Working in Coffeeshops Dept.: There’s a spectacularly ugly child sitting at a table not far from me. So hideous is his aspect that I’m trying not to look his way, yet I can’t keep my gaze from straying there, much as I’d covertly study a grisly crime scene.
We’re programmed to anthropomorphize any facelike arrangement of items, thus giving us a man in the moon and Jesus on toast, a process that begins with babyhood, when the infant seeks a pattern that should resolve itself into a mother’s face. I’m sure this is a survival tactic in more ways than one. It gets the kid fed, we hope, but it’s also an endearing maneuver. Because, let’s face it, a baby fresh out of the chute looks so horrifically disfigured that the sane, survival-of-the-fittest reaction would be to immediately kill it.
Trying to maintain realistic expectations, when my own (and only) child was about to be born, I fashioned a birth announcement that featured a drawing of a baby in a bassinet, but with the face of Eisenhower, which I knew would approximate whatever appeared.
In fact, Ike looked far better. The plates of the newborn’s skull have not yet shifted into place; the face and body are puffy and distended, there’s a ghastly looking rope attached, and the thing whimpers and weeps. Yet we’re able to look at this beast and murmur, “How beautiful.”
Forget controlled substances. Whatever drug it is that’s released into the system upon seeing one’s child that provokes such an outrageous reaction is what I’d like to dose myself with daily. It’s a place of hallucinatory wonder.
So the kid’s appearance is bound only to get better, and it does. Plus, we get distracted. A toddler’s attention-seeking exuberance provokes its own level of loathsomeness, so our hatred for its behavior distracts us from its face.
Unfortunately for the child sitting nearby, its behavior is exemplary. I marvel instead at the odd irregularity of its features, wondering if there’s a physiological component – some manner of genetic defect, perhaps – the awareness of which would sear me with guilt. Yet I can’t see anything overtly wrong. I’m pretty sure the kid will grow into his face, the way kids with outsized noses tend to grow into them (think Updike or Streisand).
I remember there being a family that was billeted in an inn room at a restaurant where I cooked, which meant that they showed up for breakfast for a couple of mornings. And they had an especially homely child in tow. No fault of his own, I’m sure, but the resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman was startling, and much of the restaurant’s staff made the same connection independently of one another.
Despite his unfortunate appearance, he was an active, curious, articulate kid, so we let young Alfred scamper around the kitchen while his parents breakfasted, and we put him to work while lunch prep continued. He had a great time, and his parents were thrilled with the attention he got, none of it condescending.
“But that sure was an ugly kid,” one of the waiters remarked after the family had left. “I couldn’t stop looking at him.”