Yesterday morning, I dashed across the street to grab a coffee. My latte and the NYC café that sells it are as comforting and essential to me as Seinfeld’s diner was to him and his cronies.
But last Friday, the café was hardly a scene of solace.
As I paid for my drink, the fretting owner told me and other customers what he had heard on the radio: that multiple people had been shot near the Empire State Building.
“My son just headed over there — he works in Herald Square,” I mumbled to the cashier, a young man from Guatemala who loves his New York City life. I immediately found myself in the narcissistic grip of maternal fear, the kind that steals your breath while robbing you of your capacity to think about anyone but your own child.
My reaction stemmed in part from my experiences on 9/11, when I watched the second building fall and launched a frenetic, painful search for my older son who, at the time, was attending NYU and living in downtown Manhattan. He was fine, but of course it was quite some time before any of us knew who was or wasn’t safe.
Like 9/11, last Friday was beautiful and balmy in Manhattan; if weather were a measure of peace and goodness, then nothing bad could have happened on either of those days.
As quickly as I could make my thumbs move, I texted my younger son: “Just heard about the shooting, r u ok?” While anxiously waiting for a response, I tried to focus on how minuscule the odds of anything negative happening really were. But I had a problem: As hard as I tried to dismiss my instinctive response by framing it as an overblown, post-traumatic reaction to 9/11, I couldn’t deny the fact that shootings and their grim aftermath are no longer random or rare.
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For 10 or so people walking in midtown Manhattan on Friday, those small odds would translate into trauma. For them, there would be no miracle on 34th Street, only tragedy.
Blessedly, my younger son has not had to contend with the ravages of poverty, gangs, drugs, homelessness, Iraq or Afghanistan. He’s privileged in every sense of the word and, one would therefore think, protected from the threats of violence that snap at the heels and hearts of so many others.
He is someone who could serve as inspiration for some of the content we post on Next Avenue — the actionable blogs and articles we shape for parents in a later stage of life who can afford to expend time and energy on things like helping older kids manage finances, pay back student loans, find a job and set up an apartment.
Thankfully, it turned out that the only justification for my uneasy feeling on Friday was how truly logical my fear about my son’s well-being was — not his real-life condition. “Yeah, I’m okay. Where did that happen?” he texted back within minutes of receiving my message. It bears repeating that my worry was reasonable given the present state of affairs. Though my son was not harmed, he was very much in harm’s way.
And what about the harm to those actually struck by the bullets — and the people who care about them? What about the fact that yet another NYC landmark has been marked by a violent act? Or that we all, no matter where we live, must second-guess whether we can be safe at a movie, a mall, at school or on a sidewalk?
There is now a common feeling of being caught in the crosshairs, whether of perpetrators or well-intentioned law enforcement. We are experiencing an excruciating new state of vulnerability that’s distinct from the other horror that results from learning about, for example, plane crashes, floods and earthquakes.
The mass shooting on 34th Street and other recent incidents in which guns killed and maimed belong to a different category of threat. In each case, it is both possible and warranted to ask if and how the event could have been prevented.
And so tomorrow, as I sip my morning latte, I will ask myself if I, a member of a generation known for shaping solutions to challenging problems, might be able to help put a stop to the tragic trend that is erasing life and peace of mind for us all.
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In New York, we have a legacy of coming together and supporting one another in tough times, a history of transcending partisan perspectives and clashing opinions to repair what is broken and make things better. We’ve triumphed over external enemies and resolved internal struggles. And boomers in this metropolis and across the country have continued playing their long-held role of resisting and toppling barriers to self-expression and supporting individual freedoms.
We’re entering a period in which our sense of liberty is shrinking. This is what happens in the wake of generalized wariness and vulnerability. There’s no doubt that the factors fueling the recent criminal rampages are complex — most everyone reading this could rattle off a long list of social ills and failed systems that allow unstable personalities to emerge and batter us. The tangled web may seem impossible to unravel. But boomer history has shown us that it’s in our DNA to tackle and resolve big problems — especially when it comes to upholding the sanctity of values we know we share.
My contribution begins with a laptop and these words — airing concern and launching discussion certainly feels better than ducking and dodging. And that’s a start. But what can you do? Will you pose the same question and ponder possible actions, even small ones, that draw on your personal strengths and insights?