It all started at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a quiet colonial enclave just off the rush of Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights. It was there that I came alive after a groggy day of yawning and waiting for a chance to sleep. Jack, two years old, and Ethan, five, were following Jen and I around the white structure. Two brown boys jumped off the front porch and little Jack felt the urge to do the same, and he pulled up short just at the edge of reality, looking down, Jennifer saying No Jack.
Those two other boys were involved in their own games but somehow, subtly floating about in our general vicinity, their antenna were out for us. When we walked into the sunken garden they followed, and finally one said "It's scary here at night." I asked what he meant, and he said "Once we saw a black cat, and we thought it was a fat rat!" I suggested it might be a witch in disguise but these boys were older than that kind of story. They began playing a rock-throwing game, which fascinated the delicate, talkative Ethan. One picked up rocks and tried to hit the other as he ducked behind a fence. "You got bad aim!" The hider taunted. Ethan watched them run about, saw the dirt hang in the air after each throw, witnessed a completely different way of living.
When I called Ethan up the path to catch up with Jack and Jen, the boys followed, eager to talk. When I picked a dandelion one of them piped up, "Is it true that a wish comes true when you blow that?" I said it would occur only if you wished at the very moment you blew the seeds. "My cousin tells me you gotta wish first," he said.
"Well, I will try it now, see who is right," I said, blowing. "Nope. No huge pizza falling from the sky." The boys smiled. Then they eagerly watched as I split the stem of the dandelion with my thumbnail and it curled up.
"How'd you do that?" the other boy asked. His fingernails were cut to stubs. I found some hard green berries and showed the two boys and Ethan. One of them told me how he had found what he called a "blueberry" a couple of inches wide, on a tree. He had not eaten it, afraid it would make him sick, but he had kept it in his room, planning to plant it in the ground. I marvelled at the freedom of these boys, their easy way of talking to strangers, of roaming about all day and night. I thought too that educationally they had no chance, most likely, for these reasons combined with bad schools. Such is the story of kids in Washington Heights: free as birds, (fat as penguins most of them), and as marginal as birds once they get older.
Jennifer called us that it was time to go, and so we hastened away to the 163rd Street station. The train was nearly empty, and had the long smooth seats good for sliding. Remembering the fun of being on subways as a kid I got Jack up and encouraged him to move around, let him feel the unsteady rocking under his feet. "Come on, let's dance," I said, and he was rocking his body, arms coiled up in a hustling motion.
"That's his happy dance," said Jen. Every time the train braked for a station I tried to catch his hand. By himself he began jumping up on the seat opposite, kicking his legs in the air. I caught his feet a couple of times and lifted him up, swaying above the rocking floor of the train. Ethan wanted to join the fun, and began swinging on the pole, making the "crazy" noises of a deranged chicken. To the credit of the commuter next to the door, eyes closed for a bit of peace, she said nothing nor made no face.
The two boys were catching the momentum of the train and taking it into their own little bodies, forming out of it a chaotic effervescence of dancing, jumping, and falling. Jack bumped his lip on the pole but 10 seconds later was jumping off the seat once more. The energy I had shot into them they were shooting back into me with a raucous joy. I was awake, it was spring, the world was awake.