I am telling you, they come out of the woodwork. Possibly even thin air, given that there has been no woodwork to speak of on the New York City subway system since approximately 1913. Really: I get within a step or two of a staircase, and suddenly there they are, my stroller-schlepping angels, saying, “Can I help you with that?” One was a dad who said he missed his own kids’ halcyon days on wheels. Another, a teenager, wound through the station helping me up several flights even though his exit was in the opposite direction. “Sure, lady,” he said when I gushed with gratitude. And it’s not just men. The other day, thinking I was alone at the bottom of a flight of stairs, I turned the stroller around to begin the backwards/upwards hoist. Then I heard quick footsteps. A woman was coming at a dead run from the other end of the platform. “I help you,” she panted. “I help you!” And help me she did.
Young, old, male, female, rush hour, calm, Manhattan, Brooklyn: my stroller sherpas are always there. In the seven months that I’ve been a subway-riding mother, I have carried Bess’s stroller on the stairs by myself exactly once, when I really did happen to be alone. Knowing I can rely on this kindness of strangers – really, it makes me proud to be a New Yorker.
So, there are two things I want to say to these kind folks:
1. Thank you very, very much.
2. Where the hell were you people when I was eight months pregnant?
Oh, right. You were sitting in your seats. While I stood. In August.
I remember clearly, even through the hot summer haze. I’d clump down the stairs on swollen feet, usually finding blessed rest on one of the benches on the platform. (They’re often empty, as in New York, the system that tells you the train is coming is that you stand at the edge and look down the track.) When the train arrived, I – facing, mind you, a long ride to or from Brooklyn – would enter, ever hopeful . . . to a sea of blank stares, bald spots, Post headlines. Headlines held up to hide faces. Headlines reading, CHIVALRY DEAD. That’s right: no one budged. Time and again. No. One. Budged.
At first, I’d ride standing, gripping the soon-sweaty pole in silent, martyred rage. Were these people raised in a barn? No, not even. Anyone raised in a barn would know that large pregnant animals demand deference. “Sure, Big Daisy, you go riiiiight ahead.” So what the hell? A pregnant woman gets on, you give her your seat. It’s not manners. It is not “demeaning” or some other “post-feminist” [sic] bullshit. She is tired. She feels like ass. She wants to sit. It is the law.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “They didn’t offer you a seat because they were afraid to insult you, on the off-chance that you were not so much pregnant as fat.” Sure. Of course. There is perhaps no more cringe-rific faux pas. I know people with wee natural pooches – people with nothing to be ashamed of – and yet whose souls have been slowly crushed, one blabbermouth “When are you due?” at a time. (Except for one friend’s sixty-year-old mom who was thrilled, thrilled – never mind the misleading bulge – that she looked young enough to be pregnant.)
So, fair enough. “Often I’m like, ‘Is she preggers? Or is it just the empire-waist top from Anthropologie?’” says my friend Paula. “So I’ll get up very casual-like and sort of slink down to the other end of the subway car. I think I fear accusing non-pregnant women of being pregnant more than I fear letting a pregnant woman stand on the subway.”
Yep, the “fat” theory is a good theory. Except for this: Why would I be fat below ground yet pregnant above? In other words, for every stranger who failed to offer me a subway seat, there was another out in the world who held a door, moved a table, asked me if I was preparing for birth by doing Kegels. (This is a separate problem.) Explain that. If I am pregnant enough for someone to offer me first place in line, and there is always a line, for the bathroom at Starbucks, I am pregnant enough for someone to offer me a goddamn subway seat.
Now, for some even more puzzling nuance. If anyone did offer a seat – which did happen, on days when there was a partial eclipse, a unicorn sighting, and alternate-side parking suspended – or when, finally, I started asking (“Would anyone mind offering me a place to sit?”) – the Samaritans Why would I be fat below ground yet pregnant above?appeared in this order of likelihood:
1. an older woman
2. a younger woman
3. a man of color
A white man? Not on the list. Didn’t happen. Not once. Oh wait, once. That guy with a Playbill from Hairspray. Not a local.
I am telling you, it’s not just me. “Latin and African-American men have always seemed more than happy to give up their seat to a woman, pregnant or not. Whiteys? Forget about it,” recalls my friend Dorre. Likewise, my friend Martha: “Even at thirty-two weeks along, I had young, suited, fair, hearty-looking, Wall Street Journal-reading men literally outsprint me for a seat on a crowded train.”
And my friend Laurie: “The first person who ever offered me a seat was an old Chinese woman with a lot of bags who looked so frail that I insisted she sit back down.”
What are older women doing offering up their seats in the first place? Honestly, it’s impressive. I can only guess that they are following the Golden Rule. And that the white guys are . . . not. As for the racial variance, I am left only with cursory and glib suggestions involving the word “culture.” Honestly, I do not get it.
I did speak to one younger woman named Nanci, a friend of a friend, who has given up giving up her seat to pregnant women. Why? Because, she says, she is “afraid of them.” As Nanci tells it, one grateful pregnant woman followed her off the subway to thank her, found out she was between jobs, and wound up at her apartment that evening. “By the end of the night, she had signed me up for $200 of starter soap and brushes for Amway,” says Nanci. “It took me a year to get her and her double-diamond clones to leave me alone.”
But back to the main question. Why the stroller, but not the seat? Well, let us recall that the New York City subway, bless its grimy, grumbling heart, is (to mix metaphors) a black hole of manners. People will hip-check you to get by, but then stop short and STAND on the escalator. They will, in a near-empty car, ride right in front of the door, and not budge to let you in or out when it opens. They will barge onto the car before you are off. They will sit next to you and clip their nails, or eat sardines out of a can. The Ascot Gavotte, it ain’t.
Then why so solicitous about the strollers? Because, I think, in a rock-paper-scissors sense, children beat subway. (I know: carrying the stroller is technically about helping me, but it’s the child who, as we say in the biz, puts a face on it.) Kids in their prams: they melt the hearts of the harried masses. Even the white, male, harried masses.
But with no actual baby in tow, pregnant women, it seems, still count as women – not personal Children beat subway, but subway beats women.assistants to those help-worthy cherubs. Could that be why some people are less than solicitous when it comes to the seats? One expert – the expert, really – seems to think so. “Miss Manners does not generally supply reasons that people are rude, because they would only fly back in her face in the form of excuses. And goodness knows she is tired of hearing the male declaration that such rude behavior is an acknowledgment of equality (as re-enforced by the rude female tactic of treating small courtesies as large insults),” syndicated columnist and author Judith Martin told me. “However, this does seem to explain why some people are polite to children, but not to expectant mothers.”
Add the subway to the mix, and forget about it. Children beat subway, but subway beats women. If I have my way, my daughter will be offering up her seat before she’s out of the Maclaren. But in an ideal world, someone else will beat her to it.