There is a coney island restaurant where I like to eat my lunch when I am working. It's just a little place, does a good business, and so it's impossible sometimes not to hear conversations going on around me, especially since I am by myself.
There was the young gal who went on for half an hour about fashion, her friends' love lives, and her dog. I loved eavesdropping on her, I found her delightful. I set down my book and just listened. There was the table full of starched businessmen, with one of them holding forth about the most killingly dull subjects while his protegees lapped up every word. Then, too, there was the upscale middle-aged gal who was sitting with her daughter and new grandbaby. Her cell phone rang and she cheerfully shouted her conversation to the entire restaurant until we all knew more about Shayna's breasts (her daughter was, apparently, nursing) than any of us ever wanted to know. All this and Greek omelets too!
Today it was crowded and I sat in a booth in front of two adults and a little boy. While I try to avoid sitting near men of a certain age who are holding forth in confident tones, I don't mind kids at all. This boy's name, it soon became obvious, was Sammy. Well, poor Sammy. Apparently, he had gotten syrup on his hands, and his mom, a 25 or 30 year old blond gal, just went nuts.
"I can't take this from you! I just can't!" she cried. The woman was hissing at him. I mean, she sounded like she could have killed him. Now, I raised a son, and I know that children can press all of your buttons and leave you tearing your hair and dancing on your very last nerve. I get that. But I also know the sound of a child who is testing, or tired, or in a down-to-the-mat power struggle with a parent. That was not this child. She went on and on, about his attitude and his "whineyness." I didn't think he was being whiny at all, but she did, and let him hear about it. He kept saying "okay, okay!" and I could hear it in his voice that he had nothing on his mind except to somehow placate her and make her stop being angry with him.
Apparently, he did something with his drinking straw, and she went crazier, even, than before. "Why would you do that? Why would you do that? What were you thinking?" she demanded. Desperately, he said he didn't know why. He didn't know what he was thinking. I remember enough about being little, that I can remember that I truly had no idea why I did half the things I did. I was experimenting with the world, I suppose. Or just not thinking at all. As an adult, I don't have a thought-out plan for half of what I do. Kids certainly don't. Sammy was getting scared, and I was getting scared for him. She was so angry, and so relentless. "I will jerk you right out of that chair! Not another word until you eat all of that food, or I'm not giving you anything else to eat for the rest of the day!" I thought, who would feel like eating, if they were that little boy? I mean, I was ready to cry myself.
I wondered why the man didn't put a stop to it. I had assumed he was Sammy's dad, but when I got a good look at him, I saw he was older, and dressed for business. He may have been a friend, or something, not the dad. He did say "thank you, Sammy, for eating your bacon."
Anyway, here comes the part that really got me. After his mom had been after him non-stop for fifteen minutes, just letting him have it about how rotten he was, he goes, "Mommy, why do you hate me?" I know that every child flings "I hate you!" or "You hate me!" at a parent sometimes when they have been denied a privilege or been punished. This was different. His voice was so fragile. I felt so bad for him! I knew that, right about then, he probably wanted the restaurant booth to open up and swallow him. He was confused and had no idea what to say or not say, that wouldn't bring still more disaster down on him. But through it all, he sounded reasonable, though scared and distressed. It was her that was out of control.
Anyway, she went, "How could you think that I hate you? I would jump in front of a train for you! Where do you get these ideas? Television?" I thought, he gets the idea from your entire tone and manner, lady. "I just want you to learn manners, and the right way to do things." I thought, she is well on her way to raising a young man with wonderful manners, who will throw himself in front of a train one day. Funny how perspective can be lost. She wanted him to learn manners, and her way to do that was to verbally horsewhip him.
He asked her again, "Why do you hate me?" It was all pretty awful.
I don't know that woman from anybody. Maybe she is a single mom. Maybe she lost her job yesterday. Maybe she can't make the rent. Maybe she is three days sober. Maybe she is hormonal, or bipolar, or any number of other things. But I know this: she was wrong. And Sammy had to pay the price. It bothered me all day, and now I am writing about it.