Last week I was taking a taxi to midtown Manhattan for a meeting. The day wasn't too hot, so the taxi window was down. As we were passing the Old Navy store on Sixth Avenue I heard, and then saw, a woman yelling — Stop it, just stop it, stop it, stop CRYING. She was tall, dressed casually in shorts and a t-shirt, and leaning over a little girl of about seven, who was sobbing uncontrollably. There was a little boy standing nearby.
My impulse was to yell at her that she should stop hollering at the little girl, but knowing how utterly unhelpful drive-by parenting can be, I did something else. I got out of the cab and went over and ask her if I could help her. She started sobbing herself, explaining that the girl had been crying for two bus rides and wouldn't stop crying, and that all the people were staring, so she had to get off the first bus, and then she did the same thing on the second bus and that she is just so so so tired of it. I said I understood and explained that I had a daughter who cried and tantrumed a lot and asked if there was anything I could do to help. No, no, that's okay, she just has to stop crying. I said, I know, but she probably can't help it.
Then she said, gesturing to the little girl, and sobbing, she's just like me, she's just like I was. I said, I understand, my daughter's is a lot like me too -- high strung . . . she used to cry so much that the police came. She said, Oh yeah, that's happened to me too. She said So you only have one, and I said yes, and she said I have two. I said I can see -- you have one who's easy going and one who's less easy going. Yes, she said and laughed just a little. She's been crying because I wouldn't buy her a toy a Kmart until later today, and now she hasn't stopped crying. I said, I understand. She can't help it. It's as though her brain gets stuck. She said Yes, but she has to stop.
The little girl was still crying, and now she was acting like she had to use the rest room, saying I have to go, I have to go. I said Do you want me to help you get her to the restroom in Old Navy? No she has to stop crying before I take her in there because everyone is starring at us. Oh I said, but she has to go to the bathroom. Yes, she said, but she has to stop crying first.
At that point, behind me, out of view, a police car had pulled up. Two of New York's finest got out, a young woman and young man. What's going on, the male beat cop asked me. Not much, I said, her child is crying, she's frustrated, I'm trying to help her out.
The woman sat down on the sidewalk, against the wall of the Old Navy storefront, and started sobbing. I'm a good mom. I don't hit my kids. But she won't stop crying. She's been crying for two hours because I won't buy her a toy. Then she said, This always happens to me because I'm brown and my kids are white. No one thinks I'm their mom.
The woman cop said No no that's not what we were thinking. But someone called because they were worried about your kids.
The mother said to her daughter, Now you see what you did. Now the police came. Now that's scary, isn't it?
The girl had stopped crying. She looked terrified.
The one officer said, Don't worry, it's okay. It's a beautiful day. Why don't you help your mom out and behave, okay?
The little girl nodded.
The officer said to the little girl, Now tell your mom you're sorry.
Sorry mommy, she said.
Now everybody's sorry, he said. Time to get going and have a good day. Be good.
You can go, the cop said to me.
I know, I said. When I turned around I saw that a crowd had gathered to watch what was going on. I headed out on to Sixth Avenue and hailed another cab, but when I got into the cab I burst into tears, realizing that I'd done no good, and had maybe even made things worse. And realizing that this poor woman is being mistaken as her own kid's nanny, and has grown accustomed to people scrutinizing her caregiving as though she had no parental authority at all. Had I mistaken her for a nanny and not realized it?
In the first nanosecond I'd looked at her and her children, in that moment of "blink" -- of instantaneous impressions that Malcolm Gladwell writes about -- I think I hadn't quite sorted out if she was a mother who was losing it or a nanny having a meltdown. But the moment I spoke with her, I sensed she was their mother. But maybe that's why she had been so eager to establish her biological link -- saying "she's just like I was." Oh, this was so much more complicated that one's average drive-by parenting moment.
When the police arrived, somehow their authority had actually been a help. The little girl was somehow able to pull herself back together, at least long enough to stop crying and say Sorry Mommy. In that sense, this little girl wasn't at all like mine . . . I had been so wrong thinking she was just like my little one. Sweet M is not calmed by the presence of police. On the contrary, for us the police have always only escalated difficult moments.
This ever-so-light-skinned, possibly Latina mother, and her two fairer-skinned children have been with me all week. I can't stop thinking about them and the ten minutes I spent with them -- my brain's almost as stuck as the little girl who hadn't gotten her toy at Kmart.
When you see a mother losing it, what can you do? How can you help? Should one even try, or should one walk on, mind one's own business, and remember what they say about the pavement of the road to hell? Should one abandon one's good intentions?
I just don't know. I don't know if I'd do that again.