier leaned toward one another and colored in tandem. Each watched the other carefully. Like synchronized swimmers, they colored their own placemats but worked on the same objects using the same colors. This huddling behavior was odd; usually, they were eagerly independent. Maybe they felt people watching.
I sensed trouble, too. Several times, my right eye saw something outside the window, but when I turned I saw nothing but grey sky. I accepted that people were curious about us and I happily shared our story, but today we got one smiler and rude stares. I didn’t stare back today, but instead focused on the three angels who had my heart.
While eating, we discussed our last visit to La Purisima Mission, established in 1787. We ate fresh corn tortillas made by ladies dressed to period, and fed pieces to cooped chickens when the ladies weren’t looking. As our plates emptied the napkin pile grew. The children were full and happy.
It was time to rock and roll. Or, not.
As we left Pappy’s through the same door we entered, a California Highway Patrol officer in mirrored sunglasses and hat came through the door on the opposite site of the vestibule—the side with the window. Instead of turning left into the restaurant he walked through the vestibule—toward us. Seeing him, Javier waited and politely held the door open for him, just like we practiced.
I expected the officer to keep going, but he stopped. He wanted to talk.
“You may have been a witness to something. I just want to know if you saw anything. Why don’t you ask the kids to wait inside?”
“Okay,” I answered evenly, not wanting to alarm my children. They were watching, so they understood when I shooed them back into the vestibule and told them to wait. None of my children liked the police, Adriana especially. A few weeks after we met, a police car stopped next to us at a red light. I watched Adriana in the rearview mirror. “Javier, look, it’s the police. It’s okay. We have a car. We can get away.”
I stood face-to-face with the officer. We were twenty feet from the vestibule. Did Craig expect me to throw him in the river? Maybe something happened at the gas station we stopped at before lunch. At the highway exit red light, a Highway Patrol officer ahead of us stared through his side view mirror. My eyes watched his. Was it him? The shades matched. He was young, a few inches shorter than me, with red blond hair. He could have been my little brother.
“We got a call from someone who thinks there might be something inappropriate going on here.”
“Is that right? Like what?”
“Well, are those your kids?” He kept his sunglasses on. I did, too. It was a Ray-Ban vs. Vuarnet showdown.
“Yes, they’re my kids. They’re adopted, obviously. They grew up here. I adopted them through Santa Barbara County.” The adoption process included vetting by two counties and fingerprinting three times. My path to fatherhood was so long I could have a trail named after me. I didn’t explain that to him. Part of the system, he knew how it worked. I wanted our chat to end. The best thing about police contact was the getting away.
He wanted proof. I remembered asking Scott, the social worker who helped me adopt my children, what would happen if I traveled out of state, say to Utah. Was there a piece of paper, something, to prove that Javier, Adriana, and Craig were mine? Scott slid three forms across the table. “This is what you’re looking for, these are the Utah Papers.” At the final adoption hearing the judge signed them. I put them in a box.
“I really apologize for this,” the officer said. “I’m just doing my job. Someone called, and we have to check it out.”
“I understand.” But I didn’t. Did someone in the restaurant really call to report a triple felony? And what were they doing now, eating dessert? Or, had the officer been following us for miles, wondering why three Mexican children were in a car with a white male in his forties? Was he a weekend Minutemen Project devotee (2) using Kmart night-vision goggles to spot aliens in the San Diego brush?
“Is there any way you can prove they’re your kids?” If I had the Utah Papers with me, we could finish and go. But I wanted us to be a normal family.
“Regular parents don’t carry papers around. I don’t either.”
He was perplexed: Too much brown and too few adults.
I was unmarried. Would he bother me if I had a wife? Were there more of him out there, unable to contemplate single male parents? Men can love, be patient, supportive and multi-task. Men play catch or fly kites with their children because it’s fun. The instinct to parent is gender-neutral. And men have biological clocks. I worried throughout my thirties about becoming too old to have fun with children. Men yearn the same as women. And if they are self aware they know they have to give what they want or it’s not fair.
He wondered. “Again, Sir, I’m just doing my job. You never know, we have to check these things out. It is unusual, if you think about it—you and these kids.”
He must have turned right when he emerged from his cocoon.
“Has anyone actually alleged anything? Was someone offended that my son was sitting on my lap? We were coloring. Is there something wrong with that?”
Maybe I should stop letting Craig sit on my lap in restaurants. But he was just a little guy, still learning to hug—he got up close, looked into my eyes for two or three seconds, and then lunged at me. It’s good no one saw me brush Adriana’s hair. Outsiders didn’t get that I was all these children had—the mom and the dad, as Adriana put it. She and Javier made Mother’s Day cards for me at school.
“No, no,” the officer said. “No one has alleged anything. Can I see some identification?”
“I know you guys have a job to do.” I gave him my driver’s license, forgetting that it had my old address.
“So, you live in Oakland? ”
Oops. I offered up a little brown card with my new address. A woman at the DMV gave me the card when I moved to Santa Maria; she told me to keep it with my license.
“No. We live here. It’s on this card.” He read the card, but did nothing. He didn’t call in. I thought he’d let us go.
“So, uh... there’s nothing inappropriate going on.”
“What are you talking about?” Frustrated, I again asked, “Does someone have a problem with me?” What did the caller care about? If he/she/it was worried about the children’s well being, I wonder if he/she/it called the police after seeing a 10 year old working in the strawberry fields. That was illegal, until they were 14.
“No. I was...um.... The caller must have been wondering....” His voice faded.
“You must be joking.” My ears were warm. In my youth, when I didn’t have three trusting souls looking at me through the glass door, I would have told him to fuck off and left, daring him to come after me. Being a father changed me, made me less impulsive, less prone to anger.
“Right. Well, okay...” He turned to go. “Like I said, I’m just doing my job.”
“Have a nice day,” I said to his back. I got the children and, as always, we held hands across the parking lot. We were four feet wide and one foot deep. I helped Craig into his car seat while Javier and Adriana buckled themselves into the jump seats in the back of our Land Rover. I pretended nothing happened.
“Daddy, what happened?” Adriana asked.
I hesitated. “It was nothing. Someone lost a dog and the policeman wanted to know if I’d seen it anywhere.”
I silently abandoned our Mission plans. I didn’t want more trouble so we went to the park near home. As the children played I watched through the trees to see if the curious cop/robber just happened to be driving by…
I felt bad about lying to Adriana. Should I have explained that some people didn’t think we were a real family or worse, didn’t want us to be a family? Did I warn her that although this won’t happen often, it would happen again? Would it be helpful if I went to the police station with my children, found the Chief and said, “This is us; we’re going to be around.”
There must be a better way.
(1) Pew Research 2009 Portrait of 11.9 million unauthorized immigrants. 59% are from Mexico, a fairly constant number over the past 30 years. 33% are from Asia, Central or South America, the Caribbean, or the Middle East.
(2) Founded in 2004, Minutemen patrol the U.S./Mexican border and report sightings. Among their stated goals: the elimination of car pool lanes, a reduction in the risk of terrorist attacks on schools and temples, less leprosy, and lower utility bills. Gilchrist, 2008.