The first time The Child rode the subway


‘Featuring a darned good “Lutheran Lie”, if I do say so myself’

First thing Monday morning I took part in a nature walk in Central Park. Our little group was listening, rapt, to our leader, an architectural historian no less, when a rat the size of a healthy young chihuahua weaved its way between our collective feet and disappeared under an ornamental shrub.

Me, the morning after my Close Encounter of the Rattus Kind. (Those are actual dogs frolicking in the background)

No one flinched. Though our leader, after a beat, did say, “They’re okay off-leash until 9:00.”

This whole blasé-about-rats thing got me thinking about New Yorkers and how we get used to just about anything. And how sometimes it takes some fresh eyes to, well, see things “fresh”.

Like the time The Child was introduced to the subway.

The Child, subway-ready, tatts and all

She was about three or maybe four years old at the time. Now, I realize that for some of you fellow New Yorkers out there who read my stories (bless you a thousand times), “three or maybe four” may sound rather long in the tooth for a first-time subway rider. After all, I see babes in arms — and in carriers and strollers — all the time “down there”.

But our little family had the advantage of living fairly close to all the stuff The Child needed to get to, like classes (“science” at the 92nd Street Y!) the Central Park Zoo (ahem, “Wildlife Conservation Society”) — even her assorted “playdates” (don’t get me started, but please see my piece “I’m watchin’ him!” for my views on this aspect of Modern-day Child-raising.)

And for the stuff she needed to get to that was too far to walk to, she and I — or she and The Dude, or even she and Our Caregiver — would take the bus. (Little kids love the bus. One can be driven quite mad in Manhattan, at least mid-day when I’m riding, by the chorus of little voices squeaking “The wheels on the bus go round and round” over and over and over.)

No, I don’t have a photo of The Child on a bus. But I do have this one (and the one at the top of this post) — of her on a cable car. Which is perhaps even more fun, depending on whether you’re the Child or the Parent

Also, little kids can look out the windows on the bus. “Look, Honey. There’s a policeman on a horse.” “Look, Sweetie. There’s a lady with a snake around her neck.” “Look, Doll. (Or maybe not.) There’s a man running up Second Avenue wearing only fishnet hose and sneakers.” All actual bus-window sightings, I might add.

Oh, sure. The subway does have windows, but there’s not much to look at except other subways whooshing by. Which actually is pretty cool, come to think of it.

But I digress. Back to The Child and her first subway ride.

I was working in advertising, literally on Madison Avenue, since that’s where DDB/Needham was at the time, when I was invited to a party by one of my colleagues. A party where children were invited. (Trust me, this hardly ever happens in the world of advertising. Or at least not back in the crazy booze-and-controlled-substance-fueled days when I was in it. So how could I refuse?)

This party was to take place down in SoHo. And the best way to get to SoHo from Madison Avenue, or just about anywhere in New York City, actually, unless you happen to be in SoHo already, is by subway.

How New Yorkers get around — to The Village, in this case. Which is equally as subway-a-rific as SoHo to this Upper East Sider

So I get Our Caregiver to bring The Little Cherub (AKA The Child) to my office, where I tell her we’re headed to the subway.

“What’s the subway?” she asked. (Seriously; I guess all her Little Friends walked and bussed everywhere too.) “It’s a train that runs under the ground” I answered. “Under the ground? Doesn’t dirt get in it?” “Well, um, yes. Actually, it does.”

We get to the subway entrance and descend. It really is a “hole in the ground”, as the song “New York New York” would have it. The Child is fascinated — staring with wide little child eyes at everything: the buskers, the panhandlers, the hapless crowds of exhausted commuters. She’s thrilled when I let her put the token in the slot in the turnstile, since this was well before MetroCards. (Gosh, Child, you’ve reached the age when you can do that “way back when I was a kid” thing!)

The Child, “way back when”, on a slide. No, it’s not a slide that goes into “a hole in the ground”, thank goodness

Did I mention that it was Rush Hour? Now Rush Hour in Manhattan is not nearly as bad as those pictures you’ve seen of Rush Hour in Tokyo, where guys in uniforms push people onto the crammed cars with white-gloved hands. But it’s pretty close.

And, speaking of close, that’s how we’re “arranged” on this subway car — once The Child and I squeezed our way onto one, that is. We’re so tightly packed together that you didn’t really need to hang on to a strap (they had those then, too). The mere proximity of your neighbor kept you upright.

But, even though this subway car was packed tighter than Vienna sausages in a can, it was quiet as quiet could be — everyone was in his or her little New York After-Work Bubble, just hanging in there till they could get home already.

Except for this one little baby-duck-like voice that kept piping up. Yup, it was The Child. And she had a lot of questions. “Why isn’t anybody smiling?” “They’re busy thinking, Sweetie.” “Why does it smell so bad?” “Because you can’t open the windows, Bunny.”

And the Best Question of All, asked when she spotted a noisily-snoring man zonked out, covered with newspapers, and occupying four subway seats while everyone gave him as wide a berth as possible — “Why is that man sleeping?

Well. Here’s where that Lutheran Lie comes in. All faces expectantly turned to me as I explained, in best Mommy Fashion, “Well, Sweetheart. It’s been a long day. And people are very tired from working.

No one flinched. But I did get some pretty good smirks.

Is this the face of a Child ready for a lesson on The Homeless? Well, pardon me, but I didn’t think so. Lutheran Lie to the rescue. (If you’d like an explanation, check out “Lutheranliar explained”)

New York City. October 2018


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21 thoughts on “The first time The Child rode the subway

  1. Unbound Roots

    Through your writing, I could just picture your daughter’s sweet little voice permeating the cars, everyone listening, and probably delighting in the positive change on their normally dismal ride, and their obvious admiration for your answers. Great story, Alice!

  2. Great save! I love how everybody in the tube is minding their own business, trying not to make any sort of contact and whenever a young enquiring mind comes aboard they’re all secretly listening, pretending to be unaware, just smirking and actually really enjoying the curious conversation! Kids are wonderful

    • Hi there Char! You captured the situation in that subway car perfectly! Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and totally ‘getting’ what was going on. And yes, kids are indeed wonderful xo

  3. paige

    alice, i love your style of writing and absolutely loved reading this!! i visited new york for the first time earlier this summer, which made this even more special 🙂 x

    • Why, thank you Paige. What a lovely comment. As you (no doubt) know, feedback like yours is so appreciated. I sure hope New York treated you kindly — and that you didn’t have to dodge any chihuahua-sized rats!

    • Hey Down There! So glad you enjoyed the story and took the time to comment. I promise not to scare you with anymore rats (!) BTW, love love love Australia. The Dude and I spent three weeks driving from Cairns to Sydney back in the 80s. (Good scary story to be found at “Crocodile Dumdee” if you’re interested.) In spite of escaping near death many times, we had such a good time we looked into emigrating. But nope. You guys didn’t want us (!)

  4. Nowadays I have similar experiences in our Calcutta subway, where due to recently introduced air conditioned trains, they are always jam packed during rush hours both morning and evening. Everyone is in real hurry to get home and surface travelling is so hot because of the temperature outside and that’s why everyone seem to cram up in the cool subways…..:)

    • Ah yes. The air-conditioning conundrum! Here in NYC in the summertime, some of the subway cars have AC (but you never know which till you get on one!). But NONE of the platforms are AC’d. Which means that you can suffer bigtime down there waiting…and waiting! I feel your pain, Anindya! Thanks for chiming in!

  5. Ah yes. Public transportation in Chicago was very similar. I made the rookie mistake once of sitting in the one vacant seat on the train. I couldn’t figure out why people were standing. My seat-mate’s, um, “fragrance” answered that question for me!

  6. Deborah

    When my 5 year old daughter asked me (thankfully in the privacy of our own home) what a prostitute was, I took a deep breath and decided I would go ahead and tell her the truth as simply as I could. After I went through the explanation, I asked her if she had any questions. Her eyes darted around the kitchen where we happened to be, her eyes rested on the top of the refrigerator, and she very seriously asked me how Cheetos were made. I realized at that point I could have gotten by with a Lutheran lie.

    And to add to the story, fast forward 30 years, my daughter actually watched a show on cable about how Cheetos are made. We laughed and laughed when she called and told me that.

    • Oh wow! What an amazing story! Not to “sell” my blog too much (but hey, what the heck, this is my comment feed!) I have a similar story about how I told The Child about sex. (Yes, she asked.) It sounds a lot like what happened with you and your daughter and the prostitute. (It’s called “Sex is Like Santa”.) Also, your anecdote reminds me of an old joke my Mom told. This kid asked his Mom where he came from. She took a deep breath and launched into a sex-ed lesson. When she was done, the kid said “Oh, Jimmy said he came from Cleveland.”

  7. josypheen

    I love this!

    It’s so nice that she managed to make people smile. 🙂

    My nephew was similar on his first ride on the tube in London. He chatted to so many (slightly bemused) commuters! Although I think he liked the red London buses even more!

    • Good to know that both “bus appreciation” and “underground railroad riding/smiling/chatting” know no childhood borders! It’s fun, isn’t it, watching children break down those commuter walls? Thanks for sharing your experience with your nephew (!)

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