I stood with my father on the BART platform of San Francisco, our luggage in hand and three plane tickets tucked tightly away in my pocket. We had spent the previous week with my older brother and his girlfriend to celebrate my nephew’s second birthday. The walkway was damp and covered with puddles that had formed during the rainy night. The day was humid, carrying with it the soft heat of a Bay Area July. A weird aroma of cinnamon mixed with the sewer steam of the city wafted through the breeze. Little light crept in the sunny afternoon day from above the stairwell.
We stood silently, the platform nearly empty apart from a young couple snuggling together on one of the benches, and a man in business attire standing in the corner on his cellphone. It was odd how such a large city can feel empty at times.
In the corner my brother Jeremy bounced to himself, humming lightly, his long blond hair twirling with every leap. He unleashed a loud squeal, one that echoed through the station and caused the eyes of the other passengers to fall on us. I knew those stares well—perplexed and oftentimes frightened. But I have to ask who wouldn’t be stirred by the sight of a six-foot-tall teenage boy squealing and jumping.
Digital clocks hung above each platform, flashing the time in bright scarlet letters. I read them, keeping my eyes fixed on the times, wondering when the trains would arrive. Jeremy prattled on in the back, while my father, a career pilot of nearly thirty years, checked the schedule of the plane and the weather for any possible delays.
My brother let out another squeal.
“Jeremy, please be quiet,” I said.
“He’s okay,” my father said, shrugging. “He’s not really bothering anyone.”
Yet I could feel the eyes of the others in the station glowering at us. The man in business attire scowled in a way that demanded to know why we were allowing Jeremy to continue to cause such a commotion. He grunted something in his cellphone, words that I could not quite make out, and turned to walk to the other side of the station.
A new group of young passengers descended down the stairs. They were chattering and laughing at some inside joke when Jeremy unleashed another one of his loud squeals. He jumped into the air, landing so hard that the thud sent vibrations through the cement. The group went silent and stared in amazement at us. One of the girls started to laugh before covering her mouth. She disappeared into the crowd, now walking quietly away.
“Jeremy, please calm down,” I said.
“He’s fine,” said my father. “He’s not bothering anybody.”
I looked at the clock again. It flashed just three minutes after four. Our train would arrive in twenty minutes.
Not long after, we were approached by an elderly woman—a homeless woman wearing winter clothes, covered in the filth and grime from living on the city streets. Yet she walked with such a swagger that she defied her lot in life, a charisma that she refused to let her station in life keep her down. She beamed widely, her teeth looked like popcorn kernels mixed with deep chocolate of her skin. Her black, wool-like hair scattered in every direction apart from the front which was matted to her forehead.
“Excuse me, gentlemen?” she asked, retrieving a beige piece of paper from a box she carried under her arm. “Would either of you fine sirs like to purchase a newspaper? They’re only a dollar apiece.”
San Francisco had a program that gave homeless people newspapers to sell. They were nothing more than a sheet of paper, hardly what one would consider a newspaper, but it served as a way for the homeless to make money without resorting to begging. In a way, it preserved their human dignity.
I shook my head indicating that I did not want to purchase one, but my father happily handed her a single dollar bill for one of the sheets. She thanked him with her bright, warm smile. Just as she turned to walk away, Jeremy came bounding over, landing hard with a loud thud just in front of the woman, startling her. She reeled back and looked at him, not with fear or confusion, but with amusement.
“What’s your name?” my brother asked her.
“What’s my name?” she asked, exacerbating her reaction. “My name is Rosina. What’s your name?”
“My name is Jeremy,” my brother answered proudly, patting his chest.
He did this to emphasize each word, a habit he picked up during years of speech therapy.
She took my brother’s hand and shook it. My brother overemphasized by waving both their arms up and down.
“Rosina, sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ Sing it!”
“Oh, I know that song,” she said excitedly. “I used to sing it to my boy a long time ago.”
I noticed that for a single moment her eyes trailed off. It was brief but for a single moment, her face went solemn, remembering a time long since past. One of those memories that haunts the mind.
My brother, filled with joy, began to sing along with her. He reached out to grab her by the shoulders. Instantly I moved in to stop him, but my father pressed a hand to my chest. He shook his head.
“Let him go,” he said. “He’s having fun.”
“All around the mulberry bush,” my brother began, Rosina quickly following along.
I felt a rush of uncomfortable anxiety burrow itself into the pit of my gut. I felt the need to pry Jeremy away. He wasn’t supposed to grab others. Usually, people would reel back, frightened when he did it. He was often instructed by therapists and teachers that it was impolite to touch other people without their permission. That’s what I wanted to tell myself at that moment, but the honest truth was ... it was because I was scared. I was worried he would catch some sort of disease from the woman or get some filth in his hands. All the negative possibilities flooded my mind, and I wanted to react.
I felt a sense of dejection. I wondered how my father could allow my brother to get away with something for years he was told specifically not to do. I was twenty-four at the time, and I had been helping take care of Jeremy since I was eight. Too often I had encounters with people for Jeremy’s inappropriate behavior. I hated that people looked at him as if there was something wrong with him, and then those eyes would turn to me asking me why I was allowing him to behave in that manner. As if it was all my fault.
I looked up at the clock, seeing that we still had ten more minutes before the train arrived. I hoped that at the conclusion of the song the two would break away, and Rosina would move on.
“Rosina, sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’” said my brother.
“Again?” she laughed. “That’s the third time. But okay! All around the mulberry bush ...”
More people had entered the platform. All of them watched my brother and Rosina sing together. All of them actively avoided approaching or coming near the two of them. I looked at my father. He watched on with a calm smile. The two were still locked hand in hand, Rosina singing as loudly as if she were on stage in the opera.
When they had concluded their fourth round, Rosina laughed, clapping gleefully with her hands.
“Rosina, let’s sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’” said Jeremy.
“Again?” she asked. “How about another song? Do you know the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider?’”
She began to sing but my brother cut her off.
“Rosina, no sing Itsy Bitsy Spider,” he said. “Sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’! All around the mulberry bush ...”
The screech of metal tires on rails pierced through the damp station air. The light of the train flashed in the dark tunnel before coming to a stop. The lines began to form, yet still, passengers avoided coming near either my brother or Rosina.
“Okay Jeremy, time to go,” my father said. “Say goodbye to your friend.”
I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I rushed to grab the luggage so we could quickly find our seats and move on.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Rosina. “Do you mind if I tag along on the train with you and your boy? I would love to continue singing with him, he reminds me so much of my son. My dear boy.”
Before I could say anything, my father agreed.
“Of course,” he said. “And if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your son?”
Her smile faded and her face withered, revealing its true age no longer masked by her beaming aura.
“Life happened, sir,” she said. “I had four children. I don’t know where they are now. Truth is, I made mistakes. An awful lot of mistakes, sir. They cost me, my children and my boy was not much older than your son is now. He always had this live step to him jumping and hollering like he was some wild man. He wanted to be a dancer and I told him to do it, but I didn’t have the money, not at the time. And my daughter, oh she was a mighty thing, loved singing. She would sing for hours every day, from ‘Hakuna Matata’ to Beyonce, just like your boy.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said my father.
“No, I’m the one that’s sorry,” she sighed. “Sometimes, we do things that end up costing us the most.”
“Dad, we need to go,” I said.
“Come on, Jeremy,” Rosina said, lacing her elbow around my brother.
He hopped joyfully with her as the two entered the train together.
I sighed. My father threw his arm around my shoulder and walked with me onto the train.
“Watch,” he said. “Just sit back and watch them.”
I walked on with my father. My brother and Rosina had already found two seats across from one another, their fingers interlaced, the two singing just as loudly now as they had on the platform. Both still singing, my brother hopping with joy in his seat. I noticed that all of the other passengers entered the other cars in front of us, leaving the four of us alone in the last car.
I checked the clock on my phone. The ride from Union Station to the airport was approximately fifteen minutes.
When they had finished yet another rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” Jeremy stopped for a moment. Even he needed to take a break every now and then.
“Rosina, let’s sing ‘Bob the Builder,’ sing it!”
“‘Bob the Builder’? You don’t want to sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ anymore?”
“No, no, no, Rosina. Let’s sing ‘Bob the Builder.’ Bob the Builder, can we fix it...”
For a moment the two went silent. Rosina turned to my father.
“You know, my other son used to love watching ‘Bob the Builder,’” she said. “I used to sing the song with him every night before tucking him into bed. But that was a long time ago. A very long time ago.”
“Rosina, sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’” my brother demanded. “All around the mulberry bush...”
I watched on quietly. Very rarely did I see my brother this happy with anybody, let alone a complete stranger. But here he was, hands locked with some woman he had never met singing his favorite song. Both were just happy to be in the presence of another. And for the first time, I didn’t feel anxious anymore.
My father nudged me and asked how much longer it was until we reached the airport. I pulled out my phone.
“We’re almost there,” I said. “Probably another couple of minutes.”
“Oh,” he sighed, disappointed.
“Yeah,” I said. “Unfortunately, only a few more minutes.”
When we arrived at the airport, the four of us stood up and walked off the train together. My father and I grabbed the luggage and followed after Rosina and Jeremy, who had locked arms and skipped off ahead. Once we were off, Rosina turned to give my brother a big hug, embracing him so tightly I could have sworn his head would pop off. Tears poured from her eyes, staining her cheeks with salty residue.
“Rosina, sing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’” my brother said.
“No, not this time,” she said to him. “Unfortunately, that’s all the time we had. But I will miss you, child. You are the sweetest boy I’ve ever met. Lord bless you.”
She turned to my father.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you for sharing your boy with me. I don’t know how much more I can thank you. And he truly is a special child. He has nothing but love in his heart and nothing but kindness to offer the world. He is a blessing.”
“Any time. Thank you for singing with him. He drives me and my other son crazy. He’s always demanding that we sing along with him, we never get any respite. It’s nice that someone else can pick up the slack every now and then.”
“He drives you crazy? How is that possible? This boy is pure in heart and sings like an angel.”
“You don’t have to live with him,” my father joked.
Rosina erupted into laughter, and she turned to face me.
“You take care of that boy,” she said, pointing a convicting finger. “You take care of him because he is a special child. It’s your job to protect and take care of him as his brother. Don’t you forget that.”
She wiped away the last of her tears, embracing my brother in one last hug.
“Goodbye, Jeremy. Don’t you ever change, you hear? You are perfect just the way you are. And take care of your brother, okay, Jeremy? He needs you more than you know. He needs you. And you keep singing. Don’t you ever let someone tell you to stop. You keep singing because you are a gift to this world, and you need to share it.”
She broke away, patted my brother on the nose and returned to the train.
My brother called out for her to sing “Pop Goes the Weasel” one last time. She let out a hearty laugh, waving until the door closed. The ringing of the bells over the intercom echoed through the platform, and just like that, Rosina disappeared back into the darkness of the train’s tunnels.
Jeremy ran ahead of us, bouncing and skipping. I let him go. After all, he wasn’t bothering anyone.