Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ninos Locos y Mamas Sanas

There is one of those amateur murals on the side of a building in a struggling area of DC that shows a man on his knees being given a hand up by someone standing. It says, “Don’t Look Down on a Man Unless You Gonna Help Him Up.” I always liked the sentiment but considered the exhortation to apply to others, since I’m too busy to be helping people up, and looking down on them is so much more fun than finding them a job, isn’t it?

I kid, I kid. But I thought about the mural on the drive home from JHU yesterday where I had been sitting in one of the many waiting areas. A young woman with two little kids was obviously having a hard time of things. She was trying to keep her baby (about 10 months old) happy while managing the exuberance of what looked like an 18-month old boy. Needless to say, the equation wasn’t balancing: one mom + two kids (+ waiting area + elevator doors + lots of people) – (extra set of arms – extra set of eyes) = a lack of necessary resources to keep things from going sideways. I have been in that position with one kid, never mind two, and was really feeling for her.

As I watched her, I noticed a lot of other people watching her too, only they weren’t thinking, “that poor woman.” They were thinking, “why can’t she control her kids? What is wrong with her?” I could see it in their faces, in the way they’d look at her disapprovingly then whisper in that I-want-you-to-hear-me non-whisper, “that kid is out of control. What is she doing?” As if sitting around judging her is going to change anything, for her or for those watching.

I was feeling bad for her, and without thinking I heard myself say, “Oh for god’s sake!” then got up and walked over to where they were sitting, plopped myself down in a seat near them, said “Hola” with a smile, asked “cuantos anos tiene?” how old is he?, told her mine was 2 ½, then started making funny faces at him to occupy him so she could read “Oso Pardo” (Brown Bear, Brown Bear, perhaps the best kiddie book ever) to the baby. As I was doing peekabo with him I suddenly realized what I was doing and I couldn’t recall making the decision to do it. I didn’t think, “gee, should I go over there? What if she doesn’t want a strange lady chatting with her kid? Maybe the kid will hate me and I’ll look stupid for trying to help.” Something just lifted my butt out of my chair and took me across the room to give a mom a break, both from the kid and from the heavy weight of disapprobation in the room. I think my brain did a millisecond’s calculation: one young mom + two young kids x waiting area of a cancer center = probably not a happy circumstance any way you look at it, so why the hell pile on as if my kid has never annoyed people, as if I’ve never looked bad in public, as if we’re all so perfect that we’ve never once made someone angrily wonder what the hell is wrong with us? Going over to the mom is something my Dad would have done, particularly relishing the opportunity to chat with a cute Latina in his very impressive Scottish-accented Spanish, but it’s not something I routinely would do, notwithstanding the verifiable cuteness of the mother.

So I played with the kid. The mom and I didn’t speak again, which is probably for the best since my Spanish is mierda most of the time, even without a Scottish accent. She and I just exchanged knowing glances and smiles for about ten minutes, and then I had to go. Partly because I had to meet with a doctor soon, and partly because the kid started hacking coughing and I was like, “Whoa! It’s been nice! NOT getting sick from any kid but my own, thank you very much!” All of which made me feel much better about myself, because it’s not in my nature (I don’t think) to randomly assist strangers, but it’s definitely in my nature to cut and run at the first sign of germs. The bitch is back.

Or, more accurately, instead of looking down on you, I’ll give you a hand up…but then I’ll use Purell.

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