So I was walking with Israel down the street where we go to get the bus to violin after dropping Eddie off at Hebrew School. It is a tree-lined street in the West 60s, and the trees are surrounded by wrought iron railings that designate the trees's space and presumably provide protection to the flowers planted there from trampling dogs and other creatures.
My boys love to balance on the wrought iron. Eddie does this easily now, occasionally grabbing the tree trunk or leaping off the iron onto the sidewalk. Israel needs my help. Since he is new to this, I have pointed out that he should try never to fall toward the tree, because he might hurt the flowers. He knows the names of many flowers now, and he loves daffodils, and he told me, "I don't want to hurt the daffodils, Mama." I was pretty confident that he wouldn't.
The first building we pass, as he balances on the wrought iron, holding my hand, being very careful, is a doorman building. The doorman is a white man in his forties. He has an accent that I can only say is from somewhere in Eastern Europe. The doorman yells at us, "hey! There are flowers growing there!"
Very calmly, without shouting, without losing my focus on Israel, without dropping his hand, without turning to face this man, I say, "yes, I know, and there are also children growing here." We walk over to the second railing and begin to balance there.
The super arrives and speaks with the doorman. Here is a man in a white undershirt and workpants who is younger than the doorman and also has an Eastern European accent.
"What are you crazy?" he yells at me.
I smile at Israel.
"Should I get down, Mama?"
"You're fine. You can do this."
"Lady, didn't you hear the doorman tell you to get off the flowers?"
"I'm not on the flowers. My son won't hurt the flowers." We continue to the next railing. The super follows us down the sidewalk.
"Do you want me to call the police on you?"
"You are free to do whatever you want to do, sir."
(When I lived in Paris, one good rule I picked up was to always be nicer and more polite than the person with whom you are arguing. If you don't win the argument, at least you have raised their blood pressure higher than your own.)
"Don't worry. Keep balancing. You're doing fine. You are not doing anything wrong."
A well-dressed white woman is walking toward us on the sidewalk. The super goes up to her.
"Do you see what this crazy woman is doing?"
I don't know what she says to him because I am afraid to catch her eye, so I keep reassuring Israel that he has every right in the world to walk on the railings since every child I've ever known has always done exactly what he is doing, and he is doing it well and carefully. We are now well away from the doorman's personal daffodils, at least half-way down the block, but it seems that the super has business down here too, because he moves with us and stops on a brownstone stoop.
"Crazy lady! Hey, I'm talking to you!"
"You are yelling, sir," I tell him, in a very controlled normal tone.
"Don't you get what I'm saying to you?"
I shrug and smile at my son. "Whatever his problem is, we don't have to let it bother us."
The super goes into the brownstone. Israel and I continue down the street at our slowest pace, and Izzy balances on every single tree railing. When a bus comes down Columbus, he starts to jump off the railing, but I hold him on the rail and show him that it wasn't our bus anyway. When we do get to the corner, our bus arrives at the same time.
On the bus I remind him that he didn't do anything wrong, that he can be proud of himself and ignore people like that on the street. It takes me well over five hours to even begin to think of this incident as motivated by race.
At home that night, we run into our super who is a white man of Polish descent. Every time he sees Israel, he cracks up laughing. As a playwright, sitting in the back of many theatres, I have known happy laughter and laughter that might turn into tears, and I know the sound of embarrassed laughter. My super's laughter is that awful uncomfortable kind. I am not faulting or judging him for it. I doubt he can help it. I rarely even think of it anymore, but I heard it when we got home, and I realized that some people do not gaze on my child as if he is the adorable miracle I know and love. Some people see a black kid and get angry. Are they more angry to see that he is being raised by a white woman? Is there anything I can do about this sort of reaction?