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Junkyard Creatures

I swiveled my head back and forth, but mostly down, and tried not to panic. I’d backed myself into a corner, and not in the figurative way. There were dozens of them, and they were all armed. I tried to stay out of their way without catching their attention. One, seeming to smell my fear, came right toward me. She was taller than the others. With a frightening grin, she raised the staff in her hands and taunted me with the poison dripping from its end.

“Emily!” It was a woman’s voice, sharp and clipped. “Stop it, and get over here.” The staff — a long rod slathered in pink paint — was lowered. The girl holding it flashed me a look that said, “This isn’t over,” and obeyed her mother.

The immediate threat was gone, but I was still against a wall with no path for escape. I cursed myself for getting into this mess. Then I cursed David. If I hadn’t tried to get a better angle for my video, I wouldn’t have made my way to the farthest corner of the “junkyard” at the New Children’s Museum. It was David’s fault that I had even considered getting a better angle — you spend enough years with a photographer, you can’t help but learn a thing or two.

The last time I was inside the museum, its name did not include the word “new,” and the after-hours event I was attending was for adults only. I vaguely remembered a DJ and a patio filled with smokers. Now, in the light of day, it looked a lot different, with all that natural light streaming in through glass walls. And, of course, there were the children.

I was there for one reason: to capture footage of an event for my monthly segment on NBC News in the Morning, “Stepping Out with Barbarella.” I’d learned from past kid-centric events around town that parents don’t take too kindly to cameras directed at their children; to spare myself the inconvenience of going into an explanation for every hyper-cautious guardian, I brought my own kids to film. Well, not my kids — my sister Jane’s two girls, Bella and Olivia.

In conjunction with its current exhibit, TRASH, the museum had transformed its “outdoor paint patio” into a “junkyard” intended to serve as a playground palate for little painters. Stacks of tires, a small doghouse, and an actual car made up the three-dimensional canvas. Buckets of pink paint were placed around the area, and painting tools ranging from brushes to broomsticks were laid out.

The children were feverish. They plunged their tools into buckets and thoughtlessly whipped their dribbling sponges and sticks through the air until they alighted on some patch of engine or tire. I watched in horror as two toddlers attacked the stuffed toy dog in the doghouse, winced as its white and brown fur became matted in the thick, wet, pink mess. I had to get out of there before another child mistook me for some junk.

One knee-high creature drew close. I was tempted to reach down and keep it from getting any closer by placing my hand on its shiny brown hair, but I understood that deliberate touching (even to save myself, and by myself I mean my clothing) was unacceptable. Instead, I went, “Aah, help,” in a whimper much quieter than I’d intended. I realized it was the same instinct that had stopped me from touching the child that kept me from speaking directly at it, for that would be to cross an invisible-but-real line between the child and any person who wasn’t their pre-assigned guardian.

To get attention from other guardians, I raised my voice to address one of my own. “Bella! Hey, are those your initials you painted on the top of the car? That’s great!” There. I’d identified myself as one of the group — I wasn’t just some creepy, freaked-out lady standing against the wall with a video camera, I was with one of the kids. I looked around for any person who seemed to be paying attention to the small brunette at my feet. Once I spotted her, I caught the woman’s gaze with a big, “Isn’t this fun” sort of smile, and then, as if it was an afterthought, I pointedly looked down and said, “Ooh, ha ha ha, be careful there.” At this, the woman took over, using the child’s name — which didn’t work — and then grabbing its arm and pulling it out of my way.

I left my sister at the clay station with her girls and went inside to catch my breath and examine my black clothing for any pink residue. Looking around, I noticed I wasn’t the only one with a camera — it seemed every adult in the building had some kind of lens between themselves and their charges. I imagined the frantic Instagramming that had to be going on: child laughing at bubble, Sierra filter; close-up of clay creation drying in the sun, Kelvin filter; and so on.

My attention was drawn downstairs, to the base of a two-story, blue-and-purple aluminum sculpture, where a band was setting up. A grown-up standing at the top of the stairs asked if I’d heard them before. “Name’s Egg. They’re a kid’s band, but it’s good music, so they also appeal to parents,” he said.

Two blondes — Bella and Olivia — scurried by; Jane was close behind them. She slowed down as she passed and said, “We’re going to stand in line for the face painting…is that okay?”

“No worries,” I said. “I’ll wait downstairs. There’s a band gonna be playing.” Jane nodded and continued after her girls.

Downstairs, I leaned against the wall, away from all of the children and their grown-ups seated in a half-circle on the floor facing the music. Despite the lyrics, which included instant classics such as “I like fruit” and “Hey, hey, look at me, I’m making the world a better place to be,” if I closed my eyes and listened to the guitar and drums, if I squinted and watched the singers bouncing to the beat, I was pleasantly reminded of the last time I’d been there, and I found myself wondering when there might be another adult-only event at the “New” Children’s Museum.

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