Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Check Child

Reprinted from 1999.

Few things are worse than a hot muggy night. The air stands still with no hint of a breeze. Everything feels thick and sticky. Thank God for air conditioning. It must be unbearable for those who don’t have it. They must be in a state of absolute misery. Of course, having always described myself as a cold weather baby I am certainly exaggerating—a little.

No matter how you cut it 98˚ at 2:30 in the morning is toasty. I remember these hot days from my childhood. Actually summers seem to be cooler these days than they were when I was a kid. We used to sit out front on our porches (stoops) and try to cool off; antidote to our railroad flats. As late into the night as midnight you might see adults lingering with a cold drink. A few always stayed later. They were the avid hops and barley crowd.

As these fond memories coursed through my mind I pulled the sheet up around my shoulders. Thank God for air conditioning. I was awake now. My mind tracing my spent childhood making comparisons to today. Trying to hold both thoughts in my head simultaneously caused me to think even more deeply about the past. I got up for a cold drink and turned on the TV. Aimlessly I surfed through the channels. Even though nothing interested me I did it again. As I started through for yet a third time I hit the off button and reached for my clothes. I was wide awake, out of cranberry juice and restless with my thoughts. I headed for the all night supermarket.

Man was it hot. A stifling blast of air surrounded me the moment I emerged from my front door. Hesitating, I considered changing my mind. I forged forward. Out into the steamy night—missing were the wavy lines in the air that let you see heat rising from the pavement or the hood of a car which could only be seen in daylight. On this night, sundown showed no mercy.

The supermarket was six blocks away—should I drive or walk? Feeling uneasy but testing my sense of discipline I decided to walk. Probably wouldn’t hurt especially since I could use the exercise to counteract the crunchies I would surely snap-up along with the cranberry juice.

As astounding as the heat that flushed my senses were the number of people on the street. It was late. I am usually not on the street at this hour. And when I am, I am in a car and travelling a highway. People dotted the sidewalks and front porches everywhere. They were young people in their twenties and teens for the most part, at least it seemed so. I wondered what Emma Dawson would have done if I were hanging out that late at twelve or thirteen—I shuddered to think. I remembered how she broke down my tough-guy image once by calling me from the window of our four story walk-up and embarrassing me in front of my boys. “Carlie,“ she yelled, in a singsong tone, “come in the house—it’s time to go to bed.” It was only ten o’clock for God’s sake. And even though I usually went in at 9:30 PM my boys had no way of knowing that 10:00 was my bedtime. Thanks mama, you might have saved my life. Many of my boys are gone, victims of the mean streets.

What amazed me most was the number of small children on the street. Tagging along behind young adults who were clutching beer cans and/or fingering cigarettes—these toddlers were struggling to keep up. Their guardians were usually engaged in conversation or some other activity and it was clear that the child was along as an inconvenience. My heart ached. Why weren’t these babies home in bed? They looked tired and disoriented, not knowing night from day. The heat was no excuse. This was child abuse of the worse kind. I didn’t see one or two babies holding onto a pant leg for dear life, I saw many. I was reeling with disbelief. Where had I been? Why was this a shock to me? Everyone was acting like it was normal. No one seemed in a rush to get inside and put their kids to bed. In fact, precisely the opposite seemed true.

Occasionally one of these tortured children would cry out for something or simply fail to keep up with a beer toting parent and then the real horror began to unfold. I saw a young woman snatch a barely walking infant by the arm with such force that I was certain her shoulder was dislocated from its socket. The baby screeched with pain and mother was unrelenting. She had no words of comfort or mercy. From her mouth, as though encased in the dirty gray puff of smoke she blew, she unleashed, nose to nose with the child, a foul trail of vitriol and invective. Cursing at the top of her lungs she issued warnings to the child to shut the #$%* up. By now the baby was howling. No amount of threat would soothe her. Another snatch and verbal assault directed at the child was the mom’s response. I watched from fifteen yards away feeling helpless. How could this baby understand what was happening. And did it really matter?

My staring attracted the attention of several onlookers. To them the scene was obviously not uncommon. When the mother finally noticed me watching in horror, she directed some of her wrath to me. I told her she should not treat a baby so viciously. She told me to mind my #$%*ing business. I left the scene and headed to the supermarket—confused, angry and heartbroken. I remembered my first child at that age. I never abused him, but now I was sorry for ever having yelled at him. I thought that when I got back home I would call him and apologize—he’s 38 now.

Who are these babies being dragged through the streets late at night? Parents who treat them like the enemy? What chance do they have to develop into normal productive folks? These are the “check children.” They are the economic appendages of their parents. They are not progeny, lineage or family. They are “check children.” They represent money. The cold hard truth of a hot angry night for children who know little warmth.

Every day, somewhere, there is a suffering check child whose father is abandonment and whose mother is abuse. Each being processed to become a plague on our community; many harboring a death wish. A child whom we are setting up to take down. A chanceless infant who enters the game of life without a coach, trainer or fan. And some will survive, and even succeed—amazing. These are our children. How we treat them defines our collective state of mind. I now know as I have never known before (only suspected), we are insane.

The supermarket was empty and so refreshingly cool. It was a pleasure to stroll up and down the aisles. I knew where to find cranberry juice but the delay was delightful. My moist skin felt chilled against the commercial air conditioning—I felt myself drying out. I even found the terrible music and the institutional hums of the frost breathing freezers and floor waxing machine being operated nearby tolerable.

Recalling my own hot days as a 19 year old father who brought his boys to the supermarket for a few minutes relief from staggering heat painted a smile on my face. Yep. I had actually done that. Those were the days of cornstarch remedies that helped counter the tiny bumps of heat rash that occasioned every infant living in a tenement with few windows and no cross breeze. I had not been able to bear watching my boys toss, turn and gasp for cool air. So I took them to the supermarket for relief. There were no all-nighters then, so I had to go before ten. I chuckled softly at the thought and reached for the cranberry juice. After a deep sigh of submission, I headed for the dreaded cookies. I rationalized that the exercise of walking home would compensate.

Standing at the checkout counter facing the exit sign I’m suddenly overtaken by a surge of anxiety. Anticipating an impending blast of heat on the other side of the door I braced myself for the roast. Once outside and again adjusted to the sticky stuff I realized my anxiety was growing. I was dreading yet another encounter with the “check child” and my conscience was hard at work. Would I see her again? Was her arm OK? Was I somehow responsible? I didn’t want to face the scene. I thought about walking another route. “Take a side-street and avoid the whole thing,” I thought. It was an option I had taken too often. Side-street avoidance; a tactic perfected by a whole community wanting to wish away its ills. Not this time. I walked back through the maze of misery. Everything was still in place. A sea of dysfunction frozen in the thick hot night. I forced myself to meet the eyes of check child’s mama. I was filled with embarrassment and rage. Her expression was blank. None of it had caught her attention for more than the moment. Both she and the child were victims. Yet she was also responsible; and so was I. It was too distressing, I was too helpless. I shut down.

Finally I was safe at home. There would be no sleep tonight. I got some ice cubes, poured the cranberry, munched a cookie. Tomorrow I’ll dial my son Ali to apologize. Thank God for air conditioning.

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