My second day as a working mother began with a bus ride to drop my 5 week old baby with his sitter. I prepared as best as I could, mapping the route in advance, checking the MTA schedule, packing a diaper bag, bottles of pumped milk, and my own lunch. I would soon discover how unprepared I really was.
As my son and I arrived at the bus stop, I realized that I would not be able to carry my son, his diaper bag, the stroller, and my briefcase on the bus unless I took everything apart. I popped the car seat out of the Snap-N-Go, folded it, strapped both the bags across my shoulders, and waited with the baby in his car seat between my feet as I stood at the stop. When the bus arrived, I struggled to board with my son in one hand and the stroller in the other – thank G-d, the driver helped me out.
I fumbled with the bus token, but the driver was patient. When I reached my stop, I thanked him heartily as he helped me to disembark.
At that point, I confronted a harsh reality – in order to cross the street to the stop where I needed to pick up my next bus, I had to unfold the Snap-N-Go, attach my son’s car seat to it, and pop the bags in the basket underneath. I would then have to reverse the entire operation once I crossed the intersection. The only other option was to schlep everything separately – impractical unless I suddenly grew another arm.
Overtired as most new mothers are, I stood on the sidewalk on the verge of tears, knowing the bus was due to arrive in just five minutes. It seemed like more than I could handle on my own.
At that moment, Effie appeared at my elbow. Effie had been the cashier at the kosher market down the block from my previous apartment. We’d always been friendly, and she was excited to see me out and about with a baby in tow for the first time.
“Need a hand?” she asked, after confirming we were headed for the same bus stop.
“Yes!” I replied. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
My heart swelled with gratitude for Hashem and for Effie, who deftly grabbed one of the bags and the folded Snap-N-Go from me. I carried my baby as we crossed the busy city street. Boarding the bus was easier this time, due to Effie’s help, but it still took while. The baby in his car seat weighed my arms down, and as I scrambled up the steps, my bag slipped from my shoulder.
I dropped my token in the till and headed for a seat next to Effie, bracing myself against a pole as the bus headed up La Brea Avenue. Catching my breath, I overheard an elderly woman sitting on the opposite side of the aisle complain to her neighbor, an equally aged man:
“She shouldn’t have so many kids if she can’t handle them all. She’s just like the rest of them.”
Startled, I looked straight at her. She stared back with no shame in her gaze. My shock increased when I noticed the small magen david necklace around her neck. This woman was Jewish, but she hated Orthodox Jews.
I wanted to argue: Are you even looking at me – REALLY looking? I have just one kid! Why are you making assumptions about me? But would she even listen?
When I look back at that day – nearly 14 years ago – I try to focus on Effie. But I can’t forget the old woman who misjudged and insulted me.
In Pirkei Avos, we see, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (Avos 2:6).” In many English editions, the word ish in the mishnah is translated not as “man,” but as “leader” (based on the Ramban’s comparison between an ish and a naar). When no one else takes responsibility, no one else tries to help, we are told to act, even if we’ve never seen ourselves as leaders before.
But I wonder if we’re also being told how to be a mentch. Maybe, in order to be one, it helps to see others as mentchen, as well. Effie saw me as a person, worthy of respect. She saw my distress and quickly figured out a way to help. She not only got me out of a tight spot, but she left me with a lasting model of chesed.
The other woman on the bus identified me not as an individual human, but as a member of a group she despised. She saw my long skirt, my button-down shirt, and beret – but not me. She saw a problem – her problem – a delay of a minute or two as I struggled to board with my baby and his equipment. Her inability to see me as a mentch made her less of one.