Wait Until You See the White Man!

A former NYC urchin confronts the art of sidewalk safety.

(Illo: Jessica H. Lee)
(Illo: Jessica H. Lee)

There is a stoop a few blocks from Union Square that catches my eye every time I pass it. It’s been beautified over the years: its formerly soot-colored iron railing painted silver, its door finished in slick, bougie mahogany and brass. Two identical potted plants now occupy the space that during my childhood was largely reserved for lazy-eyed pigeons and hypodermic needles.

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But the most marked improvement is in the concrete itself, which is now smooth instead of crumbling and which has been outfitted on each step with small skid-proof pads. These pads in particular would have been helpful to me in 1984, the year when I famously fell down the stoop of 138 West 15th Street headfirst. 

Okay, fine, it’s not famous like some of the other events of that year—say, the Gandhi assassination or the Ethiopian famine—but in my family, that seven-step free fall onto cement is the stuff of legend, though it reportedly did not necessitate more than a Band-Aid.

I bring this up because we recently crossed a threshold in my house when it comes to child rearing, a threshold that I like to call “Life/Death.” Just a few months ago, my husband Jeff and I could be reasonably assured that our one-and-a-half-year-old son Sam couldn’t put himself in harm’s way without considerable negligence on our parts, seeing as the inside of our apartment had long been robbed of anything remotely fun (So long, X-Acto knife-cum-pizza cutter! Farewell, fumbled Vicodin wedged between the floorboards!), and every time we took him outside he was restrained, Hannibal Lecter-style (albeit sans mask, to allow for easier string cheese consumption).

Alas, those salad days are behind us. Because now, in the great outdoors, Sam often insists on walking, which it turns out is just the gateway motor skill to running, jumping, hurling oneself onto piles of garbage, and—yes—climbing stoops, which induces a Jimmy Stewart Vertigo thing where my disembodied head flies through a psychedelic kaleidoscope.

There are some upsides to two-legged mobility, of course—a crawling baby will no sooner touch down on a city sidewalk before he’s using a fistful of broken bottle caps and soggy Marlboro butts as a chew toy. But at least you can clean out their mouths, or get them tetanus shots. There’s no easy cure for the potential dismemberment that lies in wait at the sidewalk’s end.

It seems like it should be simple to teach kids that if they run into traffic, they’ll die, but self-preservation isn’t exactly a priority for toddlers, who have no understanding—and thus no fear—of death. They’re like puppies, or Keith Richards. You stare after them, their little legs pumping as they flail excitedly but unsteadily toward a candy-colored parade of cahs and rucks and realize that you may have judged those people who put their kids on leashes a bit too harshly.

My outdoor city life these days takes place in bursts of short steps as I play a tedious and never-ending game of Red Light, Green Light, 1-2-3. “Stop,” I’ll warn as soon as we’re 200 feet from the curb, and Sam will freeze, grinning up at me with an impish expression that lets me know he’ll be off and running again in nanoseconds. A chase ensues, followed by another series of staccato stops, and finally a firm hand-grab as we wait to see the “white walking man” who lets us know it’s okay to cross. This seemed innocuous enough until the day that I loudly proclaimed, in front of a group of Latino teenagers, “WHEN YOU SEE THE WHITE MAN, YOU KNOW IT’S SAFE.”

Accidental racist undertones of crosswalks aside, I actually think Sam is beginning to understand the basic logic behind not running straight into traffic. But as his second birthday approaches, there looms an even more frightening street danger: scooting.

The concept of toddlers being able to travel at frightening speeds with reasonable directional control is positively bone-chilling. I see them traveling through Park Slope in packs, like biker gangs, helmets askew, steering one-handed with sticky popsicle fingers, their grubby Keens moving faster than Flintstone feet as they shoot through busy intersections.

“How do you make sure he doesn’t kill himself?” I asked one mom I met at the Prospect Park bandshell recently. We made small talk as her long-legged 3-year-old looped us in increasingly tight circles, Sam staring reverently at the older child with the kind of look I usually reserve for paparazzi photos of Helen Mirren in a bikini.

“Threats,” she said firmly, stretching her quadriceps and standing on one leg. “That, and wind sprints.”

I ran track in high school, but seeing as my greatest athletic accomplishment was faking a sprained ankle to get out of the borough championships, I don’t feel overly confident that I could outrun a scooter.

So what’s a streetwise yet still street-wary New York mom to do? “Let go” is the common refrain I hear, usually accompanied by helpless sighs. Make like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and teach your children well, slap on some protective headgear and hope for the best.

Then watch as they race off down the sidewalk, unable to contain their excitement at what might be around the next corner. Say a prayer for everyday battle scars liked scraped knees instead of the kinds of horrific wounds that you used to see on Grey’s Anatomy. Think of how much cardio you’re logging chasing your kid — and just hope you don’t fall down the stoop after him.

Wait Until You See the White Man!