Updated: Mar 30, 2020
On Friday I took a walk to Seward Park. I was listening to a podcast. It was either the new Esther Perel interview with the quarantined couple in Sicily or the introduction to the Brene Brown podcast, also focusing on Coronavirus. The entire walk had taken longer than usual because I (and everyone else in the park) had to weave across the path like a game of Frogger to maintain the six feet of safe separation. Towards the end of the Seward Park loop I saw a boy kneeling beside his bike. He was little, maybe eight or nine-years-old. Beneath his helmet he had chlorine bleached shoulder-length hair. He was wearing a little jean jacket with an Iron Maiden logo on the back and big black gym shoes. He'd turned his bike over so the handle bars and seat were on the pavement and the wheels were facing up. As I weaved away from him, he stood up and jogged toward me, saying, with rounded Rs, "S'quse me. Can I bowwow youw phone?" I immediately panicked. Why was he coming towards me? We were supposed to be backing away from each other. All. The. Time. I took my earbuds out and put my hand up in a stop gesture and said, "Why don't you give me a number and I'll call it for you." And then he nodded, as if remembering the world beyond his broken bike. "Oh, of couwse, yes" he said.
So, standing six feet away from each other he told me to try writing to a gmail account. He wasn't sure of his mom's gmail address but threw out a few ideas. Oh geez, I thought to myself. This poor kid might never reach his mom this way. "Let me look at your bike," I said. "You stand over there and I will see what I can do." His chain had fallen off and it was an easy fix so I put it back on. The feeling of being able to fix his bike had momentarily put me back in the time when it was okay to be close to a stranger. I called him closer and said, "Let me show you how to fix your chain so if it falls off again you'll know how to put it back on yourself." He kneeled beside me and I showed him. Then he turned his bike over and got on. "It wowks!" he said. And riding away, shouted, "Byyyyyyeeee. Thanks"
I watched him ride away, laughing to myself at the hilarity of a nine-year-old sporting an Iron Maiden jean jacket and then I looked at my bike-grease covered hands and came back to reality. "Oh fuck" I thought. "I'm contaminated." I walked the mile back to my house with my hands hanging awkwardly by my sides trying to will the invasive contaminants off of my skin. When I got home the front door was locked so I had to go through the garage, pushing the key pad to get in and then go through another door to the house. My grease-stained, contaminated hands had now touched two door knobs and a key pad. I made a mental note to bleach clean those as I raced to the kitchen to wash my hands thoroughly.
If that little boy had asked for my help in February I wouldn't have noted anything significant about it. I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought beyond his Iron Maiden jean jacket. But the experience that day was significant from beginning to end. Everything about it was precious and important and devastating for me. How quickly I have moved away from my old normal, that a nine-year-old boy with a broken bike evoked fear in me. And how nourishing that simple experience throwing caution to the wind had been. Since that time I have carried a lingering sadness for this distance we are living in-- for myself, for the kids, for the babies, for the elderly, for all of us. My sadness is that, without these experiences where we can approach people and be approached, we will lose that ability. For me I adapted so quickly to wearing this fear coat of armor. That scared me. But I find hope in the fact that, when it really mattered, when I recognized that the little boy needed my help, I had the ability to take off my armor and do the right thing.