Yesterday morning I was headed into the city to see a play, when I spotted a little girl standing on the sidewalk on a main road in Greenport. She was holding two plastic grocery bags filled with something, and she crying, the tears visibly running down her cheeks from the other side of the road, going 30. I pulled my car into a driveway a few yards up, turned around, and stopped near her. I got out.
It’s a funny thing about approaching a child who’s alone. They’re not supposed to talk to strangers, and strangers are not supposed to talk to them, so it’s a little tricky. I stood about five feet from her, and asked if she was alright. She wiped the tears from her eyes, and said, very faintly, “I want to go to my friend Kelly’s house.” I looked at her grocery bags—they were filled with clothes. I looked at her shoes—they were purple terry-cloth booties, probably slippers, and one was hanging off her foot; she was stepping on the part that was supposed to go up her leg. She had a hodgepodge of cornrows and dreads and braids—someone did not delight in doing her hair.
I said, “Are you running away?” And she nodded her yes. I said, “Ah, right. I ran away at your age, too”—she was about eight—”I know what that’s like.” She nodded again. “I want to go to Kelly’s house,” she said again. I said, “Where’s that?” And she pointed in the direction of the bay. “Over by the school,” she said. She was still crying.
Right about then a car pulled up along side her. Behind the wheel was a matronly black woman, and beside her a hefty guy in his thirties with an earring and a t-shirt. “Are you alright, sweetie?” she said to the little girl, giving me a dirty look through her windshield. “Where’s your mommy?” The little girl looked slightly scared, and wiped more tears from her eyes. “She’s home,” she said. “I wanted to go to my friend Kelly’s house.” The woman said, “Is everything alright at home? Is your mommy alright?” The girl said, “She’s asleep.” It was about 10:30, a nice day. The woman asked who her mommy was; she listed a few names, one of them being Megan. The little girl said, “My mommy is Megan.”
The woman stuck her head out the window and said, in my direction, “I know where she lives; I’m going to go get her mother. Will you stay here?” I said yes. I wondered why this woman, who clearly thought I was untrustworthy, trusted me to wait with the little girl. I imagined her describing me later as a white lady in jeans and a poncho. (Maybe it was the cashmere poncho from Eileen Fisher that made her feel I wasn’t a serial killer.)
The little girl and I waited together, her looking miserable, and me trying to make her feel a little better—but about what? I asked if she’d had a fight with her mom, and she said, “No.” She was still wiping the tears out of her eyes, still saying she wanted to go to Kelly’s. Finally the matronly woman drove by, and the little girl said, “There’s my mommy.” She pointed at one of the hooptyest cars I’d ever seen, coming down the road. The thing was listing to the northwest, and the entire hood was rusted.
It was a white woman who parked and stepped out. She was in an enormous t-shirt and pajama bottoms. She was pasty, and she was very fat. She looked at the girl from across the street with barely disguised fury. She said, “What are you doing?!”
I looked into this woman’s face when she reached us, and realized she was probably not yet 25. I said, “She’s a really good kid,” but the mom wasn’t listening. She wasn’t even present. She was overtaken by her emotions, and who knew what they were: rage, shame, fear, embarrassment, hopelessness, helplessness.
For the rest of the day I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to call the police, rather than getting the mom. Maybe the mom needed a little supervision. Maybe the little girl needed a witness. Maybe she was going to be fine. Maybe she wasn’t.
One time I found a baby in nothing but diapers toddling alone past my apartment in L.A. She was probably fourteen months old (Maud was just two at the time). She didn’t speak. I picked her up and walked back in the direction of where she came, hoping to bump into her mom. But there was no one on the street. I walked with the little girl for three blocks, asking her if she lived in any of the houses. Finally she pointed to one. I went up to the door, rang the doorbell, and her mother answered. She had no idea the baby was gone. She didn’t seem alarmed.
When I got home, I called the police and told them what had happened. They sent an officer over there to see what was up, and then he came by my place. The cop said there was nothing he could do. He said something like, “It’s very hard to take a baby away from her mother. It’s not often an ideal situation for the child. Unless the mother is a drug addict, we don’t recommend pushing for it.”
That was, I think, a good example of emptiness. There is no one way to look at it; there is nowhere to land.