A Manhattan Mystery With Screens
When thinking about how to rally change in urban design, I come back to a confrontation I had in a ballroom during a child’s fifth birthday party in the hot late summer of 2010.
While my neighbor was in the bathroom with her daughter, her son had taken an idle toy car off a table. An older boy he didn’t know took it back, since it was his own toy. My neighbor’s son got upset, so I stepped in. The older boy said to me: “it’s mine and he can’t take it, it’s mine.” I asked my neighbor’s son to apologize. That’s that. The party continued.
Except that later, the boy who owned the car was rushing for his turn at the pinata and elbowed my daughter into her friend. I tapped the boy on his shoulder and told him what he had done. And his mom, squinting and much louder, leaned in and asked me to step outside.
How could I speak to the child when I was a stranger? (A stranger with at least one strong connection, ie the host of the birthday party, but that seemed unimportant.). I explained what had happened, but the woman insisted: “It’s very strange that you would talk to a boy who doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know what to do with that.” She went on to explain that if I were not so “odd,” I would have found his parents and talked to them- and that she had silently, seethingly seen “my son” take the car hours earlier.
So I offered to have a neighbor watch my girl and step into the hallway to work out this misunderstanding.
“I’m not interested anymore,” she snapped. “Thank you!” Her husband was playing with the pinata. She prompted him to ask if he wanted to talk to me, and he turned and bared his teeth. Now I actually got ready to take a punch, given how his shoulders swept forward, and to return it. “I would love to talk to you! Your attitude is too much.” Let’s go in the hall, I said. Let’s talk. But then he turned back to the pinata.
The kids managed to play through all this, and everyone seemed inclined to close the browser window with this confrontation in it.
I approached the aggrieved dad, on a window-seat, and listened to his monotone assessment that “I’m two for two in making people think I’m odd” and that I had “confused the boy” because he “doesn’t know what to do if strangers talk to him.” The boy had started the conversation with me, and was now grinning and running around with his car in hand, but hey.
I asked the man why he didn’t say something to me if I had been upsetting his child.
“Why would I waste your time?” he said.
Kids swung at the pinata, blindfolded. Missed. The adults eventually cracked it- because they could see it. The party, which included a ventriloquist and a sweet vibe for all this rancor, ended. Before we left, I saw the shaved-head dad hanging out a few feet away.
I walked over to him and extended my hand. “I intended no offense, all right?”
He shook my hand and met my eye. “None taken.” I took my daughter by the hand into the elevator, explaining why I wanted to shake the guy’s hand and what “none taken” means.
Challenging someone to gain the confidence to stand ground even when ground shifts, though, is never a waste of time. And when you are trying to educate urban children on America’s coast, who will have to commute during at least four 100-year floods as adults, there’s no such thing as too much confidence. In fact, field-testing the way you see things can make an airtight insurance policy.
A few weeks later, we came across the birthday girl and her mom across from our neighborhood playground at the edge of Chinatown, and the kids ran off to play house a few strides away from some elderly immigrants doing an exercise I have seen over the past eight years and never understood.
Why don’t I walk up to one of the exercisers and ask what she’s doing?
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