Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Our Children in the World

Today I was teaching twelve-year-old Isaac to get to school by himself, on the New York City subway. This past school year he came home by himself on the bus, about 30 blocks, without a problem. He has reached these thresholds slightly earlier than Aaron, who at fourteen, now gets everywhere he needs to be by himself, and safely. As a parent on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, I have to worry about many more potential dangers than my mother did on Ysleta’s San Lorenzo Avenue. I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about my children in the world.

San Lorenzo was three short blocks to South Loop School, and my old neighborhood did have a few gangs, but they weren’t the real danger as I walked to and from school as a child. Dogs. I hated the Doberman pinscher that once lunged at me from the bushes of the house across the street. We had our own ferocious guard dog, Lobo, who had bitten many passersby straying too close to our fence or unlucky enough to be on the street when Lobo managed to vault the chainlink. And cars. The souped-up low riders and pickups never stopped, for there wasn’t even a crosswalk painted on our dirt streets. I remember seeing Reuben, a neighborhood kid, tumble underneath a pickup as it ran him over during our baseball game on San Simon. Reuben survived with only a broken arm.

In New York, cars are also dangerous, but in a different way. At crosswalks, even when pedestrians have the ‘Walk’ sign, cars do not stop. This happens every day on Broadway, and it’s a particular problem on two-way avenues. You get the ‘Walk’ sign on Broadway and you walk across the two-way avenue, but by the time you get to the other side, impatient drivers on the cross street have begun turning into the avenue, challenging pedestrians to get out of the way. The worst offenders are invariably taxis, livery cabs, city buses, and delivery trucks. Those on a schedule, a match up their butts. I have lost count how many times I have heard that awful screech of rubber on asphalt to avoid metal smashing into flesh at the crosswalk.

Less frequent dangers on Broadway are cars missing the red light entirely and zooming across the intersection and cars screeching to a halt at the crosswalk as their drivers realize they have a red light. If you jump into the crosswalk the instant you have the ‘Walk’ sign, you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After you have the ‘Walk’ sign, I tell my children, make sure the cars have actually stopped. Not only do you not have to make mistakes, but you must often catch the mistakes of others to be safe.

Bicycles, of course, never stop at the red light. Messengers, take-out delivery guys, Lance-Armstrong-wannabes. They’re even on the sidewalks.

Parked cars you’re standing next to often lurch backward without their drivers glancing into their rear view mirrors.

SUV-like strollers are battering rams deployed by harried mothers with a passive aggressive smile on their faces. At worst, your toe or shin will be bruised. It’s happened to me twice.

And I haven’t even gotten to the aggressive beggars on the street who follow you for a block, even after you have politely turned them down. The shifty-eyed losers who strike up conversations with young girls alone. The crazed woman I once met on a Number 1 train who, out of the blue, threatened to gut everyone in the car “like a fish.” The wild high school kids who, as four cops stand at the subway platform, push each other at incoming subway cars with snorts and guffaws.

I will do my best to train Aaron and Isaac for this New York City world they must navigate on their own. I will train them by being tough, by teaching them to be resourceful, by being available in case they need me, by going over scenarios with them, by watching them and not saying a word, even if they are making choices I would not make. I will do my best, and I will keep my fingers crossed and hope they learn from experience. The buzz of the doorbell, when they are home, is the sweetest sound of my day.