Monday, November 4, 2013

Sorry to Inconvenience You with My Stairwell Navigation

A few weeks ago I took Henry to Manhattan for Italian "preschool," which he attends every Friday morning. We don't travel with the stroller or carrier anymore; now he can walk.

We arrived at the end of our journey to the staircase of the 14th Street and 6th Avenue F train station -- a large subway stop, with relatively wide stairwells -- and started climbing. I hugged the wall to make room for the stragglers who had yet to make it to work at 9 am. Henry was slow: left foot up, right foot meets it; left foot up, right foot meets it. He gripped my hand tightly as we made our way up the stairs.


"Walk your kid up the stairs! Jesus!"

A man's voice, loud, with all the exasperated vitriol he could muster.

I looked over my shoulder, honestly confused and nearly losing my balance. There were a few people on the staircase, but could he not go around us? And if not, could he not say "excuse me"? His tongue was obviously intact.

He pushed his way through the small crowd. Early thirties, white, fashionably dressed, perfectly messed up hair and oh-so-very self-righteous.

He was late for work. I was in his way. I get it.

Just say "excuse me," buckaroo. No one is trying to prevent your ascent on purpose.

But before I could open my mouth to respond, the other people on the stairwell let rain a shit storm upon this selfish asshole in my defense.

What's your problem? You so rude! Pass by if you need to pass by! Don't you be yelling at that woman. Look at her, she's got a kid and two bags. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!

Amazingly, he seemed perplexed by the reaction. He shoved by, but people were still yelling at him as we reached the corner of Sixth Ave. I thanked my compadres and laughed at the absurdity of it all, Henry by then tucked tightly around my left hip looking bemused.


I realized in retrospect that no one shouting the guy down was white. It was as if they had taken their collective frustration at all the small slights and indignities that arise from Existing While Brown and spat it out on behalf of a fellow downtrodden specimen: the mom-with-toddler.

I can scarcely imagine the insults people of color must have to deal with on a daily basis, even in a city as integrated as New York. They are a multiple of the petty affronts with which I myself must contend, annoying as I am to young, healthy passersby with my mom clogs and my toddler's circuitous route mucking up the perfectly planned path to their favorite Brooklyn coffee shop.

Sorry to inconvenience you with my slower-than-expected doorway navigation. I have one hand on a stroller, one hand on the dog's leash and the third hand trying to open the door. You know what would be easier for everyone? If you just held the door open for me instead of grumbling and breathing down my neck.

The asshole on the subway stairs? He most likely has responsibility for no one but himself. He is completely clueless in the privilege of his youth, color and gender; in his ability to run up stairs unhindered; to go anywhere and be anything without restriction.

I used to be that person (except for the penis), and I was just as clueless (but not as rude!). Being a mom in this city has made me realize how incredibly lucky I am to be healthy, able and white in a world which prizes these traits. I have become much more compassionate towards others' hardships -- however insignificant they might seem at first glance -- both in word and deed.


A man lives up the street from us. He is mostly toothless and walks around with a cane, completely slumped over as if suffering from a degenerative spine condition. I admit to having felt a little wary of him at first, but in truth his only crime is living while African American and precariously hunched over.

This weekend Rayne and I drove past him in the street, stooped over more than usual. At first I didn't think twice, but as we reached the stop light, I noticed in the sideview mirror that he was still dangling from his waist, the tips of his fingers barely grazing the asphalt.

"What's going on with that guy?" I asked.

"I don't know..." Rayne responded, checking the rearview mirror.

"Should we help him?" I played the options out in my head as the seconds ticked by. Should I help him? No, he's probably fine. Maybe I should ask. Maybe that would annoy him? Maybe he doesn't want my help. I should ask. I would want someone to at least ask.

"I think we should help him," I said to Rayne, although I must admit I may not have done so in my pre-Henry days. I got out of the car and walked past three other cars waiting for the light to change, including a police car stopped right next to him.

"Can I help you?" I asked him. I realized he had dropped his cane but lacked the strength and mobility to reach it. I picked it up and handed it back to him. He looked at me and smiled slightly, mumbling some proxy for thank you. Then he ambled away.

I jogged back to the car just as the light turned green.

Who knows how long he had been dangling there? Who knows how long he would have remained that way? Certainly the police weren't going out of their way to do anything.

I was so frustrated with humanity at that moment. I chafed at our pathetic, self-absorbed species. Henry wasn't in the car, but you better believe he will see his Moo Cow lift her head up from her smartphone long enough to notice suffering in the world and do something about it. Because the last thing I am going to do is raise a rude, self-absorbed asshole who yells at toddlers on the stairwell.

Thank you, my sweet Henry, for making me a better, more compassionate person. And if you ever need to pass someone, you damn well better say "excuse me."

Image courtesy of Marcus,