One particularly bleak day in New York, I walked down Broadway to a stationery store. My plan for the weekend was to buy a purple pen and thus salvage a tiny part of my individuality.
As I completed the transaction at the counter, I noticed a young mother conducting her six year old son away from a set of shelves against the wall, where there were a number of stuffed animals on display. When they reached the counter, next to me on the right, the boy could not see over it. He looked up at the shopkeeper and pointed back at the stuffed animals.
‘Excuse me,’ he said in a fledgling, timorous voice. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear?’
The proprietor, an Asian man in his fifties, didn’t answer. Perhaps he was only accustomed to fielding questions from adults, and he looked up, not very interestedly, at the boy’s mother, just to see if she endorsed his inquiry.
She ignored both her son’s voice and the man’s eyes, though, fiddling instead with her pocketbook.
‘Excuse me,’ the boy tried again. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear? The big brown one.’
I checked awkwardly back and forth between the shopkeeper and the mother, waiting for one of them to attend to the boy. Neither one did. The woman had found her wallet by then and was completing her purchase. She held her head unnaturally high, looking only at the man behind the register, determined never to direct even a single downward glance at her son, as though endeavoring to avoid eye contact with a panhandler. Her impatience and discomfort were becoming obvious; still she managed to keep pretending nobody was there. The boy continued to say ‘Excuse me….Excuse me,’ in his plaintive voice, until he finally gave it up. He looked down and around at nothing in particular, a resigned, hopeless look on his face, similar to the expression worn by King Kong before he falls off the Empire State Building.
By the time I made it to the door, I was crying. Halfway down the block, on the sidewalk, I almost fell down. I leaned over for support against the side of the building for a while, gasping and sobbing. I gave myself about five seconds. Then I pulled myself together and started walking up Broadway again.