Last May, New York City dad Greg Wetzel jumped on the subway tracks in Manhattan's 72nd Street subway station to save a woman who had fainted and fallen onto the tracks. He was, justifiably, treated like a hero for his actions, lifting the woman back on the platform just before a train rumbled into the station. "I had to make a decision and I quickly assessed the risks,” said Wetzel, a lawyer.
Most people probably assume that Wetzel acted on his convictions, and that he was, as he told ABC News later, trying to show his children that "that human life is valuable. There are rules, of course, but they’re circumstance-specific." (I mentioned that he was a lawyer, didn't I?) That might be true, but I have a suspicion that when Wetzel asked two women standing on the platform to look after his kids before he jumped down onto the tracks, he was trying to show them and the world that he wasn't just some pervert.
I've talked before about how public transit has been given the virtuous pole position in a trumped-up urban living contest, with car use as the moustache-twirling villain. After a lifetime of transit use, I'm still unconvinced by the argument, but the persistence of this idea inferred that transit use was the choice of decent, forward-thinking people, and that a family on transit - as opposed to a big, ugly minivan or a sinister, earth-hating SUV - were the urban equivalent of white-gowned missionaries handing out healthy snacks and new fingers and noses in a leper colony.
It would be nice if it were true, but it's not. A family on transit is more likely to be regarded as either tourists or unable to aspire to the base middle-class benchmark of car ownership, and unwilling to shield their children from facts of urban life both unsanitary (the thin marinade of germs and bacillus that coat every handhold of the average bus and subway car) and unsavoury (the guy openly reading porn on the packed morning commuter bus; the teenage boys bringing their vast familiarity with bukkake videos to hyperbolic descriptions of their fictional sex lives; the visibly insane.)
More severe, however, is the way a dad alone with his kids on public transit is regarded by his fellow passengers. They might be porn reading, shit-talking, visibly insane teenagers, but as soon as a dad ushers his kids to a few empty seats on a city bus, they'll give him a look that it's hard not to read as "I wonder if I can text the police and family services in time for them to nab this creep by the time we get to the subway?"
"I've got my eye on you, weirdo."
Every dad these days has had the unique experience of hearing the moms and nannies go silent when they show up at the swing sets in the park with their toddler, like the western saloon when the Man with No Name walks through the swinging doors. A full generation of parental hysteria has cleared suburban streets of kids playing unsupervised, but it's also made lone men suspect when they enter what have now become "safe" - i.e. female-dominated - spaces.
When it's not regarded as either tragic or potentially criminal, taking children on transit is actually considered heroic. Even after two years of ferrying my kids to and from school every day, I still hear fellow parents react to our bus journey of a scant twenty minutes (in good traffic) like I've carried my kids, book bags and all, on my back over an Alpine pass to escape the Nazis.
I don't doubt that Greg Wetzel had the best of intentions when he left his three children in the care of strangers on the 72nd Street subway platform before he jumped down to save an unconscious woman, but I'm also certain that, at the back of his mind, he was thinking to himself, "at least now they'll stop looking at me like I'm heading downtown to sell these kids to Mauritian white slave traders."
Part of me hates that, after years of complaining about over-parenting and the wild-eyed scheduling of playdates and t-ball games and dance recitals that's deprived our kids of both solitary moments and the pleasure of learning to live in cities, I'm planning to cram mine into the back seat of a subcompact so I can ferry them around town free from the glaring stink eye of my fellow citizens.
But there it is, nonetheless - years of inadvertent aversion therapy have made me look for an escape, or at least the chance of an alternative, a chance of choice that'll let me be the foursquare, car-driving, school drop-off and parking-space-hunting dad that I was told I didn't have to be. Which means that the next time somebody faints onto the subway tracks, there will be once less dad there to come to the rescue.