Bridge, #16, Spring 2006

It was just last Tuesday that I caught the Brooklyn-bound A Train at Fourteenth Street. It was rush-hour, the train was filled to overflowing, and it was all I could do to insinuate myself onto the car and search out a pocket of space by the conductor’s door. I balanced myself like a surfer on his board, and rode the wave as it hurtled through that darkness, around the bends, into the deep.

A man nearby was making a loud sound from time to time, like a bird squawking. It was disconcerting and it frightened me, too. Then he would be silent again for awhile. Then he’d squawk.

Finally I heard a woman say to him, “Give me your hand.”

“Why?” the man asked.

“I want to pray with you.”

“There’s nothing you can pray for with me, lady. There’s nothing.” He was indignant, deeply bitter.

“Let the lady pray for you,” someone called out, and someone other people laughed.

“There is nothing she can pray for with me,” he called back.

Then there was awkward silence. No squawking. And at Fulton Street he got off and so did the lady.

Across from me, lucky enough to have procured a seat from an earlier entrance somewhere far uptown, sat a woman with her little boy. The woman was thirty maybe, maybe forty, I don’t know. A bit chubby, with a chubby friendly face, and “Anthony” tattooed in large, wide letters on her upper arm. Her boy was fast asleep beside her, his head resting against the back of the seat, bobbing as the train bobbed.

The mother was deep in conversation with a woman across the aisle, talking about this and that. A hint of a Caribbean accent floated up to me. From time to time she would turn to her son and pluck aggressively at his corn rows, making some reference to them, her voice full of admonishment. I wondered how the boy was incorporating the train and the tug of his hair into his dreams.

At High Street the doors opened and he woke up suddenly, bleary-eyed and confused. People got off and on. I must have missed something in all of the desperate push and pull of the passengers, because when I saw the little boy again he was trying to hit his mother. It was an unsettling gesture for a little boy to make towards his ma, but the mother seemed to take it in stride, and laughed at her son’s harmless swipes, the swat of a kitten, as if it were all in good fun. Her acquaintance across the way laughed too. Ha ha, they all laughed together. The laughter seemed to fuel the boy and he struck out at her with more and more ferocity.

Ding-dong. The doors closed. The train moved on again in to darkness. And the mother, still chuckling and shaking her head, turned abruptly and pinched the boy hard on his arm. He squealed and tried to squirm out of her grasp. The mother pinched harder. The boy squealed louder. Then to teach him properly, the mother gave him a quick slap on the face, then across the nose and a bit of the eyes and forehead, then a second, then a third. The boy tried to defend himself, but did not have the wherewithal to bring his arms up. His head banged helplessly against the back of the seat.

Passengers looked, then looked away. I looked away, embarrassed, and pretended to be concerned with a trampled page of the Daily News by my feet. And the boy now reduced, impotent, no longer venomous, burst into tears. I listened to his sadness. The train pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn.

“If you don’t shut up your crying I’m going to put you off here, right here,” the mother said.

The doors opened.

“No, Momma!”

I looked at the mother, who was smiling wearily at her conversation-partner, as if to say, “Do you see what I have on my hands? Thinking his own mother would actually abandon him! Such silliness!” 

The boy’s eyes caught mine. I thought to smile, but could not summon my facial muscles in that direction. Besides, I thought, perhaps he will think I am smiling at his suffering, mocking him. I had nothing to offer. I stared back at him impassively. I saw myself through his eyes. A strange man’s strange, blank face.

And it was then that I found myself wishing for the mother to inflict more pain. The boy’s tears had incited me for some reason and caused me to feel a natural kinship with the mother, with the adult, with the power.

“His nose gets real tight when he cries,” the mother said, and chuckled. And inside I chuckled, too.

The boy sobbed in humiliation.

“See?” She pointed to his nose. I examined it as well. The mother was right: it was an ugly nose. An ugly boy. A thankless boy.

A man passed through the car, begging. He was tall and well-built and handsome and would have been the desired object of many women, except for an arm which was thin and shriveled — the arm of a five-year-old — and a foot that was turned in at a right angle, forcing him to hop like a rabbit.

“If anybody can help…”

He hopped his way through the crowd with his paper bag, largely unsuccessful at gaining the passengers’ sympathy. Midway he stopped to flirt brazenly with a young woman and then moved on. Such audacity, I thought. I could smell his sourness as he approached me. I thought of the change in my pocket. I gave him nothing.

I pulled the door to the next car open for him to try to prove that I was indeed a sympathetic soul, and the roar of the tunnel invaded the subway and deafened all cries. The man hopped into the netherworld between the cars, the train hurtling recklessly, careening from side to side. He balanced himself precariously, his damaged leg barely touching the ground, pausing a moment as if unsure whether or not he could proceed safely, and then hopped agilely across the ravine and into the next car.

By Nostrand Avenue the boy had ceased his lamentations and was staring straight ahead, into nothing, brooding, munching on M&M’s that he had produced from somewhere.

He was starting kindergarten soon, I heard his mother say.

“They say he has to have a physical.” She scoffed when she said it, the way the poor scoff when they talk about the seemingly arbitrary rules that have been imposed on them from above. The incidentals that tax the ingenuity and the pocketbooks.

“I have to sign up for my food stamps by the twenty-first next month.”

Her acquaintance nodded knowingly. Her son munched.

I imagined her life at home, behind the closed doors, the day to day tasks. A life where one notices the slightest rise and fall in the price of milk. I imagined the boy’s life with her. I imagined their life with Anthony, without Anthony.

In the mother’s mind she was raising her son properly. She hit him because it strengthened him. It was a tough world and he needed to be tough, or he would go the way of the weak. She mocked his tears so that eventually he would no longer have tears, so that he would be able to bear pain stoically and continue on and face the demons that lurked. The other mothers, those that coddled their boys, were the ones who were doing their children a disservice. But she would see to it that he grew up to be big and strong, to be a man.

And the boy does not question his unhappiness. Having no other life to compare his to, he does not know he is unhappy. His mood is everyone’s mood. It is the world’s mood. It is the proper functioning of life: sadness, anger, sullenness, then a lull, then sadness again. 25 years from now he will find himself on the A Train heading into Brooklyn, going somewhere, sitting beside his own son — small, gentle, dreaming, peaceful, his head bobbing against the seat. And suddenly, for reasons he cannot make out, a match will strike in him and he will wake the sleeping child.