381274148_56764f2f64.jpgThere are days when you forget you’re a Formerly, and then–wham!–out of nowhere, someone breakdances into your life to remind you.

I was on the northbound B train this evening, on my way from work to meet up with my husband, and three little kids with a tagged-up boom box got on at 34th Street. They were wearing track pants and do-rags and were preternaturally nonchalant for 8 or 10-year-olds. Everyone in the car knew what was coming: a show for which we were the captive audience, and we braced ourselves for something excellent or awful (New York City subway performances are rarely middling.) The train was crowded, but the kids confidently staked out a space in the car and propped their box against a pole.

Now, I’ve been riding the subway since I was an infant, and have  seen buskers of all stripes pass the hat. South American pan flautists, doo-wop trios, saxophone players who claim to be from outer space, and elderly Chinese violinists who have clearly been classically trained. My reaction to them is predictable: If I’m in a good mood and the music is soothing or fun, I enjoy it and then reach into my handbag for some money. If, on the other hand, I have a headache and it’s that one-man band guy with the synthesizer and the bass drum and the harmonica wired to his army cap, I sit and seethe and wish I were somewhere else. Knowing that every single stranger in that subway car feels exactly as you do is one of those priceless New York moments of community that makes having to listen to bastardized Sinatra during rush hour totally worth it.

Sheila E. shot out into the crowd–“She wants to lead/the glamorous life…Without love, it ain’t much.” Soon the third graders were head spinning, back-flipping, armchairing (can that be used as a verb?), helicoptering, nutcrackering, doing all kinds of crazy moves, somehow without kicking other passengers or swinging their heads into the poles.

It was impressive. I was terrified for them. It was all I could do to not grab the boys, force them into their seats, shut off the music and lecture them on the dangers of putting all their weight on their spinal cord and rotating like a power drill. “You want to be paralyzed for the rest of your lives?” I thought, practically out loud. “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THAT WOULD DO TO YOUR MOTHER?” Every one of my mommy hormones was surging, and these weren’t even my children!

(I also felt a wave of misplaced pride in them for engaging in such a wholesome activity to earn money; breakdancing on the subway struck me as the modern urban parallel to the suburban paper route. Do they even have paper routes anymore?)

But mostly I felt fear for their safety, and when I stuck a bill into the ski cap one of them brought around, I realized I was giving them money mostly out of relief that they had stopped. At least no one needed CPR on my watch.

I thought back to when I danced to that Sheila E. song at a frat party in college the year after it came out, feeling quite glamorous myself, and, yes, hot. That was then.

Now I’m somebody’s mother. Two people’s, in fact. I’ve heard that having children awakens a protective instinct, but until the breakdancers, I didn’t realize that that instinct applied to everyone’s children! Suddenly I felt ancient, not in the chronological sense, but like an Earth mama; in having children myself, in caring as much as I did, I had become everybody’s mother.

When, exactly, did that happen and will it last forever? I hope not. It’s very stressful. And it is absolutely not the Glamorous Life Sheila E. is probably no longer living either.

Photo by: Ralph Unden, CC Licensed