The mysteries of boy talk

By Jane Flanagan

I love being the mother of a boy. But it doesn’t always come easy. There are times I’m at a loss. That’s because the world my son inhabits is so foreign.

Take the subway ride to school. Used to be the subway was a necessary evil — the fastest, cheapest way for me to get around. A good day was when I got a seat. Little did I know. Early on in the school year, my six-year-old son, Rusty, expressed a clear preference for the #2 train over the #3. The 2 was far superior, anybody could see that. On those unfortunate mornings when we were stuck on the 3, he would complain all the way.

“I don’t like this stupid old train. Look how slow it is. And it has graffiti,” he’d say pointing to a few faint letters scratched on the back of a single seat. “The 2 doesn’t have that.” In 30 years of riding New York City trains, I never once felt compelled to point out the positive side of a subway car. But suddenly I was defending the downtrodden 3. “It doesn’t have that much graffiti. I’ve seen much, much worse,” I said.

More than subways, Rusty likes cars. Somedays, we can’t walk a block without him stopping to inspect a vehicle. “Look at the large speedometer these Mini Coopers have,” he’d say peering into the window of the tiny vehicle. Recently, walking down Greenwich St. I overheard a 3-year-old boy practicing his vocabulary. As his babysitter held him, she pointed out objects for him to pronounce. But instead of “ladder” or “stoop” he said, “Mercedes,” “Ford.” It took me right back. Rusty’s first word was “car.” Today, he can identify most any vehicle on the road, along with its salient features. “That one has a built-in antennae.”

He even identifies people by their cars. One time he overheard me discussing some family friends. Unable to place them, he asked, “What kind of car do they drive?” After seeing my blank stare, he ran through his mind all the grownups he’d met who drive. “Oh yeah, they have a Toyota,” he said.

Then there are the sneakers. Before becoming a parent, I heard about teenage boys and their fixation with sneakers. Turns out it starts way younger. For the two months leading up to the purchase of his latest pair, Rusty did not stop pestering me. When I finally bought them, they were all he talked about. The next morning on the subway ride to school he began his running commentary. “These sneakers have springs in the back, you know,” he said lifting up his foot for inspection. “Do you see these reflectors? And they have good padding on the sides.”

That Friday night, Rusty placed his new sneakers alongside his two older, slightly-too-small pairs. He assigned each a job, based on reverse seniority. The new pair would take him to school, while the other two vied for “first” and “second” weekend pair.

These boyish tendencies can, at times, also lead to deadly dinner conversations. Like the time my son and husband launched into a detailed discussion of the relative characteristics of the F-15 and F-16 fighter planes. Slumped back in my chair, eyes glazing over, I jolted myself awake by saying, “Yoo whoo! Yoo whoo! How was school today?”

“It was good,” said Rusty. I was delighted and leaned in to hear more. But, instead he said, “Mom, which plane do you think has two tails, the F-15 or F-16?”

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