At the last adult education program I ran, the program assistant used to smile and shake her head at me when she’d see my heart melting over some of our more in-need-of-a-hug students. My “benditos” she called them. (Don’t misunderstand: quiet as it was kept, her heart was just as squishy as mine. In fact, all of my benditos were hers, too.)
Admittedly, I was then and I continue to be a pushover, especially for young people who’ve been thrown away by the system — education, justice, employment, legislative. My heart yearns to adopt every last one of them. In that years-ago job, I had the opportunity to offer them kindness and acceptance, to give them a little bit of a soft place to land. And every time I bent a rule or gave one of those young people yet another chance, our program assistant would shake her head and smile. Because I was being my usual bleeding-heart self … and because she expected no less of me.
Some of my beloveds were able to find strong foot- and hand-holds and fight their way up from whatever was holding them down. Some weren’t. Or, were only able to go so far. All of them deserved so very much better than the hands they were dealt.
I left work tonight and walked a subway stop so I could get some more steps in. When I got to the train, I saw that I’d missed a call from the coworker I’d left in the office. Turned out, she’d locked herself out of the suite, so I walked back, went upstairs, and let her in.
When I left the building the second time, I contemplated getting on the train but decided to walk the stop again, get some more steps. (All told, I added about 1500 to my daily total with this extra to-ing and fro-ing.) I thought this story would be my story for tonight, short, kindly, done.
As I went down into the train, a deep voice called behind me, “Excuse me, miss, ma’am?”
There was no way I wasn’t going to turn around at the landing. Unsure if I’m a miss or a ma’am? Yeah, that sounds like someone I’d have bent the rules for at my old job. That probably sounds silly, but I have a good gut instinct most days, and I trust it. I turned around.
A very young, slight man, grown-ish, but still more baby than brother, not nearly grown enough that he couldn’t have been my grandson.
He handed me a paper and asked if I could help him find the precinct noted in the upper right corner. “They just let me out and I’m trying to go get my stuff.” He took a step back from me. “I don’t need to touch your phone or nothing. I know how that goes. But maybe you could look it up?”
I did, found that the precinct he needed was nearly an hour away.
Let’s think about that. This kid was arrested for something. Was arrested in the neighborhood where that precinct is. They brought him downtown, I have to assume, for court. And they just released him because, I’m going to assume, whatever they’d arrested him for didn’t stick (or they had no good reason to arrest him in the first place but could so did). They brought him downtown to go to court and were so certain they’d get to keep him locked up, they didn’t bother to bring his things downtown with him. It’s winter. This baby had on a t-shirt and a wisp-thin hoodie. They didn’t even let him put on a damn coat. And then, when they didn’t get to put him back in jail, they just put him on the street all the way downtown, no money, no anything, just a piece of paper telling him where he could go to pick up his things.
We are, more often than not, a pretty hideously cruel species. What the actual fuck?
I told him the precinct wasn’t close, showed him what train he’d need to take to get there. We kept going down the stairs. I asked if he had money for the fare. He said no, that he figured he’d show the paper at the token booth and hope the agent was nice. I’m not saying that wouldn’t be possible, but we were going into an entrance that didn’t have a token booth. I told him I’d swipe him in. But then it turned out I didn’t even have enough money on my fare card to swipe myself in. I asked him to wait, so I could load up my card. Again, he stepped away from me, clearly wanting me to be aware that he wasn’t a threat to me, wasn’t going to try grabbing my wallet when I went to the machine. As if I would have been afraid of this kid. My gut had already passed judgment. I knew I was safe.
I put money on my card and swiped him in. He thanked me very sincerely. I told him I was happy to help. We heard his train coming. He put his hands over his heart, bowed a little, and ran down to the platform.
Obviously, my evening went exactly as it was supposed to. I was supposed to walk the subway stop rather than get immediately on the train so that I was above ground to get the message from my coworker so I could walk back and let her into the suite. I was supposed to walk the subway stop again so that I’d be the person heading into the station in front of that sweetheart of a boy who needed a little kindness to send him on his way.
I accept that, the serendipity of all of that.
What I don’t accept is the casual lack of care with which that boy — and far too many boys and girls like him — was treated. For him to be turned out onto the street after his trip to court is ugly. You know you’ve taken him far from home, far from an area that is familiar to him, far from his belongings. And yet you throw him out like so much chaff. Into a winter night when he has no coat. As if you hope he jumps a turnstile to get himself home so that you can arrest him again. As if you don’t want him to have a chance. As if he is worth not the briefest nanosecond of thought.
How could you not see his soft eyes? How could you not hear his warm voice? How could you not notice the way he moved his body so carefully to make sure you would know he was not a threat? How could you not feel the knife in your heart when he hunched into himself, ready for sharp rejection when he asked for help?
If Linda had been with me tonight, she would have shaken her head and smiled. She would also have put that boy in the backseat of her car and driven him to the precinct and then home. And not because she and I are the world’s biggest softies (though we might be) but because that boy was a boy, a child, a young person who deserved better than what he’d been handed. He was someone’s baby. And, for those few minutes we spent together at the Jay Street station tonight, he was my baby.
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