A man should never stop learning, even on his last day,’ ” my father tells me. “Maimonides.” The two of us are standing at the entrance to a Costco near his home in New Jersey. It is our first trip there together. He’s about to demonstrate how to maximize the cargo space of the wide-load shopping carts he has selected for us. “Observe,” he says. With a flick of the wrist, he expands the folding baby seat.
“But why?” I ask. “Why must we expand these baby seats when the kids are at home with my wife?”
“ ‘All in good time thou shalt see.’ Cervantes.”
As the glass doors slide open, I experience a fight-or-flight sensation. My vision is blurred by an onslaught of flashing flat-panel screens. A man exhorts me to eat free samples of crabmeat salad. A guard demands to see my membership card. Then she notices my father. “Dr. Zevin!” she exclaims. “I wondered when you were coming!”
“I tied her tubes three weeks ago,” he says, as we walk away. (My dad is a gynecologist, FYI.) “Follow me,” he adds. “Wait till you see all the bananas here. My treat.”
Lately my friends are worried they’re turning into their fathers. I’m worried that I’m not. My dad is calm and collected. I am clammy and confused. His interests range from numismatics to philosophy. As the father of two young kids and the husband of a working wife, I care little about any activity that’s not preceded by the term “after-school.”
Above all, my dad is generous. Which, I’m afraid, has made me a taker. Specifically, a taker of the toilet-paper 36-packs he gives me, the casks of dishwashing liquid he gives me, the tallboys of wood cleaner he gives me. Although I appreciate my father’s kindness, I’ve grown uncomfortable about accepting his many gifts. It’s hard to feel like a man when you’re in your 40s and your dad is still buying you paper towels. In an effort to become a better provider, I asked my father to teach me all he knows—a journey that has led us here, to Costco.
This trip isn’t easy for me. Unlike my father, who can zero in on a carton of nine-volt batteries the way a hunter senses his prey, I can barely walk into a supermarket without being paralyzed by all the peanut butter. No wonder I’m instantly spellbound by a tank of orange cheese balls. “Monosodium glutamate,” Dad solemnly says. “Not healthy.” Ashamed, I follow him to the produce section. “Ever seen bananas like these, Danny?” he inquires, holding his harvest high in the air. He places a bunch in my cart, along with a mile-long vine of red grapes and the gross national product of Nova Scotia in blueberries.
Minutes later we are in aisle 4,000, clutching a shrink-wrapped 250-pack of paper towels. After getting hugged by a staffer named Rosario, whom he has treated for fibroids, Dad announces that it’s time to reveal the secrets of the expandable child seat.
As he instructs, I flip down the plastic red covering, thus blocking the leg holes. Words are not necessary as Dad presents me with the paper towels. He motions with his chin to put them where the child normally goes. It is uncanny: a precise fit.
“ ‘A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels,’ ” my father says. “Albert Einstein.”
At first I am overwhelmed by the largeness of everything: by the Flintstones-size sirloin; by what must be the Guinness World Records holder for biggest piece of breaded, seasoned tilapia; by the miles of Brillo boxes (big enough for an Andy Warhol display).
I’m nervous about placing anything in my cart. Where will I put all this? I wonder. Our town house is already at overflow capacity with the stuff my father has given me. Under my daughter’s bed is where we keep the Kleenex. Behind the pedestal sink is where we stack the vitamins. I can’t recline in my reclining chair. The last time I tried, I smashed into a tower of diet-dog-food cans.
But resistance is futile, which I learn when I am overcome by a nearly primal pull toward a double-wide flat of Poland Spring mini bottles. It seemed to me we were running low the last time I looked in the fireplace. Yes. I distinctly remember writing down this reminder: “More Poland Spring mini bottles (tell Dad).”
Where is he now, anyway? Probably in the pharmacy department, dispensing advice about endometriosis. If I wish to replenish my family’s water supply, it is up to me and me alone.
Seizing my conquest from the shelf, the wisdom of the elder echoes in my mind: “Use the rack under your cart for oversize flats, Danny. Many people don’t even notice it.”
With the water beneath my cart, I complete a critical step in my initiation. I am on my way to becoming a true provider. By the time my cart is three-quarters full, a sense of inner peace replaces my Shopper’s ADD. This is how my father must feel all the time, I reflect, thanks to his relationship with Costco. He is never preoccupied with the threat of carbon monoxide in his home, since he knows where to get a two-pack of Nighthawk carbon monoxide detectors. Safety pins, rubber bands, twist ties, hangers—those things a person never buys but somehow still has? I finally understand their significance. A man can’t attain the enlightened state of provider until he knows all that is possible to provide.
I feel increasingly focused. I stop bouncing like a pinball from floor coverings to Q-tips, now aware that each purchase should lead logically to the next. I hit my stride with the Little Giant MegaLite ladder. My thought process is perfectly linear:
(a) Oh look, there is a case of lightbulbs that are the same brand as the one that’s burned out in the living-room ceiling.
( b) I left it burned out because it’s a hassle to reach it on our crappy little stepladder.
(c) In order to reach it, I must get that MegaLite ladder over there by the fire extinguishers.
(d) Speaking of fire extinguishers, we should have some of those.
(e) And, yes, we need battery-operated smoke alarms. Our hard-wired ones go off the second you light a candle.
(f ) Which is why I am getting a new LED flashlight.
When I return to my father, he surveys the spoils of my well-stocked cart. He is beaming. It is an expression I have rarely seen. When your father is a lifelong provider, you get precious few chances to make him proud. You might suspect that the real reason he’s providing is that he feels slightly sorry for you, believing on some level that you can’t take care of yourself. But now I relax—until I see the karaoke machine on display and remember how my father likes to celebrate.
Asking me to sing karaoke with him is something my father has done at joyful moments ever since my siblings and I gave a command performance of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” at his 70th-birthday bash. And, frankly, singing karaoke once every 70 years seems like an ideal schedule to me. Or, rather, it seemed that way to the old me—the inhibited, uptight one who had not yet conquered Costco with his father. But here, today, everything is different. Dad and I have become equals: not a father and a son, but two fathers together. The result is an electrifying duet of “American Pie.” When a man is a provider, you must understand, he wants to break out into song.
Outside the sun is setting. One last challenge awaits: the membership desk. Dad introduces me to Lucille (hormone disorder), who signs me up for an executive membership. My father pulls out his wallet.
“No, Dad,” I insist. “Allow me.”
Not long from now, our roles will reverse and I’ll be providing for him. I’ll bring him a deluxe rolling walker with a built-in cup holder, a 30-pack of hearing-aid batteries, and maybe even the final item we glimpse by the exit doors: the Costco coffin. My father quotes Woody Allen when he sees it. “ ‘I’m not afraid of dying,’ ” he says. “ ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ ”
I shall bring my son Leo to Costco one day, and Leo shall bring his son, and the patriarchal cycle of Zevin providers shall continue. In the meantime, I’ve got to pay for a few thousand bananas. Handing my new ID to the cashier, it strikes me that you don’t really know what you look like until you’ve seen your digitized face on a Costco card. On mine, I’m the spitting image of my dad.
Dan Zevin is the author of the new book Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad ($24, amazon.com), where you can find a longer version of this essay. He lives with his family outside New York City.