The Judy Collins Songbook cost $4.95 back in 1969. It includes 55 songs by such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, whom I will love all my life. A few, along with her Reminiscences, are by Judy Collins herself. The one that I was looking for in the collection yesterday – “Both Sides Now” — is by Joni Mitchell. I last sang the song decades ago and the pages of the 50 year old songbook crackled at their seam.
Ironically, it was Donald Trump’s bombast that triggered my search for this sweet song. I, like millions of others, was horrified by the President’s deference to “both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville. That he did not, and likely could not, perceive the moral difference between those shouting “Jews will not replace us” and those protesting Nazism and racism was shocking. But it also led me to consider how to differentiate between an issue that has “both sides” open to debate, and a world view that permits no “other-sidedness.” It may be that the world of the First Amendment disallows any such distinction. The Constitution, after all, doesn’t evaluate content; it asserts the freedom to espouse it. But in a moral world, there is a need to recognize that there are philosophies so pernicious that they exist on one plane only.
Joni Mitchell’s lyrics offer a metaphorical guide to this terrain. She looked at clouds “from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.” Mitchell’s insight is that clouds themselves, depending on one’s mood, can be fanciful or weighty. As deeply as we look into clouds, from various angles and mindsets, we may never capture their intrinsic nature. But whatever this suggests about the study of clouds, it is clear that they are not defined by something else.
Sunshine, for example, is not perceived as the “other side” of clouds. Sunshine is its own phenomenon: cleansing, brilliant, brutal and deadly. And so too, darkness is not the “other side” of the sun. One is not simply the absence of the other.
Several writers of music and memoirs have referred to “the other side of darkness.” Their focus is not on the duality of darkness itself, but rather the emergence from a debilitating emotional state of mind. It is, however, a misleading use of the words insofar as it suggests that darkness itself has another side. True, it can be experienced in a variety of ways: somber, peaceful, frightening. It may reveal stars and invite dreams or nightmares. And it may be, as used by these writers, a metaphor for a state of mind. But leaving behind confusion, depression or anger is not to find another “side” of darkness. It is rather to discover something totally different: light, love, and all things that flourish when darkness is dispelled. Each has its own attributes, and it would be simplistic to construe this shorthand to mean that one is the “other side” of something altogether different.
Which takes me back to Charlottesville. There are some (few) like the President and David Duke who insist that the fascist marchers and the protesters were “both sides” of – what? An issue? A debate? A controversy? This desultory analysis ends in what has been described as a false “moral equivalency.”
If neo-Nazism is “controversial,” it is not because this nation accords to its agenda any philosophical or political stature worthy of debate. The controversial aspect concerns only whether and to what extent the First Amendment requires us to tolerate the expression of its vile nature, antithetical to the First Amendment itself. Protesting neo-Nazism is not “the other side” of this evil; it is not one of “both sides” of a reasoned conversation. To declare that the Charlottesville demonstrators and protestors represented “both sides” of an issue is tantamount to pretending that there was a basis for a legitimate difference of opinion between the Warsaw ghetto Jews who rose up against the Nazis and their oppressors. There was not.
So, too, in Charlottesville, there were purveyors of Nazi hate and there were their antagonists, defending the essential moral and political character of our nation. They were not representing or expressing “both sides” of a debatable issue like taxes. They represented and advocated wholly antithetical world views, one of which our country has rejected, fought against and defeated. By casting it otherwise, Donald Trump has again revealed both his feeble-minded ignorance and his depravity.
“Decadent” was a new word to my ten-year-old grandson. It was splashed across the poster for a production of the musical Cabaret that we were attending at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. An odd choice for a fifth grader and his grandmother? Perhaps, but Teddy had performed in and seen the other show then on stage – The King and I – more times than he wished, so we opted for Cabaret. Even so, “decadent” triggered my uneasy attention as we entered.
Together, Teddy and I had read the synopsis of the show so that he would be prepared for the adult themes and dark, raunchy humor. But we hadn’t encountered the word “decadent” in this vetting, so I tried now to define it. “Sleazy” and “raunchy” captured it visually, but missed its essence. “Dissolute” and “degenerate” were no more familiar to him. Google might have helped, but I decided that, in this situation, a picture – or a scene – was worth a thousand words. So I let it go. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the show, Teddy “got” decadent. He also loved the music and worked to master it on my piano. For my part, I heard words and tunes that had eluded me before and squirmed only once during the bawdy rendition of “Two Ladies.” My grandson seemed unfazed.
During his week in DC, Teddy and I also visited memorials to presidents and war veterans. We spent a day at Mount Vernon, wandered through the National Museum of American History and, more purposefully, walked the corridors of the Newseum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Much of what we saw reflected on individual leaders, where they went right and wrong. The FDR Memorial, with its stirring quotations inscribed on the walls, was a big hit – and is my own favorite – but we also saw an exhibit about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent under the same President Roosevelt. We observed that George Washington’s courage underpinned the founding of our country and his humility molded our democracy. Yet, he was a slaveholder. We were moved by the war veterans’ memorials – the faces of the soldiers in Korea were particularly evocative — and the remnants of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 wreckage. We rattled off the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment and focused on the rights to assemble and petition our government. And we watched how, pernicious bit by bit, the erosion of those freedoms by the Nazis created the context for the unchallenged murder of millions.
I tried not to lecture, but to observe and to question. Each time I visit these extraordinary sites – and, with 14 grandchildren, it is often – I observe things anew, often through eyes other than my own. Four years ago, I recall a spirited debate between two twelve-year-old grandsons about which more effectively conveyed its meaning: the abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the representational Korean War Veterans Memorial. There is no right answer, of course, but in the competitive passion of the debate, the two boys examined thoroughly how and why they both evoke such powerful feelings. I have felt those two memorials more deeply ever since.
Oddly enough, in this particular week, it was Cabaret that cobbled together the lessons of many of these exhibits and memorials and heightened their emotional impact for me. The show’s montage of raucous and sweet scenes, moments of celebration and heartbreak, collectively aroused in me an uneasy sense of our vulnerability to the personal consequences of leadership gone egregiously bad. We saw how ordinary people could turn on a dime to become hateful and dangerous. We witnessed beauty morph into hideousness, love into fear, innocence into complicity.
Cabaret viscerally captures the demise of freedom in Nazi Germany, and the potential anywhere for a descent into a moral and political abyss where the educative tension between right and wrong – as at Mount Vernon — is eviscerated by wholesale evil. How lucky we are to be able to examine the history of our nation, and speak aloud of its failings as well as its triumphs; to acknowledge the fallibilities of our founders even as we honor them; to illuminate the values and imperfections of our democracy; simply to be alive in this country, in this time, when we are energized to appreciate and deploy our freedoms.
And how lucky I am that my grandson gave me the occasion to refresh my appreciation that Washington is my home.
It is scarcely possible to open the newspaper – as I still do – without coming face to face with a “crisis.” It may be in Syria, North Korea, Greece, Sudan, London, New Hampshire or Penn Station. The causes are as various as the sites: terrorism, civil war, missiles, religion, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, immigration, opiates, climate change, rotting infrastructure and revenge. Together, they threaten to merge in a generalized sense of danger, unchecked and uncontrollable.
Crisis: what has that word come to mean? Can a single act betoken a crisis? Must a situation persist, resisting change or amelioration, to constitute a crisis? Or is it a moment when forces hang in the balance pending a resolution? Does a crisis impel an immediate response? Or can a crisis endure as a chronic condition? Is a crisis something different from a calamity? Is this more than a semantic problem?
My first memory of the use of the word “crisis” goes back 55 years to 1962: the Cuban missile crisis. I was 15 and frightened. My mother urged me to trust the president – it was his business to keep us safe. But my fear bested her reasoning and I shouted back, “My life is my business.” My bedside radio stayed on all night. Long before the Internet was around to hype the event, or conspirators trolled the airwaves, radio reporters conveyed a sense through their tense, deadpan broadcasts and uninterrupted coverage that the world was in extremis – and that world included me.
What characterized the Cuban missile crisis, as I experienced it, was a sense that the world hung precariously, urgently, in balance in that moment. It wasn’t simply a matter of good v. evil, communism v. capitalism, democracy v. autocracy. It wasn’t a trend or a pattern. It wasn’t even complex. It was life or death. Further, it was a moment when it seemed that the outcome was in the hands of just two men – John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. It was terrifying to conjure up the consequences of a false move by either one. It was wholly unclear whether the naval quarantine ordered by Kennedy would trigger a Soviet nuclear response.
The public crisis lasted six days and ended, as we now remember, with the Soviet Union dismantling the missiles it had installed in Cuba. The quarantine subsequently was lifted. There was a resolution. To be sure, there were and are lingering consequences of the affair, but the crisis, as such, was over.
Not so easy now. The events and conditions deemed “crises” have a myriad of causes. They defy unilateral, or bilateral, solutions. They persist. One crisis – an earthquake – segues into another – cholera. Drought becomes starvation. Perhaps this is abetted by the communications glut, or by one critical need attempting to outbid the other for resources and attention. Or perhaps it is the seemingly impenetrable complexity of an interconnected world that baffles and overwhelms us.
All is not dark and hopeless — far from it. Remarkably good and promising things are happening all around us, sparkling with optimism. To resist and protest is uplifting. To learn about biological, technological, physiological, artistic and archaeological break-throughs is exhilarating. But it is nevertheless concerning that the recurrent branding of world events as crises may lead us to become increasingly insensible to situations and events that are critical, including those that could be intelligently addressed and perhaps solved. Crises seem not to invite solutions. Rather, they have become conditions that evoke hand-wringing, check-writing and marching on the way to acceptance of the unacceptable, as we go back to business.
Privately, we disclaim responsibility for solutions by acknowledging we are not the ones who can cure cancer, end greenhouse emissions or give peace a chance. We are not rocket-scientists. We deprecate our potential to foster change that might, just marginally, relieve despairing conditions of one kind or another, in one place or another. “We must be the change we wish to see,” Gandhi wrote. Does the massing of crises debilitate our capacity to see how?
The starfish story comes to mind. The child tosses a starfish back in the ocean, recognizing the truth that there are too many beached starfish for her alone to save them all. But, as she wisely notes, she makes a difference to each one she rescues. It is unusual for one person to effect that difference, though Malala Yousafzai, in her context, comes to mind. More commonly, like Alan Kurdi’s drowning, the individual produces an outcry, but no change.
Crises are, for the most part, created by men and women, often (though not always) with evil intent. And it is possible for men and women of good will to chip away at them, even if comprehensive solutions elude us. Though we may not absolve ourselves fully of responsibility by taking marginal actions to problem-solve – by speaking out, stepping up, persisting in outrage — our humanity demands that, as we lurch from disaster to catastrophe, we not allow ourselves to become hardened to crisis as a way of life.
The Langfollow archives reveal that it’s been well over a year since I last wrote on this site. Initially, the explanation – or excuse – was a relapse into depression. (Depression is not a source of creative energy.) When I emerged in full appreciation of life, I continued to avoid the site, as if it might trap me in my prior grieving and grievous state of mind. That fear is past. Now 70 years old, with a feeling of hopefulness and competence, I am returning.
My father was the subject of one of my earliest essays. He was then 96 and living a curious, sometimes surreal, life of an Alzheimer’s patient, with the complication of a brain injury from a fall. His life ended on April 8, 2017, at the age of 98, in a deepening sleep in the home where he had lived for 48 years. A lengthy obituary and death notice in the New York Times and Washington Post summarized an awesome (correctly used in this context) life as a creative entrepreneur and philanthropist. Aspects of this life were in turn recounted at his funeral service at Temple Emanu-El by some of those most deeply connected to him.
My eulogy did not review the chronology of his life. Instead, I examined his thinking about the values that guided his trajectory. I feel intensely that I must revisit that eulogy on this site before going on, as my father’s death is surely a defining moment in the arc of my own life.
“My father’s achievements — his inspirational character, his creativity, his boundless curiosity, his infectious enthusiasm and his innovative daring — have been widely recognized and honored. He was no shrinking violet, and he enjoyed the glow of recognition. But what people ask me over and over, in various ways, is how to understand what motivated his philanthropy. What led him to commit over 95% of his considerable resources, and an equal amount of his time, to creating opportunity for others?
Thinking about this takes me back to the simple prayer — we called it “grace” — that my father composed, and taught my brothers and me to recite at Friday night dinner when we were children:
“Thank you, God, for having such a nice mommy and daddy and brothers. Thank you for having such a nice house to live in and for having such good food to eat.
Help us to deserve and appreciate all these blessings.”
Deserve and appreciate. Those were the operative words, central to my father’s moral philosophy and key to understanding his instinct for philanthropy.
They originated with my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, Daniel Lang. I remember as a child climbing over the stone wall that separated my grandfather’s farm from an abandoned orchard. Once on the other side, there was no lollygagging. “If you don’t pick apples, you don’t eat apples,” Grandfather admonished us. Clearly, we were expected to earn our rewards. We would deserve the apples only if we worked for them.
This was an essential lesson of my father’s upbringing — tinged with Grandfather’s socialism.
To this my father added the second element of our family prayer: appreciation of the blessings of family, home, food.
I came to understand from this that we were never to take anything for granted, never to assume any entitlement. We were to be aware that our family, our home, our food, were blessings for which we were to be thankful.
It would be easy to take those two elements — deservedness and appreciation — and turn inwards, that is, to celebrate the exclusivity of our own successes — to eat our own apples, if you will.
But that would undermine the core intent of our prayer of thanksgiving. As we dutifully turned off the lights, finished what was on our plates and picked up pennies from the street, my father gave us to understand that blessings are not evenly distributed in our world — even in our own communities. That we must not be careless or thoughtless in the enjoyment of our blessings. That part of being deserving and appreciative requires us to think how we can make it possible for others to enjoy these blessings too.
Thus, as he saw it, philanthropy is not an act of “giving back.” It is simply an essential element of living a moral, fulfilling and responsible life, as fundamental as breathing. But it became even more than that to him. It morphed from a disciplined belief to an emotional high, as my father himself learned that philanthropy at its best is not a one-way street. If you look at photos of my father celebrating milestones with “his dreamers,” you will understand that giving was a source of tremendous joy to him. He was exhilarated by the projects of Lang Opportunity Scholars at Swarthmore, and by the graduations of Lang Youth Scholars at the American Museum of Natural History and New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was elated by the promise of research at New York Hospital Queens. Excited by the new generation of students and faculty at Lang College at the New School, and by the prospect of integrating civic and social responsibility in college curricula.
All of this genuinely thrilled my father. He would tell you, as he told me, that through giving, he received the greatest gifts, and that anything he did not give, he lost by not giving it.
Giving became the essence of a purposeful life for my father. He immersed himself in it creatively, and passionately. Two years ago, he told me of his sadness about losing his sense of purpose. As Alzheimer’s Disease depleted his marvelous capacity to spin out ideas for new projects, he felt keenly the loss of what had energized him for decades.
But there were moments when that excitement returned, particularly following student concerts at home. One day last year, after two students from Concerts in Motion had performed for him, he asked them, “How do you know when you’ve performed well?” At first, the students answered somewhat tentatively — the audience applauds. But my father shook his head: No, he said, and he put his hand to his chest, how does it “feel inside” when you’ve performed well? The students thought hard — how to put into words what it felt like — and they did, they described the physical and emotional elation, and my father nodded vigorously, satisfied that he had shared in their joy of making music and in the recognition of a job well done.
Two weeks before he died, my father said to me clearly and simply: “The future lies wholly in the past.” He refused to elaborate. In that moment, I recognized what he was saying: the gig was up. But what a past — and what a future he created for all of us.
Gandhi said: My life is my message. And so it was for my father too.
Thank you, God: Help us to deserve and appreciate the blessing that was his life.”
Now, it is time for me to return.
There is a well-known advice book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting http://www.whattoexpect.com. It validates feelings and physical changes by reassuring the reader that these are natural consequences of being pregnant, consequences that frequently and normally occur. It doesn’t promise that these experiences will occur; it serves more as a forewarning. Expectations, even great ones, are, after all, the expression of hopes (as well as fears) and, at their most reliable, may rise to probabilities. But expectations can be as surely exceeded as disappointed. They may also morph into an unanticipated and very different reality.
Beyond pregnancy itself, parents-to-be are given to expectations. Whether these are high or low, they have been known to create an impossible burden on some children to achieve and perform throughout their lives. And from the outset, the child wordlessly expects her parents to provide security, nourishment and love. It turns out that this is more than some parents can handle. In short, expectations that go beyond the womb often have a low level of reliability. Nevertheless, even in the face of contrary experience, expectations are woefully persistent. We often fail to recognize their wishful or hypothetical character. In fact, we internalize expectations in a way that may lead to unwarranted surprise when they do not materialize.
Expectations are hazardous when not recognized for the weak reeds that they are. Stereotypes are rank with expectations. Case in point: almost 50 years ago, my law school class included an Army officer, recently returned from Viet Nam – Alan for the record. He fit all of my expectations of a military man – buzz haircut, ramrod straight posture, sharp creases in his pants and shirts, and a political viewpoint as far to the right as I was to the left. We were, in short, a goodly distance apart in our world views. On a day verging on summer, I encountered Alan on a commuter train. He was alone, reading. He looked up to greet me and turned over the book as he did so. It was a collection of 20th century poetry. I was startled, actually shocked, that the man I’d pegged as a right-wing militarist was reading poetry for sheer pleasure. The two seemed incongruous. It was an “ah ha” moment that has stayed with me all these years. People are surprising and complicated; they are not shaped by another person’s expectations.
I thought of this again last month watching a performance of Pagliacci at the Met. The heart-wrenching aria sung by the clown first alerts us to be surprised by his behavior, before the stage audience is stunned by the unexpected, and the comedy-turned-tragedy is over. We are not who we seem and even our assigned roles can’t be trusted.
Expectations nevertheless play a useful part in making choices. What we expect of a candidate will likely determine whether we vote for her. Even one who plays havoc with our expectations does, as we’ve seen, fulfill them. Likewise, in choosing a mate, we rely on the indicia of how we expect she will behave, in relation to our values. Again, this is a hope, only partially authenticated by premarital experience. However, inconsistent behavior confounds our expectations, and muddles our decisions. We need to be able to expect some things of each other – even strangers – or we would hesitate to go out the door.
Expectations provide a base line to conduct our lives. They are both useful and hazardous. When they are fulfilled, we are pleased and vindicated. But it is the exceeded expectation that is a great joy. One night last week, a young man approached me as I turned into the path to my home. He asked to use my bathroom – he was, as he explained, in extremis, and still several blocks from his home. I hesitated, mentally assessing the danger inherent in the situation, as I live alone with an amiable and skittish toy poodle. I did not know what to expect of this young man. But he was neatly dressed and coifed, well-spoken and sympathetic. So I formed an expectation of good behavior and invited him into my house to use the bathroom (though I did take the precaution of waiting outside). When he emerged, he thanked me profusely and went on his way. The next day, a pot of pink daisies appeared on my front steps with a note – “May your kindness and generosity always be returned.” I was ebullient for hours! The young man had vastly exceeded my expectations and uplifted my spirits.
My daughter works for an agency that has turned “expectations” into a verb, as in “the report is going to be late so someone should expectations the boss.” This is a significant mutation of the noun for it is more than a prediction: it suggests that the truth or certainty of the situation is already known. It is an expressive adaptation of the noun, and presumably preempts disappointment. I trust, however, though I won’t venture to predict, that this will not become a common usage. We must retain the capacity to manage our own expectations and, on occasion, to experience joy when they are exceeded.
The Chicago Tribune reported this week that police officer Robert Rialmo, who intentionally shot and killed a college student and accidentally killed a bystander, filed a counterclaim against the victim’s estate. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-robert-rialmo-quintonio-legrier-20160206-story.html Officer Rialmo claims that the deceased student’s conduct prompted the shooting and has caused him “extreme emotional trauma.” This, explained his lawyer, was a part of his client’s “normal grieving process.” Excuse me, Officer, but is this the new alternative to remorse?
Over thirty years ago, Garrison Keillor wrote about remorse in The New Yorker, assuming the persona of a remorse counselor who believed that when people do bad things, “[t]hey should feel sorry for what they did and stop doing it.” www.newyorker.com/magazine/1983/07/11/the-current-crisis-in-remorse “Remorselessness is a fundamental flaw, a crack in the social contract,” he complained, bemoaning the “parade” of “perfectly normal people” who had “less moral sense than God gave geese.” In the end, he boasted of the “remorse program” he created for assembly-line workers to improve job performance by promoting contrition for misconduct – like “excessive lunch breaks.” I can’t say what provoked Keillor to satirize remorselessness, though he may have been reacting to the so-called “Twinkie defense” popularized by the trial of Dan White for the 1978 murder of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. www.snopes.com/legal/twinkie.asp While the term may have been a misnomer in a literal sense, it is fairly associated with creative alternatives to personal responsibility, and the decline of remorse. Officer Rialmo has taken this to new, aggressive territory.
As any criminal defense lawyer will acknowledge, the value of remorse can’t be overstated in the moment of sentencing. It must be perceived as genuine, of course, as distinct from regret that the heavy hand of the law is about to fall on your neck. A remorseless individual is perceived as a derelict soul, and an ongoing threat to society, for he lacks the kind of feeling that would inhibit future criminal behavior. But given a person with less moral sense than a goose, it may be that the best defense is a good offense. Or such is Officer Rialmo’s apparent theory. The theory enables him to take action, in fact, compels action; whether or not it is wise or admirable is another question.
Anyone who has felt extreme, persistent distress, sadness, guilt or shame over his or her own past conduct will understand viscerally the Latin roots of the word “remorse” – to bite again. Remorse is the emotional product of a regret surfacing to take another painful bite out of the present, to impinge on any pleasures of the moment, to remind us of past failings. It is sadness infused with guilt, a sense that we ought to have behaved differently under the circumstances. It presumes we made a knowing decision, or took an intentional action, and it was the wrong one. It encompasses the understanding that the past can’t be changed, that we can’t undo the wrong. It is the resilient residue of a misguided, hurtful choice. It resides in the memory of our heart and willfully intrudes on the present with only slight and unexpected provocation. It persists even in the face of the certitude that the wrong will never be repeated.
Remorse is thus a powerful, relentless feeling, but it is not empowering. It can, indeed, be paralyzing. It is a “feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval” than mere guilt, wrote Julian Barnes in The Sense of an Ending. http://www.julianbarnes.com/books/sense.html Its “chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” Remorse is a draining emotion. It accomplishes nothing in itself. It changes nothing in itself. But it may work its misery successfully by convincing the individual who feels it that he never wants to endure it again.
And that is the hope: that remorse is painful enough so the person who committed the act which triggered remorse will want to avoid that consequence in the future. It does not, in other words, make for a better, more ethical person, but one who will be more cautious and self-protective. It serves as a deterrent of anti-social behavior, without muddling in morality or justifications. It is more reliable in this regard than mere guilt. Thus society has a great stake in remorse. And in response, remorse invites mercy rather than punishment, compassion rather than condemnation. Which is perhaps a circuitous route to making us all more humane.
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?