Insight For The Modern Man

Dan Kempner 
Legacy Columnist

I’m a New York Jew, which automatically makes me a little neurotic. It’s in the contract when you join that particular club.

New York has a bad reputation, true, but on the other hand, if you could not say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been mugged three times,” you didn’t really fit in. Yeah, it was a dangerous town, and I had my share of incidents.

There was this time I almost burned down the Hotel Bretton Hall on 85th Street and Broadway during the Great Blackout of ’77. There was gunfire in the streets; you could hear the looters yelling. I had called my folks in the Bronx and asked for a pickup.

Big flammable building.

“Are you nuts?” they yelled. “Jesus, look around you. No lights. Riots. You stay in your apartment and we’re staying here. We’ll pick you up in the morning. Got it?”

So I lit some candles. Anybody would, right? The roaches were swarming, I couldn’t see a thing… Anyway, I woke up with the place on fire. Not my favorite two minutes until I got the flames under control. By the way, this was not the Ritz. This was a residential hotel for pensioners, ten floors and no elevators working. As a cure for low blood pressure, I recommend it. It was scary.

A few years later, one night in East New York, driving my checker cab on a night I shouldn’t have, I picked up four young men in sneakers who suggested I make an immediate cash transfer from my pocket to theirs. The residents – apparently short on entertainment – watched impassively.

The muggers were wonderfully ranged by size. If I’d had a couple of mallets I could have played them like a xylophone: one shrimpy little guy, one a little taller, a fellow my size and… well, The Hulk might describe the fourth one nicely. He was large, and his massive forearm was around my throat. I was scared, especially when they offered to kill me, an offer I politely requested they reconsider. In the end, they got $35 bucks from my wallet – missing the hundred-and-a-half in my shirt pocket – and an old battered leather bag filled with paperbacks I was returning to my ex-girlfriend. Sorry Stacey – now you know. In all, a cheap lesson, but it was pretty damn scary.

I traveled, too, as a teenager, rode alone over the Alps, hiding from the Austrian Polizei, who always seemed to catch me pitching my tent in the wrong place or riding my bicycle on an autobahn on-ramp. Verboten! they would shout, like Hogan’s Heroes Nazis, and demand a twelve-mark fine on the spot.

An Austrian Alp.

I spent one night on an Austrian mountain, pitched the tent in an alpine field – no doubt crushing some Edelweiss in the process. As I sat on a rock watching the Sun drop over the deep valley below, I heard a noise. It came closer, and it growled at me. I ran to my tent and curled up in a tight, fetal ball – as though a few ounces of nylon would protect me from… well, from anything big enough to eat me. I was so scared my stomach began to hurt, and when I finally had the courage to move, I ended up in the krankenhaus – the hospital – for the duration. That was fuckin’ scary, bro.

In general, I thought I knew fear. Then, I had children. Now I know fear.

The face of fear.

I am the daddy of two little girls, and no parent will be surprised by the above. I can’t be trusted to get the clothes off a clothesline before it rains, and now I’m supposed to protect two little kids, with no mistakes, for twenty years?

I’ve forgotten to pay critical bills, or to cancel subscriptions before I get charged again. I am not qualified to manage two tiny, fragile humans. One such mistake with my daughters, and life as I know it is over. I think of that poor bastard who went to work for his hospital shift and left his children strapped in the back all day in 90-degree heat. They were going to put him in jail, but for what? The torture that man will endure for his remaining time on Earth is unimaginable.

I don’t want that. I’m scared.

I now live in Saigon, a city where there are no usable sidewalks, but there are thousands, no millions, of motorbikes – darting out from alleys, swerving in odd directions. Every block there are people driving the wrong way, in apparent repudiation of Western traffic laws. I can take my daughter’s hand to cross a street and find vehicles moving around us from eight different points of the compass – that is not an exaggeration, as anyone who’s been to Vietnam can attest.

People have been known to speed past on a motorbike and pluck children off the streets, or out of their parent’s arms. I don’t know if they sell them for parts, or keep them as pets, and I don’t want to know.

I’m scared shitless of this.

There are dengue mosquitoes, poisonous bugs, terrible city air. The family car is a motorbike, and the kids ride it like pros, but should an accident occur, it will be bad.

I am not built to pay attention to anything as closely as I have to with children. My mind wanders. I get interested in conversations. My five-year-old is quick, and last week when I turned to speak to someone, she was outside the gates and on the street before I was even aware she wasn’t next to me.

My toddler can motor as well and stands, proud and shaky, at the top of the concrete stairs, just too far away for me to catch her if she were to fall.

I was lucky – just damn lucky – I wasn’t burned, or shot, or wasn’t eaten by a wild animal on a barren Alp. I don’t know if my kids will have the same luck. There is no magic fairy, no blue godmother who comes and protects my children. It is up to me.

And that is fucking scary.