My dad’s zebra hair was black with a few specks of white. It was his forty-first birthday. It seems that as each year passes, his hair gets more and more white. We were planning to celebrate his birthday with a special family dinner. We were going to a restaurant called Atlantic Grill. It was May 28, 2004, and the entire day during school all I could think about was going to Atlantic Grill with my parents and my brother. It is one of my favorite restaurants and I love their food. They make a homemade chocolate-chip cookie that is the best in the world! Dad came home from work a little early that day at 5:30. Then we were off on the dirty, gray sidewalks of New York City. It was a nice spring evening. The sun was peeking out from behind a building as it was lowering for sunset. It was warm outside, getting ready for summer. For once the streets were a little quieter than usual, but there sure were a ton of cars. Everybody was in cars because I noticed that there was major traffic on York Avenue.
On the walk there I asked my mom, “What are you going to get for dinner?”
“A salad,” she replied.
“Dad, what are you going to get?” I asked.
“The sushi, of course,” my dad responded.
“What are you going to have, Danny?” my dad questioned.
“I am going to get the grilled cheese. You know how I love Atlantic Grill’s grilled cheese. It is even better than yours, Mom,” I replied.
When we got to the restaurant, I glanced around. The restaurant was packed with people at the tables and at the bar. We were hoping to sit outside because it was so noisy inside and it was a beautiful evening. Inside, there were TVs, paintings, phones ringing, people talking and music playing. There was the smell of smoke because the fresh food had just been put on the grill. Luckily, there was one open table outside for the four of us. The hostess sat us at the table and brought us menus. When the waitress raced over I anxiously asked, “Can I have a grilled cheese with french fries on the side?”
“Sure, munchkin,” she replied because I was only six at the time.
“What are you going to have tonight, ma’am?” she asked my mom with a little bit of a Southern accent.
“I will have a Greek salad please,” my mom replied.
“What about you?” she questioned as she turned to my dad.
“I will have the sushi platter with a California roll,” my dad said.
“What will the little one be having tonight?” she asked, motioning to my brother Dylan.
“A New York strip steak,” my dad responded before my mom could answer. My brother was three years old and has had autism ever since he was born. His brain has trouble making sense of the world. Autism causes Dylan to experience life differently than other kids who can play around with their friends and talk about sports. He can’t talk because he has autism. He is trying to learn to talk and his teachers are working with him at school. He usually communicates using pictures and by shaking his head. Whenever we go to restaurants my parents will usually talk for him and tell the waitress or waiter what my brother Dylan wants to eat. Sometimes I get frustrated that Dylan can’t talk and because he is different. But I love him so much and keep hoping that he will get better and talk soon.
I searched in my mom’s purse for her BlackBerry. I liked to play a game on it called Brick Breaker where there is a ball and a platform that you have to move around to get the ball to hit the bricks. Her purse was so unorganized with lots of papers shoved in and some of her belongings were creeping out. I smelled the fresh leather because the purse was brand new. When I rubbed my hand to the left it was smooth to the touch but to the right it was rough and bumpy. I liked the feel of rough and then smooth. It felt as if I was petting a cat or dog when it was smooth, but when it was rough it kind of felt like a papier-mache project I once made. I would always look through my mom’s purse for her BlackBerry when I was bored or waiting at a restaurant for our food to arrive.
After what felt like an hour our food came. I saw the orange melted cheese and the steam coming from the french fries. There was a smoky smell filling the air and whetting my appetite. The smoke had a blast of heat. When I took my first bite it was hot, delicious and soaked in spicy ketchup. Then I turned my attention to Dylan. I saw his tan face, gray shirt, silver fork, and white napkin with red ketchup stains. I could smell his fruity shampoo that he used in the shower. I was staring at my brother’s steak. It looked like heaven. It was so juicy that it was dripping into his mouth like a leaky faucet. I could smell how good it tasted. I leaned over and put my fork right into his steak because I craved a taste of it. When I put a gigantic piece of steak in my mouth it was so juicy and delicious that I felt I was in a whole new world. I got so addicted to this great taste that I kept stuffing more of the steak in my mouth. Then all of a sudden my brother started crying hysterically. I realized he had every right to be upset. I had just eaten almost a third of his dinner right in front of him without even caring. Sometimes I forget that just because he can’t talk, he has feelings and I need to consider them.
Then I looked at my dad’s sushi. It was dark green seaweed and white rice until he dumped the red soy sauce on it. Then it looked like a volcano erupted on his food or the rice was bleeding to death. I could smell the sauce and the vegetables that were in the sushi. Even though I didn’t like any of the vegetables, the red sauce made it look so good that I might gobble it up anyway. When I finally agreed to taste the sushi, I didn’t enjoy it at all. I could feel its mushy body and the smooth, crunchy seaweed outside the roll.
After our dinner we had cake for my dad’s birthday. The candles were lit so brightly like the sun shining in the sky. The whipped cream was soft and fluffy like clouds floating by. The cake tasted warm and delicious. It was buttery, vanilla cake with creamy chocolate frosting and filling inside. We all sang, “Happy birthday, Dad!” and my mom took lots of pictures. As my dad was blowing out the candles, I wondered what he wished for.
When we were done munching on the cake, we started to leave the restaurant. But then we halted when we saw two huddles of girls surrounding one of the outdoor tables. They kept asking, “Is that Tiki Barber? Is it him?” Tiki Barber is a bald, African-American man who played professional football for the New York Giants. The position he played was running back, which is the person who runs the ball to try to score a touchdown. My dad and I are huge Giants’ fans. We have season tickets and love spending Sundays at Giants Stadium watching our amazing team play. Of all the players, Tiki was always my favorite. He was an amazing player and it seemed he was a great guy. He wrote books about football for children and I enjoyed reading them.
As we walked by Tiki’s table, I looked over at him. His head was glimmering in the sunset. When we got closer to him, I noticed that he smelled clean as if he had just taken a shower. Luckily, it wasn’t the way he would have smelled after a game or a practice. When he smiled his teeth were so white and bright like a shining flashlight. I looked down and he was eating the same steak that my brother had eaten. His wife was having the sushi that my dad ate. I wanted to approach his table and ask for an autograph or a picture. My mom was uncomfortable. She felt that we shouldn’t interrupt him even though all those other girls had. She said it wasn’t right, since it was his night out with his wife. She and my dad discussed it and my dad knew it was so important to me. Before my mom could object again, my dad nudged me towards Tiki’s table.
“Are you Tiki Barber?” I asked.
“Yes, I am,” he replied as he gave me a high five. When our hands touched, his skin felt so smooth, like the softest blanket in the world.
“You are my football hero. Can I please take a picture with you?” I asked.
“Sure, I’d be happy to,” he said.
Tiki immediately reached out his arm and put it around me while smiling brightly for the camera. It seemed as if my mom snapped a million pictures. I was grinning from ear to ear. I couldn’t believe it. He was so nice and didn’t seem to mind that we were interrupting him. He was smiling the whole time. We told him that we had season tickets and were such great fans. I think my dad was just as thrilled as I was. It was so exciting to meet him because we had spent so many Sundays watching him play. Football is something my dad and I love, and it is our special activity to do together. What a perfect day, celebrating my dad’s birthday with our family and meeting Tiki Barber, my football hero. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
My mom quickly rushed us away as she wanted to let Tiki finish his dinner.
“I can’t believe you guys interrupted his meal. I was so embarrassed,” she said in an annoyed voice.
“Oh hon, don’t be silly. He is used to it. It must happen all the time,” my dad responded.
“But still, it doesn’t have to be us who ruin his meal,” she continued.
“If he doesn’t want to be bothered, he shouldn’t sit outside on the sidewalk. He should sit inside in a corner,” my dad replied. My mom looked at him and shook her head.
I couldn’t believe it. I was ecstatic about what just happened, yet they were arguing. Sometimes I just don’t understand my parents. What’s the big deal?
“Mom, this was the best day ever! Meeting my hero, Tiki, on Daddy’s birthday was amazing. He was so nice. He didn’t even care that he was eating,” I shouted with excitement.
“OK, Danny, I’m really happy for you that you had a great night,” my mom said.
The rest of the walk home I kept talking about Tiki and telling my mom I couldn’t wait for her to print the picture off the computer. I only wished I had asked for an autograph too, but my mom felt that would have been too pushy and rude. It is obvious my mom isn’t a football fan. She just didn’t get it.
* * *
The next day my dad and I kept talking about his perfect birthday. We knew that Tiki Barber lived across the street from us but we had never seen him in the neighborhood before. My mom told us that his wife went to the same nail salon that she did. So my Dad and I made up a plan for my mom to give the picture to the manicurist. My mom would ask her to give the photo to Tiki’s wife who in turn would have Tiki autograph the picture. We begged my mom to go along with the plan and eventually she agreed.
Three months later I finally got the picture back after Tiki had signed it. The three long months I waited for it were torture. I had been waiting and hoping he would autograph it for me because he was my hero. I had written him a letter telling him how much I would like it if he signed the picture of him and me. I explained that I was a huge Giants’ fan and that he was my favorite player. He was amazing on the field and off. I used to see him on TV doing events for charity and spending time with sick kids. He has a brother Ronde who also played football for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are so close as brothers and best friends. They spend their free time with each other and write children’s books together. Also they talk about how important family is and how much they love each other. They remind me of my brother Dylan and me. I look at them and hope we will always be close. Even though he can’t tell me, I know Dylan loves me as much as I love him. For all these reasons, Tiki is my hero and meeting him was so exciting.
* * *
One night my mom came home from work and shouted with excitement, “Danny, look what I have for you!” It was the Tiki Barber picture signed by him. It was one of the biggest sighs of relief in my life. I was so excited to get this special autographed picture of me with my football hero. I was thrilled that our plan had worked and that his wife returned it to the nail salon. It made me feel so special that Tiki had gotten my letter and taken the time to autograph the photo. He is so busy and travels all the time. But he took time to do something for me, one of his biggest fans. It also made me realize what a great role model he is for kids. He is such a strong football player but also an extremely good-hearted person. My parents always tell me that it doesn’t matter how smart, athletic or good looking you are. They say what matters most is what kind of person you are on the inside. Since Tiki took time out from his dinner to take a picture with a kid like me, and then autograph the picture, it shows what is special about him on the inside. He doesn’t play football anymore but he works for NBC on the Today show. He often reports on sports and other topics. It shows that he is also a smart man and has a career outside of football. He has so many great heroic qualities, he is an amazing athlete, he is intelligent and he is a really genuine person.
Now the picture is hanging on the wall in my bedroom and is one of my favorite things in the whole world. It is a reminder of the kind of person I hope to be when I grow up. I want to be athletic but also extremely kind, thoughtful and a great brother. The picture hanging on my wall reminds me of the special night with my family on my dad’s birthday. Also that my family is so important to me. Even if we don’t always agree, we can listen to and be excited for each other. I will never forget my dad’s forty-first birthday. Every year since we keep going back to Atlantic Grill, but we haven’t run into Tiki there again. There’s always next year!