The amazing race

It demands stamina, agility, quick thinking, grace – but the payoff is huge.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Jill Salzman with her daughers in Oak Park, Ill.

Not a peep. Shoot.

The bright digits of the stove clock read 3:07 p.m. It’s almost time to pick up my daughter from school, and my son is napping. Either he will wake up, come out of the room, and shout “Surprise!” or – ranking just below a painful dental cleaning – I will have to wake him.

I open his door to let sounds in. Eyes shut, lips parted, my 3-year-old lies on his side, clutching his small, light blue blankie. Volleying his needs and her needs – the maximum nap and the on-time pickup – I’m aiming for an even score. I locate my sweater, put on lipstick, and drop my keys into my coat pocket, glancing again toward the stove: 3:09 p.m. School lets out at 3:20. We must be out the door by 3:10. If we leave any later, we race.

“Surprise!” My son charges toward me, and as we hug I tell him we’re going to pick up his sister. “I don’t want to go outside,” he says. As if I’m untangling live wires, I handle his mood delicately since I need him to cooperate, to put on a jacket and get in the stroller. “I want to play,” he says, running away.

Opening the pantry, I call after him, “I’ll give you two M&M’s, a green and an orange.” Not to be confused with – ahem – bribery, I consider this treat an apology for dragging him outdoors into the cool air on short notice.

My son reappears, compliant. We forgo his shoes; it takes four seconds to put those on. Once he’s seated – pinching the M&M’s between the fingers of both hands, tapping them together – I step out to press the button for the elevator. I slip on my coat, wheel out the stroller, and lock the door. Not a spare move. Not a wasted second. With this kind of efficiency, I could direct air traffic at LaGuardia.

In the elevator, after fastening my son’s seatbelt, I check my watch: 3:14. I get on my mark. The bell dings as we reach the first floor. I get set. The doors slide open. I go!

Pushing the stroller, I run down our wide block to compensate for the late departure. I am an express train. Thrilled by the speed of this ride, my son yells, “Faster!” I turn right onto the main street, shifting gears to a fast walk amid pedestrians. We pass every business in a blink: Chocolate shop. Barber shop. Photo shop. My son holds his M&M’s, studying the colors, which have run onto the beds of his fingers. “Eat the M&M’s,” I instruct him, talking loudly over the traffic. I couldn’t manage the drama if one should hit the pavement. “Put the M&M’s in your mouth.” 

Next block: Nail place. Pizza place. Hummus place. I try to breathe deeply. The muscles in my back are tight as we overtake everyone – kids on scooters and kids in strollers, people with cigarettes and people with cellphones. With the reflexes of a New York taxi driver, I avert collisions.

Wine store. Framers. Tailor. It’s cold out, but I’m perspiring. Without breaking my stride, I remove my jacket and sling it over the top of the stroller, minimizing wind resistance, shaving six-tenths of a second off my race. I’m an Olympian.

At the corner, I’m forced to stop for traffic. Despite wearing a watch, I fish out my phone to confirm the time. It’s 3:19. In a worst-case scenario, my daughter will be taken to the “late room.” She has never seen the inside of this room, and only once has she been the last child picked up.

The chain of cars passes. In the final block, I maneuver through noisy packs of middle-schoolers
on their way home. Cleaners. My son says something I can’t hear.

Optometrist. Moms and children we know from other classes are walking toward us. Chicken joint.

Whoa! I nearly run over someone’s toes.

I hurry across the last street, making a sharp right up the crowded sidewalk toward the fenced-in yard. Working the stroller around clusters of adults and lines of students, I spot the parents in our class chatting, waiting. Our children have not yet emerged from the building.

Hallelujah. It’s 3:21 p.m.

As I park the stroller, nodding hello to other mothers and allowing my surge of adrenaline to subside, my daughter’s teacher steps out of the school with two rows of first-graders streaming behind her like tired soldiers, spent from learning, barely holding formation, their backpacks outsizing their backs.

My daughter is squinting, her light curls catching the sun. Feeling composed now, even triumphant, I call her name, bending down to ask my son if he sees her, too. 

Glancing my way as she walks to the lineup spot, my daughter waves halfheartedly. There’s no happiness, no excitement in that wave. It’s merely a split-second acknowledgment: She knows I’m there, and that, to me, is worth a million dollars.

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