I hadn’t seen my cousin Ronald in quite in few years, since the last big family wedding. Last weekend, he was doing a lecture on math at Columbia, and called me up. I met him at a university parking structure. We were going to take the #1 Train downtown to see a Broadway show. As we walked together past Low Library, he handed me a baby photo of myself. His mother had found it in her home in Connecticut and thought I might like it. I had seen this photo before. It was a typical baby photo — one your parents might take at the “photo studio” inside Macy’s. My mother had the exact same photo in the house, but she had stored it in a cheap-o photo album back in the 1980’s (WITH SCOTCH TAPE!), and the photo had become ragged and yellow.
Ronald’s mother apparently knew how to store a photo. My baby picture was pristine, mint condition, as if she had never opened the envelope my mother sent to her with the photo so many years ago.
“Here you go,” he said, as he put my baby picture in my hand.
Ron and I walked down the steps and into the hot and sticky subway. The moment gave me pause. For decades, my baby photo had survived the elements, locked away in some closet in suburban Connecticut. Because of this hermetic life, I had remained a smiling, naive, innocent baby for years, only knowing my mother’s breast. Now, here I was, like any great hero, being forced into a journey he was unprepared for — into the hot, dangerous hell of the 116th Street station.
What was I supposed to do with this photo? I couldn’t just walk around, gripping it my hand the entire night, protecting it from muggers, theieves, and tourists. I thought about giving it back to Ronald for safe protection, but one glance at his dishelved, math genius, academic exterior completely changed my mind.
“Where the hell is that Metro Pass I bought today?” he said, as he fumbled into the pockets of his tan, way too short, Dockers.
I wish we had taken his car downtown and paid for a garage on Times Square. I could have kept the photo in the glove compartment. It was my dumb idea to take the subway.
I decided to put the photo in the wallet in my back pocket.
During the subway ride, we talked about family (and Twitter!), but I was distracted. I was thinking about my baby photo in my wallet. Sometimes, I get a business card and I stick it into my wallet. Later on, when I go to look at it, the card is bent due to the pressure from my friendly behind. Was my behind finally having it’s revenge for getting slapped at childbirth by creasing my pristine photo? I opened my wallet. Yes, it was. As we departed the subway train, I noticed an indentation in the middle of the photo, and the cardboard stock had taken on an arc-shaped curve.
It is a cliche to say that a child grows up fast, but in one fifteen minute subway ride, my baby photo had gone from perfection to a lived in child, dirty from the playground. Another cliche is that you can’t go home again. I was hoping this little photo would be a connection to my perfect past – the time was anything and everything was possible, until the elements, such as being stuck and folded into a leather wallet from Target, roughed you up a bit. But these days of innocence don’t last long when you leave the comforts of home. My new photo, my perfect baby photo, had a crease. And the night was not over yet.
We still had an hour before the show, so we stopped into a pizzeria for slices. I placed the baby photo on the table, as far as way from the dripping spaghetti sauce as possible. I placed a napkin over the photo and the salt and pepper shakers on top, hoping that the weight of the seasoning will increase the photo. It didn’t work. Even worse, as we left the restaurant, I noticed something sticky on the back of the photo. Somehow, a piece of mozzarella cheese had adhered itself to the back of the photo. I was able to peel it off, but it left a slight stain on the white back, where my mother had written the words “Neil.” I considered this humiliation of the cheese on the photo the equivalent of my baby photo now entering junior high school, where no one leaves without scars.
And then it started to pour outside. A thunderstorm like in a horror movie. I know this sounds fictional, but this is all true. I put the photo in the chest pocket of my button-down shirt for safety. I had brought an umbrella along with me because the forecast was for rain, but I had to share the umbrella with Ronald. As I walked, trying to keep all three of us dry, I held my hand to my heart, like Napoleon, in a vain attempt to protect my “baby” from the dangers of the world. I finally understood what it was like to be a parent, where you care more for the other than yourself, but in this case, the baby was ME, an image of purity from a day long gone.
It will be interesting going to BlogHer this weekend and meeting so many other bloggers. Like many of us, I’ve probably presented an image of myself on this blog through the prism of my own mind. We want others to see us in the best light. We want to see ourselves in a certain way. We remember how everyone doted on us as a perfect-looking baby, before we get all our creases, stains, and watermarks. Perhaps we spend most of our lives trying to recapture that feeling. Growing up is learning to love yourself despite these imperfections you picked up along the way.
Here is the baby photo. It now has a crease, a stain, and a watermark. But it is still me.