In the days before I got my driver’s license, I had to rely upon begging car rides or using public transportation. The latter came with both pros and cons, of course. There was nothing to like about standing in the bitter, biting Chicago winter wind waiting for a bus that was already late, just to find it jam-packed with other very cold and miserable people. But on a good day, when there were plenty of seats and I was not pressed for time, the bus offered me a moment to relax and reflect, and to observe.

One spring morning I was out and about much earlier than I normally would be, leaving plenty of time to get to a doctor’s appointment in Rogers Park. I walked over to the El, got off at Belmont, and walked a few more blocks to catch a bus the rest of the way. At the stop, there was a shelter with a single bench. A boy, no more than six years old I thought, was sitting by himself, a huge black backpack pushing down on his small shoulders. I sat at the opposite end of the bench to wait. I saw him glance at me and then look away. I wondered how he could even walk with such a huge backpack. He had on what was obviously a school uniform, with crisp khaki pants, a white button-down shirt, and a forest-green cable sweater. I suppose, I thought, that he did this every day. I wondered if I would ever be able to let a little child navigate Chicago on his own, or should. He glanced over at me again, and I offered him a small smile, and spoke.

“Are you on your way to school this morning?” I asked, brightly.

His eyes grew wide. “I can’t talk to you,” he replied as he stared at me, his little jaw going tight. He looked down to the ground.

“Oh. OK. I understand,” I said reassuringly, offering another smile, this time with some sadness at the corners. I imagined his mother telling him to never talk to anyone, sit up next to the bus driver, cross at the light, have your bus pass ready. He was trying to do the right thing.

We sat there for a few more minutes in silence. He kicked at a cigarette butt on the ground, swung his legs, shifted his shoulders. We both craned our necks every so often to see if the bus was coming, and finally, it did, lumbering and rocking a bit side-to-side as it made its way to our stop.

When the bus stopped and the doors creaked open, the boy and I stood up at the same time. Without looking at me – perhaps without thinking – he took my hand, and held onto it gently until he walked up the bus steps, and my heart broke into a million, aching pieces.