Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Who’s To Blame for Youthful Recklessness? (May 11, 2012)

In the aftermath of the death of the 12-year-old Brooklyn boy who was crushed to death last Sunday when he got stuck in an ascending roll-up parking lot gate, everyone’s been quick to point the finger of blame.

Some residents of the Brownsville housing complex, where the incident occurred, hold the management responsible due to the lack of recreational facilities on the property. Some criticized the residual mentality, leftover from the pop cultural craze known as “Jackass,” where daring  reckless seems more appropriate  people performed stupid and dangerous stunts just to get fleeting attention on Facebook or YouTube.

For those who may not know, “Jackass” was a popular MTV reality show for three seasons. It ended a decade ago, yet spawned three movies, a web site and a bunch of controversy, including condemnation by Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman after a teenager from his state got severely burned. MTV responded by programming the series after 10 p.m., when its youngest viewers were supposed to be fast asleep.

You can imagine how effective that was, knowing from personal experience that when youngsters, especially teenagers, are prohibited from participating in an activity, they routinely attempt to elude the ban.

This triggered a memory of a personal “Jackass” moment, which, gratefully, did not end in tragedy, but a valuable lesson.

At 12, I was not the most daring among my pack of friends. I typically remained on the sidelines and watched them take chances. However, one winter, I summoned the nerve to take part in a risky activity.

On well-below freezing days, when the streets were covered with a sheet of ice, outdoor pursuits are limited, but when you’re bursting with youthful energy, it’s better than being inside.

Decades before “Jackass,” one stunt my peers and I witnessed, before attempting it, was hitching a ride on the rear bumper of an automobile, by crouching, then holding on as the vehicle moved slowly along an icy stretch of road. After hanging on for about a block, the “jackass” let go and the momentum would take you to the curb as the car drove away.

One day, a group of friends were enacting this feat along Avenue X, between Haring Street and Nostrand Avenue. After watching them for about a half hour, I mustered the courage (or stupidity, I soon realized) to try it.

As a car made a left turn from Haring onto X, I saw my opportunity. I squatted down so the driver would not see me in the rearview mirror and grabbed the rear bumper, which in those days was ideal for that activity, but would not be as easy today. My heart beat rapidly as I held on, but my fear abated when I found myself easily sliding. My confidence swelled as friends cheered, knowing this was my first time.

About halfway to Nostrand Avenue, a car horn began honking behind me. I assumed it was a driver warning me about the dangerous activity. But, when I turned my head and saw the car was a Checker taxicab, my anxiety returned when I saw my father behind the wheel.

I instantly let go of the bumper and skidded towards the curb. By the time I stopped, my father had pulled over, exited his cab and was headed for me. By then, my friends, recognizing my father’s taxi, had scattered or were crouched behind parked cars.

My father, who rarely showed anger, calmly asked me if I was OK. Too scared to talk, I nodded. It was hard to tell whether he was mad or disappointed or both. Pointing to the general vicinity of our building, a block north, at Avenue W and Nostrand Avenue, he said, “Go home and stay in your room. Don’t tell your mother. I will.”

He stood there as I walked away. After a few steps, I turned and saw him glaring at me. I looked back before I entered the building, but he was gone.

Several hours later he came through our sixth-floor apartment door and I began to dread afraid the imminent confrontation.

He opened, then closed the bedroom door and said, “Well, at least you did one smart thing today. Staying in your room.”

I looked at him and suddenly blurted, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…”

He cut me short and said, “Sorry? You could’ve been killed if you slipped and another car hit you, or if you slid into a parked car. What were you thinking?”

At that moment I realized that my well-being was the reason my father was so upset.

Like a parent does to teach a child a comparable lesson, he told me that when he was about my age he did something just as careless, got injured and ended up with a large permanent scar on his lower back after he was hit by the grille of a trolley car.

My father didn’t punish me, but after that day I observed my friends perform the stunt from the safety of the sidewalk.

In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or accident, knee jerk responses are rarely sensible reactions. My father could have punished me that day, but, instead, he taught me an indispensable lesson.

Some insensitive comments on media web sites blamed Yakim McDaniels, the 12-year-old, who witnesses said was engaged in a risky game regularly played by local kids. Apparently, community youths challenged each other to see who could hold onto the rising gate the longest before jumping. A screaming McDaniels reportedly was unable to free himself.

For crissakes, a child is dead. Now is not the time for callousness.

On Monday, City Councilman Charles Barron, whose district includes the location, joined the chorus of angry tenants as he blamed the tragedy on the scarcity of recreational space and equipment for the community’s youth to play. The New York Post reported that “for months” Barron warned the property’s co-owners, including ex-New York Mets first baseman Mo Vaughn, about the need to add more facilities for the youngsters. Vaughn agreed that the company would pay for the child’s funeral.

The property owners were seemingly neglectful for ignoring the residents’ complaints about the youths “playing Chicken” at the potentially hazardous roll-up gate, but did those responsible adults ever admonish or stop the kids when they saw them engaging in the risky game for more than a year?

It seems that after a needless tragedy, such as this one, everyone is quick to blame someone else before placing the burden on their own shoulders.

The recklessness of youth is clear, but the failure of adults, who admitted they stood by and watched youngsters take part in a dangerous game but did nothing to stop it, is inexcusable.

By and large, after tragedies like this, there’s always plenty of blame to go around.