When a mother approached me at the Bleecker Street playground, I’d been in New York less than 48 hours. Other than a few shopkeepers and the doorman in our building, she was the first person to speak to me. She said, “So what do people do? There’s a guy over there with a baby doll.”
The swimming pool scene from Little Children, in which a suburban community devolves around a similar perceived threat, came to mind. But then I remembered I’d moved away from the suburbs. I glanced in the direction she was pointing. I couldn’t see the man through the crowd of people and play equipment. My main concern, truly, was whether it was OK to let my one-year-old son crawl around on his hands and knees in a grubby city playground. Grass and mulch I was used to. This rubberized mat stuff dotted with pigeon poop didn’t seem like such a good idea.
“Do people call the police?” the mother asked. Her son, close in age to mine, was already walking. He was playing a few feet away.
I picked up my son and told her I’d been in the city two days. I had no idea what people did.
She said, “So I’m freaking you out.”
“No, no,” I lied. She was, but not for the reason she thought. I’d assumed city mothers were going to be tough. She looked breakable.
I didn’t want to make her feel bad, so I said, “I’ve lived here before.” She looked surprised, and I had to concede that negotiating the city at 22 with an entry-level publishing job and a roommate is not the same as being 36 with a four- and a one-year-old.
She called the police, and three of them arrived very quickly, which may suggest she was right about the man or that everyone has seen Little Children.
The day was mild, the breeze smelled of urine. She told me there’s a law in New York that says you can’t enter a playground without a child. I hadn’t heard that before, so I nodded and moved my mouth in a way that suggested, I hoped, a new consideration of the problem. Now the man with the baby doll was at least breaking a rule. But it made me a little sad. I wondered about all the people who would enjoy being able to sit and watch children play. A group of tables outside the grocery store on my corner is often occupied by older men and women, people who seem to have lived here a long time and have a lot to say to each other. Their conversation always slows, though, when a stroller passes and they look at the children with joy.
“I guess a baby doll doesn’t count,” I said. “How old is he?”
“Thirteen months,” she said. She thought I meant her son.
I am an eager urban parent—I’ve wanted a chance to live with my children in a city since my daughter was born in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains nearly five years ago—but so far New York is hard. I worry about my daughter’s love of running ahead of me on the sidewalk; I don’t know how to answer her questions about the unwell and the homeless. On the other hand, I can’t believe it’s OK to jump with my kids into a cab. I relish it every time. Mothers where I come from make play dates out of going down to the fire station to have their car seats installed correctly.
The woman in the playground looked back toward the man who worried her and said, “I wonder what I should do.” It was the first time she’d said “I.”
“Is he making people uncomfortable?” I asked.
“I think so.”
“I don’t know. Better safe than sorry?”
She called the police, and three of them arrived very quickly, which may suggest she was right about the man or that everyone has seen Little Children. I saw him for the first time then, but can’t remember one distinguishing feature. I do remember how he held out the baby doll in his hands, as if offering it as evidence in his favor.
The scene played out quietly. I helped my daughter on the monkey bars and the man was gone. A cool wind came up and parents around the park zipped little jackets they’d previously unzipped. We all glanced at our watches, trying to calculate a smooth departure. I thought I’d moved the other mother a little closer to my opinion of the man with the doll, but probably she’d moved me closer to hers. That’s what happens on the playground. It’s hard to maintain your position on anything.
When I saw the mother again, her son was neatly buckled into his stroller. Mine was trying to pat his cheeks with blackened palms. I leaned down to rub at them with a wet wipe and asked her what she thought about free-crawling.
“What do people do?” I said.
“It’s hard not to let them,” she replied.
Her smile suggested she agreed with me, but the words, I realized later, were ambiguous. We exchanged phone numbers and a day later she called. I haven’t called her back.