“It’s not like I am going to die or anything.”
My ten-year-old daughter Liza is begging me to let her walk alone to her school bus stop three streets from our Brooklyn apartment. She is as persistent as a lawyer in court, who, sensing that victory is at hand, refuses to let up on the line of questioning despite repeated though increasingly exhausted cries of “Objection!” from opposing counsel.
And there are objections. She would have to cross Fifth Avenue and Union Street, a busy intersection, where just last week I, outraged urban mother, cussed and flipped the bird at a guy making a reckless turn.
“He could have killed us!”
Tough guys in bloated SUVs and steroid-fueled Hummers are my nightmare. So, needless to say, I can’t let her walk it alone. She is disappointed, though I think she might have been impressed with my cussing and bird-flipping.
Some concessions have been made. She can now walk around the corner, alone, to our neighborhood grocery store to buy treats. “My first receipt! My first receipt!” she shouted after her maiden solo expedition, prancing around the living room with the satisfaction of Lance Armstrong flying over the finish line of the Tour de France, arms upraised in victory. Lobbying efforts for further freedoms continue.
When I began third grade in 1968, my parents decided that my brother Simon and I could make the trip to school on our own by riding New York City public buses. As a mother in these more cautious present times, when we fret about child kidnappings and car accidents and arm our children with cell phones, I find it a mystery that my parents let us go on our own. Yet, I have met other adults who grew up in the city during that time, who also went to school alone at a young age. My mother never explained anything to us about child-focused crime. Perhaps, although the city was more ragged, we were all more innocent. Liza understood the language of danger at an early age, but when I was a child if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t exist despite all visible evidence to the contrary.
During that winter, long before cellphones, in a city plagued with actual crazy people, grime and crime, Simon and I were latchkey kids, returning home to a babysitter in the afternoons. We attended a private school on 79th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, but we lived on the shabby Upper West Side in an apartment building on 99th and West End Avenue. The avenue was still cobblestoned in those days—I loved listening to the sound of the cars rattling down the street during a rainstorm.
Down the hill on 97th Street was the incongruously named Hotel Paris (now an elegant co-op), where in these and later years, before real estate frenzy swept these northern reaches, tall dark-skinned pimps in white flared suits and wide brimmed hats stepped out of long white limousines, escorting their flashily dressed wares on their arms. These exotic giants, and especially their women, seemed impossibly glamorous to me; I was dressed in pleated skirts, Peter Pan collared shirts, knee socks and button-hooked Mary Jane’s. Though an assault on my intellectual parents’ aesthetic tastes, the pimps and spangled women were more benign than the crazy SUV drivers are now. At least they kept to themselves and drove their oversized cars at a dignified speed.
Both my parents worked. When we were younger, we traveled to school on a private van, but now that I had reached third grade we were on our own. My mother took us two or three times to show us the way. Down Broadway on the 104 Bus, tightly clutching our bus passes in their plastic sleeves, then the crosstown bus at 79th street from Broadway, across Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, Central Park West, through the park to Fifth Avenue. Her final cautionary words: “Here is my office number. Look both ways crossing the street. Don’t talk to any strangers. Be sure to take good care of your brother.” I was Simon’s serious older sister, with a firm grip on his hand.
One morning, following a huge snowfall, Simon and I left our apartment to head off to school. There had been no escape from the snowsuits my mother presented to us on winter mornings. This was before the days of form-fitting Polartec fleece and Goretex. Our snowsuits were dark blue, held up with uncomfortable suspenders, seriously puffy and—even for young children without a self-formed fashion sense—a complete humiliation. Our legs, once encased in their nylon prisons, produced a persistent swish, as irritating in its own way as fingernails scraping a blackboard. Not to mention the too-soon soggy woolen mittens attached to strings threaded through our woolen coat sleeves and the itchy scarves and hats secured with chafing under-the-chin fastenings.
The trip down Broadway was slow that morning, the streets clogged with snow. At 79th Street we boarded the crosstown bus. The engine revved and strained as the driver attempted the hill, exactly the “vroom vroom” noise my brother made when he played with his Matchbox cars. Nothing doing. The driver shut off the engine, opened the doors.
“Out of service,” he announced, and we dutifully filed out with the other passengers.
We stood around for awhile wondering what to do. We were good kids; we mostly did as we were told (except, of course, when we did not). But there we were, stranded, alone, except for my mother’s magical powers as a disciplinarian, the awesome omniscience of an unseen god.
“What would Mommy want us to do?” I wondered. Somehow we had to get to school. The thought of returning home never occurred to us. Going home would be a day off. My mother didn’t take days off.
A group of older girls converged. Simon knew some of them from our school. Ninth graders in bellbottoms and flippy pony tails (no snowsuits), they thought Simon was adorably cute with his mop of dark curly hair, freckles, thick glasses and a patch over his stronger right eye. They told us they were walking through the park and encouraged us to follow them. “We’ll take care of you guys! Come with us!”
So we did. The serious older sister let go of her brother’s hand. We trailed at a distance across the hushed avenues and into the park, only the sound of our swishing snowpants and boots crunching the snow. In the park, the profound, dense silence of New York City after a blizzard, absent the hum of traffic, the gray tree skeletons transformed with a coating of fluffy sugar frosting. I don’t remember that Simon and I talked a lot. I don’t remember that we dropped our school bags and suddenly, overtaken with the thrill of unexpected liberty, began a snowball fight. I remember the quiet, our swishing snowpants, our crunching boots and the fear and thrill of something forbidden. A forbidden adventure nevertheless filled with purpose.
We were pioneering Antarctic explorers hunting for the South Pole. We were mountaineers, summiting Everest. We were famished Indians hunting for deer with bow and arrow. We were lost in the fairytale wilderness of one of our storybooks, escaping from a cruel wart-nosed witch who lived in a cottage perched on chicken legs.
I am beginning to suspect that Liza’s lobbying for freedoms is really part of a secret plan to experience similar forbidden, yet innocent urban thrills. Despite the real dangers of urban life, I moved home to the city a year ago so that my daughter could experience life without the frequently varnished surface of exurbia. Homeless people are real, and so are the rude exchanges of drivers and pedestrians at crosswalks. Here we see the harshness of racism and poverty and the selfishness of a truly material age. But also real are the fantastic street performances of startup rock bands or break dancers as well as random acts of urban kindness and absurdity that open the heart.
“Mama, I’m here…where are you?” Faced with a situation such as Simon and I encountered, Liza called me using her bright caterpillar green cell phone, on the two or three afternoons last school year when I, brow slick in a cold sweat of anxiety, endured the frequent delays of the New York City subway system, returning from Manhattan to reach her bus stop. I was grateful then for her common sense and our modern communications technology. On the other hand, I worry that with so many digital safeguards in place she and other children of this generation won’t learn to think for themselves when presented with the unpredictable.
I actually hope that she will have eye-opening adventures in this city that will be hers, alone, situations I will not always be able to control or monitor. Perhaps she will bring home a bedraggled stray kitten; maybe a homeless person will end up with one of the carefully packed lunches I make for her each morning, or, if I am lucky, she too will have to make her way to school following a blizzard. I hope that I can allow her that freedom, full of risk, where creative experiences and of course, mistakes, so essential to the process of mastery, really happen. I hope I can stop hovering.
The thought of her crossing Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn at rush hour still frightens me. And today she left her lunch bag on the morning school bus, reminding me that despite her pleas for independence, she is still a child, who needs my care. Every time she says, “Mama, I have a question,” I take a deep breath, wondering if it’s going to be the fiftieth query about the three-block walk to her bus stop. She’s just turned ten, and winter is coming.