I’m a man, and last April, I cried on a New York City public bus.
Forty-five minutes earlier I’d bounced on the sidewalk in the warmth of early spring, excited to be outside in a T-shirt for the first time all year. I smiled at each person I passed and sang aloud on my way to pick up my 4-year-old son from pre-K. When I got to his school, I waited for him to be dismissed. My smile widened as my son rounded the corner. After a quick embrace, we headed outside with me singing aloud again.
My son looked up at me with a big smile and asked, “Can we get blue smoothies?"
I looked at the time. “Sure, why not?”
We walked a block to Juice Press, ordered two Blue Magic smoothies, and then moseyed to our bus stop.
My son sipped from his straw and balanced like a ballerina on the cobblestones surrounding an old tree stump. When I looked down, I noticed his cup was more than half empty, and I realized we had been waiting for the bus for a long time. I checked our updated ETA. It said 3:59, only one minute before the school bus would drop off my 7-year-old son. That was cutting it too close.
Maybe we should take an Uber, I thought. Uber will take too long to get here. Maybe we can make it if we run — yeah, but not with a kid in tow. Before I could think of a solution, the bus appeared. I paid our fare and nabbed the seats closest to the back door, so we could make a quick escape at our stop.
As we approached the first stop, I looked out the window at the passengers waiting to board. “Ugh! Great,” I said.
“What?” my son asked.
“I don’t think we’ll make it to J in time.”
As the last of the passengers straggled aboard, I envisioned myself pushing every single one of them into their seats so we could go. I tried to keep calm, but as I imagined my 7-year-old stranded on a corner in Brooklyn, my heart beat like the bass of a car stereo.
When I was in grade school, I played all over the school while my dad — a high school teacher — finished his office hours and faculty meetings. Once I must have gotten so wrapped up in my fun I barely noticed it was getting late. I headed over to my dad’s classroom to see if he was done, but his classroom was locked. I knocked, but no one answered. I jogged down the stairs next to his classroom to the faculty parking lot. Our maroon Toyota Previa wasn’t there, so I ran over to the main office to see if he had gone to make copies for the next day, but he wasn’t there either.
I decided to go back to his classroom to stay where he could find me. I must have fallen asleep on the floor next to his door, because the next thing I knew, I jolted awake at the sound of a vacuum cleaner. I was terrified. It was dark outside, and the cleaning crew had arrived. I wanted to hide but had no place to go. I don't remember what happened next, but eventually my dad came and picked me up.
I was lost in this memory until the bus began to pull away from the curb at the stop just before ours.
I reached to grab our stuff when a lady in the back of the bus shouted, “Back door!” — a signal to the driver to release the back door for passengers to get out. I was enraged. I wanted to shout, “What is wrong with you? You have to be ready to get off the bus when we get to the stop, not when we’re leaving it!” But I said nothing as the rush of emotions reached my cheeks. I scrunched my face, clenched my fists and tried to fight off the tears, but the more I tried to hold them in, the more they filled my eyes.
As we pulled back into the street, a 718 area code popped up on my phone. I didn't have the school bus driver’s number, but I knew it was her, and in an instant my fear transformed to shame.
“Hi, sorry. I'll be right there; I’m one block away."
I nudged my son, who had fallen asleep. “Wake up, we’re almost there,” I said, looking for someone to blame. His dazed toddler eyes looked up at me, and it hit me. This wasn’t the driver’s fault, the lady’s fault, or my 4-year-old son’s fault. I was the one to blame. I had vowed to never be late to pick up my kids and to be a strong and dedicated father. But here I was — late, and crying. I was a failure.
When the city bus stopped at the corner, I pulled my youngest son behind me as I pushed the back doors open. Then I waved an apologetic hand to the school bus driver and turned to face my older son.
“Uh, where were you?” he asked.
“Sorry, I thought I had enough time, but I didn’t,” I said.
He stared at me a little longer than normal, seemingly storing this frail picture of me in his mind. Then, without further hesitation, he went right into telling me a story about one of his classmates. I'm usually all ears when he gets off the bus, but I was lost in my thoughts. And though he hadn’t scolded me, I continued to scold myself for the both of us.
I tried to regain my self-worth by rushing us to his after-school activity on time, but as we rounded the next corner I knew we wouldn’t make it. I paused and looked at my sons — one still polishing off the last of his blue smoothie and the other deep into a story about his day. I could tell it probably never crossed their minds that I was a failure, and I surrendered to the truth that I am imperfect and far from bulletproof — and yet, I am still loved.
Devan Sandiford is a Southern California native who has spent the past decade working in technology as an electrical engineer, patent examiner and VP of innovation. He moved to Brooklyn with his wife and two sons to push himself out of his comfort zone and start his journey into becoming a writer.
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