I know I am fortunate to have had a “good” mother raise me throughout my childhood. She helped me with my homework, made sure I ate three meals a day, drove me to my basketball practices and never missed a game. I understand that many kids aren’t as lucky as I am to have had such caring and mentorship…perhaps that is why the following story disheartened me so much.
I was taking the E train downtown from Queens Plaza with my girlfriend heading to a friend’s birthday get-together. We had just finished a minute argument over something stupid and were sitting in silence, both waiting for the other to make light of the situation. We arrived at 50th, still in silence, while passengers stepped off and stepped on. A young man, no older than 18-19, sat down directly across from us with a frizzy afro hair-do with a grin like a boy who just got an ice cream cone the size of his face. He had a carefree look, dressed in a plain t-shirt and a book in his hand. He wasn’t necessarily smiling exactly, but he gave off a vibe that made me feel younger just by sitting across from him. A woman dressed in a much too tight leopard dress and sunglasses bustled in front of him. He withdrew his legs (his legs weren’t even sticking out) and added a “sorry about that” that was straight out of one of those random-acts-of-kindness Liberty Mutual commercials.
Just as I finished sizing up our new E train passenger, I heard the voice of two young boys, “Excuse us, ladies and gentlemen, we are selling fruit snacks for just one dollar to help us go to summer camp.” They were young, maybe around eight or nine years old and the fact that they were twins wearing matching blue and white shirts with jeans made me over pass over the thought that it was already August, 23rd. The two twins started walking our way and sold a few snacks, thanking their customers with a “God bless you sir, god bless you ma’am.” These two boys caught the eye of the young man across from me and I quietly observed him.
“Hey, I’ll buy one,” he said, raising his finger in the air to get their attention. He smiled at them as if to encourage their work like he knew and once hustled fruit snacks himself. One boy took the dollar while the other handed over the red package. I noticed the boys’ clothes were dirty, but not like playing-in-the-park dirty. Their shirts seemed worn and it was clear they hadn’t showered in a few days. They said “thank you and God bless you sir” and after the young man gave them another smile, they turned to me for a brief moment. I looked at both of their faces, into their eyes, and similar to the way the young man smiled withouat smiling, these two young boys grimaced without grimacing. They looked tired and sad, and while their blessings were polite and real, there was heaviness in their voices that told everyone on that train they didn’t want to be there selling fruit snacks.
One or two more passengers purchased their dollar fruit snacks and once they confirmed no one else was interested, they sat down next to the woman in the leopard dress, slouching with their hands in their pockets. The train pulled into 42nd St Times Square and the leopard dress woman stood up and started to walk towards the opening doors. The doors opened and then abruptly, she turned around and snapped at the two boys, “Get over here now! Next train is arriving!” Commanded, the boys reluctantly got up and stumbled out of the train. This caught the young man’s attention and we both stared, not sure what was happening.
And we watched as the leopard dress woman, who we thought was just another passenger (considering the way she entered the train without the two boys and seemingly stayed quiet throughout their whole pitch and transactions) snatch away the dollar bills from her sons. And we watched as she counted the money and yelled at them in the middle of the platform, “I saw you sell five! Where is the five dollar?! Give it to me now!” And we watched as one of the boys unwillingly pulled it from his back pocket and handed it over. And we watched as she raised her hand as if to strike him for the crime he committed and as he winced, anticipating a blow like its happened before. And all we did was watch, as the mother walked onto the next train with her boys trailing slightly behind, unenthusiastically getting ready to voice their next fruit snack pitch.
I would like to think that the leopard dress woman was actually going to use that money on something for her boys, if not for “summer camp.” I would like to think that I have faith in people, that the leopard dress woman was just down on her luck and needed the help of her two innocent, cute boys to earn some money any way possible. I would like to think that I am just privileged to have had such a great mother and that I am out-of-touch with the real world and overreacting. But despite whatever I would have liked to think, the young man saw the same thing I saw. Because when he turned back and rested his head against the train wall, there was no more day-brightening smile. Just a disheartened grimace.