Sticks and Stones and Puppy Dog Tales

We are trying to finish our film “Battle of Brooklyn”, and since my wife is the editor it has fallen to me to watch the brood. It’s always a bit of a struggle to get my older daughter to leave the house. She’s had some anxiety issues for a couple of years. Things had improved last spring when we unfortunately witnessed the tail end of a phone jacking. The thief ran through the playground we were on and I got set to tackle him. My daughter was clearly upset so I was already backing off when the nice young man yelled at me to step back because he had a gun. Needless to say, her anxiety bloomed anew. However, things have slowly improved again and i was able to coax her out. On Sunday we spent a couple of hours at a street fair and then spent the rest of the day at the playground. I was pleased because she was relaxed and having fun.

Labor Day Monday was gorgeous and I would have loved to take them to the beach, but they always complain about going places, so I took them to see “Ramona and Beezus” instead. I was surprised to find that it was almost watchable. It was a timely film about stressful families and the difficult task of parenting difficult children. It was also about hopes, aspirations, sacrifice, and stability. Sweethearts married and lived in the homey neighborhood houses that they grew up in, or returned to those houses to rekindle the romances of their youth. All of these dramas were observed and altered by a precocious 9 year old who was anchored in her community. Everything was a bit too perfect and precious in an un-Brooklyn fairy tale kind of way, but it beat the hell out of the 3D animation on steroids crap that I normally have to put up with for my daughters.

Oddly, there were almost no kids movies playing anywhere this Labor Day weekend, so we ended up driving a half an hour to Queens to see the film in quiet neighborhoody Forest Hills. When we arrived for the 1:05 labor day screening, the theater was empty, except for a solo older woman reading a newspaper. A few others arrived as the previews rolled. As the film unspooled I found myself laughing too loud at all the wrong places, just like my father used to do. My daughter shushed me repeatedly and pushed my hand away when I tried to put my arm around her. I remember a very similar situation when my father took us to the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “48 hours”. My brother and I sunk into our seats as our father laughed way too loud at all the jokes about hookers and race, terrified that kids we knew might be at the theater. As we skulked out of the theater he said, “that sucked”. I felt kind of the same way yesterday. It was more afterschool special, than cinematic event, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t laugh through the whole thing and cry at least three times. I was thinking about him the entire time.

It was a bit slow for my 4 year old, who squirmed distractedly throughout, but my 8 year old loved it. I think it meant a lot to her because she saw a lot of herself in the character. In true Ramona fashion, she spilled her milk while snatching her sister’s food at dinner.

Before dinner I had a reverse fairytale experience. I was worn out from two solid days with my girls so I went for a quick run through the park. I haven’t been running much because my knee is out of whack, so I’m a bit rusty. As I rounded a curve and started to cross the massive stone steps on the East side of the park I heard a loud crack as a glass bottle exploded about 10 feet in front of me. A group of 5 or 6 young boys- probably between 6 and 9 years old stood to the side watching. I wasn’t sure whether or not they had done it on purpose but I when I jogged toward them to discuss the incident they headed up the stairs. I called after them, “Hey, what do you all think you’re doing? This is your park and you could get hurt on that glass.”

I deal with a lot of kids this age at my daughter’s school, and in a split second I knew that scolding them wasn’t going to be useful, but I also felt like I couldn’t let the moment go un-challenged. i jogged after them and they tossed a couple of rocks at me. These were kids. I can’t say it didn’t feel a bit unreal to have little kids trying to hit me with rocks, but at this point they were tossing them instead of really aiming. They had another bottle and I got them to slow down and talk to me. Some of them were being really aggressive while a few others were being more reasonable. They fanned out a bit and while one of them explained that they were just making noise with bottles and rocks; he banged a rock on the bottle, a few others continued to chuck rocks at me. I wasn’t yelling at them and I wasn’t scolding them, I was trying to stay calm and to get them to realize that the park was their park, and that breaking glass was a bad idea.

One kid said something like, “No no, I understand what he’s trying to say”- while another pointed out that he had just tried to hit me with a rock. When I turned to talk to talk to the kid with the bottle, the understanding kid chucked another rock at me and then they all took off running down the stairs. When they got 20 yards away the kid with the bottle threw it at me and it exploded a few steps in front of me. It was a lost cause and I didn’t see any reason in following them any more.

A woman was running across the stairs, in the same route around the park that I had been taking and they started to attack her. One kid slapped her bottom and when she turned to see what had happened another one zipped in from the other side. These were little kids, and she was laughing like it was all in fun. But it wasn’t and after three more slaps I had made it down the stairs and the kids took off running. As I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t all in fun, one kid whipped back up the stairs and gave her a last smack while the others continued zipping rocks at me. One connected with my arm and they cheered and continued on. I didn’t get to finish talking to the woman, she sprinted away.

I was a little upset as I continued on my run. I’m sure, that as kids who live in the projects near the park, that they saw me as an outsider, but the truth is I’ve lived there for way longer than they’ve been alive. A woman stopped me and told me that those same kids terrorize people on that side of the park. I certainly felt some empathy for them, which is why I stopped to talk. It’s clear that they don’t have a lot of positive guidance in their lives. It was also clear that they didn’t want it from me. I wasn’t scared of the kids, but I was scared of the fact that a pack of 6 to 8 year olds didn’t think twice about throwing bottles and rocks at a person who simply tried to talk to them.

When I got home I left a couple of rambling messages for the community affairs officer at the local police precinct. Part of my message stated that I wasn’t sure what they could do, but that I was sure they wouldn’t call me back anyway (they didn’t).

School starts tomorrow and I hope that the structure, and some strong adults help them right their course. Life, unfortunately, isn’t like a fairytale, it’s deeply complex. I felt kind of like a fool trying to talk some sense into some senseless kids. But I also felt like if I didn’t even try, I’d be a bigger fool. Today, they’re probably still laughing about pegging me with a rock. Maybe, though, one of them feels bad about it, because really, what the hell did I do to them.

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