Lord of the Rains

Relentless winter rain was turning last night’s snow to slush as I with my head cold and A— with her wooly hat left the lobby of our apartment building, headed for the nearby crosstown bus.

From home to preschool is a mile uphill, and we always walk it. But today was no day for pedestrianism. Even the dog could barely be persuaded to lift his leg.

And taking the bus was a form of bribery. A— did not want to go to school today, but she loves to ride the bus.

“We’ll ride the bus to school!” we proposed, and this enticement sufficed to get the girl dressed and downstairs—where we spied the bus, half a block away, accepting passengers and about to leave.

We ran through the slush, holding hands, my office bag bouncing off my left shoulder, the diaper bag bouncing off my right, the stroller sliding ahead of us, guided by my free hand.

You must fold a stroller before boarding a New York City bus. At the bus doors, I had trouble folding. The stroller would not collapse. The driver and the wet passengers inside stared down at me like bison on a nature show, blinking impassively while contemplating my destruction.

A woman in front of me took A—’s hand, to help the little girl onto the bus while her father wrestled with a child carrying appliance.

I saw myself stuck in the slush. I saw the bus doors closing. I saw a strange lady taking my daughter away.

I grabbed A—’s hand, pulled her away from the stranger.

“I’m sorry, thank you, I appreciate it, but my daughter has to stay with me,” I said. At which point, blessedly, the stroller collapsed. I scooped daughter, stroller, diaper bag and office bag into my arms, ascended the bus steps, and placed my Metro card into the card reader.

The bus driver looked at me and said something incomprehensible. The bus beeped; the card reader blinked red and ejected my card.

I reinserted the card, smiling, already soaked, my daughter and possessions balanced against my chest. Again the red, the beeping, the ejection.

This time I understood what the bus driver was saying.

“Your card’s empty.”

“Oh,” I said, the whole bus watching me and my daughter, every face wondering what refugee camp we had escaped from, and whether the bus driver would show mercy and let us ride on this most miserable of cold wet rainy days.

The bus driver blinked at me.

“Um,” I said.

“Pay or get off” the bus driver said.

Buses accept Metrocards and coins only. You need $2 in coins. I don’t carry $2 in coins.

“Can I give you two dollars in bills?” I said.

“No,” the bus driver said.

So the girl and I plunged back into the slush and began the mile uphill walk in the rain.

“Why can’t we ride the bus?” my three-year-old asked through trembling lips.

Her whole world was now about the bus ride she’d been promised, and the promise I was inexplicably breaking.

“I’ll let you walk,” I said, since walking, instead of riding in the stroller, is also a perk.

I took out her Dora the Explorer umbrella, which we bought two weeks ago at a premium price.

It was broken, I discovered. The umbrella offered no protection whatever from the rain. On the plus side, you could still read the Dora the Explorer logo, so the licensee was getting his money’s worth.

Umbrellaless, toddling along, we made it to a major avenue where the deep, melting ice and snow came halfway up to A—’s knees, and women stared at the idiot father letting his beautiful innocent child flounder about in wetness.

“There’s too much ice, now; you’ve got to get in the stroller,” I said.

“No!” she said.

There was nothing else for it. “I’ll give you candy,” I said.

In the Duane Reade on Third Avenue, I let her pick the candy—she selected something pink and disgusting—while I unpacked the stroller to get at a plastic sheet at the bottom. The plastic sheet is supposed to snap over the top of the stroller, protecting children from rain, snow, and oxygen. I could not get it to snap or stay or even cover the stroller. Strike three.

So we walked the rest of the way uphill, uncovered, rain-battered, she with her candy and I with silent curses.

We reached the school and climbed the steps in the usual way—the girl refusing to climb the steps, me carrying her in one hand and the stroller in the other.

We were both soaked through and I realized I was the worst father walking the earth. All the other kids came in wearing rain boots. My kid was wearing pretty little black Maryjanes. The other kids were damp. My kid looked like she had been swimming in the East River.

What saved me was this:

In the library at the top of the stairs, preparing to read a Curious George book before school began, the girl sat by the radiator and said, “Look, Dad. This hot stuff will get me dry.”

[tags]zeldman, myglamorouslife, parenting, nyc, preschool[/tags]

67 thoughts on “Lord of the Rains

  1. Oh, man… Jeffrey Zeldman and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day! It’s a good thing young children can be so easily distracted by the slings and arrows of life by a few creature comforts.

    Come to think of it, I’m much the same way.

  2. If only that bus driver knew who he was throwing off his bus… then again I guess ‘Designing with Web Standards’ isn’t standard reading material for NYC bus drivers?

  3. The funny thing is, although you consider yourself the worst father in the world, just the fact that you had a Great Adventure with the girl will go down in her memory as you being the best dad ever.

  4. Yet another reason public transportation should be free. What is really weird is seeing people get arrested for trying to ride the subway for free. They get a criminal record, they’re in trouble with the law, and it’s all so unnecessary.

    In the meantime, $2 in coins seems like not such a bad idea. They make a keyring leather attachment which folds and holds nine quarters and keeps them quiet. All you have to remember is to take along your keys. Cheers!

  5. Great read! Made me proud to be a dad with a little girl. Although, she’s a lot younger than yours, I’m excited about the “adventures” we’ll have in the next few years.

  6. Good lord, man, all this and you with a cold already. Please take care and don’t get pneumonia.

    Hugs to sweet, soggy Ava!

  7. Days such as you describe are sent to temper the sense of superiority one feels encountering parents sharing a 2 litre bottle of Coke with their mite while enjoying the first cigarette of the morning,

  8. Bless you. This is probably not the first and definitely will not be the last of these types of episodes. I find that it’s better to just accept the moment and laugh about it while it’s happening. :-)

  9. I’m oh-so-familiar with the “bus ride (or whatever) is now the only thing in the world that matters” trembling-lip face. Nice work in quickly coming up with a distraction appealing enough to avoid a cataclysmic meltdown, that must have been a relief (and a surprise). And it sounds like a bit of candy on a day like that was well-deserved.. I’d have got something for myself too.

    One of the amazing thing with children is their ability to almost instantly let go of the trappings of a temporary misfortune, or a grudge, or a mood. To be trite, it’s something we can learn from them.

  10. Just to restate and expand Kathy’s comment above: It would have been a standard bus ride disappearing from your and your daughter’s memory – but as it happened, it will reamain the “Great Adventure as you being the best dad ever” ;)

    Time flies anyway. But it is those exceptional events that decelerate our lives in retrospection …

  11. This story makes me pensive.

    Anyway, this card reader has not been designed for usability. Maybe it’s from ’98?

  12. I have to agree with Stefan, a bus that takes $2.00 and only accepts coins is horrible design, and obviously not made with usability in mind. It’s almost like they don’t want you to ride the bus.

    The buses around here are $1.25, takes bills, and with how small this town is compared with NYC it’s amazing that your buses don’t take bills too. Perhaps it’s a sign that your calling is to spread usability to all realms and not just web design.

    I also remember that at least for me back then any day that involved candy and sitting on a radiator for a while counted as good in my book. Even better if it was after a trek through some snow. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I don’t think your little one cares about anything beyond “I got to walk in the snow AND have candy.”

  13. @George Girton: Buses here (Dublin, IE) only take coins (but recall that there are no euro notes below €5), but the system is inexact and the bus drivers negligent.

    You’re meant to toss your coins into a chamber, then the bus driver is meant to count it and issue you a corresponding ticket. Of course, this never happens. You toss your coins and then just tell the bus driver how much you tossed in or, even, where you want to go.

    People, for some reason, rarely cheat the system, but it’s nice because if you’re a couple cents down you can fudge it a bit.

    I’ve always wondered how efficient it is.

  14. As a father, this made my day. As someone who has to walk a mile if I even wanted to take transit, it makes me say to Mr. Gore, “You can take my vehicles over my dead body.”

  15. This would be a great short film that everyone can relate to. There’s plenty of drama, a heinous struggle, and finally sweet redemption! :)

  16. Great story, you could not have written the whole thing any better if you had tried to make it up.

    Quick thinking about not letting A__ get on the bus with strangers with everything else you were trying to do.

    I think she will remember this as a wonderful adventure. Keep the stories coming; they are a great break from all the tech stuff I normally read on the web.

  17. Seattle’s outlying suburbs, summer morning, forgot my bus pass at home, driver gives me a wink and a nod and doesn’t try to extract the fare from me (though he can take bills if it’s exact).

    New York City, snow and slush on the street, driver throws father and toddler out into the snow because dad doesn’t have the fare in coins.

    You’re not the worst dad in the world. You just live in a city that contains the worst people in the world. Sorry to say that this story, despite being heartwarming and endearing, just confirms my belief that New York City sucks.

  18. People laugh at me for insisting on water proof shoes until they’re in a situation like yours. When my eldest son was an infant, I would hold him close to my chest, wrap my coat around him and make a mad dash for the car. With water proof shoes, you don’t have to worry about your own feet getting wet. Luckily, our elementary school has a covered drop off. Just open the mini-van doors and let them out.

  19. New York City, snow and slush on the street, driver throws father and toddler out into the snow because dad doesn’t have the fare in coins.

    You’re not the worst dad in the world. You just live in a city that contains the worst people in the world.

    Put yourself in the drivers shoes. Yeah, it sucks for Zeldman, but common, how many spots do you think where free on the bus? How many of those filled slots do you think paid? How many people a day do you think the bus driver gets who’s card doesn’t have money, or they forgot their card, or…

    Yeah, the driver did the right thing. He was *fair*. Maybe not sympathetic, but fair none the less.

    A great story by Zeldman. Human misery makes such vivid stories, and readers love a happy ending. I particularly like the part of the thoughts that went through his head as a stranger tried to, allegedly, help his daughter onto the bus.

  20. Wow, Jeffrey. Sounds like the rain in NYC was just as bad as it was here in Boston all day yesterday. Great writing though. In fact, I bet you could have someone illustrate it and it would be a children’s book best seller.

  21. Jeffrey-
    You really need to move to California…no one should be forced to deal with slush in Feb. I imagine my parents had a day in Queens like the one you described before they took off with us kids for the coast…

  22. New york does not have the worst people in the world. You can find pricks anywhere. Matter of fact I have met wonderful ppl in NYC Nice story Z I have a similar story what amazes us as fathers is when your daughter looks at you with the compassion and understanding of the ages. All at five years old. I gotta go taking the Mrs. and daughter (now my business partner) to dinner. Peace, man enjoy the family.

  23. Oh dear… 3 or 4 attempts to bribe someone ;)
    And she’s only 3 years old even. I would be carefull though; small kids learn things really fast. Before you know it you’ll be paying double the usual amount of allowance because she learned the fine art of bribes :)

  24. Hmph. I guess kids and their peripherals aren’t all that user friendly. They always say that Child 2.0 will be easier… ;)

  25. Nice story. And everybody should have to put up with slush in February. That’s what February’s for.

    Save the nice weather for retirement.

  26. @Ben: Not necessarily. Some of the buses where I live have more stricter rules like this during peak times to keep things moving for daily commuters etc. So it depends on the regional demographics. Usability is a complex thing and sometimes sacrificing usability in some areas can lead to better real-world results, especially when talking about more physical systems. No idea if that’s the case here or not.

    Some bus drivers are like BOFHs, in that if they’re having a bad day, they will usually let it loose on some poor person who doesn’t know any better.

    I guess people don’t like a newbie, and Zeldman isn’t used to feeling like one. ;)

  27. Zeldman wrote:

    “Umbrellaless, toddling along, we made it to a major avenue where the deep, melting ice and snow came halfway up to A—’s knees, and women stared at the idiot father letting his beautiful innocent child flounder about in wetness.”

    Nice, story.

    Only problem is there were no such weather conditions in Manhattan or anwhere in the NYC metropolitan area at the time. A little rain? Yes. Melting ice and snow? Definitely not….

  28. It’s a good thing young children can be so easily distracted by the slings and arrows of life by a few creature comforts.

    Come to think of it, I’m much the same way.

    Yeah, but mine include beer.

  29. @New Yorker:

    Don’t know where you live or work, but it snowed in midtown 12 February, and drifts lingered on the sidewalks. Next day it rained hard; cold rain hit the remaining snow.

    At the edge of Second Avenue, the cold rain and day-old snow combined with a depression in the sidewalk to create cold, messy slush that rose halfway to my three-year-old’s knees.

    I hope this satisfies your weather concerns.

  30. Dear Jeffrey,

    my concern was not the weather, but the accuracy (or lack thereof) in your story. A nice story, i’ll admit, but, like most stories, complete fiction.

    Here’s an independent source for checking the actual amounts of snow and rain in New York City at the time you claim your daughter’s calves were submerged in snow:


    Snow precipitation for the month of February, 2008 has been 2.8 inches. But, then again, I don’t know how tall your daughter is, so you might be right (if she is roughly 9 inches tall). I apologize if I’m wrong.

    Another possibility is that you are confused about the dates, and your story takes place on February 13, 2006:


    As always, thank you for the free, fun read.

  31. Sweet.

    You should think of writing a book, maybe memoirs… Something like “Living by the values”… It would be a bestseller!

  32. Well, I guess “Live and Learn” is more than just the most hackneyed phrase ever shrieked by Alanis Morissette. I’m glad the mission was successful, though. Not to worry–the whole parenting thing is gravy from here. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

  33. Oh the joys of parenthood! ;) I can’t recall the number of times I’ve had to take a less-than-happy child somewhere. It does make one pause and contemplate their fitness as a parent.

    But then there are the times when you little one(s) will do something so beautifully innocent and heartmelting that you cannot help but wonder how they ever became yours and how truly enriched your life is because of your children.

  34. oh, MAN. proof that parenting is all about improvisation, and a reminder that we shouldn’t judge other parents (who knows what they’re really going through?). also proof that children are resilient, especially when given candy. ;-) hope you’re feeling better!

  35. Jeffrey,

    This a great story and you’re a wonderful dad. Hang in there. It only gets better…


  36. here is a poem my grandmother minnie from michigan always had on her wall in cross stitch. no matter how rushed or how things sometimes turn out i always remember the last line: just a tiny little minute…

    what matters is what you do with that minute and your writing beautifully captured quite a bit. your daughter’s positive actions were the charm indeed. thanks for all your meaningful writings which i love to read each day because they are real and because they teach us. great to see you at wdn08. ;)

    here is the poem

    I have only just a minute,
    Only sixty seconds in it.

    Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
    Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
    But it’s up to me
    to use it.

    I must suffer if I lose it.
    Give account if I abuse it.

    Just a tiny little minute,
    but eternity is in it.

  37. Great story Jeffrey – we were in NYC between Christmas and New Years – no snow, but bitterly cold (for a Texan ;) ).

    Arrived Wednesday night, my wife rec’d a call the next night that her grandfather had passed. She left early the next morning to go back and I and our 13month old son stayed with my family who had traveled to NYC on a family vacation. I tried to make it fun for David, but he didn’t care where he was, he only knew his mom wasn’t there and it was very cold. Sitting on a tour bus I looked over and he was sitting there quietly, cold and miserable. I got off at the next stop, warmed him in one of the million starbucks in mid-town manhattan, found a warmer cab and headed back to the hotel. We booked a ticket for the trip home the next morning – it was time for our family to be back together.

    I was single until 40 and a new dad at 40-something ;) this past year, it changes you completely.

  38. Really well written story, I’ve enjoyed it – except the part with the helping hand from the stranger politely denied, that kinda blows …

    Stranger helping You and A in these moments could be also one of the nice things in the story, but You denied it, overprotectively IMHO.

  39. Yep. A cold, wet, miserable experience that will, someday, be a warm memory.
    Take it from another dad who knows.

  40. … Except I strongly disagree with Sinisa who seems to believe you might have overreacted over the stranger taking A’s hand. Especially with a younger child; stranger taking hold of kid’s hand and getting on bus leaving dad or mom on the curb wrestling with stroller? Nopey, nope. No way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking New York city or Abilene, KS. Not in this day and age. In fact, it’s possible New York city might even be safer in some respects than Abilene, simply because people do tend to be a bit more vigilant, but I still wouldn’t do it.

  41. Mr. Zeldman, Why are you using so many images containing text within them on your site? I always refer to your fame, books, articles…. web standards, seo, accessibility…. If you promoting semantics, why not to do it yourself? Your reader and follower, Kammie.

  42. [off-topic]

    Kammie asked:

    Why are you using so many images containing text within them on your site? …. If you promoting semantics, why not to do it yourself?

    View Source. The site’s markup is semantic. For instance, the three logo images linking to A List Apart, Happy Cog, and An Event Apart are actually H5 text. (The images appear as backgrounds.)

    Using images as part of a design is not incompatible with creating semantic markup.


  43. I agree with the person that said ‘move to Australia’, it was 42 degrees Celsius here yesterday :p

    I just had to comment to talk about the card reader that only accept coins. When I read the story, I thought it was no big deal, but comments seem to make it a big deal, so here’s my two cents…

    In Melbourne’s CBD, there’s a tram network that criss-crosses the city and nearby suburbs. Tickets on this tram can cost up to $10, depending on how far you want to go, and no the ticket machines do not take notes.

    The network is roamed not by what were called ‘tram conductors’ who would help people out, sell tickets, give change, etc. but ticket inspectors who will quite happily dish out a $150 fine to anyone who didn’t have a valid ticket. Sucks to be you if you wanted a $10 ticket, and only had $8 in change, but needed to catch the tram to get to work anyway.

    But then again, not having $2 in change seems slightly strange to me anyway, I’m used to carrying a walletfull of large coins and small notes.

    ps. I’d love to live in a city that snows. Nowhere in Australia snows with nearly enough frequency. So much for being the lucky country…

  44. Here is what you do: you turn to the people whose attention you have, smile winningly, hold the $2 out, and ask, “Can any of you nice people make change?” If no-one responds directly, follow it up with a direct question to individuals near you. It rarely fails, and its always worth trying. What are you afraid of that you preferred to get off?

    Not so heartwarming…

  45. A well-told story. I was, though, put off by the occasional use of “the girl” to identify your daughter. It sounded a jarring note in a first-person account of an adventure with your child.

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