To the sandbox set, I'm 'generic dad'

I suspect it's the nondescript gray business suit, the shabby brown briefcase, and the loosened tie that account for the confusion. But I prefer to think that there is something intrinsically paternal about me that leads the neighborhood kids - the toddlers mostly - to shout "Daddy!" whenever they see me walking home from the train.

Every afternoon as I pass the playground, some little voice imprisoned in a stroller or strapped to a swing calls after me with the hysterical, slightly plaintive enthusiasm that only preschoolers can evoke. I turn and wave, and then invariably some discerning older child whispers, "That's not our daddy, that's David and Juliana's daddy," and the excited child falls silent, wrapped in wonder: To think that creatures stalk the earth so similar in appearance to my daddy.

If I wasn't in such a hurry to get home to my own three kids, and if I thought the baffled child might understand, I would enter the playground, sit cross-legged in the sand, and explain that such confusion is natural enough. I am your basic bespectacled dad, the kind whose suits and ties contain traces of his children's most recent meals; whose pockets are filled with the scraps of colored paper they recently gave him as presents; and whose hair always has the slightly tousled look of someone who just carried a child on his head. I am, in other words, a generic dad, inexpensively labeled, easy to confuse with a lot of other workaday dads.

Not long ago, however, I discovered there was more to this trick of mistaken identity than just my protean appearance. It became evident when the two-year-old across the street burst from his house shouting "Daddy!" when he saw me watering the lawn. That he did so even with his own father in view suggested a far deeper dimension to all this seeming bewilderment than I had at first realized. My neighbor insisted his son's behavior was actually a thinly veiled condemnation of his father's frequent absences. The man's endless hours at the office, trips abroad, and weekends on the job were a constant source of complaint.

What I took to be an isolated problem turned out to be something of a universal grievance in my neighborhood. Whenever a child mistook me for his father, I made a point of asking if his dad worked long hours. Invariably he did. (And often, so did his mother.) In fact, nearly half the fathers in my neighborhood, I discovered, leave home before dawn and don't return until after their children are in bed. The poor kids are so starved for a glimpse of their peripatetic dads that they routinely fasten on the first remotely familiar father figure walking home from the train and give voice to their fondest wish: "Daddy!"

As it turns out, I'm perfectly happy playing the generic dad since I enjoy the sorts of activities that generic toddlers enjoy: digging in the sand, flying kites, feeding ducks, chasing fireflies, and hiding under pianos. To facilitate matters, I always carry the essential paternal entertainments: a handkerchief, a key ring, a wristwatch (with alarm), a ballpoint pen, and a pocketful of loose change.

In addition, I provide shoelaces to untie, shoulders to mount, hair to pull, glasses to swipe, and a shirt to unbutton. With these few tools I can entertain a troop of toddlers for hours - or until someone bends my glasses out of shape. After the first few minutes they don't seem to care that I'm not their father. In a pinch, any dad'll do.

Actually, being a generic dad is pretty much like being a generic mom, a condition most mothers take for granted, instinctively wiping all running noses within reach, feeding all hungry mouths, drying all teary eyes, and escorting all twitching bottoms to the ladies' room. But the demands upon fathers are far less stringent: no car pooling, no class mothering, no thank-you notes. All it requires is a ready smile, a sturdy back, and fast, tickling fingers.

Last week with the sky an opalescent blue and the afternoon temperature hovering in the low 80s, I slipped out of the office and hopped an early train, arriving back in the neighborhood just before the sounding of the general dinner bell. The playground was swarming with children, the older ones straddling the top of the jungle gym, the younger ones playing below in the sand, their voices drowning out the ubiquitous, droning lawn mowers.

With tie askew and jacket slung over my arm, I approached the throng, anticipating the inevitable shouts of mistaken identity and subsequent disappointment. And sure enough, as I crossed the street one small child called out, "Daddy!" followed by a second, and then even a third, all three suddenly bursting from the playground in my direction.

I was tempted to throw my jacket over my head and let them climb over me in the belief that I was indeed their father, giving them a few moments of paternal playfulness before the usual shocked recognition and subsequent despondency put an end to our game. So I dropped my briefcase and turned my back to the swings, but before I could hide my face all three were on me, pulling my sleeves, untying my shoes, reaching into my pockets, demanding to be picked up and kissed as if I were indeed their real father.

I peered at them through a tangle of arms and legs. At a quick glance they looked like your basic, generic kids: grass-stained knees, dirty sneakers, chocolate-covered mouths, sticky fingers, sandy hair. They might very well have been my own kids, as full of smiles, shouts, and grasping hands as the three that regularly greeted me at the front gate. And, on closer inspection, it turned out, they were.

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