There were five hours between the flight my daughter took out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield and the one I took on Friday. I found a quiet booth in a restaurant and went to work. I warned the waitress that I was going to be there most of the afternoon. Thankfully, it wasn’t a busy place. It’s hidden spot that a person has to know about in advance to even find it. So the waitress seemed happy just to have a person to wait on. She kept my coffee warm while I worked.
I’d been there at least two hours when a couple and a child took the table across the way from me. I glanced up long enough to notice that the fellow looked like William Hurt in The Big Chill. Long hair pulled back in a straight ponytail, cashmere jacket, lean, runner’s build. The child, painfully thin, had dark hair that was thick and chin length. I mistook him for a girl, maybe 11 or 12. The woman had the build of prison matron. Her dark hair was chopped unattractively short. I didn’t notice what she was wearing.
I turned back to my work and finished two more cups of coffee before they finished their meal. As soon as the bus boy cleared their dishes, the woman lit into the father. It was the intensity of her voice that got my attention at first. She seemed to be upset over something.
It wasn’t long before she told anyone within five feet what she was upset about as she began to berate her boyfriend over his child. I had noticed someone move past me in my peripheral view so I assumed the child, which at this point I still took for a girl, had gone to the bathroom.
I was thankful the child was gone because the girlfriend was dissing the child in that passionate way of people who are totally pissed off.
“You,” she hissed, “never care what I think. Your child wants to break us up. He’s a juvenile delinquent.”
The father answered something about her not understanding because she didn’t have children of her own.
“I don’t need children of my own to know a spoiled brat when I see one. You continue to baby your boy and allow him to be totally disrespectful to me. When are you going to stand up to him? That’s what I want to know.”
She had gone past talking intensely and was creating a scene. The louder she got, the more quiet he got. After a few minutes I couldn’t make out a word of what he said but whatever it was, she had an argument for it. She talked about her own father and how he would never put up with such foolishness out of a child, about how terrible of a father her boyfriend was, and just what was going to do about showing her how much he cared about her.
He asked her to calm down.
That only made her more irate. She began to list all the offenses his son had ever done. After nearly 20 minutes of this bickering back and forth, I got up to the restroom myself. I thought if I made some motion, the two might stop their fighting before the child came back to the table. Only then did I realize the child had never left the table. He had been there the entire time. I realized then he was a he and not a she, too. His hair covered his drooping head. His body curled in on itself in a crescent-moon way.
I thought that my moving around might dispel the woman from her attacks on the boy that she continually referred to in third-person, as if the kid wasn’t present. It was obvious that the child was wishing he was in invisible at that moment. I think his dad felt that way, too.
When I returned from the bathroom, she was still at it. She had litany of issues she wanted to address and she wanted to do it right there, right now. I returned to my seat and began to pack up my stuff. It was impossible to work with her within earshot.
Before I tell you what I did next, tell me what would you have done?
It was interesting reading your comments. I wish I had thought of the ice cream idea. I did think of the prayer thing, but I think I was praying something along the lines of So help me God.Really. I started packing up my computer. Got all my stuff ready to just leave the place. But she said something else. I don’t remember what it was exactly now but as Tim was so apt to note, I was her primary audience. She was tearing into this guy in front of his child because she saw me there. She knew that she had an audience. Perhaps she felt that since I was alone I would be cheering her on in her crusade against the man and his child.
If so, if that’s what she thought, she picked the wrong gal.
And she happened to pick me the week before I launched into a book tour addressing some of the very mythology that played into her hand.
So right before I turned to leave, she said something so obviously rude and unkind that I actually had the thought cross my mind that surely I was being set up. This had to be some sort of ethical dilemma reality show. I looked around to see if ABC’s John Quinones was lurking nearby. Okay. I didn’t really look for John but it would not have surprised me if he did show up. I kept thinking who does this? Who acts like this woman in public? Who berates a child in front of strangers this way?
Whatever she said I’d had enough. I turned on my heels and walked over to their table.
“Listen,” I said by way of acknowledgement, “I know this is none of my business but you are totally out of line.” I looked straight at the woman. “This is emotional abuse, talking about this child as if he doesn’t even exist.” I turned to the boy. His chin rested on his chest. He was clearly distraught. “This is wrong,” I said to the father. “Why do you let her talk to your son this way? There are a million women out there who would treat your child with respect. If I were you I’d be looking for a new girlfriend. I would never let another person treat my child the way she is treating yours.”
I don’t know who was more mortified — me or the dad.
I know you all think I will say and do anything but this was way outside even my comfort zone.
John Quinones did not come to my rescue.
The Girlfriend was irate.
I’m pretty sure I saw fire come out of her nostrils.
“THIS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!” she snorted. “YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS SAYING ANYTHING. YOU DON”T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “But I just finished writing a book about child abuse and I recognize child abuse when I see it. The way you are speaking to this child is abusive. It’s wrong and you need to stop it. He’s a human being. You need to treat him with respect.”
Again I turned to the dad: “You need a new girlfriend, one who will be kind to your son.”
The boy looked up and gave a slight smile. I could tell in his heart he was cheering. I wanted to scoop him up and take him far, far away from there.
Instead, I just grabbed my bags and went to pay the cashier.
My waitress came over. She’d seen the whole thing. She was shaking her head side-to-side, as if to apologize for something she didn’t do.
“It’s wrong,” I said, handing her my credit card. “It’s wrong to treat a child like that. That woman is just being a bitch.”
I said it quietly, whispering really. And we were a good six feet from the woman but she wasn’t about to let me get out the door unscathed. After I paid the bill, she jumped to her feet and confronted me.
“THAT was NONE of your BUSINESS,” she said. “YOU GOT THAT? IT was NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT WAS GOING ON!!!” She was inches from my face. It occurred to me that I needed to take the boxing class that Miz Shelby has been taking.
“It’s my business when I see children being mistreated,” I replied. “You are abusive.”
She stormed off and I got a phone call from Bob Welch at the Eugene Register Guard. Bob was calling to interview me about A Silence of Mockingbirds.
And for the upteenth time in my writing career, I was reminded once again that I can’t preach what I don’t practice.
Was I right or wrong to intervene that way?