My son Carlos and I were driving down Elmore Street one day last week, when we saw a long-haired dachshund running up the middle of the road. Its gait of total glee, immaculately groomed coat, and jingly tags told us it was not a stray. The dog was weaving back and forth across the road, cars screeching to avoid it.
“Mom! We have to do something!” My son cried.
Now I wouldn’t have left the creature to get squished under the wheels of a car, but with a houseful of asthmatics the prospect of bringing it home was not appealing, not to mention that we were heading to my office and sneaking an energetic dog in would prove a challenge. I pulled the car over and leapt out, waving my arms in warning at the oncoming traffic. Just as I bent over to call to the dog—who, by the way, was smiling, I swear he looked like a drunken frat boy on spring break—I heard a car careening behind me and whipped around to stop them. I watched a nice-looking man jump from the driver seat and call “Sam!” as the pooch ran to his waiting arms like a kid back from summer camp.
“Are you his owner?”
“Yes, we’ve been driving all over looking for him, the little bugger!” he said, affectionately mussing Sam’s fur.
“Thank God! I wasn’t sure WHAT we would have done with him, but we couldn’t have left him to run wildly through the streets!”
The man thanked us and drove off, Sam’s shiny nose peeking through the cracked window from the safety of the sedan’s back seat.
After we’d resumed our course, Carlos turned to me and asked what we would have done with the dog if his owner hadn’t arrived.
“We would have taken him home and posted some ‘lost dog’ signs around town, why?”
“Well, then anyone could come to the door. I mean, like…a hobo.”
“Carlos, I don’t think you need to worry about hobos.” I chuckled, tickled by his use of such a nostalgic and vintage term.
“But what if they were body-building hobos….with guns?!”
Now, I moved to Vermont so I could raise a child in a safe environment. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, having grown up in New York City’s upper, upper west side, I was mugged three times before I was eight years old. I figured my child could grow up in the safety of a rural Vermont town, hanging from trees and walking home from school in safety, the only threat being a skinned knee. But as I drove, I glanced over at my son and realized it had still happened. Though his threats were more fanciful—I pictured hoards of body-building hobos jumping from 1920s era trains rattling through our small town—he still had fears about his safety.
I couldn’t help but think: Is it television? Is it in the genes? Is he hard-wired to be nervous? And the burning question underneath it all, the true ‘parent trap’: is it my fault?
My mind harkened back to my own tenth year after we had moved to suburban New Jersey, my mother having the same impulse to raise the children in a safer environment. I remembered the piles of horror comics I devoured each day, my butt parked in its usual spot in front of our Sony Trinitron to watch the weekly Creature Feature movie, armies of monsters, aliens and zombies parading across the small screen. And every night after my mother tucked me in—reminded by my begging whine to leave the nightlight on—I pulled the blanket tightly around my neck to protect against vampire attacks while I slept. I thought of the hundreds of children lining up for the spook house at the local amusement park, rocking back and forth on their Keds, nervously chattering in anticipation like monkeys. The boys lined up on the sidewalk in front of the old, abandoned Jenkins’ house, daring each other to go closer, to step on the porch, to look into the broken window panes.
We liked to be scared.
As I thought about this from the vantage point of middle age, I realized that this must be a childhood way to prepare ourselves, the fantasy horrors making life’s true challenges pale by comparison. Because after all, fear is not the antithesis of courage, courage is being able to act despite our fears. I could see my son waiting for my response out of the corner of my eye. I smiled at him.
“Well honey, in a fight between a body-building hobo and your dad, I’d put big money on Dad.”
He took a deep breath, and I could tell this wasn’t entirely a joke to him. He really had been looking for reassurance. “Yep, he’s not afraid of anything,” he said, no small amount of pride in his voice.
“You got that right,” I replied. As we drove through the Vermont summer morning I was secure in the knowledge that between the three of us we could handle any horrors life could hand out, true or imagined.
Body-building hobos? Bring ‘em on.