The start of this morning commute felt normal. Like the other fifty people in my train car, I sat down, put in my headphones and hoped there would be no delays. We stared at our phones, or buried our faces in a book, pretending as hard as we could that there was no one else around. Just like most other commutes, the insularity was tangible. And most of us were used to it.
Two stops into my trip, the doors opened and in walked a boy no older than five, and his parents. They sat down across from me. The boy pulls something out of his mother’s purse. I recognized it immediately from my childhood– it looked like a pack of gum, but when you pulled out the gum, a spring snapped on your finger. From the way this boy smiled, I could tell that he found pride and joy in this magic trick. He turned to the stranger next to him, “Would you like a piece of gum?” he asked. The stranger smiled politely as she pulled out the gum, and then laughed as the snap landed on her finger.
This boy went to every person on the train, his giant smiled plastered on his face. At each stop, new passengers entered. And this boy boldly went up to each new person. He talked to every single person on the train, regardless of their gender, age, language, income level, or general vibe. And the most remarkable transition happened. Everyone on the train watched him, their smiles growing every time the boy tricked a new person. Because of this young child, the dry insularity of the commute began to melt. Strangers were laughing to themselves, and even smiling at one another. This boy single-handedly turned these commuters into a community.
This is not the first time I have seen something like this. I love watching the power young children have in public places. Often, a toddler, looking for engagement, will reach out from his or her stroller, and grab the closest thing: usually the strap of a stranger’s purse, or the back of someone’s pants. The stranger almost always reacts the same way. First, they are startled at the touch. Then, they look down and see the big playful eyes of the child. Their eyes soften as they share a moment of connection with the child. The moment ends, and the stranger looks away. But, that playful smile lingers on both child and adult. Both people are reminded of the way love can blossom out of isolation.
Part of me wants to suggest that everyone should work to find moments of playful connection with the strangers they encounter. But, I have lived in the city long enough to know that too often adults respond to strangers with discomfort rather than warmth. So for now, I’m going to celebrate the amazing power young children have over even the toughest New Yorker. It’s magic.
-“I don’t remember who said this, but there really are places in your heart you don’t know exist until you love a child.” -Anne Lamott