‘I Don’t Want to Live in Ohio. I Belong in New York!’
A few weeks after we moved from New York to my hometown of Cincinnati, I received a phone call from the director of the day camp my daughter, Sylvia, was attending, telling me she was having “a bad day.” She wasn’t listening. She was hitting the counselors. She was running away.
When the phone started buzzing, I was laying down on a new IKEA bed I’d spent two hours assembling in the master bedroom. The call from the camp was a reminder that as much as I was trying to make this city more comfortable for Sylvia and my wife, Amy, I still had a long way to go.
While Amy was doing alright with the slower pace of Cincinnati, the move from New York affected Sylvia more than I thought it would. Almost every day she cried about missing our blue house. She cried about the two girls from daycare she called “her twins,” both of whom were named Cecilia. She cried about our 20-year-old cat Mr. Walker, who died while sleeping in our living room on a sunny afternoon more than a year ago.
In the mornings, I would walk Sylvia around our new neighborhood, down pristine, tree-lined streets of restored four-square-style houses, tiny pocket parks, and churches representing every denomination under the sun. I was giving her the hard sell on how great everything was here, noting the lack of trash on the ground and the absence of Uber horns in the air. But despite my best efforts, one day she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said, “I don’t want to live in Ohio. I belong in New York!”
Her proclamation, of course, took me back to 1979, when my parents moved me here from New England to the equally pristine and tree-lined suburb of Anderson Township, just 5 miles from where we live now. I hated Cincinnati at first, and I swore I would leave and go back to Massachusetts the day I turned 18, which I almost did after being accepted to Western New England College. But just as I was about to enroll, I realized that the Midwest had a hold on me; that Cincinnati was home, that, after years of hating it, I accidentally fell in love with it. And so I went to school at Ohio State, just an hour and a half north.
At 28 I moved to New Orleans. At 33 I moved to New York. But I always knew I’d come back here someday. I just didn’t think I’d be a year shy of 50 when it happened. Now I was worried I’d forced Sylvia into a relationship with a city she wasn’t meant for; that I’d damage her somehow; that I’d swept her away from the privileged New York City path she was, perhaps, meant for and placed her at a disadvantage in an unfamiliar place where it would take years to get her footing. A place she, unlike me, might never fall in love with.
After picking her up from the camp, I drove her to a nearby park to talk about what had happened (as best as a parent and a 4-year-old can plausibly discuss such matters). The weather forecast app on my phone called for severe thunderstorms within a half-hour, so I was hoping to connect with her before the deluge. The park was empty, and the first thing Sylvia said as we pulled my blue Subaru into the parking lot was, “Where are all the people?” The words almost put a tear into my eye: Another sad reminder of the differences between here and New York, where during even the worst weather events, Sylvia would see dozens if not hundreds of pedestrians sheltered beneath cheap Duane Reade umbrellas and the occasional Daily News, going about their days only mildly inconvenienced, instead of huddled inside their finished basements.
We walked through a football-sized field outfitted with a swingset and a small picnic pavilion. We found a hiking trail and headed into the woods. Around the first turn in the trail we came to a tree standing by itself in a small clearing. I told Sylvia it was “amazing,” and she asked why I said that. I told her it was because the tree was standing alone, away from all the others, and that its branches extended outward in curves, sort of like a cactus. I did a pose for her, bending my arms to demonstrate what I was talking about. It seemed like one of those important moments during which an adult is supposed to make a child take note of something, to educate her on the exquisiteness of nature and of life; to create a memory.
“Daddy! It’s raining!” she screamed as my iPhone forecast came to fruition. The rain came down hard. Like pellets before turning to bullets. I grabbed Sylvia’s hand and started running toward the car. When she cried out that I was pulling her arm too hard, I tried to make our dash more fun by screaming, “Whooo!” an out-of-character expression she’s never heard me use before. She stared at me, puzzled. “Why did you say that?” she asked.
Strapping her into the car seat, she told me she was cold, and so I found a beach towel in the well beneath the seat and wrapped her into it like I used to wrap her in her swaddling blanket. I took joy in comforting her this way. One of the things I like about parenting are those surprising moments when, despite my lifelong lack of self-worth, I actually feel needed.
As I started the car, I put on WGUC, a classical music station my mother used to play in her Pontiac 40 years ago when she drove me around Cincinnati as a kid. I couldn’t help but compare the loneliness I felt back then to what Sylvia was feeling now. I remembered how Mom was my only source of companionship and entertainment back then. I remembered how she would take me along on errands to furniture stores and department stores, grocery stores and bakeries because she knew that I didn’t have any friends. Because she knew that I missed our tiny Cape Cod house in Massachusetts and all the friends I’d left behind. Being in the car with Mom was among the most comforting things I remember from that time. And I was hoping Sylvia would take the same comfort in being, simply being, in that blue Subaru with me.
“So why did you hit your counselor?” I asked her as we coasted down the park’s main exit, the windshield wipers set to their most furious setting.
There was no answer.
“Did you feel angry today?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. And I asked her why.
“Because I miss my blue house and I miss my twins, and I miss Mr. Walker.”
It was almost dinnertime, so I asked if she wanted to go to a restaurant. “I want pizza,” she said, which sounded perfect to me, as images of my father and I bonding over pepperoni pies with root beer at LaRosa’s, a local chain, landed in my head. The only problem was that, after almost 20 years away from Cincinnati, I didn’t know where to take her. There was a LaRosa’s, but the closest one was just a takeout joint instead of a sit-down restaurant. Then I remembered some billboards I’d seen around town for another local pizza chain. I looked on my phone for the closest location, which turned out to be just down the block from our new house.
In Brooklyn, I would often take Sylvia to a pizzeria called Wheated. It was just a few blocks from her daycare on Coney Island Avenue, and Amy would meet us there if she got off work on time, though that was rare. While Wheated was considered a family restaurant, it was also a bar — a serious bar — that offered hundreds of bourbons, among them a proprietary blend of Old Forester, which I would drink at least two of, followed by a beer. By my second drink, I would usually hand the iPhone over to Sylvia so she could watch “My Little Pony,” and I could sit and brood and pretend I was one of those tortured 1980s divorced fathers who took his kids to dinner every other weekend as if it was some sort of sacrifice. By today’s standards, those dads would be considered sort of pathetic. But I always found them compelling. Even a tiny bit of public affection displayed toward their children — the sharing of a french fry or a kiss on the head — could make me shed a tear.
The pizza place where we ended up was the complete opposite of Wheated. Instead of the narrow dining room with the full bar, it was a cavernous, light-industrial-themed space with a surplus of booths occupied by young families without an ounce of brown liquor on their tables. There was a Plexiglas window where kids could watch the pizza makers tossing the dough and saucing the pies. Sometimes they would violently throw a handful of flour against the glass, an act that seemed, to the kids, almost cruel coming from a stranger until they realized it was a joke and begged for more. Before the hostess could even seat us, Sylvia ran toward the restaurant’s only empty booth, thrilled that, unlike in New York, with its tight banquet-style seating, this place would allow her the prime real estate of a booth without so much as a half-hour wait.
A word about booths: Booths are the primary reason why I like going out to dinner. If a restaurant doesn’t have booths, it loses a star.
A booth allows me to maintain my private life in public and provides the kind of intimate space I’ve always associated with the most meaningful, sometimes surprising, conversations of my life.
A booth is where my father first came clean about his alcoholism; a booth is where Mom and her boyfriend, Ted, told me they were getting married. A booth is where I once caught my friend’s father kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife. A booth is a place of solace and protection. You don’t have to perform for the public; you can just be you. I came to this realization a few years ago. After a tough day of work while working as a senior editor at Saveur — a day so tough that I feared I’d be fired before it ended — I asked a co-worker if she would grab lunch with me. “I need to go to California Pizza Kitchen,” I told her. “And I need to sit at a booth.” After we were seated, I felt like an injured athlete recovering on the bench. The booth, I figured, is a church pew and a therapist’s sofa; a La-Z-Boy recliner and a family table.
Sylvia slid into our booth with a smile on her face, immediately pulling out a napkin and sprinkling red pepper flakes and powdered Parmesan cheese on it to create her “art.” Given her behavior at camp that day, I wondered if taking her to a restaurant was a good idea. Like many 4-year-olds, she grows restless when faced with the confines and rituals of a formal, even a casual, dining experience. She disappears under the table; she stands on her seat and stares menacingly at the people sitting behind her; she rips up tiny sugar packets and spreads them Scarface-style on the table. She calls the waiter poo-poo face and tells them about her dead cat. But something about the way she was acting gave me confidence it would be OK. She was focused on her red pepper and Parm art; she blurted out an unexpected, “I love you, Daddy.” she seemed happy. She seemed secure.
The menu was the kind of thing a recent New York transplant could easily make fun of, though, thankfully, I’m more inclined to roll my eyes at a New York menu’s pretensions than a Midwestern menu’s aspirations. One of the salads came with “Brooklyn-cured soppressata” and the pizzas had names like Don Corleone, Backyard Barbecue, and Socrates’ Revenge. I ordered a Build-Your-Own version with onions and black olives and got Sylvia a plain cheese. I also ordered her an apple juice, which came iced in a large, 16-ounce cup that she inhaled almost as quickly as I did my amber ale. I looked around the dining room, and noticed how most of the moms and dads were at least a decade or two younger than I was, and it didn’t take long for that old, fucking regret of mine over waiting too long to have kids pinned me down with sadness and anxiety, before I defiantly shut it down and tried, for once, to focus and enjoy the moment as it was happening.
When the pizzas came out they were placed on a metal rack next to us against the wall. Perhaps fearing their enormous size, and the heat they were giving off, Sylvia decided she wanted to sit next to, instead of across from, me. She snuggled into my side a little and pulled my left arm around her — she never does this in public — and I was so moved by it that I kissed her on the head. Suddenly, the image of a stupid throw-pillow I saw at Home Goods last week popped into my head, the one that said, so obnoxiously, “Feeling Grateful.”
The pizza was better than I expected; more like the pizza I’d grown up with in Ohio than what I’d grown used to in New York. The crust wasn’t blistered and chewy, but sweet and doughy—almost Pillsbury-like, and slightly browned. The sauce was a little spicy; the pound-per-square-inch cheese pinning it down like a weighted blanket. Sylvia, I could tell, was falling in love with it, devouring her slice crust first, ignoring my earlier lessons in New York on the proper pizza fold.
“This is good!” she said to me with such enthusiasm and conviction that I will forever mark it as her first foray into food criticism.
As she moved on to her second, then third slice of pizza, I wondered if Sylvia knew that her father was troubled. If I was showing any signs that I was struggling through a deep bout of depression; that I was still working on taming the almost violent temper I’d developed after my best friend died of liver failure last year; that, even though I call myself a freelance writer, I hadn’t written anything in months. That I feared I’d never write again; that, because of my inability to finish any story I’d started, I only made $15,000 last year; that Amy and I were squabbling over my lack of execution. She thought I was drinking too much; she was tired of hearing me panic over my fear that—after nearly two decades of relative success in New York and New Orleans—my career was coming to an end.
Then I remembered dinners at Friendly’s with my father. Not the ones after he sobered up, but the earlier ones, when my parents were still married, the ones just after we moved to Cincinnati. Dad would take me there sometimes to give my mother a break or escape the house after an argument. While I was older then than Sylvia is now, I was young enough to be oblivious to his suffering. Those hasty dinners never struck me as escapes. I didn’t know he was struggling with his career and with his drinking; with his health, and with his marriage. I just thought he wanted to be with me. And, who knows, maybe he did.
I decided to decide that Sylvia knew nothing of my troubles. I decided to decide that the only thing expected of me at that moment was to make sure she felt love and security so she could go back to camp tomorrow knowing she was armed with both. Tonight, we were just a father and a daughter eating pizza in suburban Cincinnati. And that—as far as Sylvia was concerned—it was the greatest pizza in the world.
“Do you remember that tree we saw in the woods?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “It looked like a cactus.”
Keith Pandolfi is a James Beard Award-winning writer and editor. His work can be found in The Wall Street Journal. Saveur, Serious Eats, The New York Times, among other publications. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and daughter.