My baby loves people. I mean LOVES them. We are actually able to go out to eat all the time because she is so happy to flirt with everyone around her. Busboys to hostesses, patrons to chefs. My baby loves them all. More than once I have seen people grimace when they catch sight of the high chair on the opposite side of the restaurant. Then Baby Girl smiles at them. Then they smile back, delightedly. And then they are unable to finish their lunches because my baby demands their attention for the next 45 minutes while I eat my omelet in peace.
I live in post 9-11 New York City. I have been here for fifteen years. I am well aware of the need to be cautious. But I am staunchly opposed to the culture of fear.
Lots of people have responded with outrage to Lenore Sekazy, the woman who allowed her nine-year-old to ride home on the subway alone. She wrote a column about it, appeared on the Today Show, and people came out of the woodwork. Many of the people who oozed through the cracks have never set foot in Manhattan, let alone on the D Train. I live here. I ride it every day. Since my baby was born, I bring her on the subway too. Which is a challenge for me, as a bona fide germaphobe. I took her on a 1 Train this morning that was far too crowded for 10:15 (what the heck is the problem with the trains these days...they are getting insane) and whipped out my hand sanitizer five times between here and 14th Street. I suppose there are some who would criticize my decision to take my baby on a crowded subway in the first place. Think of all the risk factors--terrorists to muggers, germs to track fires.
However, you want to know what my experience riding the train with my baby has been like? Kinda amazing. People offer me seats a lot. More than when I was pregnant. Though frankly I think people are too afraid to risk offending someone who might not be actually pregnant by offering her a seat. (And honestly, I'd rather stand on a crowded subway than sit--more distance between baby's face and coughing passengers. I told you I was a germaphobe.) Several months ago a rowdy car full of teenage boys noisily and colorfully told each other to shut up because a baby was sleeping. And then, I kid you not, sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to her. She goes looking for friends, there's no doubt about it. But not a ride goes by that she doesn't succeed. And that makes the time pass more easily. And it makes her giggle.
She is a trusting soul.
I want her to be like that. I want her to believe in people. I want her to have a little dose of Anne Frank's optimism about the essential goodness of others. I love it that busboys will line up to spin dishrags on their fingers so she will laugh.
Maybe the guys at the Toyota Place are jacking the service fees up and doing unnecessary repairs on your car...but maybe they're not. Maybe your breaks actually need to be replaced. Perhaps that crazily bearded guy in the plaid shirt who is always lurking in the parking lot of the grocery store is a dangerous wacko. And maybe he's just a little lost and a little bit sad and lonely. Maybe the Middle Eastern guy sitting next to you on the plane is a terrorist. And maybe he used to be an engineer in Pakistan and now has to drive a cab to support his wife and kids in Queens. I choose to believe the latter until proved wrong.
I asked my friend Sarah who grew up in the city how old she was when she started riding the subway alone. She said she was in fifth grade. And this was in the early 80's -- pre-Giuliani, pre-Disneyfication of Times Square, pre-metrocard. We used to sell Girl Scout cookies to apartment complexes full of college kids when I was that age. Our parents dropped us off, and we went door to door. No one thought we would get molested. No one did get molested. And we sold a hell of a lot of thin mints.
So at what age will I let baby girl ride the subway alone? Hard to say. I'm inclined to say that nine is a bit early for us. But who knows? At some point I know I will need to talk to her about stranger danger. About trusting her instincts. About listening to the voice in her head that's telling her a situation might not be right and it's time to leave.
But until then, my baby is growing up in a world where people go underground and sit next to other people of every size, shape and color. She can smile at them, even if her Mama doesn't speak the same language they do. And they will smile back. And that's nothing to be afraid of.