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ON THE TOWN

BABY TALK : This New Form of Gold Comes With a Luster That Even Perfect Strangers Can't Ignore

July 23, 1995|Jonathan Gold

I've always wondered who those dads were who wear torn jeans and bleach-stained DJ Quik tees but carry babies clad in exquisite little party frocks that look as though they'd been tailored for the children of Tina Brown. Now that I have a baby girl of my own, I understand just a little too well.

Sure, it's scary being a parent--thanks for asking. I mean not scary-scary--I had in mind legions in yarn-dyed 100% cotton sweaters, circling their Jeep Grand Cherokees and chanting, "One of us, one of us"--but filled with overfamiliar smirks from the checker at the local supermarket as she takes weekly inventory of your breast pads, strained carrots and Huggies; bystanders demanding to know whether the baby is sleeping through the night yet (we're thinking somewhere around her 12th birthday), the running tooth count (two), or the imminence of a potential sibling (give us a break). There's also the probability that our tiny bundle will inherit all our neuroses plus a few of her own.

I have learned to answer when necessary to the command "ma-ma-ma-ma-ma," as well as "daaaa," and even to smile at the playground mothers whom the baby ogles in a way suggesting a pint-size version of Maurice Chevalier in "Gigi." I was delighted by the discovery that at certain kinds of events--poetry readings, gospel brunches--there are areas at the rear populated by fathers and their jiggling babies, a bit like smoking sections but without the consolation of tobacco. I've become a regular at dim sum restaurants crowded with babies--so much so that one suspects that if a customer neglected to bring a child of his or her own, one would be issued at the door, free of charge. I've even given her a nickname, "The Infant," which may lack the zing of "Swifty" or "The Chin" but it really seems to fit.

But the second lesson that most parents learn about infants, right after they figure out how to fold a diaper but a little before the secret of burping, is this: At home you may be a strict but doting father, but in public, you are basically a member of your baby's entourage.

And on the rare occasions that somebody can resist cooing at The Infant--usually at Jiffy Lube and the local punk-rock record store--it feels almost like an insult. At a pizza joint a couple of weeks ago, an old antagonist of mine was hanging around the takeout counter. I'd been scrupulously avoiding this guy at parties and in hallways for years, and at that moment I wanted even him to come over to the table and chuck The Infant under her chin. "Hey man," I wanted to scream. "Check out the baby." At that moment, I could see why an otherwise sensible acquaintance once permitted her toddler to be photographed with Dan Quayle. She wanted people to know that she was with the band.

It may be difficult to spend much time in Los Angeles without speculating as to what it might feel like to be one of the guys rolling through the Sega concession at the Montclair Mall three feet behind Snoop Doggy Dogg, to laugh a little too hard at Axl Rose's dirty jokes or to hold a lighted match to Jason Priestley's freshly unwrapped cigar. Hauling around an infant is pretty close.

Of course, I have an exceptionally charismatic infant--I'm sure you do, too--with a spit curl of chestnut hair like Ed Grimley's and the eternal, gum-baring smile of the dancing cows in old Max Fleischer cartoons--the kind of baby that makes people hang their heads out of car windows at stoplights and causes total strangers to gawk across restaurants, precipitates commotion in elevators and results in half-serious proposals of arranged marriage from Punjabi waiters who moonlight as the fathers of 2-year-old boys. Sometimes half a dozen of us trail the baby, periodically coming up to adjust a blanket or wipe a bit of drool off a chin, crouching to retrieve a hat the infant doesn't feel like wearing any more, offering a few words of flattery to distract her when she's looking a little sad. We might as well be looking after Jimmy Page.

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