“Looks like we are too late for Growling Friend today.”
Jack and I are walking down Rutland Road to his school. Two girls from his class, who we met on the train, skip along the sidewalk with us.
“Who’s Growling Friend?” one of them asks.
“Well, “ I say. There’s a man who delivers fruit to two of the stores along Rutland and every day, when Jack and Growling Friend see each other, they put their arms up in the air like big Grizzly Bears and growl at one another.”
“That’s weird,” the girl says.
“It is kind of weird, “ I say. “But it’s great too. We look forward to seeing Growling Friend every morning.”
And it’s true. It’s just not the same when we don’t see him.
Growling Friend is a middle-aged Asian man, glasses, mostly bald with some shaggy grey and white hair around the sides of his head. We see him every morning, unloading boxes of fruit from his white truck, when we descend the steps of the Sutter Ave. 3 Train. And if he unloads slow enough and we walk fast enough, we see him again, further down Rutland, making a second delivery.
One morning, in a surreal non-verbal mental communion, both Jack and this man put their arms up in the air, tensed their hands like menacing claws, bared their teeth and began loudly growling at each other.
I was taken aback. It is extremely unsettling to have some random stranger growling at your child, unprompted, on the street. But before my Mama Bear took over, I looked at my son, who was giggling with delight. I looked at the man, whose face glowed with jubilant mischief.
You could see the playful little boy inside his aging face, and I knew there was no need to be afraid. Without a word, the man went back to stacking boxes of mangos and papayas in front of the store and we continued down the road to school.
And just like that, our weird little morning routine was born.
Every day Jack and the man we now called Growling Friend would catch sight of one another, menace and snarl for a moment, and then just pop back into normalcy.
All of the Spanish guys who helped bring the fruit from the sidewalk into the store used to smile and laugh when they saw us coming. Passersby would laugh and shake their heads when their haze of business was momentarily penetrated by the strange sight of a little boy and an old man raising their hackles in mock threat, for no apparent reason, on the street.
After seeing us, the man would always beam, his smile warming our backs as we headed down the street. And if I caught him making his second delivery on my walk back to the train, he would always wave effusively, and I felt strongly that we shared a kind of odd friendship.
Jack’s friends wanted to know more.
“What is his name?”
“Well, I don’t actually know. We don’t even know if he speaks English. It’s just that every morning he and Jack just growl at each other and it’s so silly…”
“You don’t know his name?” She glared at me accusingly. “ So he’s a stranger.”
“Well, yes, he is a stranger. But we see him every day and when he growls at us it’s so silly and we feel happy…” I was sputtering. I could see how absolutely bizarre this story sounds, even a four-year-old is questioning my parental judgement.
“We don’t know his name. We just know how kind he is.”
And that is exactly it. Jack just instinctually understood this man’s kindness, no matter how strange a manner he had of putting that kindness out there.
I thought a lot about this. Do I want my son, in pre-school, walking the streets of Brooklyn sizing people up and just following his intuition about them? Do I instill in him the belief that adults know best and that you should think and act as they think and act?
Should I teach him to go with his gut or to follow my lead?
And this line of mental questioning led me inevitably to The Boy.
There’s this Boy in our neighborhood that we see around a lot. We frequent the same coffee shops and playgrounds. We have many mutual friends.
One day, probably 2 years ago, we saw The Boy at the playground, zooming some toy cars around on the top of the water fountain. Jack climbed onto the water fountain to get a drink, interrupting The Boy’s game. Just as I was thinking of mother hen-ishly reminding Jack to say “Excuse Me” or something, The Boy pushed Jack off of the water fountain and calmly went back to playing with his cars.
Jack lay on the the ground screaming, both knees raw and scraped.
I picked Jack up, bounced him and comforted him. I saw The Boy’s mother looking anxiously in our direction and when she came up to us and asked what happened, I told her calmly and somewhat apologetically, what I’d seen. I was sure that she would insist on The Boy apologizing, thereby restoring Jack’s sense that all is right in the world.
She crouched down and spoke quietly to her Boy, nodded decisively and walked up to Jack and me and said, as if daring me to challenge her, “He says he didn’t do anything.”
I was somewhat startled, but weighing my options, basically fight or flight, and seeing that Jack was basically okay, I cowardly decided to retreat and let The Boy have his cruel way.
A few months later, we found ourselves walking down Lincoln Road toward Flatbush just a few steps ahead of the Boy and his mother. I felt very aware of their presence behind us and was very aware of ignoring them. So I felt my whole body shrinking as I heard Jack say loudly ,
“I know that Boy.
I know his name.
I hate that Boy.”
I cheerfully chirped something about how we shouldn’t say mean things about people and about how we don’t really hate anyone and doubled the speed of my steps, pulling Jack forward, imploring all of the forces of the universe to make him stop speaking.
We managed to avoid any awkward encounters with The Boy until fairly recently, when we ran into the Boy and his mother with a very good friend of Jack’s and her family. When they asked the Boy’s mother and me if we knew each other, we wore matching vague smiles, and both muttered similar noncommittal things about how we were sure we’d seen each other around.
Jack, however, was not as inclined to be polite.
He fixed a venomous gaze on the boy, his eyes narrowed, lip curled in a hateful sneer.
“I know you.” he snarled.
And then he spat on the ground.
There was no way that I could warble something that would brush away the absolute contempt that Jack had just expressed. And feeling bound up in politesse and helpless to deal with the situation, I took Jack by the hand, said something along the lines of , “Okay. See you around.” and dragged him down the street and away from our awkward social interaction.
And now I have to ask myself. If he can just intuitively find a kindred spirit in his Growling Friend, should I just trust him to decide that the Boy is his enemy? Is it my responsibility to teach Jack to be neighborly and well-mannered or is that essentially just teaching him a form of socially conventional spinelessness?
What it seems to come down to is this– do I want him to be himself, true to his instincts and confident about his feelings, or me, a shrinking violet, desperate not to rock the boat? And the answer seems to be the former, even if his exuberant flowering can sometimes make me want to wither on the vine.
The world is full of Growling Friends and Boys. We don’t know all of their names. But, as Jack has taught me, if we look closely and trust our instincts, we can see their kindness or their cruelty. And we can respond accordingly.
August 5, 2014 | Categories: boys, brooklyn, childhood, children, drawings, identity, illustration, learning, manners, mothers, parenthood, parenting, writing, zeke and destroy | Tags: amanda brokaw, bears, boys, Brooklyn, childhood, children, confidence, conscience, enemies, Family, fear, friendship, fruit, growing up, growl, Growling Friend, identity, illustration, instinct, kindness, kindness of strangers, manners, molly schulman, morning routine, Mother, parenthood, parenting, personal essay, pre-school, questions, Rutland Road, social awkwardness, stranger danger, strangers, walk, zeke and destroy | 8 Comments