The B train was hurtling over the Manhattan Bridge when the woman across from me started shaving her eyebrows with a disposable razor. Okay, not her eyebrows exactly, just the space in between them. Still, it was odd. Had my three kids — ages 5, 10, and 12 — been with me, many questions would have ensued. And I would have done my best to answer them, concluding with the “don’t try this at home” warning that gets a lot of airplay during and after any subway ride.
As a native New Yorker, I am well-acquainted with this basic fact of city life: Affairs which, in other places, are conducted behind the closed doors of a car, are taken care of here on the bus, the street, the subway. This includes the good, the bad, the ugly, and what can only be categorized as the very weird: crying, kissing, fighting, vomiting, putting on a full face of makeup. Like many accustomed to city life, I’ve done all these things and more.
When I was younger, none of this gave me any pause. As a mom, it’s different. In the course of a normal day, my kids see a whole slew of things that, given the choice, I might opt for them not to see — or hear. I’m far from a puritan, but even I blush at the lexicon of expletives my 5-year-old hears on the way to school. Not the workaday profanity she might overhear around the house but compound curses, polysyllabic ones, paired into rhyming couplets for easy recall.
Colorful language is the least of it, of course.
In the course of a normal day, city kids witness homelessness, hunger, illness, and all manner of acrimony — between strangers, among families and couples. Within the past few months, my kids and I have encountered a toddler having a seizure on the sidewalk, people throwing chairs at each other, men with their flies purposely unzipped, and once, an elderly woman in a wheelchair whom my husband carried, Scarlett O’Hara–style, up a stoop.
New Yorkers like their bottom lines, their long stories short. And the long-story-short takeaway of these moments is: Life’s hard. It can be, at least. In a lot of different ways, for a lot of different people.
It’s not a message most parents are dying to relay to their kids. No one’s jazzed to illustrate in great detail all the slings and arrows that Outrageous Fortune has lined up in her quiver. As parents, the “protect” instinct is pretty hardwired.
But I’d venture that this up-close-and-personal view of humans navigating their way through all manner of challenge and adversity can be good for kids. I think it can build awareness and empathy, and can empower kids to help others, in small but important ways. I think it lets them know that everyone has obstacles, struggles, and impediments.
My middle daughter, age 10, has a heart at least as big as the island of Manhattan. She’s full of feelings and they only come in the maximum-strength variety. She is a People Person, relentlessly social, even by city-kid standards. She’s the chatty kid that’ll give you a seminar on hamster care in an elevator ride or learn everything there is to know about your mother’s medical history while waiting for the bus.
She’d have her big heart whether she was raised in Duluth or Texarkana or Anchorage. But her brand of intervention is all New York: It’s a thin line between Good Samaritan and busybody, and she manages to jump between the two.
When there’s a person wrestling with a problem, she’s in the middle of the action, acting as first responder when a kid scrapes his knee, overseeing peace negotiations when there’s a playground altercation. Whenever we pass a homeless person, she stops to read the sign, or listen to the story, and after doing so, she invariably asks me to give food or money.
Sometimes I agree and sometimes I say no, not today. But in addition to her big heart, she’s got a strong will.
“Mom! Mom,” she’ll say, first plaintively, then by way of reprimand. “He’s hungry. How would you feel if you didn’t have any food to eat?”
The simplicity of it is so inarguable, and any responses I have about the various charities designed to address the homelessness — these dry up in my throat. I find a dollar for her to drop in the cup or the hat or the hand.
My daughter’s dollar doesn’t cure hunger. It won’t even buy a cup of coffee in most places. But she sees a problem, and she doesn’t ignore it. She looks at it, even though it’d be more pleasant not to. She does something small to help.
Now, I can’t say how much of this is a result of growing up in the city. Possibly, the city plays no part at all. But I suspect it does. Because if the long story made short is “Life’s hard,” that’s only part of it. The other half is: “But we can make it a little easier for each other.”
There’s hunger, poverty, illness, injustice, acrimony everywhere. But in New York, it’s right out there in the open, witnessed not in an instant from the insulated confines of a fast car, but up close and at foot speed. I know that this causes many city parents to despair, causes many to flee, even, to the suburbs. I get it. There are plenty of days I just want the walk to school to be easy, for once.
But I don’t think it’s wholly or necessarily a problem that little kids witness big issues at work in the lives of real people. I think it can make for aware and empathetic kids who are mobilized to help others.
It can also make for some interesting subway rides.