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The Rents Who Came In From the Cold

AS Brooklyn parents sent in signed contracts last month to secure September spots for their toddlers at the Berkeley Carroll Child Care Center, those new to the program were still marveling over the throng of 30-something, Type A zombies who had assembled groggily outside the center's Park Slope brownstone before dawn a few weeks earlier, shivering for hours in the darkness to get their numb hands on an application.

While the toddler programs of other selective private schools, like Brooklyn Friends and St. Ann's, cope with the annual stampede of parents by accepting applications in the fall preceding the year of a tiny scholar's desired entry, Berkeley Carroll's child care center defers the crescendo of parental madness until midwinter.

After a week of priority registration for returning children and siblings of current students, applications are handed out to the general public at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday in February, with early birds catching the pedagogical worm for their offspring. "It's all first come, first served," says Helen Halverson, the center's director. "It doesn't matter how many trustees you know. It's just the line."

And so it was that I, a first-time parent of a magnificent 2-year-old daughter, came to find myself speed-walking through the 23-degree Brooklyn streets at 3:50 a.m., all bundled up in six layers of ski clothing and a heavy-duty parka I'd once been issued for an Arctic expedition. By the time I arrived at the Child Care Center's Sixth Street town house in my puffy, Michelin-man get-up, I was feeling like the most obsessive parent in Kings County, until I noticed two men in knit caps leaning against a Volvo station wagon, sharing a smoke.

"You're not here for this day care program, are you?" I asked incredulously.

"Why, yes, we are," said Graham, the smaller man, pulling a wrinkled paper from his pocket. "And there's a list, actually. You're No. 5." The next moment, murky figures began to emerge from the shadows, well-heeled zombies with red-rimmed eyes lurching toward me to assert their primacy and, it seemed, snatch away my daughter's educational future.

Steve, a red-bearded lawyer, had arrived with his wife at midnight in their heated, television-equipped minivan. Ryan, a kindly-looking film professional, had camped out in and around the Volvo. Misty had come at 3:30, sporting a wool hat with cat ears. And Graham, the Keeper of the List, had arrived with a sleeping bag and a pee bottle at 9:30 the night before, during halftime on Super Bowl Sunday.

"You know, it turned into a good game," remarked parent Number 6, after adding his name to the List and hearing Graham's story.

"I know," Graham replied. "I'm going to hold that over my son for the rest of his life."

A surge of new parents appeared between 4 and 4:30, and by 5:15 the crowd had swollen to 15, shuffling their feet and breathing on their hands to keep warm. Occasional laughter rippled through the line, as a tentative, rivalry-tinged camaraderie took hold. "You should see our son's recommendations," announced Robert, who was sitting in a folding chair with a mug of coffee in his hand and a plaid blanket over his knees. "And we're really glad he just rolled over -- we have to update his résumé."

As our line grew, we developed into a complex, many-headed organism, giddy with exhaustion and hope on the front end, somewhat better rested but more resentful in the rear. "Isn't this the kind of nonsense you move from Manhattan to get away from?" one mother asked.

Overlapping conversations, carried on through chattering teeth, touched on Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic journeys, the Donner party and cannibalism. One man announced that he was doing a visual survey to determine which of us would provide the most meat if things were to come to such a pass. Though these comments were light-hearted, there seemed to be a general understanding that it was Graham's List, above all, that kept our good-natured little society from dissolving into a chaos of sniping legalism and jockeying for pavement position.

AT one point, Robert asked to see the List, which Graham had scribbled on a photocopy of his 1-year-old son's birth certificate. When our group's crucial governing document fell to the ground during the transfer between gloved hands, there was a moment of muted group panic. But Graham scooped up the List with athletic grace before the wind could take it, and order was reaffirmed.

Dawn broke, turning the sky a light purple that matched the bags under many of our eyes, and then the street began to hum with normal human activity. By 6 o'clock our line was more than 25 yawning parents long, and growing fast. "You're making me feel like a bad father," exclaimed Matthew, a 6:15 arrival, upon hearing of Graham's epic nocturnal vigil.

"We've got a list of how bad a father everyone is," declared a bundle of shivering fabric waiting nearby.

Around 6:45 a huzzah went up from the crowd as Ms. Halverson, the center's director, arrived with a smile and bustled inside the brownstone. Graham read roll call, we dutifully arranged ourselves in order, and soon Ms. Halverson opened the center's doors.

Inside the warm belly of the school, a jumble of dinosaur cutouts, flamboyant finger paintings and teeny furniture reminded us of our children -- still snoozing in their cribs at home -- and why we'd chosen to endure this peculiar urban ordeal.

Ms. Halverson, a reassuring presence, methodically took our names and handed out applications, which we filled out at top speed, pausing only to shake our pens to get the semi-frozen ink flowing. Then she carefully numbered and stacked the applications as she received them, smiled at us warmly and released us back into the world.

On the curb outside, a few of us, brought closer by our shared experience, said our farewells, uncertain of whether we had formed only one-night friendships or relationships that might continue and deepen for the next 16 years, when our children could well graduate from Berkeley Carroll's high school together.

After wishing Graham and Ryan the best of luck, I stood on the sidewalk and watched them, both laden with armfuls of bed rolls and other supplies, amble wearily down the street toward Seventh Avenue, a pair of valiant, loving fathers with bloodshot eyes and pee bottles under their arms.

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