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Rent a Child


My brother, Pete, phoned me the other day to tell me about an article he had just read in The New Yorker.

"Hey, check it out," he said with excitement. "It's all about rent-a-family."

I knew exactly why he was excited. "Dad's favorite story," I thought to myself. "I'll take a look," I said. This morning, I did, And there it was, in the January 31 issue of The New Yorker (which I still receive on  a long-term subscription that my father got for me – and a dozen other people – before he died two years ago – but that's another story). Titled, "The Borrowers," the story talks about a new trend: renting instead of buying. You can rent wedding guests, clothing, even children.

Sorry, folks, my brother had the idea long ago.

In 1980, my father wanted to take my mother, my brother, and me on a post-New Year's trip (he must have come into some money, though with my father you never knew – he may just have been feeling lucky). He gave us a choice: we could go to London, Paris, or Chicago. Now, I don't know about you, but Chicago in January is not my idea of fun city (it's COLD). But we all knew it was my father's home town (more or less, or really the place he considered his home town, since he had also grown up in Detroit), and  he hadn't been back there in years. We knew he wanted to show it off to us, and that he wanted to see his one-time mentor and long-time friend Tom Menaugh, whom he rarely saw anymore since we lived in New York.


So, with all that in mind, the choice of where to go was a no-brainer. "Chicago," we all said in unison. "Of course."

In Chicago, we stayed with Tom and his wife, Lynn, in a  rambling townhouse that the two of them owned. My father was very excited to be there, and every day, he'd take us on a tour of places that meant something to him (his first apartment with my mother, his high school) and after the trip, he'd show us on a map where we'd been.

Lynn's mother was visiting the Menaughs at the same time as us and she was quite a talkative old bird. One thing that she liked to talk about was how impressed she was with our family. "Imagine, having two grown boys" – Pete was about to turn 19 at the time and I was 23 – "traveling around with their parents! And enjoying it! Your parents must have raised you right. What good boys you are!"

Now, one compliment like this is nice.  But when the old lady kept on it, every morning at breakfast and every evening at dinner, it got to be a bit much. We smiled politely, and mumbled something about it was no problem, really. No, really. No, not al all.

One day – perhaps it was our last – Pete had had enough. We came down to breakfast and there was Lynn's mom, smiling and excited to see us. "Well, going out with your parents again?"

"Yes," we both mumbled, knowing what was coming.

"Well, did I ever tell you what a wonderful thing I think it is, that two grown boys travel around with their parents. And enjoy it! What good boys you are!"

Pete coughed and spoke, quite seriously, to  the bubbly woman. "Uh hum, I'm sorry to have to tell you this," he began. "But I can't let you go on this way."

She gave him a puzzled look.

"The fact is, Mrs. Trevor, this gentleman here," he said indicating me, "and myself are actors. We are paid to travel with the Soters as their sons. Their  real children are in prison."

"Yes," I said quickly, chiming in with: "We have another couple we'll be traveling with next week in St. Louis ."

The old woman's mouth dropped. She went to my parents and asked them if there was any truth to this wild story. My father  assured her it was all a fanciful joke. But from that point on, I think she was never quite sure of us, glancing our way every time we passed with a suspicious eye.

My father loved that story and delighted telling it on any occasion. (I always remember him talking about Peter coming up with the idea and then, "This one," he would say, referring to me, "would chime in, without missing a beat, 'Yes, we have another job next week.' I don't know if I actually said that or if it was just my father's way of including me in the story; he did things like that.)

Rent a child! What a concept. And we had it first.

February 6. 2011