Strangers on the MTA

We switch to the D train at 36th. The train is packed, so I stand, holding the stroller wheels in place with my feet, one hand on the handle, the other on the pole. C hangs out in his seat. He wants to sit on the subway bench, but I show him how crowded the train car is, and he understands. We talk quite a bit about having to be aware of our surroundings, having to be mindful of other people in the City and their space. It’s part of life in the City, and C is learning it.

A mentally retarded Chinese guy is sitting on the bench to our right. As the train pulls out of 36th Street he smiles at C. C smiles back, then looks up at me. I smile at C, then look at the Chinese guy. He seems pretty harmless. He’s overweight, got an odd but friendly smile. He carries a child’s backpack and lunch box. Looks to me like he’s on his way to work. The Chinese guy smiles at me. I smile back. I’m not super into talking to strangers on the subway, so I don’t say anything. I look back at C, who’s staring at the guy. I offer him a snack to distract him from the guy.

The guy says something to me, pointing at C. I don’t really understand what he’s saying, but I imagine that he’s saying “he’s hungry,” so I say “yes, he’s hungry.” The guy laughs. It’s a high pitched laugh, almost like he’s forcing himself to laugh. It’s also a bit of a fun house laugh, but I don’t want to be judgmental of the retarded guy. Nevertheless, childlike grown-ups are off-putting. C laughs. The guy points at C and laughs. They both laugh. C can tell that the guy is not your everyday type guy, but doesn’t know what to make of it. The train car is really crowded, there’s no where to move the stroller to. We’re pretty much locked into the spot where we’re standing.

We’re almost on the Manhattan Bridge, the part of the long D train ride where everyone pulls out their phones to see if they’ve missed calls, or to send texts, or check facebook. I want to do it, too, but I don’t want to avert my attention from what has now become a situation between C and the Chinese guy. C has turned away from the guy, and I’ve angled his stroller away a little as well. C seems uneasy. He seems ready to end the interaction, but that doesn’t register to the guy. I am uneasy too. I don’t want to be rude to the guy, and after all I think basically harmless.

The guy keeps trying to get C’s attention, but C’s looking at some people on the opposite bench, one of whom waves hello to him, and he waves back. Meanwhile, the Chinese guy reaches out a hand to C, his long, yellow fingernails moving toward C’s face. C doesn’t notice, but I put out my hand to stop him, and say “no, no, please don’t touch him.” The guy pulls his hand back, seems to say he wants to tickle C, and I say “no, don’t tickle him.” I wonder why no one has told this guy not to tickle strangers on the subway.

I hope the guy gets off at the next stop, but instead he stays on. Enough other people get off so that I can sit on the opposite bench, and pull the stroller close to me, C facing me, not the guy. The guy says he’s getting off at the F train, and I think, sadly, so are we. C says “is that a funny guy?” And I say “he sure is funny, alright.” When we arrive at our mutual stop, the guy gets up and has a whole big goodbye thing to C, who says bye. I wait for the guy to head off down the platform before we get off too, and I walk the other way. I don’t want the interaction to keep going, and don’t know how to stop it other than to not be around the guy anymore.

C is pretty outgoing. He likes people, and he likes to say hi to them. I’ve been teaching him not to talk to strangers, and he’s been learning, but when there’s another kid around his age he always says hi. This not talking to strangers thing, however, doesn’t stop strangers from talking to him. He’s got a big smile, and even when he’s just sitting next to me on the train, or in his stroller, people seem to think he’s available for conversation.

Strangers want to talk to him on the train all the time. Just yesterday some guy was trying to get C to fist bump him, and I pulled C closer to me. This didn’t stop the guy from trying, though, and I told C he didn’t have to do it, and shook my head at the guy. The guy still stood there, and C climbed onto my lap, even though he’s very independent about having his own seat on the train. I know subway altercations happen, and I don’t want to court one.

What makes strangers think it’s okay to not just say hello at the cute kid on the subway but try to touch him? What’s the deal with that? What’s the best way to let people know they should not try to interact so much with my kid without making C feel like he has to fear everyone? I want him to feel at home here, and I teach him to respect other people’s space, so why don’t people respect his? I see other kids on the subway, whether I’m with C or on my own, and I don’t see grown-ups trying to talk to those kids. Is this happening all the time and I’m just missing it? Is it unique to me and C? Is there some kind of vibe I’m giving off that makes people think interfering with my kid is a thing they are welcome to do? What’s the deal?


On the subway platform.


Prospect Park carousel.


He was cold and wanted to wear my scarf.


Love the scarf.

The ride home.

4 thoughts on “Strangers on the MTA

    1. I want to yell at these people to back off, but I don’t want to terrify the boy, even if I want him to be wary and careful. He’s gotta grow up here, and needs to find his way in how to deal w people. What’s the best way to guide him?

  1. I think it’s similar to the completely inappropriate touching of your stomach by strangers that occurs when you’re pregnant. Somehow personal boundaries and rules are off when it involves kids. I still remember walking through the grocery store when Zach was about 4 weeks old, and I stopped for a moment to get a can of soup. When I turned around — literally a moment later — there was an elderly Hispanic woman kissing his hands as he sat in his infant seat. I almost died. And I have never wanted more to push an old person to the ground to protect my newborn. The rules are off.

    1. Right? It’s crazy. When I was pregnant, strangers would be trying to touch my stomach too, which grossed me out. My remedy was to wear giant framed glasses. Suddenly I looked so crazy no one wanted to be near me, never mind touch me.

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