1951. It was Saturday morning, and I was heading out to visit my auntie in Harlem.
In the suburbs we had no subways, so I walked the quarter mile to the main highway, looked both ways, then dashed across the four lanes to catch the bus. About fifteen minutes later, having crossed the city line, I got off the bus, ran down the subway steps, and followed the signs: D train, downtown. As long as I heeded the rules—walk with confidence, don’t look strangers in the eye—my safety was assured.
An eleven year-old girl making her way alone through the city.
Getting off at 145th Street, I walked the ten minutes down the hill. One guy whistled. I smiled inwardly, but kept my gaze fixed ahead. There was a vagrant slumped by the curb.
I turned the corner and looked up toward my auntie’s apartment, a third-floor walkup above the neighborhood barber shop. Mr. Alvarez, the owner, had first chair by the window. I saw him look outside and I waved as I arrived on the stoop. He interrupted his customer’s haircut and came out to join me.
I entered the foyer, rang Auntie’s bell, then came back outside, to wait for the intercom: my auntie leaning out her third-floor window and calling, “Come on up!”
As usual, Mr. Alvarez remained on the stoop as I disappeared into the building. In a few moments, Auntie and I leaned out her window.
“All clear,” we called down.
My protector went back inside to continue trimming his customer’s hair.
Busch Gardens many decades later. My husband and I were enjoying an all-day outing, when I noticed a little girl standing alone and looking all around. She appeared to be about eight years old. Just then, another woman walked up and approached the child.
“Are you lost, honey? Where’s your mommy?”
“I can’t find her,” the child replied, and began to cry.
There were no security guards in sight. By this time about five other people joined us. Natural instinct would be to put a comforting arm around the child, or take her by the hand and try to help find her mom. But we all kept our distance. In this day and age, no one dared touch her, lest we be accused of abduction or molestation.
“I’ll go look for a security guard,” one man volunteered. We still watch after our children, but the rules are different.
As we waited for help to arrive, we formed a circle around the little girl to prevent her wandering off. A community of strangers enfolding a child in safety.