Stroller-Bullying on the Red Line

UnderparentingIt was a mistake to get on the Metro train with the kid riding on my shoulders. I should have taken him down and buckled him into the stroller out on the platform, even if it meant missing the train. But I had taken the wrong branch on the decision-making tree, and there I was, standing up in a packed train car at evening rush hour, with one hand on the kid’s ankle to hold him in place, and another hand on the overhead handrail, which meant there was no hand remaining to put on the stroller handle as the train jerked into motion and the clumsily half-set foot brake came off, sending the stroller wobbling away from us, bumping through the crowd. Sorry, excuse me, sorry!

Genuinely, genuinely sorry, if you were on that train. I need to pause and emphasize this. It should not even need saying how much I-like you-despise the stroller-bullies who go banging through public spaces, using their precious cargo as a snowplow, then give a pained look of fake sympathy to the people who have been unlucky enough to get in the way of their baby-pushing. They are sorry, but they know that God knows that they are in the right, because babies are worth more than other people.

Not me. I made a bad call and it led to me getting on your train with a poorly secured child-and-stroller combo, and the fact that I then allowed the stroller to roll amok does not mean that your comfort and safety are less important than my child’s, except in the narrow sense that my choice (a choice, again, created by my idiocy) was either to let the stroller bump into you or to drop the child from a height of six feet. If, through some presently unimaginable set of circumstances, I instead had to choose between bumping my child with a stroller or letting a stranger plunge six feet headfirst to the floor of a subway car-I promise you, I would bang the stroller right into the kid. At that point, it’s basic ethics.

Then, no credit to me, a nice lady in a loose-weave beige something reached out a hand for the stroller and restrained it. The Red Line is a crowded, creeping, lurching hell-tube these days, and we were riding in the Death Car, at the back of the train, where the next train would slam into us if the system failed. Sometimes people have to help one another, even when the other has done something stupid.

Getting a kid from here to there always involves some new complication. When he was tiny, we lugged him around in an infant car seat or put him in one of those fabric slings. He was only four or five pounds and always seemed to be about to sink out of sight in the sling. Then we forgot the sling at some friends’ house while we were busy buckling him into the car seat. Then he got big enough for a Baby Bjorn, which was better, as long as I didn’t think about the moist spot that would form when the baby’s diaper pressed against my chest for a while. I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t sweat.

People on the subway would give up their seats at the first sight of the Bjorn, at least on the 7 train. (On the Beijing subway, they did not.) It’s nice but confusing, if you’re an able-bodied and not-yet-old man, to receive that particular courtesy. Is having a baby strapped to your chest a disability? Or is the baby the disabled person? Or is it just a cumbersome piece of luggage? I wasn’t sure about my own answers to these questions, but it was good to be able to sit, even though it meant that the never-properly-positioned straps of the Bjorn would ride up into some new, even less ergonomically correct, position.

Possibly someone would have given up a seat on the Red Line if I’d rolled the child onto the train in the stroller. They do do that sometimes, even though now I’m definitely only incapacitated by association. Maybe it’s still the unwieldy-luggage thing, or maybe they sense (correctly) that a kid is less likely to freak out and start howling if the parent is sitting down at his or her level.

But I had marched on with my head held high and the kid’s head held higher. We’d come all the way from preschool that way. Outside, on a decent day, there’s no better way of carrying a two-year-old. He and I agree on that. A few short months ago, he went through a phase where he was eager to walk everywhere, so eager that I could get fooled into taking him out without a stroller. Then he would run out of gas and want to be carried, but would be so wriggly and intent on throwing his weight outward that the only way to get anywhere was by slinging him over one shoulder, like a 20-pound sack of rice, only 5 pounds heavier, and squirming. Great fun, especially in the rain and with paper bags of groceries dissolving in the other hand.

Then we advanced to the shoulder-top piggyback ride, and everything got better. “Up, please!” he says, and I hoist him, as he kicks out his legs to make it easier. The physics is surprisingly good-the kid’s center of mass is lined up with your own, rather than cantilevered at some back-breaking angle. The kid grabs at my ears, chortles at the sight of passing tree branches, wraps himself around the back of my skull and jams his little face up against mine and gives a little whoop. His daddy is tall and strong. “OOH, LA!” he yells, every time we reach a particular corner by the preschool. “OOH, LA!” I have no idea why.

This time, though, I had pushed the good thing too far. The change in the weather had caught us with low inventory of clean long pants, so I’d put in him a pair of track pants, and the satiny athletic fabric was sliding around, shifting his whole body toward the left. The train swayed, and I felt a thump-his head clonking into the handrail. Glancing blow. He was still happy; the game had changed from piggyback to clambering around. There were two handrails, meeting in an X, with his head swinging around inside one of the angles, waiting to clonk into one of the metal bars again. Till the train got to the next stop, we were stuck. I bent my knees a little and writhed in place, trying to swing him around toward the other shoulder. Fun! His jacket-or was it his blanket?-was covering my eyes. Down below to the right, I could see the patient lady’s hand still steadying the stroller.

And… Union Station. The standing crowd squeezed for the exits. I dropped the handrail and rolled the kid off my shoulder, sliding him down toward the floor, trying to keep him out of the way. The woman let go of the stroller and headed for the other end of the car. Behind me, another woman got up. Would I like to sit down? she asked. I thanked her, kicked the stroller brake on for sure, and took the seat.

Previously: The “Family Bed”

Tom Scocca’s first book, Beijing Welcomes You, is in the hands of his editor at Riverhead Books. He also writes intermittently at Tom Scocca dot com and for newspapers and magazines. He would likely write for you, for money, if you have some. Ask him!