Chilling Out on the M5



West End & 72nd St, NY, NY 10023

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

August 1987.

New York City shimmers in the heat.

Everyone we know is on vacation.

“Where’s Daddy?” Anna whimpers. She’s two. “I want Daddy.”

“I do, too, but he’s at work, Annie.” I try to edit the anger out of my voice.

“He’s very busy. He’s getting ready for a trial. Do you know what a trial is?”

“I know, I know,” Alex says. Mr. Big is five. “He has a jury listen. They decide who’s right or wrong.”

His trial, my tribulation, alone with the kids every weekend. And it’s a heat-wave, brown-outs, our one a/c in the final stages of emphysema.

“Let’s go to the park, kids.”

We push through air sticky as oatmeal to their favorite playground. Empty. No kids, no sprinkler, dried-up fountain, swings too hot to touch. Slide? Scorching. Even the sky is hot.

“It’s hot, Mama, I want to go home.”

“So do I, Annie.”

We head home through more oatmeal.

Back home, we eat Froze Fruits and I don’t care where they drip.

“Want to watch . . . ” No.

“Go to the Museum of . . .?” No.

I clench jaw and fists.

I lie down on our old rug, which feels like crisp, hot toast.

I try to locate some gumption, and try not to morph into Mommy Witch. I hear the M 5 bus groan around the corner of West End and 72nd Street — and sit bolt upright.

“Okay, guys, we’re going on an adventure. Go pee and put some small toys in your backpacks while I get you some snacks.”

I fill my own backpack with a combination of healthy and sugared snacks. Today I am not beyond a bit of bribery. “Oh, and each take a sweater.” They both look at me as if I have turned into a large beetle. “Come on, get going,” I smile, suddenly full of hope.

“Where are we going, Mama?” Anna asks.

“It’s a surprise. I think you’ll love it. You’ll see in a few minutes. Go — go get ready, lickety-split.”

Outside, the sidewalks radiate heat and my knees buckle, but the M5, headed downtown, soon kneels for us, and it is ahh, chilly. It will be a very long, very cool ride from 72nd Street all the way down to Washington Square. With people around, or at least the driver, we’ll be on our best behavior and my transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West Side will be averted.

There are hardly any other passengers, as most sane people have fled the city. An elderly lady smiles and clucks at me. It may mean, “What lovely children; keep them quiet or else.” Or, “I know exactly how you feel, trapped with those little b _______ in all this heat.” I hope it means, “What an imaginative and jolly mother you are for thinking of this bus ride when you are at your wits’ end.” Or, if an analyst, “Brilliant to take a bus ride instead of killing or maiming your children physically or psychologically.” I smile back, feeling righteous.

Alex and Anna pull on their sweaters and kneel to look out the windows on both sides of me, the better to snack and sip. Like droopy celery in ice water, we crisp up in the chilly air; our curiosity is alive again, focused on the city outside our windows.

“Look, Mommy!” says Anna, “Look at that tea cup with the smoke coming out –- it’s all shining.” Miraculous: a neon sign with steam rising out of a cappuccino. I see it as if for the first time.

The kids get busy pointing out all that grabs their attention – funny dogs, funny people who look like their dogs, shiny red cars, huge construction sites with back hoes and earth movers, all those toys they play with in the sandbox, but now large and alive. I’m as thrilled as they are.

“Z-A-B- Zay-bars.” Alex is triumphant when he can read a word. “B – A – Bagg-els – Bagels.” Annie and I applaud, and I remember the first time I read a sign from a trolley car window, how reading the signs helped me feel I owned the world, little bit by little bit, and wonder how he feels.

“Look,” Annie says, “strollers, and mommies – “

“And guys dribbling soccer balls –“

And – And – And —

The occasional passengers let the kids press the yellow rubber bar to indicate “Stop Requested.” What power. They grin all over themselves.



And so it goes, all the way down to Washington Square. All I have to do is provide juice and snacks; their curiosity saves me from becoming my mother. I even show the kids my favorite building on 57th Street that swoops down from the sky like a giant sliding board.

By the time we get to 34th Street, Annie cozies down to nap, and Alex takes out his Matchbox cars, creating his own private highway up and down the empty blue seats. He imagines races and crashes, narrating his own world, replete with sound effects.

I look down at the sweet curve of Anna’s cheek; the sweep of her eyelashes; her full, rosy lips softly parted in sleep; her hands, only now giving up their starfish shape as her fingers elongate and become quite graceful.

Just before Washington Square, we get off. The heat smashes right into us, so we slip into an icy coffee shop. The kids slurp up big bowls of ice cream, with rice pudding for me. The sidewalks are still broiling, so we cross the street and catch another chilly M5 heading back uptown. Both children fall asleep with their heads on my lap, giving me the entire chilly bus ride home to dive back into Middlemarch, which I’ve been trying to read for almost a year.

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