Prune pits be damned

In the fall of 2004, my 20-year-old son Jesse and I took two big road trips, spending enough time in the car to listen to Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” a good chunk of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” and enough Hip-hop to last me a lifetime (though like Twain’s take on Wagner, much of it was “better than it sounds”).

The boy was taking a semester off college, working odd jobs, and being dutiful in ways that warm the heart. He honored this father to the tune of more than 2,000 miles, serving as driver, companion, and living reminder of what it means to be a searching young man coming of age in uncertain times—something I recall doing myself some 30 years ago.

Chicago; Cleveland; Columbia, Md.; Wooster, Ohio; back to Chicago; then a few weeks later back to Wooster; then Bloomington, Ind.; then back home to Chicago… We rolled and rolled in daylight and twilight and midnight, and when the books on tape stopped and the music ceased, strands of conversation fluttered against the pulse of cylinders and the thrumming of rubber on asphalt. “What do you want out of life? What are you willing to commit?”

I had bought an old camper in Maryland, and had shopped price over proximity, hoping the best deal would be far enough away to turn the acquisition into an adventure. The road trips were needed to fulfill that dream.

Jesse had time on his hands between paying gigs, so I press-ganged him into serving as helmsman. We sailed down turnpikes and highways and rural byways, dropping in on family along the way (an al fresco dinner in Cleveland’s Little Italy; a barbecue in Wooster another; and Yom Kippur in Bloomington, where we prayed with former professors of mine, who had since become frail old men.

Sharp and focused as a driver, my son was confident in his skills. His feet were planted on the ground, but like his old man his head was partially in the clouds. To be here now he could do with laser precision; to approach how to become the man he will be, now that’s a daunting thing.

As a schoolboy in early-sixties London, at lunch my mates and I would count the prune pits from our pudding according to the rhyme, “Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief…” as if destiny hung in the balance. Would fate’s hand be tipped if my last prune pit coincided with beggar man? What would it be like to be a thief?

As a young man in the early seventies, I felt more control over my destiny. I had choices and began to make the decisions that go into building a life. Like many people my age, the path from then to now was anything but straight and narrow; it was a maze and for its blind alleys, much of it was amazing: time spent overseas, time off from college to work odd jobs.

I once hung up on my parents, who had called me at the restaurant where I worked to ask if I had decided to go back to school. “I can’t get into it with you now,” I huffed, “I’m busy making a sandwich!”

The “sandwich” I made turned out to be meaty enough. To have a place in this vast America, this vast world—a home, a job, a family, a community—is a great blessing. What more could I have wished for my children?

When it comes to choosing a path, some young people opt for the straight and narrow. They know where they want to go and how to get there. Others, like my son, opted for the maze. Sometimes when my wife or I would ask him what he was doing with his life, he would bark back, “I can’t get into it with you right now. I’m busy making pizza!”

Dough takes time to rise; ingredients take time to bake. Why rush? A blind alley, properly explored, teaches much, prune pits be damned.

written by Aaron Cohen