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The secret of dealing successfully with a child is not to be its parent. — Mell Lazarus

Had it not been for the unmistakable racket of a wailing child and the desperate, hushed tone of a woman’s cajoling, I’d have thought the place abandoned. The noise reverberated off of every surface, making it impossible to locate its source. I stepped around a pastry display case and found a young woman in a long apron standing behind the cash register. She had a blank smile on her face, which appeared to be intended for the wall across from her.

“I know I heard my sister’s voice, but I don’t see her,” I said.

“She’s in the playhouse,” the girl responded, her tone as impassive as her expression.

“Right,” I said. “I’ll have the ‘Sunrise’ sandwich and a regular coffee, please.” My sister had told me about Java Mama Café in La Mesa, but this was my first time visiting it. It was still early, which explained the emptiness. In the next hour, it would be full of rampaging rug rats.

I paid for my breakfast and turned around to behold a penned-in play area with a bar along one side. Recognizing my sister’s laptop and the designer diaper bag I’d given to her for her birthday a few years ago, I set my things down on the bar, hopped up on a high chair, and peered into the pen. Jane’s head appeared through the tiny playhouse door; she crawled out of the plastic structure. Olivia continued to whimper as she followed her mommy out of the play area.

When the two-year-old noticed me, she blurted out the toddler version of my name: “Bob!” There must be something about the R preceding a consonant — a concept that apparently requires a later stage of brain development — as “Bob” is the best those under age five can manage.

A Viking of a man, his long gray hair cinched in a Clydesdale-tail at the nape of his neck, emerged from the playhouse and was giving one of his two charges the third degree. It seemed Olivia might have been pushed down the short set of stairs linking the upper and lower levels of the Fisher-Price stronghold. I glared suspiciously at the diminutive suspect, a boy of about three, before turning back to Jane and greeting her with a kiss on each cheek.

“So this is the place you’ve been talking about?” I asked.

“Yup,” Jane said. She sat on the chair beside me and hoisted Olivia onto her lap. “Last time I was here, a woman whipped ‘em both out and breastfed her twins at the same time.”

“I didn’t come here to peek at nips, Jane, it’s not like I’m craving boobage,” I said, conspicuously dropping my gaze to my chest. “I was going to go to the gym this morning, but here I am, eating out. Speaking of which, hang on a sec.” I fetched my plate from the counter and returned to my seat. Olivia lunged for my food. “Whoa, there, little darlin’ — Aunt Barb’s not a sharer.” I moved my plate out of the child’s reach and positioned my arm beside it for good measure.

“Are you bummed you came? Is this torture?” Jane asked.

“Are you kidding? This is my own private Hell; you know that. But I wanted to see you, and it’s always interesting to experience new things, even if they suck.” I shot my sister a wry grin, and she rolled her eyes.

“She wants your watermelon,” Jane said as she tried to contain a squirming and grunting Olivia. With a sigh, I broke off a small piece for myself and handed the rest of the slice to my niece, so she could use it to paint her face a sticky pink. (It’s a wonder any food makes it into her mouth.) I took a bite of my sandwich and nodded so as not to speak with my mouth full when Jane asked me if I liked it.

Jane deposited Olivia back in the stockade. Keeping one watchful eye on the potential pusher, she opened her laptop. “I love that I can come here and actually get some work done,” she said. “And it’s great that while I work, Livy can be playing with other kids, which both entertains her and tires her out before nap time. The only frustrating thing is when people try to talk to me even though I make it more than clear that I’m working.”

“Yeah, well, think about it,” I said. I avoided intent-to-socialize eye contact with the woman setting up camp beside me and continued, “These stay-at-home types don’t get many opportunities to interact with other adults. A girl could lose her mind or become unbearable for other adults to be around if she doesn’t take a break from mommy mode. Even Mom had things, like Bunco and her bowling league, to help her maintain her sanity.”

Women, a good number of them pregnant, streamed in during the next hour until the play area was running rampant with children. Moments after arriving, one of the moms popped out a boob to feed the infant strapped to her chest in a kind of baby hammock.

Jane, an expert at tuning things out, typed away, either oblivious or unconcerned with the cookie-crumb trail her daughter was spreading across the floor. To distract myself from the anxiety I felt at the escalating pandemonium, I monitored the behavior of the small creatures in the enclosure, which was now supervised by a café employee.

One young thing, a blonde moppet with a crazy gleam in her eye, was on a mission to collect every doll. When the hoard in her arms became too cumbersome, she’d disappear into the playhouse for a while, emerge empty-handed, and begin stockpiling again. A boy systematically emptied the shelves of toys and books onto the floor faster than the paid sitter could return them. Outside the pen, the mommies made small talk while their children, just about all of them nose-pickers, explored their colorful corral.

I thought of my home-office away from home — a sizable café down the street from my place called Cream. I like having a place to go where I can work in the company of others but not with them. At Cream, there seems to be an implicit pact upon entering that people will do their best not to disturb each other. On a few occasions, I have witnessed an unleashed toddler reigning supreme, the patronage surrendering their good moods to the deafening squeals.

“You know, Jane, I think this whole Java Mama thing needs to take off,” I said. “It should be a chain.” My sister shot me a skeptical glance. “I’m serious,” I said. “If they had more cafés and restaurants and movie theaters that catered to kids, then I could go about my day in blissful peace and quiet.”

“Yeah, that’s a great idea,” Jane said sarcastically. “You’ve got a lot of vacancies in your building, don’t you?” This time, it was my turn to roll my eyes.

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