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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

Everyone stay calm and no one gets burped on

It's just another family meal, except we're all together -- and in public.

October 09, 2003|Chris Erskine

So here we are in College Town, U.S.A. -- San Diego, not Boston -- where universities dot the landscape like fast-food joints and a laid-back, academic serenity threatens to poison the place.

"What's that?" the little girl asks as we turn down College Avenue.

"Yeah, what's that?" I gasp.

"Must be sorority rush," my wife explains.

Along College Avenue, young women are lined up dozens deep in front of a sorority house. Many of them are dressed in white, like doves waiting to be released at a war memorial.

The young women tug at their dresses and shadow box with their hair. Their high heels catch in the grass. They regain their balance, then tug at their dresses again. Wobble. Tug. Wobble. Tug. They're future sorority girls, all right. Higher education doesn't get much higher.

"Can we stop and watch them?" the little girl asks.

"No," her mother says.

"Why not?"

"Your father's heart might not take it," she explains.

Now she's worried about my heart? Yesterday, she claimed I didn't have one. The day before that, she thought I was mentally challenged and wondered -- aloud, in front of the whole world almost -- how I'd ever passed a driver's test or even the fifth grade.

Today, it's the strength of my heart she's questioning. Of all things, a father's heart. Big as a cantaloupe. Strong as a cement mixer. When it beats, you can see it through my sweatshirt. Ba-DUMP. Ba-DUMP. Ba-DUMP.

"We'll just go on ahead to the apartment," I say, leaving the sorority girls behind us.

And we check out our daughter's new apartment, the one she rented on her own. It's nicer than we expected, with a washer-dryer in the hallway closet and carpeting that doesn't smell like Old Milwaukee beer. I thought all college carpeting smelled like Old Milwaukee beer and cigarettes. Guess you can't have everything.

"This is nice," says her mother.

"Thanks," the older daughter says.

She and her roommate have hung pictures and found yard-sale furniture. There's a big old Zenith glowing in the corner. It's just like the TV that disappeared from our house about a year ago. What a coincidence.

"This place is great," I say, admiring the sparkling kitchen.

"Thanks," she says.

"Too great," I say.

"Too great?"

"Where's your real apartment?" I ask.

"Let's go eat," the daughter says.

So off we go to find a restaurant in San Diego. You can't really miss here. There's a Denny's over here. A Marie Callender's over there. Almost every block has a restaurant offering those stiff, plastic-laminated menus, not to mention free crackers.

"How about a place where the waitresses have teeth?" I suggest.

"I know a restaurant," says my daughter.

"Somewhere nice," my wife urges.

We wind up in a fish place two miles from the ocean that offers only seafood from other places: Alaskan king crab, New England clam chowder, Maine lobster.

We enter behind the college girl and her roommate, a math genius from the Bay Area who couldn't remember to bring her jacket, and our new baby making wild parrot sounds.

Because of the age range of the kids, we look like one of those mixed-generational families you see at Dollywood. Which one's the mom? Which one's the grandma? Who's that one? Brother? Dad? Grandpa? Maybe all three?

"There's seven of us," I tell the hostess.

"Right this way," she says.

You can see the horror in people's eyes as we enter. A baby?! By God, Marge, they've brought a baby!

People react to our entering a restaurant with an infant the way patrons in a bank react to armed robbers. First, they can't believe their eyes, then they whisper among themselves about what to do. "Please, please, please, don't let them come our way," they mutter under their breath, eyes darting nervously.

The baby throws them his best Al Capone smile and buzzes his thin, bank-robber lips. "Just remain calm," he's telling them, "and no one gets hurt."

The meal goes well. We talk about the football team and the importance of antioxidants to my long-term health. Not that I asked.

But apparently if you eat enough broccoli, you can outlive oak trees or Warren Beatty, whichever is older. No one knows, really.

The important thing is that our little girl is safe and sound in lovely San Diego, which seems a lot louder and lovelier now that she's down here, her laugh drowning out all but the Navy jets.

"Bib?" the waiter asks as he brings her a plate of crab legs.

"Sure," says my daughter, giggling.

"Bib?" I ask the baby.

"Sure," he says, glad this bib thing is catching on.

Just like at home, we eat noisily and well. The daughter I'm so proud of and all the others, together at a table full of food and bibs and buttery chins.

"Hey, Dad," the older daughter says.

"Hmm?"

"Be sure to eat that broccoli," she teases.

Ba-DUMP. Ba-DUMP. Ba-DUMP.

*

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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