Knowing your way around a particular town is like knowing your way around the English language: Just because you’re fluent doesn’t mean you can name all the working parts of a toilet or trade bons mots with an Oxford don. And just because you’ve lived in a town on and off for over 10 years, as I have in Berkeley, doesn’t mean you really know it as well as you might think, if at all—a fact I found out upon returning this year to Berkeley as the father of a newborn little girl.
Being a new parent is largely a matter of running a major supply operation for a very demanding boss who refuses to say what she wants but requires instant gratification. Or else. Which means that mastering the logistics of where to find the really important things that keep the boss happy is a matter of life and death, sleep and sanity, and absolutely no diaper rash, usually all in the same 24-hour period.
So it was with a certain level of panic that I discovered the complexity of setting up a proper baby supply-line when we moved back to Berkeley, just as my little dictator was hitting the one-month mark. I had assumed, based on something I now recognize to be profound ignorance, that the abundance in Berkeley of such diverse items as too-rich gourmet foods, endless kitchen supplies, over-priced real estate, and ridiculous amounts of camping equipment would extend to essential baby-related products. It turns out that I had a lot to learn.
The first thing I learned is that geography is destiny when it comes to a baby’s needs. A large chain like Safeway or Walgreen’s can have a massive baby section in one store, replete with the kind of option overload that is our God-given birthright as yuppie Americans, and then present an out-of-stock baby shelf in another store that would make a Soviet-era retailer blush with pride. This is particularly true the closer a baby supply chain chief ventures towards the UC Berkeley campus, where the space that would otherwise have gone towards supplying babies is taken up by the ways and means of preventing them in the first place. (With an appropriate level of option overload, begging the question of why Cal students need 15 different kinds of condoms...)
The second thing I learned is that, while Berkeley professes to being on the cutting edge of social change, many Berkeley retailers still assume that baby’s only procurer is mommy or some such other woman, preferably with a feminine hygiene problem in need of a little retail therapy. Hence the frequent placement of baby products next to the women’s products section. As an honorary member of the sisterhood, I honestly have no problem with the proximity of Monistat to Gerbers, and I am certainly grateful that the baby section isn’t next to a wall full of Maxim magazines or more striped condoms. But wouldn’t it make more sense to at least acknowledge the buying power of fathers in the baby business with an adjacent shelf dedicated to, say, romantic gifts for the tired partner staying at home with Junior while daddy escapes on a shopping trip?
The final thing I learned is that the shop that doesn’t stick the diapers next to the tampons usually sticks them next to the cold remedies. Now that’s a successful retail strategy: Imagine the joy of turning the aisle, with newborn baby in a carriage about three feet off the ground, and finding the kid’s vital supplies blocked by a mass of sneezing, coughing germ factories looking for a new host for their miserable microbes. This is a particularly welcome sight in flu season, but it’s good for a quick exit any time of year.
A few weeks passed and I eventually got the hang of this latest twist in getting to know quirky Berkeley. And at this point I’d say that I’ve pretty much mastered the current needs of my new master, who shows her benevolence by generally cooperating in my peregrinations to please her so-far wordless whims. Which brings us to the essential truth about fatherhood: You don’t need to be able to trade witticisms with a British bigwig or discuss part numbers with a plumber, as long as you’ve got your baby’s lingo down pat.