The Indian Giver
If the Hamptons has a heart, then the Jitney is its bloodline. It keeps that muscle pulsing with a steady beat. When I get on at Southampton, I travel in tranquility. I sleep, read, and I dream, as the Long Island Expressway yawns and stretches toward the West. At the end of that road lies the Midtown tunnel, and I know that on the other side, I’ll be entering New York City, the city of flesh and blood with an exclamation point made of steel. So it was, on one Monday, that I purchased my ticket to ride.
By the time the bus reached me at Southampton, it had snaked its way through East Hampton, Bridge Hampton and Sag Harbor. The bus was almost full. As I got on, I was struck by an unusual image: roughly twenty passengers were all reading the same book, “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It was as if a post-apocalyptic race of humans, called the ‘Fifty Shaders,’ had invaded the Jitney. The book seemed to have replicated itself, spreading out like spores in the wind. I narrowed my body to pass down the aisle and look for seating options. My gaze was avoided by both the ‘Fifty Shaders’ and the seat hoarders. All sought to protect their empty, adjacent seats from the likes of me. I went up to one of the ‘Fifty Shaders’ and inquired about the seat. Begrudgingly, she gathered up the empty Starbucks cup, Vogue magazine, and iPhone, and by twisting to the right, let me in.
Just as the Jitney was about to leave, a thirty-five-ish woman with long brown hair, in a long flowered skirt, came aboard. She reminded me of those pictures chronicling the Woodstock Nation. With one arm, she held a two-year-old toddler against her hip. With the other arm, she pulled a suitcase. Strapped to her body was an infant on one side, and an overstuffed backpack on the other. She had that transformative display of increased strength that seems to accompany childbearing women. She looked tired and drawn. Who wouldn’t be? The minutiae of childcare could wear anyone down. Another woman closed her copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and gave up her seat, so the mother and her children could all sit together. And with that, the bus departed.
It was somewhere near Manorville that it began. Barely perceptible at first, but building to a crescendo, the infant started to cry. This was not the cry of a baby needing a hug and a smile. This was a cry worthy of the collective sorrows of humanity. This was a cry coming from the hellish bowels of a colicky volcano. Piercing and constant, it was a massive wail of discomfort and baby fury. And it went on…and on…and on… The exits of the LIE peeled away: Moriches; Patchogue; Hauppauge; Ronkonkoma; Islip; Commack. The crying did not abate.
All iPads and smart phones had been shut down. All hope of reading a single, soft porn sentence from “Fifty Shades of Grey” was abandoned. Sleep was not an option. Talk was not an option. Thought was not an option. The strands of human decency were decaying into a downward spiral.
When a mob meltdown seemed certain, the bus driver got on the public address system. All I could see of him was his broad shoulders and a ponytail. He spoke softly, “ I know all of you hear the crying… believe me, I know that you wish it would stop… but I want you to rethink the sound…try not to think of it as an irritating baby cry…think of it as the sound of life itself…like birds or rain or thunder…and do you know what… life is not always quiet.” I was paying attention. No sir, life is not always quiet.
He paused for a bit, the air still punctuated by the baby’s relentless crying. “You know” he said “I’m a Shinnecock Indian… and when our tribe hears babies cry like that, we think…it’s just life, and sometimes we all sing.”
Everybody laughed at that. I thought to myself; “Yeah right, like we’ll all sing now.”
But then the mom started to sing softly…
“twinkle, twinkle little star…
how I wonder where you are…”
A few passengers joined in.
“up above the sky so bright…. like a diamond in the night…”
And soon the lullaby was audible to all.
“twinkle twinkle little star…
how I wonder where you are.”
Whether it was the singing, the hypnotic rumble of the wheels, or just simple exhaustion, ‘L’Enfant Terrible’ mercifully fell into a deep, and we all hoped, lengthy sleep. With civility restored, most passengers restarted their iPad’s, and the ‘Fifty Shaders’ went back to their exciting, soft porn conclusions. And I got absorbed by the daily dramas and mendacities of modern life.
Four years passed. I was at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor, when a large man, with broad shoulders and a ponytail, walked in. I knew exactly who he was. I asked him if he drove for the Jitney. He said yes. I reminded him of what he had said, and how I just wanted to tell him how it made my day. He smiled at me, extended one very large hand toward mine and said; “ No… I want to thank you for making my day.”
But for me, it was more than a “you made my day” exchange. That anguished, clenched-fisted, bawling baby was a reminder of the infinite behavioral combinations we all need to exist. I thought about the concept of crying for dear, dear life. Yes, crying for dear, loving, noisy, sweet, and not-always-so-fair, life.