Posts tagged “manners

Growling Friend and The Boy

growling_small

“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.

 

Jack interrupts,

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.

Advertisements

That Dog Won’t Hunt.

I’m walking the boys down the street just before 9 0’clock in the morning.  We’re rushing to get to summer camp when we pass a planter on the corner filled with  soaring green stalks sprouting cheerful blossoms that are a delightful watermelon pink. They are gorgeous and at least 6 feet tall, and when I see them I exclaim, “Look at those amazing, tall pink flowers guys!  I think that they might be honeysuckle!”

Both of my boys stop to admire the flowers and Jack says sadly, “Be careful!  Don’t smell them!  Because remember, one time, when by accident, we smelled that mean lady’s flowers?”

And all over again I have angry knots in my stomach and I want to kick my obnoxious neighbor in the teeth for ruining what used to be one of the most lovely parts of my day and suffusing, what was a sweet, calm ritual of exploration and discovery, with anxiety, mistrust, and fear.

This is for you Ridiculously Rude Resident of Rutland Road.
My kids can’t get you and your aggressive incivility out of their heads.
And it is because of you that my little boys
fear to stop and smell the roses.

Thanks a lot.
Hope you’re happy.

We live in a large apartment building right on the border of a land-marked Brooklyn neighborhood that is filled with gorgeous brownstones and free-standing houses.  It is common for people in our neighborhood to have things that are uncommon elsewhere in New York City, like backyards, generous front stoops, and lovely front gardens.

Every morning when Jack and I are walking Zeke to school we wander past all of these houses and blissfully examine the beautiful new things that are growing.  The three of us celebrated the coming of spring by noticing the appearance of precious little purple crocuses  in so many of our neighbors’ gardens.  It delighted me when my boys would point out clusters of “Happy Daffodils” or point excitedly to a vibrant yellow-blossomed bush and shout, “Look Mom!  It’s forsythia! Your favorite!” We were sometimes a little late for school because the three of us had lingered too long, noses clustered together around a planting of rich indigo hyacinth, deeply inhaling their fresh, heavenly scent.

I would ache with love for Zeke when he would crouch down inquiringly before a patch of flowers, cock his head, and ask, “Are these pansies?”

And when Jack would tell me that he wanted to turn on Rogers Avenue so that we could pass by the house with the “bunches of Bleeding Hearts“, I would have to summon everything that I had inside of me not to grab his little face and smother him with kisses.

I love our morning walks, softly lit, before the sun is strong.

I love this little opportunity to delight in gracefully growing things, right here, in the middle of Brooklyn, especially when we live in a big brick building that smells more of piss and weed than it does of Lilies of the Valley.

One morning, in early June, we were taking our walk as usual.  It had rained overnight and all of the plants were still moist from the light summer drizzle. The air was cool and soft.  Zeke, Jack and I were admiring the way that the damp grey of the morning made the colors of the plants  vivid and the way that the flowers almost sparkled when light would bounce off of a raindrop on a petal.

We turned onto Rutland Road and all three of our pairs of eyes seemed to settle on the planter at once.  It was a barrel planter on the sidewalk with a small, rather spindly, rosebush inside of it, but the few roses on the bush were immaculate.  The blossoms were wide and fully blooming, a striking vibrant coral.

“Those are beautiful Mom!  What are they called?” Zeke asked.

“They’re roses, Sweetie,” I said.  “And roses are so special because they smell absolutely amazing! Should we sniff them?”

Both boys nodded eagerly.  And in our own little bubble of happy family warmth, we wandered over to the planter and leaned our noses towards the flowers, when we were jolted out of the pleasant mood by an angry shout,

“Aw Hell No!  Get those kids the hell away from my flowers!”

A large, angry woman appeared at the door of the house, a phone at her ear.  I was startled, but I managed to say, “Oh I’m sorry ma’am.  We were just smelling them.  I always tell my boys to be very gentle and not to touch.”

She continued to glare at us with profound hostility.

“Whatever. Just move on. Stop trespassing.”

I started to get really angry but I saw my children’s eyes growing wide with concern and I wanted to defuse the situation, but also to reassure them that we hadn’t done anything wrong.

I spoke up a little more forcefully, “We are not trespassing.  We are on the sidewalk.”

Her lip curled as she snarled, “Stop talking! Move on and stop trespassing before I call the cops and have you arrested.”

I knew that this was ridiculous.  We were standing on the sidewalk.  We hadn’t even touched her property, let alone damaged it in any way. But I could see how scared my kids, who are not used to harsh language from adults, were getting and I definitely didn’t want them to see me get into a pointless argument with some obnoxious stranger. So I ushered them along, and struggled to push down the knots of seething fury I felt stirring in my gut.  I wanted to focus on seeming unfazed by the situation so that Jack and Zeke could just forget about it, but moments after we walked away, the questions started.

“Why didn’t she want us to smell her flowers Mom?”

Zeke gestured toward flowers planted in front of another house.

“Is it okay to smell those?
Or those?”

He added, “Did you hate that lady, Mom? I hated her.  I hated her so much. I just ignored her and thought about how much I hated her and how much I wanted her to die.”

I realized that I needed to say something, to put some sort of label on what had happened so that it could make sense to my little guys and so that they would have an idea of how to feel about the situation.

“That lady was just really mean,” I said calmly. “It is never okay to be mean to people like that, or to speak to people like that. I don’t like her, but I don’t hate her. I don’t care about her at all.  She was mean and the best thing for us to do was to just walk away.”

“Were you afraid?” Jack asked sweetly.

“No I wasn’t afraid. Were you?”

“No?” he said, without much confidence.

After we dropped Zeke off at school, I tried to proceed with our walk back home as if nothing unusual had happened. But at the first hydrangea that I tried to point out, Jack said nervously, “Are we going to walk by the mean lady’s house?”

“No,” I said. “She lived on Rutland Road.  This is Midwood.”

“Were you scared of her, Mom?”

“No. Of course not honey. Were you?”

“No.”

We walked on in silence.  Inwardly I was cursing that woman for making it impossible to unselfconsciously enjoy our morning routine.  Jack looked thoughtful as he walked.

We were almost home when he looked up at me and said, “Mom if we ever pass that mean lady again and she yells at us again, I am going to say something.”

I crouched down in front of him so that I could look into his eyes and I took both of his hands. “What would you say sweetie?”

Jack fixed his blue eyes on me seriously and spoke in a deep voice, that was clearly his childish imitation of his father when he’s frustrated by children that are acting wildly and/or irrationally:

“I would say,” he told me.
That dog won’t hunt.”