A Toddler Introduces Strangers on a Train

On the subway home from a midtown bookstore, we rode, standing, beside a guy and his wife or girlfriend. He had a New York accent, and he was loud. His voice was deep and scratchy. His companion kept her head down except to correct him and, once, to say to him, "Why don't you just be quiet?"

My 18-month-old son and I had gotten on the first car. Even as we'd approached it, before the doors opened, it had looked packed. We had to wait for several people to spring out of it. They had come out one at a time, because that's all there was room for, through the people and the crowded doorway.

The man was blocking the right side of the door. His wife was farther in, in front of him. He was saying in his loud, unaware voice that they could get out at one stop or they could get out at another, and at one they would walk two blocks and then up the hill, and from the other they'd walk three blocks and then up the hill. I could tell she wished he were quiet.

Max was drinking the last of a bottle of juice, and he watched the loud man, looking from my left arm and shoulder across at him. Max's bottle was stuck in the middle of his face, his eyes expressing mild interest and curiosity.

The man talked at Max in his loud, grating voice. "You like that bottle, huh?"

It was an alarming voice, but Max didn't flinch. He liked the man. His eyes focused, but he kept sucking on the bottle.

The man was saying other things, too, but I forget what. He didn't stop talking once he started. Max finished the bottle and leaned across my body, seeming to want somewhere to toss it. I tried to take hold of it, but he shook his head and pulled it away. He asked, "Bag?"

I swung the shoulder bag around to my side, and tried to take the bottle again.

"He wants more juice, I bet," the man said.

Max looked at him.

"But you're just going to have to wait till you get off the train and your daddy gets out some more for you."

I was sure Max was going to start crying at any moment, but instead he smiled.

The man had a light-brown mustache and murky eyes. He was wearing some sort of heavy jacket, like a high school block jacket. His wife had her back to us, and was dark-haired.

"How old is he?" asked the man.

"Eighteen months."

"Eighteen months! He's a big boy."


Max knew he was being talked about, and was pleased, and the man had fixed his eyes on Max's.

"He has nice eyes. What color are they? Blue or hazel?"

I had been staring into Max's eyes earlier, on the ride down, while he drank a bottle. They're hazel, shifting from light blue to greenish brown.

"Hazel, I think," I said.

"Yeah, my eyes used to be hazel. I was blond like him, too, but then my eyes and my hair got darker."

The entire car could hear everything he said. The car wasn't quiet. It was packed. At 72nd Street, the next stop, the car had filled so tight that I had to edge closer to the man.

He told me that his boy, who was 8, and his girl, who was 12, with her 13th birthday coming up next week, had been toilet-trained at one year.

His wife said, looking at us for a second, "It was 18 months. He exaggerates."

"Whatever," said the man.

"And he liked learning this?" I said.

"Yeah, after two times."

He asked for Max's name, and he talked right at Max several times then. To get the bottle from Max, I had shown him an Elmo figurine, and as I'd hoped he had exchanged them. He showed the man Elmo, and the man said, "What's that?"

"Ale-mo," said Max.

"Yeah, it's an animal," said the man.

"Elmo," I said.

"Oh, Elmo. What's the one I like?" he said, nudging his wife. "Oh, yeah," he remembered, "Oscar. Oscar the Grouch."

Max practically nodded, hearing this familiar name. Max continued the Sesame Street volley by saying, "Bertie."

"Yeah," said the man, "and Big Bird."

AT 116th Street, Max was ready to get off, no reflection on the guy, but because the doors kept opening in front of us and people kept having to shove past us to get off. Max wanted to join them.

After the doors closed, Max squirmed so much in my arms he was almost sideways. "Please, Maxie, next one, next one."

"Couple of more stops," said the man to Max.

Max relaxed a little.

As we passed by him to leave, his wife saying, nudging him, "Let them get through," he said, "Goodbye, Max," in a high voice. And once we were on the platform, walking away, Max leaned back to look past my head at the closing doors and the man.

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