He doesn't usually stop for passengers on Magazine Street, but when Safe Ride driver Jim McNeely spotted the stocking-footed toddler walking alone in the dark, he pulled the van over without hesitating.
"I saw this little kid walking along the sidewalk. All he had on was a little shirt, socks and a diaper. His body language, his facial expression -- everything said to me that he was in trouble," said Mr. McNeely, a retired social worker and guidance counselor who drives one of MIT's shuttle vans. "When I pulled up next to him, it scared him. He went up the stairs of a house and started pulling on the door."
It was 3:45am and Mr. McNeely was making his last trip of the night through Cambridgeport, just as the toddler was making his own solitary trip home in the damp chill on Friday, May 8. The child had apparently traveled about 10 blocks from his father's house to his mother's, when Mr. McNeely saw him and notified his Safe Ride supervisor and the police.
Safe Ride passenger Laura Sever, a senior in electrical engineering, got out of the van to comfort the little boy and keep him from running away.
"What I wanted to say was, 'It's okay, we'll take you home.' But we didn't know where he lived," said Ms. Sever. "So I squatted down on the porch next to him and just started talking. I had a really tough time understanding him because he's so young and didn't enunciate very well. It took quite a while to figure out his name," she said.
"Apparently the porch he was on really was where he lived. But we didn't know that," said Ms. Sever, who said she often relies on Safe Ride for transportation home after working late on campus.
Another Safe Ride driver, Zach Roscoe, heard the call and came to help, wrapping his jacket around the little boy. MIT Campus Police and Cambridge Police officers arrived shortly afterward.
Mr. McNeely said the Cambridge police had been looking for the toddler after receiving a call from someone who reported seeing the child in a nearby park. Police officers took the child to Cambridge Hospital, where he was reunited with his family later that morning.
The child's grandfather told the Boston Globe: "My grandson stayed over my son's house, and my grandson, he wanted to come home. Everyone was sleeping, so he got up and he came home. You know, opened the door and started walking home. I'm surprised that he knew his way home."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 13, 1998.