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March 16, 2011

From time to time I like to share a neighborhood experience. For one thing, I love slice-of-life moments. And for another, you might pass someone a hundred times without even wondering about their story, though the truth is that everyone you pass on the street is a barrel of characteristics: in short, a character. A funny dance, an imitable accent, a deep anger, a notable passion, the unshakable certainty that I am from Russia, or just a kindness shining through on an otherwise unremarkable day are all things I can think of off the top of my head.

How will these characteristics manifest? Why are they like that? Who made them who they are? Are they so different from you that you can’t believe it? Are there similarities that surprise you? A conversation might yield both. And what is the impression of you that they are reflecting back to you? You may or may not have occasion to relate, but when I do, I almost always find that relating to another person is both illuminating and enriching. But often, if leaves you with more questions than answers.

Yesterday Henry and I had a blast at lunch and the playground with some friends. Except for the exact moment he was skinning his nose, it was a fine, fine day.

Afterwards, the friends dropped us off outside of our apartment. I had my bag, my kid, a stroller he wasn’t in, and was feeling around for my keys.

We were about to go up the steps to our building. There are 3 steps right off of the sidewalk, and then sort of a small plaza in front of the building, and then one more step to get up to the door.

Climbing the steps means Henry will be holding my hand, or holding the railing. Because I was carrying stuff, I was in the midst of urging him to grab the railing when the man approached. “Tie his shoe,” the man said. I looked at the man, who was tall, thin, African-American, and in his 30s. I cast my eyes down to the gray and red sneakers on Henry’s feet. Sure enough, one was untied. I’d tied it at the playground. The other mom had tied it at the playground, too. I think I might have even tied it across the street. They were double-knotted, but they are apparently slippery. I really just wanted to get inside, and to be honest, away from strange men commanding me to do stuff. But he stood there, expecting a response.

“I’ll get it as soon as we’re up the stairs,” I said.

He came a few steps closer. “No miss. Tie it now.”

I’m always wary of approaching men, especially those paying specific attention to us, but I assessed this one. He was carrying a bag of dry cleaning over his shoulder, and he had a squinty eye, and when he moved forward I could see that he was limping. I may pay for this some day, but I always look at the accessories a man has when I am wondering if he is planning to attack me. A large hunch-shouldered man in the shadows, hood around his head, standing aimlessly at the corner . . . is exonerated from being scary when I see the teacup dog he is walking on the world’s smallest leash in the pool of light cast by the streetlight. As for this dry-cleaning guy, I doubted he was going to really bother me, unless . . . unless I didn’t


Like I once did when I drunk man tried to give me $5 for having such a beautiful baby, I did a quick mathematical calculation about how to get out of there fastest. I accepted that dirty balled up five last spring, and yesterday, I kneeled down to tie Henry’s shoe.

I was trying to hold Henry near me, and my bag near me, and I don’t really care if someone takes the stroller, but I wouldn’t want them to pick it up and wallop us with it, of course.

But the man just held his ground, watching me. I almost asked him to move on, but it wasn’t until he saw that the shoe was tied, and double-knotted, that he got a big smile on his face.

“Thank you, miss. Thank you for doing that. Thank you. Now you have a good day. Thanks for doing that.”

He seemed really happy. He walked past and turned his head.

Thank you.

I wonder if he didn’t have an experience where he fell as a child and was permanently injured because someone did not tie his shoe.

The shoe, of course, was untied again by the time we were at our own door.

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