Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.”
God, I hate Woody Allen.
My wife and I like to plan ahead. As the loving, caring parents that we are (i.e. since we didn’t get a lot of stuff growing up), we wanted to make sure our oldest son’s third birthday was a special one. We invited all his friends (i.e. OUR friends with age-appropriate children), ordered a fancy cake, made special homemade foods, ordered party tables and chairs and finally, the pièce de résistance – was the purchase of a Little Tikes’ Cube Outdoor Playground – heretofore referred to as “the Cube” – a backyard playground with the feel of a big-park jungle gym (i.e. to keep the little monkeys busy while their parents get some much needed adult social interaction).
To make sure everything was just perfect (i.e. to ensure I didn’t get blamed an eternity for screwing up my child’s THIRD BIRTHDAY), we ordered the Cube from Toys R Us about a month before the party. Now, this thing wasn’t cheap – around $500 – not exactly in the budget for a young couple struggling with two kids under three-years-old. But we felt it was important to have something the kids could play on (i.e. keep them outside from breaking stuff inside our small home).
The package – actually two, very large cardboard boxes the size of king-sized mattresses with a picture of the item in “boy” colors (blue, green, orange) and the words “Little Tikes’ Cube Outdoor Playground” in foot-high letters on the front, back and sides – were delivered the next day. To keep this a surprise – heaven knows you can’t let your toddler see his present two months ahead of time – we did what any disciplined parents would do – hide them in the garage with all the other junk we don’t have room for in the house.
Tony, the manager at Toys R Us, assured us the Cube was very easy to assemble and shouldn’t take more than 30-40 minutes to build. It was pretty much a snap-and-go type of design with just a few areas that required the use of tools, all of which were included in one of the two cardboard boxes the size of king-sized mattresses. Being the trusting consumers that we are (i.e. we didn’t believe Tony for a minute), we went down to Toys R Us, took copious notes and closely examined the display model for any clue that it was harder to assemble than Tony’s assurances. Luckily for him, it looked pretty easy to put together (i.e. my wife said even I could do it).
Now that this item was checked off the party’s “to-do” list, we could focus on the more important things, such as ordering the cake, coordinating the food with grandma, making sure the barbeque was fully functioning (with backup propane tank) and tidying up the house, making it safe for our precious little visitors (i.e. sanding down and painting every visible surface inside and out and eliminating all potential liability issues).
After the party invitations went out, we discovered that most of our guests were attending another community event on the same day of our son’s birthday. Being the flexible and practical parents that we are (i.e. panicked without any options), we simply re-scheduled our late June event to later in the day. Luckily, the sun doesn’t set until around 8pm or so in Los Angeles, so a late start was no big deal. If this was the biggest challenge we were going to face in our party plans, this day should go off without a hitch.
Little did I know that, in this case, the term “without a hitch” could be taken both literally and figuratively. In other words, the adventure was just beginning.
The day of the party finally arrived. I was up early (i.e. my wife wouldn’t let me sleep, nervously going up and down our to-do list while tossing and turning in our bed), ready to get the day started. Funny, the only real thing I had to do was put together the Cube and crank up the barbeque. It was pretty much turnkey event until I made a discovery that would change the course of history (i.e. ruin everything we planned):
As I began to pull the two very large cardboard boxes the size of king-sized mattresses out of the garage, which had a picture of the Cube and the words “Little Tikes’ Cube Outdoor Playground” in foot-high letters on the front, back and sides, a slight tear on the front of the first box revealed something different inside. Something unexpected. Something (gasp) pink!
The Cube wasn’t there.
That’s right. Instead of finding the Little Tikes’ Cube Outdoor Playground, what we discovered inside the two horribly mislabeled boxes was the Little Tikes’ Lalaloopsy Sew Cute Playhouse in bright, Lalaloopsy colors (i.e. colors that would cause my boys to wear make-up and dresses when they got older – not that there’s anything wrong with that).
After discovering my hair had not immediately turned gray and fallen out, I did what any calm father would do in such a similar situation – I screamed like a little girl. Soon, a small crowd consisting of my wife, my in-laws, my sister-in-law, her husband (Khalid) and my neighbor (Steve) rushed to see what was wrong. All I had to do was point at the box.
[Before going any further, my wife has disavowed any comments attributed to her regarding this situation, stating that the vocabulary and gestures she used to express her dismay at the discovery of the so-called “Lalaloopsy Sew Cute Playhouse” (in bright, Lalaloopsy colors) is open to interpretation and were uttered at a moment of great despair and emotion. That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.]
Toys R Us doesn’t open until 10am on Saturdays. I called the store where we bought the Cube and was transferred to the manager on duty – Tony. So far, so good, I thought. I told Tony about the situation and the mislabeled item and he actually remembered us (i.e. he thought my wife was hot). He asked if he could put us on hold while he checked his inventory. About five minutes later, he came on the line.
“I have good news,” said Tony. “We have the Playground in stock here at the store.” “Yes!” I screamed. Then came the kicker. “Plus, I can arrange to have the wrong unit picked up and the right unit delivered by tomorrow.”
“Hello?” Tony asked. “Are you still there? Hello?”
Tomorrow? TOMORROW? He might as well said next year as the party was in exactly five hours and 53 minutes and I didn’t have the Crown Jewel of the Jungle Gym anywhere near my backyard.
My wife, hearing me mutter the word “tomorrow” and seeing the color leave my face, calmly took the phone from my hand. Coming from a line of very strong-willed women, I expected her to give a tersely worded reply to Tony. Instead, she just listened.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Trad,” Tony told her. “The mix-up was definitely our fault. Please accept our sincerest apologies. I understand your party is today. We have a replacement unit. Unfortunately, we don’t have any drivers available until tomorrow, but if you can rent a truck or van, we will reimburse you up to $50 for the inconvenience. I hope this will be acceptable.”
She told Tony that would be just fine and asked him to hold the boxes until we got there in the next hour or so. She then hung up the phone and gave me the “you-know-this-is-all-your-fault” look on her face. I gave her the “yes-I-know-but-how-was-I-supposed-to-know-what-was-in-that-box-before-today-oh-you-are-right-I-should-have-checked-earlier” look of contrition along with the obligatory “I-will-call-u-haul-right-away” sigh of disdain.
For eleven months out of the year, you can pretty much call U-Haul (or any other truck or moving van rental service) and get the vehicle you need on the same day without much wait or hassle, though a reservation is always a good idea. Unfortunately, the month of June isn’t that month. During that month – more specifically, the third Saturday of June – is the annual peak demand for such rentals. It is the perfect storm of students moving – either from college to home or to the city in which they will start their new jobs. It is also the month where most weddings take place, thereby leaving people in my situation in what is technically known in industry parlance as – pardon my French – #%!@ out of luck.
As I walked outside the house to get some fresh air, I looked up and down the street for a solution. Unfortunately, not a van nor pickup truck was in sight in my friendly neighborhood. The one friend I know that had a large pickup was – no surprise – helping his newlywed brother move to his new apartment. My luck was running thin until a potential glimmer of hope turned the corner and into the driveway across the street.
My neighbor, Ray, was one tough cookie. A war veteran, he’s the neighbor who would work on a car in his driveway, leaning under the hood, working on a gas-flooded carburetor with a lit cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth – just inches away from spontaneous combustion.
As the neighbor who fixed everyone’s car, he’d chastise you for not changing your oil more frequently. He was also the neighbor who’d bring in everyone’s trash cans while they were at work. A thin, short man who always wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt, Ray was a stoic, trustworthy and no-nonsense guy, a flashback to a different era. (Ray passed away in 2001.)
Ray had two prized possessions. One was a green 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air in mint condition. He only took it out of the garage on special occasions. His regular, everyday car was a blue 1966 Chevrolet El Camino. The El Camino was an American classic, the unique combination of a two-door coupe with a utility bed like a small pickup truck. Yes, I said pickup truck. A truck.
Since I was always intimidated by his seemingly gruff exterior, it took some courage to ask Ray to borrow his vehicle. So, I took a different approach with him. “Hey, Ray. You’re not going to believe this…” I started out, but he cut me off, declaring, “Steve told me what happened. You can borrow my El Camino. I need it back by five.”
He placed the car keys in my hand. “I need it back by five. Avoid the freeway. Make sure the tank’s not empty when you return,” as he walked away to fix someone else’s car with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
While my first problem seemed solved, I still had no idea if the boxes for the Cube would fit in the back of the El Camino. With a tape measure in hand, my brother-in-law Khalid measured the boxes, then he measured the back of the El Camino. “It will be tight, but I think we can make it fit,” he said with a mischievous grin.
As we carried the boxes to the car, the words “avoid the freeway” were still ringing in my ears. What did Ray mean by that? Was the El Camino not freeway safe? Was he giving a traffic report? The Toys R Us was about 25 miles away and taking side streets would take us more than three to four hours round-trip. We still had to assemble the Cube, so it would be cutting it close. Even if we went 40-to-50 miles per hour on the freeway, it would be better than hitting every stop sign and traffic light for 50 miles. Or so we thought.
As we placed the boxes in the bed of the El Camino, we put the slightly smaller box that had the opening (that revealed the pink Playhouse) on the bottom, with the slightly larger box on top. It looked odd but it fit the odd shape of the bed better than the other way around since side-by-side was out of the question. We carefully wrapped everything with rope and twine to the El Camino and headed out on our way. It was agreed that Khalid would come with me to assist with the loading and unloading once we got to Toys R Us.
To get the feel of driving Ray’s car and hauling two large boxes, we drove a bit further on side streets rather than taking the nearest freeway on-ramp at Ocean View Avenue and I-210 toward Pasadena. We opted instead to take the Angeles Crest Highway on-ramp. Once we got on the freeway, we immediately discovered why Ray said to avoid the freeway. The combination of his old, worn shock absorbers combined with the truck-carved, pot-holed slow lanes, made for quite the bouncy ride. Even though we kept the car well under freeway speed, we agreed to get off at the next exit as it just wasn’t safe.
The next exit at Gould Avenue was closed so we had to drive another mile to Berkshire Place. What happened next can only be described as, well, indescribable.
Still driving 50 mph in the slow lane approaching the exit, a big rig screamed past us on the left. While the El Camino bounced, the boxes lifted slightly. The wind generated by the passing truck found its way into the hole at the bottom of small box, tearing our secured ropes and twine, and lifting both boxes out of the El Camino and soaring across four lanes of freeway. Time stood still as we pulled over while both boxes landed somewhat safely across the second and third lanes from the center divider about a quarter of a mile behind us. In slow motion, car after car somehow missed the boxes, with the wind from them pushing the boxes closer to our direction – now in the two right lanes.
If we had any luck on that warm Saturday morning, it soon disappeared as we helplessly watched two (TWO!) big rigs – side-by-side – simultaneously strike each box, sending pieces of pink plastic playhouse in every conceivable direction – above, below and besides the vehicles following the two trucks.
As we stared in disbelief at the scene unfolding before us, a young driver in the fast lane swerved to avoid the remnants of cardboard and nearly lost control of her car. As she barreled down toward us, I told Khalid to run. As he headed down the ice plant along the exit ramp with a full head of steam wearing just flip flops, the car came safely to a rest behind our recently emptied El Camino on the shoulder of the road.
The poor girl. She barely looked old enough to drive. The look on her face was pure terror – white as a ghost, breathing heavily, hand over her heart and eyes that just saw her life flash before her. I mouthed, “Are you okay?” to her. She unconvincingly nodded yes. I walked to her driver side as she rolled down the window. “Some idiot lost his load,” I said sheepishly. “We just called the highway patrol from the Call Box. Can you believe it this mess?” I said with as much contempt as I could muster. She could only shake her head, catch her breath, and she was off. Soon, it was just Khalid, me, and $500 dollars worth of plastic spread over a country mile of asphalt.
Minutes later, two California Highway Patrol cars were on the scene – one was making a traffic break while the officers of the other car grabbed the remains of the Pink Playhouse and tossed them over to the side of the freeway.
When they finished, one of the officers came over to see us. I pleaded mea culpa. We told them we thought we had the load tied down safely and got off the road as soon as we could, but obviously it was too late. Since no one was hurt (at least physically) and there was no property damage (except for pinky), they weren’t going to cite us. However, they told us to remove our stuff from the side of the off ramp as soon as possible as the California Department of Transportation (Cal Trans), the agency that is responsible for repairing and cleaning the roads and shoulders, will be here in about an hour or two to clean up any debris that is left.
Khalid and I reached a crossroad. Since this was before most people had cell phones, we could either:
A. Give up. Leave all the stuff on the side of the road, head home, tell everyone what happened, learn our lesson, and live the rest of our lives in shame; or
B. Throw as much of the remaining pieces into the back of the El Camino, head over to Toys R Us, beg for forgiveness, and return home as virtual heroes with the Cube.
Call us crazy, but we chose the latter. We didn’t have much to lose, but we had to act – fast. Since less than half of the newly re-shaped plastic pieces would fit into the back of the El Camino without flying out (again), our Plan B was now the following:
- Gather the plastic items and stack them neatly on the side of the freeway. Leave a note for Cal Trans stating we’ll be right back to get these, so don’t throw anything away.
- Go to the Pasadena U-Haul and beg them to borrow a van, a truck, a trailer, a horse-and-buggy – ANYTHING – just for two hours. Something to get the pieces from the side of the freeway to Toys R Us.
- At Toys R Us, instead of begging for their mercy, let’s put them on the defensive. After all, we spent $500 and they delivered the wrong packages and couldn’t re-deliver the right packages in time for a child’s third birthday party. How is that going to look to a future generation of toy consumers, right?
It wasn’t much of a plan. We just ran out of options.
The Pasadena U-Haul just a few miles away. When we got there, it had bad news written all over it. The parking lot was full, there was a line-up of people inside, and there didn’t seem to be anything of theirs in the lot available to rent.
We get in line and, after nearly an hour, we haven’t moved an inch. Suddenly, a new person behind the counter appears and calls for the next person. No one else moves, and he seems to be staring at us, so we make our move. I tell him our story: Birthday party. Kids. Playground. Freeway. CHP. Skid marks. We just need something for two hours maximum. He apologizes but explains what we already know – graduations, weddings, etc. etc.
I look out the window over his shoulder. In the distance, I notice they have what appears to be a motorcycle trailer. I ask if that will work on the El Camino. He shakes his head while looking at his computer screen, saying it takes a special kind of hitch and vehicle to haul that kind of trailer. The El Camino won’t work with any trailer that they carry.
Just as all hope seemed lost, he leans over to us and says, “I’d love to help you guys but you understand our situation.” We nod our heads and are resigned to the fact that our plan is a failure. Before we leave the counter, he whispers, “You know, I’m not supposed to do this as it is against company policy. I’m the office manager and I have a customer coming this afternoon to pick up a moving van. You seem like nice guys. If I let you have it, do you promise to have it back here to me in three hours? I’ll have to charge you for a full day – $50 plus fuel – but at least you’ll have something. How does that sound?”
To this day, I swear that man was a guardian angel.
In record time, the paper work is filled out, man/guardian angel is paid, and we head off to our first stop – the Berkshire Place exit on I-210 to retrieve our pink stuff.
We arrive just in time as Cal Trans is already on the scene. Luckily, all they have taken are the two very large cardboard boxes. Heck, we won’t miss them. They were mislabeled, after all. So, we load up our very large moving van with all the newly re-shaped plastic pieces, and head to Toys R Us for the (still to be determined) ultimate even exchange.
The time was getting late. While our luck had changed through the acquisition of the moving van, we started getting nervous. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Traffic was getting heavy for a Saturday afternoon, even by Southern California standards. Not only did we still have more than 20 miles to drive to Toys R Us, we had to convince them to make a deal with us, empty the van, reload it with the two new very large boxes, drive back 25 miles, unload the van, return it to U-Haul, get Ray his El Camino, then get cleaned up and entertain our guests. If everything went perfectly, we would barely make it on time. Barely.
It took us nearly an hour to get to Toys R Us. We pulled up right in front of their customer loading area. I went inside and met Tony near the front register. As we walked toward the van, I told him we had a little problem – then opened the rear door on the moving van. The look on his face was priceless. The first piece that he saw had a long skid mark covering nearly half its pinkish hue as if it had been in a NASCAR event sponsored by Mary Kay Cosmetics. All the other pieces were scratched, dented or broken – or all three. His regional manager (I think he name was Phil) happened to be in the office. Tony called him over to take a look. They both just stared in disbelief. I tried to tell them this wouldn’t have happened had they sent us the right items in the first place, but I don’t think they heard me at all.
They then disappeared into their office behind closed doors for what seemed an eternity. The mood was tense. I could hear voices growing louder and louder. I then heard someone hang up a phone. After that, the door opened. The two managers called for two of the stock guys to come outside to the back of the van. Phil, gritting his teeth, instructed them to remove the items from the van and load the two new very large boxes in its place. Before I could thank him, Phil huffed and walked away. However, Tony said exhaustedly, “We’re not paying for the moving van” and also disappeared into the store.
Meanwhile, as the two stock guys were loading the two new boxes into the van, I saw one of them with an ear-to-ear grin say quietly to the other, “I’ve never seen Phil so mad. I can’t believe he took this stuff back.”
Neither could we, guys. Neither could we.
As they closed the van door and had us sign the final paperwork, we thanked them and got the hell out of Dodge before they changed their minds. I’m not sure how we did it, but we got our boxes back. Well, at least I hope we did. We didn’t have the time to check what was inside. We guessed we’ll find out eventually.
The traffic back wasn’t as bad as earlier, taking only 30 minutes to get home and unload the two boxes. Since everything took so long and we were running behind, I asked Khalid to stay behind and assemble the Cube while I returned the moving van to U-Haul and filled the El Camino.
The man/guardian angel at the Pasadena U-Haul was happy to see me as I got there within the allotted time limit. “I hope everything worked out for you. You guys looked like hell. I’m glad I could help. In fact, I’m only going to charge you for the fuel.” By now, he could tell that everything was now going much better, all things considered. I thanked him profusely as I headed out of the lot with Ray’s El Camino in search of a gas station.
When I got home, I handed Ray the keys and thanked him for all his help. He wasn’t necessarily the smiling kind, but on this afternoon, he had a pretty good laugh at our expense. Shaking his head, he laughed, “So, I heard you guys had quite the adventure today. Glad to see you’re safe.” At the end of the day, I have to admit it was pretty funny though, looking bad, it could very easily have gone horribly, horribly bad.
Walking back across the street, I could see our guests had arrived and the party was in full swing. I could hear the magical laughter of small children coming from the direction of the backyard, and that made me smile.
As I tried to sneak through the side gate, Dalia stopped me before I could enter. With a somewhat puzzled look on her face, she said, “Tarik, you’re not going to believe this.” My heart started racing. Did they give us the wrong items again? Did Khalid have trouble putting it together? Were some of the parts missing or broken? Was it pink?
“What possibly could be wrong, sweetheart?” I asked gently. Holding our six-month-old son, Omar, in her arms, she took me by the arm and led me to the backyard. In the glow of the late afternoon sun, I could see our Little Tikes’ Cube Outdoor Playground – a beautiful sight, fully assembled in all its splendor and glory. About ten feet to the left of it, I could see my birthday boy and about a dozen of his friends having the time of their lives – jumping up and down on two very large cardboard boxes.
After finally sitting down and joining the adults for a delicious late afternoon meal, one of our friends said to my wife and me, “What a terrific party. You really planned this well.” We just looked at each other, smiled, and said in unison, “Thank God.”
# # #
“The Birthday Surprise (or How to Make God Laugh Without Really Trying)” is a true event – part of the “Story of my Life” series of notes, letters and tidbits of my soul here on earth. It’s one of my longer stories. I always thought this would make a pretty good TV movie or short film. I hope you enjoyed it!