Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Late night shopping

For some people it's the bus; for me it's the subway. In preparation for our trip home, we went downtown last night to buy one of those suitcases with wheels on. We took the local train, which makes about twenty stops between our end of town and the huge discount shop opposite where the World Trade Center used to be. En route, in between cajoling Busytot to stay in his stroller, I eavesdropped and people-watched avidly. I can't decide who I liked best: the exquisitely dressed older woman catching a quick nap but never losing her posture or her grip on her handbag; the extraordinarily pretty deaf supermodel boys (brothers? boyfriends?) with the matching muscle shirts and the polished toe-nails, who were signing and lip-reading what appeared to be all sorts of scandalous gossip; or the tall, aloof African-American dude wearing a T-shirt that read "New York Fuckin City" -- which I suddenly wanted to buy for my Singapore-based brother, even though he'd probably have to wear it inside out.

Blatant subway people-watching always feels deceptively like a one-way street, but what did they see when they looked at me? A slightly bleary chica who hasn't exactly been getting her beauty sleep lately (or, more accurately, my not-looking-like-total-crap sleep), wearing a NZ Music Week T-shirt and some very scruffy old thrift-store jeans. I'd tried to buy new jeans earlier this week, from the Diesel store incongruously located in the ungentrified upper reaches of Columbus Avenue. This neighbourhood, known as Manhattan Valley, is where I like to go for a walk when I'm feeling frumpy among the skinny Columbia University undergrads, when I want to go op-shopping, and when I need to see something that looks more like K-Rd than Remuera Rd. Over on Columbus and Amsterdam, old ladies pinch Busytot's cheeks, lusty young mums in painted-on jeans tote the best-dressed babies in town with little gold rings in their ears, and old men drink beer on the street at breakfast time and, if I'm lucky, compliment my post-baby figure in a mixture of Spanish and English. Everything just hangs out that little bit more over there, especially in the summer, and I like it, even if I'm not quite as bold myself. In the Diesel shop, as I winced and asked for the next size up, the generously proportioned salesgals -- with not a millimeter between denim and skin, but an ample expanse of tummy between top and trousers -- rolled their eyes as if to say, "Mamí, you got it, you might as well show it off!" Alas, the pair I liked, I didn't like NZ$300 worth.

So while we were out propping up the economy last night, we thought we might as well go jeans-shopping too. And Busytot was having such a great time test-driving the suitcase with wheels on that we figured he might enjoy an extra errand. We got lucky, and happened upon a shop that was run by the most baby-lovin' denim salespeople in the tri-state region. We ducked in and out of the changing rooms, primping and leisurely comparing trousers like carefree, childless people, while a happy Busytot was introduced to everyone and borne aloft around the store like the baby Jesus. He returned waving a blue cotton bandanna, a gift from the manager, who thought it gave him that essential gangsta look. Busytot's retort to this fashion statement was to drape the cloth over his head and wander blindly around the shop like one of Michael Jackson's children on the lam. We called him Blanket for the rest of the evening.

The hero's welcome in the jeans shop notwithstanding, the highlight of the evening came as we zipped home in a yellow cab up the West Side Highway (unintentionally retracing the route of the ride home from the birthing center, a fateful event that I now see as the first kiss in Busytot's ongoing love affair with taxis). At one point we drew level with a ute that was carrying three tiny race cars on the back. Even better, a boy of about ten grinned maniacally out the window and waved at Busytot like a long lost friend. "Car! Kid!" spluttered Busytot, and as the waving kid hove into view, disappeared, and reappeared again over the next few minutes, our wee lad laughed so hard he gave himself hiccups.

I always thought the boy-car nexus was an evil sexist myth. Until I met Busytot's best and closest friend. Serendipitously, for he is never without a wheeled vehicle of some description, his name sounds a lot like "My car". He runs a fleet of toy taxis in varying stages of disrepair which he likes to line up and inspect like a general inspecting his troops, and he never travels without at least one car in each hand and two or three wedged into his armpits, pockets, etc. Busytot has caught the bug: the other morning while shopping for treats to take on the plane back to New Zealand, he firmly selected two matching toy cars. Not just cars, great stonking SUVs, the sort that eat Minis for breakfast and roll over on command. He bore them home triumphantly in the stroller, played with them over lunch, whisked them off to bed, and fell into a record three-hour slumber with one car grasped firmly in each hand using the approved unbreakable toddler-death-grip. It's a love triangle I dare not dissolve.

That said, the boy who worships diggers and concrete mixers and garbage trucks is equally passionate about softer toys. He adores his menagerie of animals -- dog, bear, panda, cat, kakapo -- and can often be heard addressing them at length about the events of the day. Showing a tender side, and a pre-lapsarian blindness to secondary sex characteristics, he will occasionally nurse his baby doll; happily, his many cars and trains are fully breastfed, too. And sometimes his cars will even nurse each other ("Maaaate, is that a jumper lead in your bra, or are you just pleased to see me?").

He's also pretty keen on musical instruments, particularly the battery-powered saxophone his Wellington auntie bought him, which belts out "Rock around the Clock" as well as "Who Are the People in Your Neighbourhood?" at variable speeds. Speaking of said auntie, Busytot's beloved semi-naked, ultra-muscular and very pneumatic Xena Warrior Princess doll -- a formerly decorative item who now finds herself sharing the toybox with deeply unironic trains and blocks -- has been rechristened "Gemma". She used to be "Mummy," on account of her dazzlingly large bosoms, but I cannot deny that her hairstyle is much more like my sister's Bettie Page 'do than my own. I think she'd be flattered. It's not every auntie that gets her own action figure.

Meanwhile, I'm assembling a backpack of treasures to keep the small fellow busy on our long flight home. Everything is wrapped up, so that he can be distracted for that extra ten seconds it takes to tear the paper off. I've got some books, stickers, crayons, the aforementioned vehicles, and a roll of sticky tape is going in too, for distraction purposes, along with an envelope of fascinating pictures cut out of catalogues and magazines. The first time we flew this route, he was a tiny snuggly bug, with no desires beyond eating and sleeping, but this time will be more interesting. Any other suggestions for carry-on fun will be gratefully received, both by me and, I suspect, the people in rows 20 through 50...