The first thing that got my attention was the muffled whine.
It was coming from across the parking lot, about 25 yards away, on a crisp, bright Saturday afternoon. It's the kind of sound you hear in and around supermarkets all the time -- a restless child verbally squirming to break loose from a shopping trip. Maybe he's bored. Or hungry. Or tired. There's nothing unusual about a cranky kid at a supermarket.
This time, I couldn't tell immediately where the whine was coming from.
And then I spotted the little sneakers.
They were dangling out of the bottom of a pair of jeans, and the jeans were dangling out from under a coat, and the coat was held shoulder-high by a man with brown hair.
Get the picture? The man was hauling a kid four or five feet above the ground. The man's right hand, bent back at the wrist, held the collar of a coat, and somewhere inside the coat was what appeared to be a 3- or 4-year-old boy. The full weight of the child's body was slung inside the coat. The child seemed frozen, unable to move his arms.
My first thought: This guy is going to choke this kid.
"What are you doing?" I yelled.
The words shot into the air -- a big, harsh condemnation I hadn't quite intended as an opening salvo. The words left my lips before my brain had fully analyzed the scene unfolding before me.
The man turned and his faced cracked into an expression I can only describe as half-glare, half-smile. It was weird.
He continued to haul, then heave and jostle the little kid, as he approached a four-wheel-drive truck I assumed to be his. The child whined excitedly. He appeared to be trussed inside his own coat, unable to move and, for all I knew, likely to choke against the collar and his father's knuckles.
Let me complete the picture for you: With his left hand the man pushed a shopping cart full of groceries. There was an infant in the seat of the shopping cart. Why the man put himself into this stressed-out state, making himself flustered and angry in the process, I don't know.
"Why are you carrying that kid like that?" I shouted.
Now I was pushing into foreign frontier, and nervous about it. Who was I to tell another man how to handle his children? Maybe my big mouth was about to get me in trouble. (A number of friends think I was nuts for speaking up to a stranger. "He could have had a shotgun in the truck," one of them said, which I took as a measure of how deeply the threat of violence has infested this society of ours.)
Like everyone else, I have seen parents disciplining kids in and around supermarkets. Most of us, especially those of us who have been in such situations ourselves, say nothing -- unless, of course, a parent appears to be abusing a child. "You know it when you see it," a prosecutor once told me.
That's what happened in the supermarket parking lot. I was there when a man crossed the line.
"I suggest you mind your own business!" he shot back.
By now, the little boy, who was still crying, was on the ground. His father was opening the door of the truck.
"You carry a kid like that and it is my business!" is what I shouted, and the man lifted the little boy and placed him in the back seat of the truck. He put the infant in a child-safety seat.
"He's not being hurt!" he shot back.
Just then, I noticed a young woman and man -- I later learned they were a married couple -- approaching the truck. They, too, had seen the way the child had been manhandled, and they, too, were upset. "At first I wasn't going to say anything," the woman, whose name was Jennifer, told me later. "I thought I might have been overreacting. But I had to say something."
Suddenly, I felt a lot better. My instincts had been validated by two other people.
As he packed groceries in his truck, the stressed-out father became increasingly annoyed that the three of us still were standing and staring. We had him surrounded and outnumbered.
As the truck pulled out of the parking lot, Jennifer memorized the license tag and telephoned 911. A Baltimore County police officer paid a visit to the man at his home, and I hope the appearance of a cop at his front door gave the guy the shakes. I hope he learned a lesson. For that little boy's sake.