I was riding the X-2 bus last month on an unseasonably warm day. I was lucky to get a seat up front so, when an elderly, jovial gentleman carrying a baby got on, I saw several people rise to let him sit down. He brushed them off smilingly, saying he wasn’t riding, just helping a lady out by carrying the baby on board. We all saw then, following him, a young woman struggling to manage a folded stroller, two large shopping bags, a purse and a jumbo bottle of Sprite. When the situation was clarified, and the stroller stashed on the front landing, a passenger gave her his seat on the banquette, and the man handed over the baby and exited.
A word about the X-2 bus. It travels one of the most popular routes in Washington DC, from “downtown” in Northwest, across H Street into Northeast. There is rarely more than a seat or two available when I board, though if none are vacant, I have unfailingly been offered a seat by another passenger. The riders are not diverse. Primarily Northeast residents, they are, for the most part, African American and lower income. As the number of white residents of Northeast grows, I am no longer the sole white person on the X-2 when I ride it, but the numbers are few. I have never ridden the X-2 when there was not at least one belligerent or mentally ill person on board. Last fall, a rider was shot on the X-2. I’ll just say that the reputation of the X-2, except as a profit center for Metro, is not attractive to anyone, black or white. But it does travel an essential route, which is why I was riding it that day.
The baby was very small, the size of a three-month old but seemingly more mature, a pretty little girl with a lacy headband, a matching pink outfit, and tiny soft-bottomed shoes. She never cried despite losing her pacifier repeatedly, and maintained a quizzical look throughout the ride and thereafter – not unhappy but not smiling. Her mother – or so I presumed her to be – settled into her seat with the baby on her lap and immediately dozed off. Because of her obesity, the baby was not nested securely and began sliding out of her mother’s arms. Her pacifier dropped to the floor. Many of the passengers became alarmed. Her neighbor, an elderly woman, poked her gently and woke her, then relieved her of the baby. Awake, the mother dug through one of her bags, found some hand lotion and applied it. Then she extracted a fleece one-sie, many sizes too large for the baby, held it up to be admired, and stuffed it back in the shopping bag. She retrieved the pacifier from the floor of the bus, sucked on it a bit, then put it back in the baby’s mouth. She reclaimed her daughter, and the same drama repeated itself. A gentleman reproved her loudly, “Ma’am, that baby’s gonna fall!” She awoke again and repositioned her child.
Like my fellow passengers who witnessed this, I had become extremely anxious. There was a lot of shifting in seats, disapproving coughs. The baby was clearly not safe. My stop on H Street was approaching and I was torn between relief and concern. It felt like I was abandoning a child in dire circumstances. But as I stood up, so did the mother, and began collecting her belongings. The bus stopped and she tried to retrieve the stroller from its perch as she dangled baby and shopping bags. I reached for the baby – “Let me help you,” I said. “Is this your stop?” She confirmed it was, so I carried the baby off the bus and stood by as others helped her to the curb. Like the other passengers, the driver waited patiently and wordlessly, then drove off.
I settled the baby into the stroller, packing her in the blanket that was there in lieu of a safety strap. The mother thanked me very graciously as she stuffed the bags and Sprite into the stroller basket. Then she began a tale of sadness, showing me the tattoo on her breast that memorialized a daughter who died. She didn’t have money for the medicine her baby needed. She didn’t know what she would do. Nor did I.
We were standing on the sidewalk in front of a CVS. It seemed improbable that her home was nearby, or that she had descended from the bus at a convenient place. I had an impulse to intervene somehow, but what was needed? The mother was possibly under the influence of drugs, but perhaps just too tired to be attentive to her child on the bus. The baby looked well cared-for – clean, alert, well-dressed, not unhappy – though suspiciously tiny. I thought she deserved a better mother, but who was I to say what the child needed? Now that they were off the bus, the mother seemed purposeful and caring. But where were they going –and was it any of my business? Was this perhaps a scam after all? What could I usefully do, without, I confess, getting in deeper than I wanted to be?
In all of this, from the moment she arrived on the bus, I was conscious of being the only white person around, fearful that any intervention on my part would be repelled in front of others. Concerned that I would be perceived as an interfering white woman who should mind her own business. I was surprised and relieved that I was allowed to carry the baby off the bus and secure her in the stroller. Even more surprised and relieved that I was sincerely thanked for it. But it was all too odd – repeatedly handing off the baby to strangers. Who does that? A very needy person, I concluded. A person in need of social services, which perhaps she was receiving. Various questions formed in my mind – Are you getting help? Do you know where to go for help? – but none seemed appropriate at this point. I looked around for a police officer – but what would I report? There was none in sight anyway.
I reached into my purse, took out a 50 dollar bill and said, “Here. This is for the baby.” Conscience money. The mother showered me with blessings and I hurriedly left. I looked back from the next block to see a person pushing the stroller into CVS, with the mother following. What could I say?