The Saddest Thing in the World

This could be a sequel to Left on the Tracks.

On Sunday afternoon, I was reminded of the emotional turmoil of childhood. It’s amazing to me how kids can swing so quickly and completely from mood to mood. It’s positively dizzying, and I think it’s remarkable that we survive childhood at all, physically or emotionally. At a small age and size, everything has such enormity, and some big feelings can come out of those little brains.

A boy, maybe three years old, was standing with his mother and younger sister at the Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Jackson Heights facing the Manhattan-bound express track. They stood safely back from the edge of the platform. As I walked along the platform near the yellow edge, the boy accidentally dropped something just as a man was walking in front of him. The man’s foot connected with the skidding plastic object with sickening perfection, and he inadvertently kicked it over the edge onto the tracks.

It all happened so quickly, I couldn’t even tell what the kid had dropped.

The boy’s face changed in a flash from disinterested placidity to complete non-comprehension, as if a passing magnet had wiped him clean.

The man stopped dead in his tracks and cringed, his face contorted in acute embarrassment. He wasn’t asking for this, but there it was. “Oh, no,” he said. “Oh, no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Almost pleading.

There seemed to be complete silence, as there always is in the immediate wake of a child’s injury. Everyone stands there, holding their breath, including the kid … Uh-oh. The kid’s gonna start bawling. Here it comes …

He looked up at his mother, begging with his eyes for her to undo everything that has just happened.

“I’d just hop down there and get it,” the mans started, “but…”

“Oh, no, no,” said the mother. “It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Even I wondered if something could be done, like I was desperate to please this child I’d never met, to protect him from disappointment. But clearly it was a crazy idea to jump down onto the tracks.

She looked down at her son, pointing a finger, and began to compassionately admonish him. She seemed to tell him is was his fault, or that it could have been avoided if only … something. You should be careful next time … I warned you about this … something. Maybe it was all for the benefit of the stranger, who looked like he wanted to melt away between the floor tiles. Maybe she was embarrassed, too.

The boy collapsed into tears.

She picked him up to hold him close and console him. I imagined the hapless stranger as Enemy No. 1 in the boy’s mind. Get out of there, I thought. Get away from that kid.

Walking by the scene of the crime, I tried to steal a glance at the object. It looked like an animal of some kind. A lion, maybe, or half-lion, half-man. Some kind of action figure, probably from some cartoon show I’ve never heard of and will never see in my life.

I noticed his little sister, sitting in a stroller facing the other way, had a similar toy — safe in her grip. A giraffe, maybe. She looked unfazed by the entire episode.


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the untallied hours

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