Day 362: The Human Pipe Cleaner

To avoid mass hysteria, we use an acronym around here. “C.E.C.” stands for Chuck E. Cheese, which if said within earshot of the kids, triggers emotional multi-ball. Silas jumps up and down, yelling “I want to go right now,” while Arlo drifts into a zombie-like state, wandering around chanting “Shoing E Shee … Shoing E Shee .. Shoing E Shee.” It’s the best he can do without the ability to execute a “ka” sound.

Lindsay and I have crumbled and taken the whole clan to Shoing E Shee a couple times recently, but the visit that stands out most for me happened over a year ago in Brooklyn when Silas and I went by ourselves.

I took him there for some special daddy time which usually includes letting him do stuff Lindsay wouldn’t approve of (some things about fatherhood never change). He wanted “so so so so so so badly” to climb in the plastic tube maze, and though he met the height requirement, he was clearly younger than the team of four and five year-olds I could see already meandering through. I feared a claustrophobic freak-out, but remembered a long-hair in the 60’s saying part of love is letting go.

Silas started up the ladder hidden inside a plastic tree and I held my breath. I leaned my head in, “Everything OK so far?” The tree was the only opaque part of the maze. A few seconds later, I could see him. He seemed far away, and though I was as powerless as Augustus Gloop’s mom, at least I wouldn’t have to swim across a lake of chocolate if he got stuck.

Watching from below, I made gestures of encouragement whenever our eyes met. He continued cautiously as other children squeezed past him.  I could tell he was feeling uncomfortable. Upon reaching the end where he was supposed to turn around and head back, he froze.

“Go back the way you came.” I shouted.  He couldn’t hear me. The other parents gathered as I rose my voice, “Just turn around!”  The tubes were sound-proof, but from his face, I could see he was panicked and crying. The other children tried to help him, but their overly aggressive efforts only increased his anxiety. His face now crimson from stress and striped with tears, I quickly realized I had only one option.

I’m six feet six inches tall and even as a young man, never all that limber. Now at 39, I’ve recently quit trying to put on socks while standing. But adrenaline hit my brain and I squeezed into the tree. Half-way up the ladder, I could hear yelling and crying. It was humid from all the bodies and smelled like vomit. It became louder, hotter and more putrid the further I went.

The tubes were wide enough for the children to crawl through on their hands and knees. I, however, had no other means of travel but a military crawl, and, even then, it was still a little tight. I imagined becoming stuck like Augustus and ending up on the evening news. Luckily, my questionable upper body strength allowed me to squeeze through like a human pipe cleaner. What didn’t help my cause, though, was that everyone, including the staff, was watching the show.

“Silas, I’m coming.” I made my way past three sweaty children who looked at me as if witnessing a rescue they’d only seen in cartoons. When I reached my boy, I saw a curly slide behind him that could easily be used as an exit. Sure, I could have simply climbed up the slide to get him, but I didn’t know it was there because none of the good samaritans at Chuck E. Cheese alerted me of the clearly superior rescue entrance.

It’s a good thing the slide was there, though. When attempting to position myself to slide down it, I realized the tube was too small for me to turn around in. Had I needed to take Silas out the way we entered, a reverse military crawl would have been required, and I’m not even sure that’s a thing marines do, much less me.

I had to go down the slide head first and instructed Silas to get on my back. I was damp with sweat, causing us to stall a few times, but we were eventually able to wiggle our way down as the crowd continued to watch like they were waiting for the seals to be fed at the zoo.

Of course, the only thing that mattered was Silas’ safety, but somehow it still felt anticlimactic. Weren’t we owed a free SkyBounce ball or a visit from Chuck? At least some expressions of concern, or friendly chuckles and pats on the back from fellow dads? Nothing. After everyone realized the show was over, they shrugged and walked back to the skeeball alleys.

Silas and I walked out and took the escalator down to Cold Stone Creamery where we both had ice cream. We grinned at each other knowing that we now shared a pretty decent war story.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

31 comments On Day 362: The Human Pipe Cleaner

  • Kristin Johnson

    This will keep everyone out of those tubes…at a local tube place for kids while we were there a mother was frantic and I mean frantic. So of course all of us other mothers start to panic a bit and immediately start looking for a lost child..but it wasn't the child that was lost. It was his poop filled diaper that he conveniently took off at the tippy top in a clear tube and had managed to smear poo onto his knees and continue crawling all the way back down. I froze…where the crap are my kids? When I wrangled my then two, school age kids, I told the "teenage manager" what happened. She said ok and walked off. No one shut it down, no one came over a loud speaker and announced that someone left their poo in the tube. I was paralyzed with fear and disgust. I manged to blurt out to other parents that were getting fountain drinks what has happening. Everyone seemed pretty calm which left me wandering….is this common? And am I that much of a germ freak? Both answers I believe are yes…..

  • At least you cared enough to get your child. I was a manager at the dreaded CEC for two years and since I was the smallest I got to rescue kiddos way to often!! I have considered writing a book about the horrors I experienced!

  • I am so claustrophobic that just reading this had me feeling anxious and I think my blook pressure went up a few notches! Love the last sentence.

  • One of my biggest fears realized. Your story gave me chills. Lol

  • Been there, done that while 9 months pregnant. I win.

      • Yep. It was at a McDonald's Playplace *shudder* and my 21 month old crawled up some really narrow steps and sat at the top and screamed. I was there with some friends and their kids and he wouldn't go with anyone but me. Did I mention that I am severely claustrophobic? Not fun.

    • Same here Courtney! My son (at age 2) would go all the way up the play centre and then realize that he was alone and start screaming. I would send up other kids to bring him down (or push him down a slide) but he only wanted me so me and my 9 month pregnant belly climbed the play centre but at least took the slide down.

      Jason: we call Chuck E Cheese, Charles E. (pronounced eh) Fromage, in honour of the French. My son is now 7 and still hasn't figured it out.

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