Detours And Distractions
On a brutally hot day in July, my feet usurp control of my bike and send me peddling in the direction of the Candy Kitchen. I have just enough time for a pit stop of indulgence before heading to the Bridgehampton train station to catch the 3:24. Sweat drenches my shirt as I contemplate the variety of flavors waiting for me in the freezer case behind the ice cream counter. Hand dipped. Home made. High fat. Emmm… My mouth waters.
Out of nowhere I see a vision so captivating I all but lose track of my destination. A tall slender woman with impossibly perfect posture strolls before me. On this sweltering day she’s wearing a long, form-fitting dress that only becomes looser as it reaches her shoes. In her right hand she holds an umbrella aloft. Not a parasol. A black rain umbrella, in stark contrast to her summery pastel dress and her long flowing light brown hair. She moves like she’s stepped out of a Claude Monet and out on to a runway.
I can’t keep from smiling and decide to thank her for being the tall drink of water to counter this parched afternoon. I stop my bike and call to her: “Miss. Miss. Excuse me. I just wanted to tell you… “
She never breaks stride. Her forward gaze never wavers. She saunters right past me without the slightest acknowledgement or pause. I don’t even exist in her world. Dumbstruck, I watch her continue up the street a moment longer, then start peddling toward the railroad. I forget all about the Candy Kitchen. The stranger to whom I wanted to pay an unconditional compliment decides I don’t even register as being on the same street as she.
On the railroad platform, I wait in the hot sun after being told the train was running 29 minutes late. An elderly woman fans herself with a Montauk timetable, as a young mother frowns at the announcement. She wrangles her two sons into sitting still, which counters everything in their nature. The younger boy takes notice of my bike and stares at it, then at me before a smile breaks out all over his mocha face.
“Hot day, huh buddy,” I say to him.
“We’re going to P A,” he tells me.
“P A ?” I ask. “You mean Pennsylvania?”
“We’re going to see my Dad. He’s in P A. Does your bike have a horn?”
“No,” I tell him. “It has a bell.” I point out my retro bike bell and press the lever. It’s plenty loud and tuned to a perfect C-flat major. The sound of it makes the boy erupt in giggles. He brings his older brother over and says, “Ring it again.” Now they both erupt. How the simple sound of a bike bell can trigger such pleasure re-awakens my own sense of joy, so recently dampened. The younger boy tells me his name is Kamal and that he’s four. The older tells me he’s Kayden and he’s six. Kayden has a plastic bow and arrow set slung over his right shoulder. Although they are not really arrows. They are suction-cup tipped.
When they ask me my name, their mother tells them to stop bothering me. I compliment her for her sons’ laudatory behavior and ask where they are headed. They are heading to Penn Station, then to Port Authority to catch a bus to Easton, Pennsylvania. Five stops west on the LIRR her sister will meet her on the platform and in the brief stop, make a sizable handoff. Namely, her four other children and all their luggage.
“What brings you to Bridgehampton?” I ask.
“I work for a disabled gentleman there and today was my last day before a two week break. Kamal and Kayden came with me to do two weeks of food shopping for him.”
With each stop, the train becomes more and more crowded until all seats are taken and standing room fills. Kamal and Kayden are pressed up against my bike which they don’t seem to mind at all. As we approach the stop where their siblings will join them, I give the warning we will only have about a minute to help them on.
The train slows as it approaches the platform and we see two kids jumping and waving as a young woman beside them is gripping a double stroller filled with the two youngest. I’m somewhat alarmed to see them encircled by a stockpile of luggage. I move fast to pull six bags onto the train while the kids’ mother takes possession of the baby stroller and the hands of her two oldest children, Sayana and Cleavon. Though easygoing and calm, this woman, at moments of peak focus, deploys her young the way a general moves troops. And the troops quickly fall in line.
As the train resumes its westward run, Kamal asks me: “Would you do me a flavor?”
“You mean favor?” I say.
“No. I mean flavor. When we get to the station, would you get me a peanut butter ice cream cone?”
“If it’s okay with your Mom.”
Kamal tucks his little hand into his pocket and pulls out a stone with a face painted on it. “Here. This is for you.”
“Wow! Thanks, buddy. This is good for a lot more than just one ice cream cone.”
Now we’re at Jamaica and have to transfer trains. I grab three of the bags as the two older kids grab the rest. “Stand by for another troop movement,” I announce. In a whirlwind of efficiency the transfer is successfully made and there is just time enough for me to go back for my bike.
The trek from Jamaica to Penn Station is all too brief and I’m not at all looking forward to our imminent goodbyes. As the train pulls into Platform 16 Kayden tells me, “We get on a bus now. Do you get on a bus?”
“No. No, I’ve got my bike.”
With everyone huddled together on the platform, the kids’ mother looks to the swarm of commuters moving toward exit ways. I signal her that there’s an elevator for the handicapped that she can use.
“Follow me,” I say. We follow the wheelchair signs to the elevator. Moving all this luggage is tricky on a crowded platform, so I decide to temporarily ditch my bike. I chain it to a pipe so I am free to get this brood up to ground level.
At the elevator, I am horrified to find a sign reading: OUT OF ORDER. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. Inconvenience? It’s an unsurmountable obstacle for some.
Stand by for yet another troop movement. Six kids, one double bunk stroller, a stalwart mother, and a phalanx of suitcases now have to be transported to the escalator. Damn! If it weren’t so infuriating, I might be able to appreciate the farcical nature of now finding a non-moving escalator with the same sorry sign lamely apologizing for the inconvenience.
I’m flummoxed. But Kamal and Kayden just look to me for the next set of instructions. “To the stairs,” I wail.
We haul our caravan to the staircase. I look upward at a seriously daunting flight. So daunting, it’s divided into thirds with two landings providing brief respites before the next climb.
I tell their mother, “We’ll have to do this in relays. You wait down here with the babies while I carry the bags up. The kids will wait with the bags at the top of the staircase.” After toting all freight to ground level, I return for the most precious cargo in the stroller.
At the top of the stairs, I am winded and sweat soaked. But the kids are all smiles. “Does this mean you’re going with us?” Kayden asks. “I’ll let you shoot my bow and arrow if you are.”
Their mom thanks me and asks if I know which subway will get them to Port Authority. No, no, oh please, I’m thinking. She can’t know what she’d be facing. I make a suggestion. “If we head up this one last escalator (which is actually working) we’ll be right on Eighth Avenue. It’s a clear shot up Eighth to the Port Authority. It’ll be my treat.”
At street level I signal the taxi dispatcher and make it clear this woman will need a van. He assesses the situation instantly and couldn’t be more helpful in loading children and chattel into the van. A quick check and everyone and everything is accounted for. Now, finally, I have to say goodbye.
Kamal flashes his irresistible smile and asks, “Does this mean we’re friends? It feels like we’re friends. Are we friends?”
“You bet we are,” I tell him. “And the very next time you’re in Bridgehampton, we’re all going to the Candy Kitchen. And if you’ll do me the flavor… my new friends and I are going to get ice creamed! ”