Monday, July 30, 2012

Toddler Transit Tales: Encounters with Kids in the Subway

New York is such a “young adult city” that I’m often taken aback when I encounter the very young or the very elderly in Manhattan.  People come to begin careers and businesses, to compile university degrees, and to share apartments with other single strangers–all activities typically associated with your 20s and 30s. 

Little kids usually stand out most on the subway.  Everybody notices the gigantic stroller fighting for space in the crowded car; more than once I’ve had to shove my hand in the closing doors in order to get on the train, which almost left me because I waited so long for a parent to wrestle their child-supporting megabus onto the platform.  Or kids are particularly oblivious to the implicit “let there be silenced (or no more than hushed tones) on the morning commute” law. 

Three particular observations stand out to me:

When I was traveling through the tunnels of the Upper West Side, a very clean-cut man (jeans slim but not tight, button-down crisp but untucked for a weekend look) got on with his daughter, her 4-year-old head springy with thin blonde pigtails.  He sat her on his lap and gave her an iPhone, on which she began to play a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Seated next to her was the most adorable, cherubim-faced little black girl about the same age, her head clicking with multi-colored barrettes at the end of her braids. When the blonde girl’s cartoon began playing loudly enough for the entire train to look, her neighbor craned her little neck to get a look, not saying a word but innocently trying to share in some good Disney fun.  The dad tilted his daughter’s hands so that both girls could see the screen, explaining, “Let’s share with this girl so she can see Mickey, too.”  Unsurprisingly, the blonde pigtails shook ferociously: “No!”  Thus ensued a temper tantrum.  As the father tried to calmly explain why sharing is a virtue and then quietly asking if his daughter understood why he was going to turn the cartoon off, her protests grew louder and more shrill, her actions stronger and more combative as she tried to squirm off his lap and back into the bag that held the confiscated iPhone.  All the while, the adorable girl who had – in some sense – begun the upset by trying to see what shenanigans Mickey and Donald were getting into just sat and watched the unfolding scene.  Her complete quietness, her inescapable innocence, and her wide-eyed stare at this father trying to quell his daughter’s tantrum revealed that she found this event far more entertaining than the cartoon would have been.

Another day, I was on a moderately busy train – it wasn’t empty, but almost everyone had a seat. A couple got on with their very chatty toddler in a stroller – again in pigtails.  The mother sat, facing her daughter towards the seats, including the abandoned one next to her.  Since children seem universally incapable of moderating their voices, this girl, Clea, started bellowing.
“Mama, tell me a story!”
“What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“I dunno.  Talk about a princess.  That can be her throne!”  She pointed towards the empty seat next to her mother.  She continued babbling, essentially telling her own story by instructing her mother to piece together elements of all the fairy tales she’d heard.
The train doors opened, and new passengers embarked.  A woman sat down in the empty seat.
The look on Clea’s face was priceless.  This woman's choice to sit down in that seat was an abomination.  Clea yelled in outrage, “Mama! Mama! That woman sat on my story!”

Last week, on the F train, I stood facing the bench, holding on to the ceiling bar.  I had been absorbed by the novel I was reading and had about 15 pages left in the tale of 1898 Alabama gang wars, in which literal and metaphorical backstabbing happens between reeking, ruthless sharecroppers, and gruesome accounts of buckshot entering and leaving bloody bodies are told in every chapter.  After a few minutes, I noticed the face of the little girl (about 8 years old) on the bench below me, shyly peering up at my opened book cover, trying to get a glimpse of the title and perhaps even the back cover summary.  I felt a little shameful since the blurb mentioned murderers and prostitutes, and the title of the book contained the word “Hell.”  (I’m such a bad influence). When the girl noticed me looking at her, she quickly turned her head, whispering in the ear of her grandmother, who also sent a glance in my direction.  At the next stop, the little girl climbed on her grandmother’s lap.  The kind woman said, “Please sit down!  She told me, ‘Grandma, can I sit on your lap so the lady can sit down?’”  Although she was too shy to talk to me, the sweet girl gave me a vigorous good-bye wave when they departed at York St., as if we were old friends.  The encounter made my day; the only downside was that my anxiousness to make up the time lost in conversing with the grandmother caused me to throw myself into the last few page of the hell book...and miss my stop.

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