I Can Save At Least One Kid, Or Not…
Fall has arrived in Seattle in typical fashion. Overnight, it just happened. It’s cold outside, there are leaves on the ground, it looks like it might rain at any moment (and not stop for months.) So when I see a 3 year-old, standing on the street corner alone, in a t-shirt, it seems even more ominous than had it been a bright sunny day.
It was a major intersection in a sleepy residential area. I was about 4 cars back from the stop sign. Plenty of time to watch this child, shuffling a handful of cards of some sort, standing on the street corner, very much alone. Cars take turns going through the intersection one at a time, and no one comes for the kid. No one is coming for this kid. I pull through the intersection and park.
I get out of the car and, without moving towards him, ask if he’s okay. He doesn’t respond. I ask again, in the nicest voice I can muster, the kind that would attract bluebirds and skittish deer, but not 3 year-olds. He doesn’t answer. I close the car door and walk towards him, bent a bit to be not so big, and I tell him that he is very very smart not to talk to strangers.
And he smiles. Ah ha, the kid needs compliments, I can do that.
I get close to him and he smiles. Suddenly, it feels unseasonably warm. I ask him if he has any grown-ups with him. He won’t answer, just looks down. After going back and forth a bit about who might be looking after him – mom? dad? friend? aliens? monsters? a dog? – he lets slip that his grandmother is supposed to be watching him.
But he doesn’t find that nearly as interesting as the prospect of alien dogs watching him.
“Where is your grandmother?” That way, he says, with both hands pointing, simultaneously, in opposite directions. I see. I don’t see. I scan the street in all directions, I see nobody.
We talk for a bit, I’m trying to get him to tell me where he belongs, at least in which direction, but I’m getting nowhere. His language is, frankly, stunted. I don’t understand him and he doesn’t really seem able to communicate his thoughts all that clearly. He’s not dumb, but clearly not raised in the kind of house that focuses on things like that.
And as that thought raced through my head, every ounce of white-guilt I can muster courses through my veins. I’m being judgmental, this is none of my business, everyone does it differently, leave this kid alone.
This kid, standing alone in a busy intersection on a cold day. Nope.
I look at the cards that he is shuffling in his hands and ask them what they are. “They’re hers,” he tells me. “Whose?” I ask. “Grandmas.” I snap a photo of the back of a Sam’s club card that has a name and photo on the back. At least I have that much now. Maybe that’s a starting point.
And then he steps closer to me, in a way that surprised me.
“There she is,” he says. He points down the street to a woman, a block away, in a black dress and black boots. “Grandma.”
“Excellent,” I exclaim, believing this all to be a big misunderstanding. “Let’s go get her, she must be worried.”
“No,” he responds, “she don’t want me.”
I ask him what he means. I get nothing. Some of it is that he’s three, though I was guessing 4 at the time. But there is also very clearly a wall. I used to work with the system, I know a wall when I hit one, so I back away.
I am very aware of her watching us. Just standing there, arms crossed. And he is not going anywhere near her. And she is not coming anywhere near me. We are very clearly in a stand-off, and I’m not sure if I can explain how I know that. But the tension was palpable. She made no move to come towards us. He tried to block her view of him by standing behind me.
Until he decided it would be more fun to try to put fall leaves back on the trees they came from. This was a good game, and allowed me time to call 911.
“Are you calling your dad?” he asked me? “Yes,” I replied, I’m calling my dad. I’m telling him I’ve decided to stay here and play with you.”
I get the 911 dispatch and tell them, as calmly as I can, what’s going on. I describe them both as best I can. I think I say something pathetically apologetic like, “I don’t want to be one of those butinsky know-it-all’s, but this just doesn’t feel right. It feels scary, even to me.”
They assure me someone is on their way. In the mean time, we try to put leaves on the trees and discuss the occasional pile of dog poop. He asks if I have a dog. Yes, I do. He asks if I have kids. Yes, I do. (My heart starts breaking as I think about the difference between their lives. I want….)
The grandmother starts approaching us. The only reason I really know is because the child is getting physically closer to me. I am trying not to look at her because, by now, it is clear to me that she is not a safe place for him, and I have become one of those people that’s gonna get the fuck in the way.
He looks at me, and I see fear. I tell him it’s okay. We’re just playing.
Where the fuck are the cops. It’s been 10 minutes, easily, maybe 15. Grandma is getting closer, even I’m scared at this point. I’m actually doing mental math about things like whether or not I could take her in a fist fight, what the repercussions would be for just sticking the kid in my car and taking him and telling the cops to meet us at my house….
When the kid bolted. And I mean bolted. Into traffic, across the street, down the street towards a park. (Side note, this kid is a killer athlete. I am strong, and he totally out ran me.)
He’s running as fast as he can trying to escape from her. Not in a “this is a game” way, but in an abject terror way. I know the difference. I am yelling at him, “wait, it’s okay, I’m gonna help you.” Then he is clearly looking for a place to hide and spots a big tree.
“Hey, we can hide there! Let’s hide together,” I tell him, and he looks back at me, smiles, and ducks behind the giant tree trunk.
I’m on the phone with 911 again, breathless, telling them we’ve moved to the park. And I’m not hanging up this time. I hear her voice behind us. In front of us 4 moms are playing with their kids, practicing skipping, and playing with toys. I look at the kid and say, “Hey, look, they’re skipping, do you know how to skip? ” And I skip him over to the other kids, getting him right in the middle of them.
With a smile on my face and in the calmest voice I can muster I announce to the mothers, “We are in a situation, I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve called the cops and am trying to stall until they get here, please help me.” Smiling. Nothing’s wrong here. Just talking about the weather so as not to alarm any of the mini people.
Without another word spoken, all of the moms spread out and formed a circle around all the kids, including this kid that none of us knew. If I had the emotional bandwidth to spare at the moment, I would have cried. It was a thing of beauty. No questions asked, not a single mom took their eye off the mystery kid, the grandmother, their kids, or me.
The grandmother came to us. How do you explain energy that is just wrong, without sounding sanctimonious and bitchy? But it was wrong. Her voice simmering through clenched teeth, trying to keep her composure, mostly to not embarrass herself in front of the other adults. You can just tell. I could tell.
“It’s time to go,” grandma said. And with that, the kid did go. As fast as he could, he climbed the high climbing slide. I followed. “Are we hiding again?” ‘Yup.”
And hide we did. In plain sight. She’s telling him to come down, he’s refusing.
I know the games kids play. I do. I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a parent. Kids can be manipulative little pains in the ass. They are exasperating and I could fill a book with my bad-mommy moments. This kid was not playing a game.
Where the fuck are the cops?
For reasons that I still don’t understand, the kid went down from our hiding place, and grandma grabbed him. He’s looking at me. And I said, “do you want me to hold you instead?”
He squirmed out of her arms and dove into mine. So I’m holding him, angry grandma looking at me, bewildered parents looking on. You can feel the fear and helplessness, but I am not letting go of the kid.
Unless you forcibly grab him. Which she did. With one arm around him and the other pushing me, she grabbed the kid. He screamed the scream of true fear. And she walked the determined pace of true anger mixed with shame. The kid wrangled out of her arms after a few moments, and slammed to the ground. She grabbed an arm and started dragging him, but he wrangled out again. She then grabbed his shirt collar, with his back towards the ground and gaze straight at me, she dragged him down the street. Dragged him, like a sack of potatoes. Skin scraping the ground, screaming.
I’m on the phone with 911 again, hysterical this time. (I’d like to hear the recording, I’m sure I sounded like a lunatic.) “She’s dragging him, by the collar, dragging him, where are you?”
For 2 blocks, she dragged him this way, yelling at him, yelling at me. Calling me names. Names that sounded like a badge of honor in this case. You are right, I’m not leaving your business alone if your business is treating children like this. I am a fucking bitch, you bet, and damn proud of it.
Until we got to their house. And they went in their house. Slammed the door, and the screaming continued. I’m on the phone with dispatch, feeling helpless as hell. And worried. And kind wanting to go in.
Then the door opens and the kid comes out. Just a step, onto the stoop. Grandma is in the door way yelling “you wanna go to her? Go to her, maybe she’ll take you, I don’t want you. She called the cops on you, you know, that’s how bad you are, she called the cops on you.”
“I called the cops to protect you, you’re not in trouble.” He takes a step towards me.
And the cops finally arrived.
They spent 20 minutes inside with grandma. The kid and I tried desperately to find a dandelion that was good for making wishes. We were not successful, though we both agreed that the gum wrapper looked a lot like a band-aid and that slides are fun. We talked about the number 8 a lot, though I honestly have no idea why.
Then the boy went in to talk to the cops, and one stayed behind to talk to me. There is already a history, I was told. Please call CPS and follow up, I was told. You’ve done everything you can do, I was told.
And the cop went back in the house.
And I went home. And cried. How is that even possibly everything I can do? How is it everything we can do? How do we ignore this? Not just the kid, but the tons of steps that lead to that moment. The kid’s parents, and grandparents and….. This wasn’t a bad day, this was a peek inside what life is like for many people. How are we not doing something about this? All of it?
Really, all of it? I have a feeling that all I really did was guarantee that this kid gets the crap beaten out of him this afternoon. But maybe this was the call that tips the scale. Maybe my hysterical crying as he’s being dragged down the street kicks the byzantine system into action. Or maybe I should have just put him in my car and risked kidnapping charges. At least then he’d know for sure that someone cared, and that you don’t have to live in fear.
I feel totally helpless.