As I write this, my nine- and almost-12-year-old daughters are out, alone in the world, on the mean streets of Los Angeles, with only a cell phone and a 15-year-old boy to protect them. They have gone with a pair of neighbors/friends/brothers up to The Grove, the nearby Rick Caruso-designed ersatz town square, masterminded to look just like the world did back in the '40s, when children were safe to wander around the world on a summer's day.
The boys they are with are responsible, experienced neighborhood walkers. Their mom Christie is the author of The Three Martini Playdate, a book which espouses a joyous, hands-off parenting style, and man, Christie really walks the walk, letting her boys roam the 'hood. Thus squired by these boys, I have allowed my girls greater freedom and our four kids have been having a Rockwell-ian summer together, riding their bikes over to each other's houses, ankling up to the local video store or meeting at the neighborhood pool. But today's extended outing seriously ups the independence ante -- its a long walk to a crowded place. The list of potential threats to my young makes me woozy. Christie is upbeat and ready to get down to a productive afternoon of writing. "Call me when you get there!," I call fretfully as my baby birds, sunblocked and behatted flit off down the street.
The mall is a scant two miles to the north as the crow flies, but for humans with shorter-than-average legs, its a schlep. I count 23 blocks on my Google map when I get back to my desk. Twenty-three streets to cross. I take comfort in the fact these are mostly quiet, residential streets.
This is the moment to stop worrying, to seize the kid-free day as the gift it is and do something housewifely and constructive like mix up a martini and continue the search for my G-spot. But no, instead I surf over to the Family Watchdog website and type in my street address. A map of my neighborhood appears, an orderly grid, but then over the grid a festering rash of little red dots blooms, each dot representing a registered sex offender. There is a pox on my neighborhood. A quick count reveals there are no fewer than 12 rapist/pedophiles between my house and the mall. Helpful mug shots show 12 blurry, pock-cheeked, braided, bespectacled neighbors who are probably leering right now through dusty Venetian blinds at my meandering, pubescent daughters. Eyes front girls, I think hard, trying to send a telepathic warning to my young -- don't dawdle. This was the mantra my mother taught me back in the '70s, as I soloed on the streets of Manhattan. She believed a purposeful gait was the best defense. Of course, those were the days before Polly Klass, The Silence of the Lambs and all the attendant parenting nightmares that have since taken over our collective consciousness and caused us to hide our children away from the world.
I understand the predator map is meant to be helpful, but really it only makes things worse. What exactly am I supposed to do with this information? Like Dick Cheney's terror alert, it only serves to amplify fear. I've done all I can to prepare for an attack. My daughters have both taken self defense classes and know how to kneecap an adult male, should it ever come to that. Now all I can do is fret at my desk, trying resist the manic urge to call their cell phone and check up on them, because if I do that, the predators will have won.
In New York City it is common knowledge that you're never more than 10 feet away from a rat. Does that stop anyone from dining out? No, you've simply got to put verrmin out of your mind and dig in. Similarly, you have to let your children learn to move around in the world. I know the days of kids hopscotching down the sidewalk, running a stick along a picket fence, stopping to pick up a lucky penny are over. But my kids should at least be able to walk briskly through their neighborhood and join in the glossy, fetishized version of life in the good old days being played out over at the The Grove.
My daughter just called. They made it without incident. Now all I have to worry about is them wandering around that faux '40s fantasmagoria, prey to corporate predators and the hoards of loonies who think throwing their lucky pennies into a manmade pond while "That's Amore" is piped in over loudspeakers is a good substitute for real life. Its a big, scary world out there is all I'm saying. Maybe that martini isn't a bad idea after all.