Monday, February 13, 2012

What Would You Do? A Bizarre and Sad Duet at Target

Lola, Ever and I made our way finally to the toy part of Target, which Ever believes IS Target: her personal playground to roam freely, driving enormous dump trucks, tucking dollies firmly under her pudgy armpit before tromping around with their legs dangling helplessly, kicking balls in the aisle. I walk steps behind her, cleaning up her mess like Rosy The Robot, occasionally whispering One toy, Kinny! ONE!  Today was no different, Lola debating if she was truly and all the way past the Disney princess doll stage, Ever mucking about, me dutifully cleaning up. Then it rang throughout Target- the absolutely unmistakable voice of a man bullying a child. I am expert at this; some can name bird calls with one trill; I can point out the average frustrated, overtired and stressed father snapping at his kids from the spirit crushing, emotionally abusive father every time.  One note, hanging in the air, and my stomach plummets, my ears burn, and I fight the ridiculous urge to leap on a fully grown man and smack him in the face. I convey this to you with equal parts shame and pride.

I picked Ever up and tried to look casual as I strolled down the aisle and turned my head toward each, no, not this one, this one, this one- here he is. Towering over his child, a little boy of maybe 7 years old at the most, with a defiant scowl, arms crossed tightly over his chest, face cocked upward, occasionally pulling his hands apart to slap them over his eyes and drag them down to his chin in the heartbreaking way small people do when they are attempting to control their behavior, and to stop themselves from crying.  The father was yelling even louder now. You know what selfish people do? What YOU are doing. I don't know if you know what selfish is, but it's you. Do you want to be selfish? DO YOU? I heard the little boy answering in a low voice, and then his father's booming reply That is NOT for  your friend, that is for YOU, that is selfish, how are they going to play with that? They aren't! And you know it! His voice dripped with contempt for his own son. As I stood holding Ever I felt my arms begin to tremble and my face redden. An enormous fury was climbing it's way through my veins and bubbling out my skin. The Man kept on: GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW DAMNIT! You aren't getting anything! Nothing! You hear me?! That's it!

I rounded the corner of the next aisle and listened. Everyone around me was listening. Every adult there, at least 20, was listening, shoulders down, eyes looking for the source of the noise, faces in grimaces of both disgust and discomfort. For two or three more minutes, The Man went on, and I looked hopefully at the father's faces around me, strapping, good sized men who would have no physical fear of The Man, who was himself 5'10, 170 pounds, simply dressed, nothing ferocious or terrible about his appearance. The fathers looked at me and looked at their children and no one said anything. Soon I saw that The Man had a friend with him, a man in his early 30's, bright red, bristle stached, humiliated, dragging behind his friend like a repressed child. He was clearly upset. Not upset enough to say something. To do something.

The little boy sprang out from an aisle and his body was trembling like a rabbit in the snare, face curled in a snarl, fists tight. He had moved from fear to rage. I remember that so well from my own little years. He was arguing, snotty voiced, mocking. The mocking comes with a complete and total decimation of any respect the child had for the parent, once they realize that the parent is totally out of control, childlike themselves, reactionary and most of all filled to the brim with self-hatred and a fear of being exposed as nothing, emotionally incapable of handling the most mundane and repetitive tasks of parenting: the constant demands and pushing of children who always want more than what they have. The parent hates themselves, and the child's disrespect is always, to their dissonant hearing, a sign that the child somehow knows the parent is unworthy of respect, and so the parent is overbearing, loud, snappish, reactionary, and finally, mocking, cruel.  Once this realization has occurred, only a total rehabilitation of The Man into a real man could fix the disrespect now lodged into the child's heart. Nothing The Man tells him will ever resound or have authority, because the child knows The Man does not act as a man in the world, but as a child. Half of me cheered him on, fight boy, fight, it will keep you alive! And the other half despaired: what would The Man do in the face of such defiance? Escalating fury is what I expected, and what happened. His voice broke it's thick depth and crested a pitch in fury that rang out over the entire half of Target. Get back here right now you are going to get spanked until you cry when we get home do you hear me

Ten minutes had passed. Ten minutes of a tirade.

I checked on Lola. Fine. I gathered Ever. 

Half galloping a few paces behind The Man dragging his mocha skinned, doe eyed little guy behind him,  I yelled:   I do not appreciate listening to you scream at your son like this- and he turned around. 

Shut up, he spat, and kept his striding.

Your son is going to hate you when he grows up if you keep talking to him like this!! I was truly yelling now, furious at my inability to stop him from taking that boy out the door and raising him for the rest of his little life. My chest heaved, sweat drenched my shirt. I kept on: He's never going to talk to you again once he can escape! He looked back at me, face in a mysterious activity of the brain, and rounded the pillows. That was it. He was gone. 

I cried and cried on the way home. The cycle breaks my heart in a terrible way: it is intolerable that we ( the sociatal we ) cannot find a way to protect children, to help them, to speak up when they need us, and then how furiously! how righteously! how thunderously and indignantly we punish them when, as teenagers, they turn into law breaking, drug using, drinking, disrespectful, hardened and sarcastic people who come across as if they have little depth. who come across as if who come across as if---

as if-- they had spent their most vulnerable, tender, sweet and good and kind years having their souls and hearts ground into raw meat by their parent or loved one, and no one helped. No one stopped it. 

In high school, I hung out with many groups over the four years, and one of them was the 'no goals, no respect, lazabouts ' group. Without exception, each one had their own story about The Man. Sometimes, The Woman, or The Uncle, but always someone who stole their sense of safety, who took from them not only their happiness and peace, but also the faith that adults take care of children, that adults help children. Because for them, there had been no help. And now, restless with a hidden grief, they found themselves unwelcome and unloved at every turn, and embraced instead an alternative idea: that the world and it's adults were all bullshit fakers, and the only real thing was to admit it's all fucked, and give up.

If this little guy spends the next ten years of his life like this, what do you think he will be at 20? Will he be a beaming, prideful young man full of promise and health and interest in the world and people around him. 1 in a 1,000 can do that on their own. The rest need intervention. Help. Unconditional love. Therapy. Fucking travel, experiences, bonding, groups, education, art classes, apprenticeships, but dammit, they do not need jail time and scorn and condemnation and a community of tongue clucking judgement. 

I thought these things as I drove home, and then turned this framework on The Man. This is the key. The framework always turns.  What we believe the deepest truths to be hold true for our friend and our enemy, our closest loves and our worst  fears. Most children, most young adults, are capable of change, love, growth, happiness. Maybe The Man had his own Man. Maybe he had been hurt deeply, and was now full of inchoate rage, turned toward his son. 

The point is not blame, but reality. If we refuse to admit that of course, most chronically abused children are not happy and successful adults, but alcoholics, addicts, criminals, abusers themselves, then we can never address the problem, stop the gushing of the arterial wound. I passionately believe that if every young person had a person who stuck their nose in, who became deeply involved, who cared beyond a smile and a prayer, our adult population would be an entirely different animal. Hardly a revolutionary idea. So if so many believe this, then why did no one at Target speak up? I don't understand. All the people around me in this nice suburban town, probably most of them church goers, 'good people'. This man screamed at his son for ten minutes before he left. Think about how long that is. Ten minutes and the toy section was almost deserted by the time he left, when it had been teeming. Everyone got THEIR children away. But the little one who was receiving this abuse had no where to hide.

His father might need medication. He definitely needs therapy. He might need an aural cleansing, for all I know. But whatever he needs, he won't get it in the silence of an emptied out Target, where the only sound was his own terrorizing voice, tearing apart the innocence and spirit of his child.


In the early evening, I had to return to Target. I got in and out with my groceries and my baby, cold, exhausted and wanting home. Ever was strapped into the wagon, which was full of groceries, and just as I bumped the cart into my car, a woman in a bigger hurry than I slammed her cart toward the line and walked away. I watched as the cart banged into the line, bounced off and out, and took off, a red flash in the darkness, toward the busy road. I was paralyzed for a second, then took off  for it before stopping running with a horrible start- was I insane?! I couldn't leave Ever in the dark strapped into the cart!  I ran back toward her and unbuckled her, calling out Ma'am! Ma'am!  to the woman, who never turned her head. People walked by me, a man with his family, two women, and all watched as I unbuckled Ever, watched as the cart sped away. Not a single person ran after it. I just shut my mouth, pulled Ever out, and turned to see the red cart fly empty and unattended into oncoming traffic.

Ms. Moon said...

Yes. See? You put it together exactly right and at least your words made that boy know that what was happening to him was unacceptable.
But- like the cart running into traffic, it's what might happen after that is so frightening. That's what holds me back sometimes. Will the parent then take it out on the child in the privacy of the parking lot, the car, when they get home?
I don't know Maggie May. But I am proud of you for speaking up.
God. Things like this make me sick to my stomach. And you know- if we still lived in tiny communities, it would be easier to step in. I think. But we don't. And we won't.
So someone has to say what you said. And you did that.

Maggie May said...

I had the same thoughts, and I guess it is niave or arrogant of me to say 'why didn't anyone speak up' because I'm sure there are so many reasons why, that do truly make sense, and why did I wait ten minutes?

I thought of the afterward, too, but that man is going to do what he is doing every day, but not every day did the little boy have a chance to see and hear that someone else- an adult- sees his father the way he does.

Caroline said...

See? for me, Maggie, you represent all that are truly good at heart in this world. And I don't know if it's because I'm in a bad mood today or if I am seeing clearly--but it seems like there are fewer and fewer people like you these days--with courage, and heart and just stand for doing the right thing. Like Helen Hunt's character in As Good As It Gets. The right thing.

You did the right thing. Speaking up is never the wrong thing. Think of the disappointment the young boy--maybe not now (but probably now) will feel (feels now) when no adults around him ever say what is father is doing is WRONG. What message does that send to the boy? That he has no value? That he deserves this treatment? No--what you did was absolutely the right thing.

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness.... my heart was just BREAKING for that little boy. Thank goodness you spoke up. You stood up for him. That little boy has probably never had someone stand up for him like that.

I grew up in a house where we were treated much the same way by my mother... it was a tirade of non stop "what is wrong with you? You're an idiot". By the time I was in highschool I was done caring about everything, including myself. As a result, I made some very very poor choices in life - some of which are my biggest regrets.

Today I have a daughter and when things get really hard and i'm at my wits end, I recognize my mother in me sometimes and I hate myself even more. I don't want to be to my daughter, what I had growing up. I want to give her better.... its a struggle, but its one thats worth it. She deserves better than I got and so does that little boy.

Thank you, for standing up to his father.

Phoenix said...

I have been on both ends of this situation. Having been raised by one of those Men, I learned disrespect very early on because he was so irrational and childlike in his cruelty - and I remember other adults trying to put me in my place when I talked back to him. "You need to learn some respect," they'd say sternly, and get in my face. They didn't see the bruises, they didn't know he was a sexual predator. I didn't bother telling them. They earned my contempt too.

Flash forward to me being an adult - and watching as one of those Men screamed at his 2(?) year old son who was crying out of hunger at a restaurant. As with your situation, he was with an embarrassed older friend as well, and his screaming set the entire restaurant dead silent. But nobody moved, not even me. How I wish I'd had your courage. The husband of the married couple eating with me sat up straight and turned to his wife and said, "Do I need to punch that guy in the face?" and I told him I'd be his back up and his wife begged him not to do or say anything and so the three of us sat there silently as the father, the friend, and the baby gathered up their things (after arriving at the restaurant 5 minutes ago) and left.

I hope to God that man didn't do anything to that little toddler. I'm still ashamed that I didn't do or say a single thing.

I just had no idea what to do. And the uncertainty is paralyzing. There are no clear boundaries anymore in this society for when we can step and tell a child how to parent or not parent, and we are kept in a limbo that screws over the children more than anyone else.

So deeply, incredibly sad. But I'm so glad you spoke up. Maybe that boy will remember you speaking up for him, and he'll go - Yes. That woman gets it. She understands.

I had no one speak up for me.

Jube said...

Good for you for speaking up. I can't say I've ever witnessed a scene so intense. Most what I have seen has many more shades of grey.

Melinda Owens said...

I agree. I think you did the right thing by speaking up. Sometimes there's a righteous anger that rises up inside of us and I think it's there for a reason...because we should do something about it! Even if it's only to voice, like you did, that it's not okay. That we see it. Who knows, maybe that man went home and thought about what you said. Chances are, he's still thinking about it. Let's hope so.

Laura Lee said...

The sea of anonymity in public places does have that effect, people are not ashamed to do horrible things in public because nobody knows them, I can only guess. That this (man-child) spat back at you confirms his belief in his own right to treat his "property" this way, instead of being surprised or embarrassed. We know his power-over is trying to compensate for his lack of personal power. Whatever inhumanity he suffers/ed one thing is certain, the child will remember this all his life.

Unknown said...

I could write and write.
This resonates and hits home and I had a not so great reaction once when I tried what you did.

You wrote this will incredible brilliance Maggie.
I am trembling a little.

Unknown said...

okay, you know what bothered me more than the woman who pulled me by the hair to the floor of the store when I intervened to stop her cursing out her son on behalf of him and my little one's ears/heart?

that the same people who chose not to , continued with their mind my own business choice while I gathered myself back up etc.

Elizabeth @claritychaos said...

Maggie, these stories bring me to tears. Just last week on the bus, a drunk man was harrassing and touching a woman, who told him to stop repeatedly, and I was the only one on that whole freaking bus who spoke up to help her and to get the dude to stop. Everyone turned a blind fucking eye, and when the cops finally came, people remarked to each other how 'harmless' the guy was. No one wanted to get involved.

And last night -- the Grammy's. Chris Brown performs three times, the comeback prince, and no one mentions a thing about the fact that he beat his girlfriend in the face.

It's inconvenience. It's laziness. It's fear. It's not knowing what to do or say. It's a lot of things, but it sucks. And I'm glad to have you out there with me, raising our voices and sticking our noses in places that some people prefer we don't.

big hug, sister. you rock so hard.

Stephanie said...

Really glad you said something! I would hope I would have done the same.

gojirama said...

Heartbreaking. Good for you; I hope that boy remembers your words.

Punky J said...

Hey Maggie. I clicked onto this post via Blogstar. And wow, what a post. You are not only brave and courageous for standing up for that poor little boy the way that you did, but truly a compassionate heart.

I've heard of similar scenarios all the time, and I've often heard the excuse "if I say something, he's just going to beat the kid harder when he gets home out of embarrassment." I've also heard the old "people need to mind their own business."

Personally, I don't see where minding your own business wins over reaching out and helping your fellow neighbor, brother, sister, whatever you want to call them. We are all human beings living in this world together, and I think there comes moments when we should be willing to reach out, stand up, or rise to the occasion of helping someone out. Especially children, who so desperately need to feel some sense of protection, love, and acceptance. Patience and kindness.

As for the former excuse, I don't really know what to say about that, since I feel like there's a good chance that's what probably happens after the bitter and hate driven father (or mother) leaves the store with defeated and resentful son or daughter. What do you think about it?

Regardless of the aftermath, you did a good thing. I don't have any children of my own yet, but I imagine I'd have a very similar fire in me to speak up the way you did if I were in the same situation.

Your whole post is full of so much truth, and with that, compassion and unconditional love for not just the little boy, but "the man" as well. Thanks for being so honest and raw.


tiffany said...

Thank you for speaking up when no one else would, no matter what the reason was that they didn't. That little boy heard you and knows that someone actually gives a shit, even if it's not his own father - no matter what the reason...

K. C. Wells said...

I'm shaking while reading this. I completely understand the frustrated parent who may say something he/she regrets, but to continue the rant is unacceptable. Bless you for standing up for this boy; I hope that your words remain with him.

Sarah said...

What you did was right and you never know - maybe this dad will go home and at least think about how he is treating his son (and we all know he was probably treated the same as a kid).
As for the boy, kids only know their own reality so hearing someone say this is not right may have opened his eyes a little too. That boy will probably never forget this incident, a small act like this could change how he parents many years from now. Good job!!!

Fiona said...

I think people don't say anything because they are afraid they will aggravate the situation. I am sometimes afraid the parent is so irrational that my saying something will push him/her to beating the kid when they are alone. Now that I am older, I try to present help in a sympathetic way.

I still remember being 19 or 20 and in a grocery store, watching as a parent, obviously frustrated with two kids who were acting up, yelled at them like crazy and grabbed the little girl's arm, causing her to bump her head on the floor. (It wasn't too hard, but still.) I was too afraid of a real, angry "adult" to say something, but I still think about it and wish I had said something.

Danielle A. Elwood said...

You are a much better person than I am, because I would have probably physically attacked him, especially if he told me to shut up.
It is completely unreal that some parents think this is ok at all. :(

YES Gallery + Studio said...

God bless the people like you who speak up for the undefended. Inspiring. xo

Lora said...

You are so brave. I love you. I'm proud of you.

I heard a dad call his son a "fucking retard" the other day. Over a mixup with some french fries. I didn't say anything but cried when I got home. I hope his boy escapes. I hope he never speaks to him after he does.

Lone Star Ma said...

I try, when I see someone losing their s#$%, to say something supportive - something like "They really are a handful at that age, aren't they?" or "it's so hard to teach that lesson, isn't it? They just don't understand at that age". Usually, the conversation can then be brought around to something positive about the kid.

Maggie May said...

Lone Star- I totally agree, when we are talking about a stressed parent. This man was doing his regular business, I just KNOW these things. I can tell these people a mile away. This was not a run of the mill frustrated overtired stressed dad, but a constant bullying tyrant. To tell him softly that 'kids can be hard' would have sent the entirely wrong message to his son- and HE is who I was really speaking to. To say, 'this is wrong. how your dad is? is WRONG.'

Lone Star Ma said...

I can see that.

mosey (kim) said...

This made me gasp, not just in response to your story, but in your own response to it, your way of delving deep into it, with the unique understanding and eloquence that only you have. I'm so glad you spoke up, both in Target and here.

Amanda said...

Heartbreaking post. The pain of wanting and hoping that the few simple words that you speak can change the outcome of this poor little mans life. I hope that by you saying something The Man will think twice before inflicting abuse on his child. Thanks for putting into words how I feel all the time.

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