sticking close

by bam

when you are six, cops and robbers belong in books, on TV screens, maybe in your imagination, the games you play on rainy days.
you should not have to close your eyes and see real scenes of cops with guns, and a man you’ve given ice cream to, now clasped with cuffs, being loaded in a jail on wheels.
but the little one, the one who gasped for breath between his sobs, he saw it all. and he needs to know that sometimes people with tender smiles make mistakes. even people who you’ve been buying papers from since you were one or two.
turns out the fellow i chased through streets, the one whose face i couldn’t see the whole time we were running, turns out he is the very one who sits outside our grocery store. a hundred times, at least, my little one has asked me for a dollar bill, rolled it up, handed it, with a smile, to a docile fellow who smiles back. we kid around. i always tell him–and now he knows–that i hardly have a dollar. i live on one single credit card. now, now that he’s rummaged through my pack, he knows i wasn’t kidding. poor guy got the single dollar bill and the little bag of dimes and quarters, and a lot of pennies.
i’m not dwelling, not at all, on the fact that he’s the one we called our friend. he’s taken in enough, my little one, without that sorry fact.
but still he’s got ideas, my little law enforcer.
when you are six, and sitting in a squad car, when your driver is a guy with loaded gun, and all the grownups are taking way too long to fix things, you have ideas.
“he has two choices,” my little one said loud enough for all the cops to hear. even the tough-faced plainclothes cop, the one leaning by the car door, he cracked up. wholly melted at the clear-eyed justice of the backseat thinker.
last night in bed, combing through the stories of the day and the night before, he spelled out the harshest punishment: “when you see him next time at soup kitchen you shouldn’t give him any food,” he ruled.
a variation, of course, on that age-old “go straight to bed without your supper,” a line he knows from maurice sendak’s “the wild things.” it’s not a line i’ve ever used. i don’t believe in harsh, which is why of course this is all so hard. my six-year-old, it seems, is clearer here than i am.
“God must be mad,” he said in passing of the back-pack escapade, before moving on to the real worries of the day, the third-grade boys who fill the halls at school, he says, with “swear words.”
the swear word, he tells me, is s-h-u-t-u-p. he didn’t spell it, but rather sounded it out, a letter at a time, the way he’s learning how to read, for fear he too would pay a price if he said the sounds, slurred into the word itself.
while bedtime here is often slow and soft, last night i made sure to take as long as that boy needed.
fact is, i was taking as long as i needed too. he’s not the only one whose world feels upside down. lying next to that little guy, his legs all bumpy in his winter longjohns, made me feel warmer, safer, than i’d felt all day.
i truly sighed when at last we pulled up the covers, and my world was no bigger than the mattress of my grandma’s old old bed. taking care of the little one log-rolled beside me felt like something i could do, at the end of a long day of feeling torn and worried and not so clear-eyed.
fact is, that mattress is a two-way street. he too took care of me. as i lay there soaking up his simple justice. and saw the world where swearing third graders trump a guy who stole a backpack, any day.
that seems to be a world that even i can handle.

gotta run here this morn. up way too late talking to a teen, who then needed a ride to school. and at the crack of the workday i am heading off to meet up with the other newspaper guy in this house. we are aiming for our third-ever double byline–and the first two are the boys mentioned above. we are off to review a brand new women’s hospital. a birthing hospital. and he thought, wisely, i might know a thing or two in that dept. he asked me to come along. to pen my critical thoughts right beside his. so stay tuned….coming soon in your chicago tribune.