by Simon Hodgson
In some cultures, they say it takes a village to raise a child. In San Francisco, it takes a bus.
As the number one bus climbed up Sacramento Street towards the top of Pacific Heights, 10-month-old Sam gazed at the lady with the red hair in the seat behind us. It was Sunday afternoon and we were heading for the playground in Alta Plaza Park for some R&R after another rough week. Sam wasn’t sleeping; my wife, Fitzsimmons, was under pressure at work; the rent was due; and I still didn’t have a job.
“What eyes he’s got,” said the lady.
Fitzsimmons glowed at the compliment and tickled Sam’s chin.
“Are you flirting?” she said to him.
He wrinkled his nose at both women and smiled, displaying both of his lower teeth in a gurn which made him look like a freshwater gudgeon, but which Fitzsimmons insisted was adorable. She turned to the lady with the red hair.
“He always does this.”
He does. On every bus I’ve taken him in San Francisco, from the 38 Geary cross-town to the 45 Chinatown, Sam always finds someone to mess with. Even the meanest and roughest find time to play with a baby.
A few weeks back, we were on the 19 Navy Yard and a young guy with a black and silver jacket climbed in by the back door at Market Street. He slunk towards the rear of the bus like a leopard, hips rolling, eyes scowling, gold front teeth glinting, and sat down beside us. Instantly, old Sam leaned out of the sling and reached for his shoulder. “Hey, lil’ man,” said the leopard, offering him a finger to hold.
At Fillmore, Fitzsimmons and I watched the lady with the red hair get off.
“Bye-bye,” I said quietly to Sam. Bye-bye, temporary nanny.
As she walked past the window of the bus, turning for a final wave, the solution to our finance crisis and a brilliant new concept in child parenting hit me. Bus Childcare! Why pay thousands for nannies when my kid could charm the furry socks off a saber-toothed tiger? There must be passengers on every bus in San Francisco who’d happily spend eight or nine blocks being enchanted by Sam. String a few rides together and I’d have an afternoon of easy and cost-effective childcare.
When our bus turned south, we got out and walked up Steiner Street. Pacific Heights was windy, like all the high points of San Francisco, but the sun was shining and the few clouds in the sky were moving right along. While Fitzsimmons pointed out crows to Sam, I breezily worked out the details of my Bus Childcare plan. Of course, I’d need to accompany him on the buses for the first few days, just to make sure he got the hang of it. But the beauty of the scheme was that after that, I didn’t need to be there at all.
As we reached the foot of the Alta Plaza steps, I looked up at three flights of stairs and thought of a snag. How was Sam going to change buses if he couldn’t walk? We climbed slowly up the steps to the playground, Fitzsimmons carrying Sam in the sling. A young woman in jogging gear overtook us, turned at the top and passed us again on the descent. Maybe municipal mothering wasn’t such a good idea. The young jogger looked sleek, chic, and childless. All that free time and she goes up and down stairs—a prime candidate for bus childcare.
While I wondered which bus routes might work, Fitzsimmons took Sam off to the sandbox, where he unearthed a pail and immediately lost it to a hardy little brute named Chloë. All around the playground were thirtysomethings pushing strollers made of the carbon fiber they use for the space shuttle. They looked prosperous and well-rested, wearing North Face jackets and all-weather smiles. All of them looked like they had childcare.
That was okay. Who needed $20-an-hour nannies where I had Bus Childcare? I wandered over to the sandbox, where Sam was throwing handfuls of sand in the air, his face creased into a grin. Every morning, I thought, I could send him out with a tag attached to his wrist with our address and a brief message. “Please take care of this baby. Return to S. Hodgson, but not before 6 p.m.”
As I ruffled his hair, I realized happily that I wouldn’t even have to give him three quarters for a bus ticket, as kids under five ride free. Besides, every good parent knows you should never give coins to babies.
Simon Hodgson is a reader, writer, editor, and dad. Born in Scotland, he now lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.Photo by Simon Hodgson