The Manny Diaries

I was 24, relatively new to New York City, working a day job I hated, waiting tables at night, and writing plays in my bedroom during any spare moment. But money was getting tight, and so were my jeans, as I ended most of my serving shifts by scarfing down high-calorie pub food. With few options left, I decided to fall back on the one job I knew would be a sure thing: babysitting.

Most of my jobs when I was growing up in New Albany, Ind., involved working with children, including seven years as a “Kinder Camp” counselor at my local Y and a summer as a teaching artist. Everyone told me that nannying was one of the best jobs for a starving artist — playing make-believe, diving deep into a child’s imagination, the laughter, the joy. That is, until the child is hungry, angry and melting down.

The question, though, wasn’t whether I would be a good nanny but if anyone would let me — as a Black man who is over six feet tall.

Lucas’s parents did. Walking into their apartment that first day, I was greeted with an unexpected hug from a small, white, 4-year-old boy with a wide smile and his long hair tied up in a knot.

His parents, John and Mark, were in their early 50s, slender and tattooed (one with a sleeve), both SoHo salon workers (one a colorist, the other a stylist) who spent their days cutting, coloring, pampering and stroking the locks and egos of businesswomen, wealthy housewives and Hollywood actors. They were cool, hip and showed me that it was possible that I too could have it all one day.

The idea of having children was something I had always imagined, even more than having a partner. I had spent my entire adult life up to then (all six years of it!) single, never putting much effort into finding love, using dating apps more to find artistic collaborators than romance.

I had only been on two real dates in the city. One was a dinner with a guy who didn’t seem to grasp the concept of eating with his mouth closed. The other was a coffee date where the guy spent the afternoon discussing his habits on popular hookup apps, the tops and bottoms of his many experiences.

When it came to sex and relationships, I was a late bloomer. While college friends were busy boozing it up at house parties, I was in rehearsal for a Tarell Alvin McCraney play and having my first kiss with, yes, a woman. Mainly because the script said to. I bloomed late all the way through college in Indiana and during my early years in New York.

With Lucas, I almost felt as if we were growing up together. For two years, until the pandemic interrupted our routine, I took him through the same daily paces — pick him up from school, help him do his homework, feed him a snack, take him to the park, then taekwondo, dinner, bath, bed.

Things did not always go smoothly. One day as we were leaving the playground, Lucas had one of his “witching hour” meltdowns, crying and pushing me away, when people started to notice, particularly a middle-aged white woman who tried to intervene.

I calmly explained to her that I was his babysitter, that everything was under control. But she wasn’t backing down, figuring I was kidnapping him or something. Finally, she said, “Should I call the police?”

Between her threat, Lucas’s ongoing fit and the gathering crowd, I lost my calm and said, “Do it. I dare you.”

Everybody froze, and I whisked Lucas away, fighting tears of my own.

Soon another year passed, and Lucas was 5, which is when we encountered a second white woman who felt entitled to play hero, all because I was holding hands with Lucas, finding directions to the museum on my phone.

She approached him and said, “Are you OK, sweetie?” Then, turning to me with a look of concern, she added, “What’s going on here? Do I need to call someone?”

Unlike our last encounter, however, this time it was Lucas — having obviously remembered that stressful moment from a year earlier — who looked at her and said, “Do it. I dare you.”

Growing up before my eyes! Soon enough, he had gone from 5 to 6, from “Sesame Street” to “Star Wars,” from symbols to statements, from chitchat to conversations.

Most days I did the best I could to be a supportive friend to him while trying to maintain a looming figure of “parental guidance.” He already received enough of that at home, a hot and cold environment of Mark’s exhausted laxity and John’s anxious expectations of well-behaved perfection. To them, I was no longer just a nanny; I was family. Christmas gifts, invitations to Sunday dinners, birthdays, baptisms and more.

This was a problem, though, because the closer we got to me moving on from Lucas, the harder it would be for me to leave. I was waiting for an opportunity to get out, a moment I knew would never come, so I had to take the leap.

Sitting on a bench in J. Hood Wright Park, I did my best to tell him the truth. I bought him ice cream to cushion the blow, fearing that hearing me say, “I’m not going to be your nanny anymore” would break his heart.

As I said it, though, he was calling out to the nearby pigeons: “Aw, little pigey. Come here little pigey.”

He was barely listening, or so I thought. Lucas knew I was leaving New York for the summer, traveling to go work on my plays, entering into the biggest summer of my career thus far, back-to-back residencies and even a national new play festival, but he didn’t know that I wasn’t coming back.

I promised him that I would always be around, that I would always be his friend. And then, for the first time, I told him I loved him.

As I asked how he felt, he became distracted by two boys riding a child’s motorcycle. “You’ve got to get that for me for my birthday,” he said.

“I won’t be here for your birthday,” I said.

“I think I already knew that.”

“You did?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a good memory, dude.”

I laughed, but soon was sitting still with heartbreak, realizing that he was only trying to tell me what he ultimately wished for: the motorcycle and me.

Emotionally, I had been keeping it together. The months turned to days, and the days turned to hours, as I counted down my last moments with Lucas.

Memories flashed through my mind, triggered by sights and sounds I became used to seeing over the past two and a half years: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, the audio Disney stories we would listen to as a substitute for television, trips to the American Museum of Natural History, spaghetti and meatballs for dinner accompanied by the sounds of Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Washington, Louis Prima and his favorite, Dean Martin.

Also: Teaching him how to play chess. The holiday train show at the New York Botanical Garden. The time he saw a “Black Lives Matter” sign hanging outside of a church and said to me, “Your life matters.” Showing him the universal sign for choking, which would later save his life when he got a snack caught in his throat, made that sign, and I gave him the Heimlich maneuver.

There were so many things I still wanted to teach him, but his youth stood in the way. I searched for how to explain to him what New York had taught me: As time goes on, and life moves forward, you will often find yourself at a loss, unsure of where your foundation has gone.

It is in these dark times that you must find joy in this ridiculous concept we call living. We all have so much to offer the world and so little time. Find a way to laugh at the unexpected hurdles along the way.

On my last day, I said my final goodbyes to John and Mark and asked Lucas my routine parting question: “What are you going to do while I’m gone?”

“Listen to my parents,” he said.

We had taught each other so much, grown up together, laughed, struggled and learned to stand our ground against strangers and their assumptions. He gave me a tight hug, and then I was off.

That evening, as I walked through Washington Heights on my way home, I began to cry, already missing his wide smile staring back at me, his tiny hand holding mine.

Remember me, Lucas. I promise to remember you. And be sure to keep your heart as open as it is right now. Do it. I dare you.

Kevin Renn is a playwright in New York City.

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