Street smarts.

I missed this in yesterday’s papers, until it came up in my evening searches for health-care news: Cisco executive slain in Detroit is remembered as gifted techie, dedicated family man. Well, shit, one thinks. Another black eye for the city. I’m wondering why didn’t I see this in the local dailies, and start to read:

Ben Goldman updated his Facebook page that Monday night, writing that he was having a great time in downtown Detroit … yes, that was Ben, his family said, always able to squeeze joy from everything he did, even a 24-hour business trip to the gritty Midwest metropolis. And then the 42-year-old Los Gatos family man and up-and-coming Silicon Valley executive just disappeared.

Detroit police found his body the next day, Aug. 19. He had been shot to death, left in a vacant lot after apparently spending time at the Penthouse Club. It took them a few days to identify him. He had no wallet, no photographs of his wife and two young daughters, no Cisco ID badge, nothing to connect him to Silicon Valley. Benjamin Goldman, 42, was the victim of an unsolved homicide in a high-crime area known there as 8 Mile.

Eight Mile is, of course, 8 Mile Road, approximately 7.5 miles from tourist-friendly downtown Detroit. The Penthouse Club, as you might imagine, is not a place a nice family man posts to his Facebook page about visiting, although it’s a venue many men might find worthy of squeezing joy from. So to speak. While in no way blaming Goldman for any part of what happened to him, a commenter on the Freep story put it succinctly:

A nice Jewish boy from California running around Eight Mile in a tie looking for a little action. I would rather be in the mountains of Afghanistan. There can’t be any more dangerous place on earth.

Yup. And considering Detroit’s after-dark criminal culture is no secret, even in California, you wonder what might have gone wrong. The Penthouse Club is a brand-name titty bar, and I have to assume it has at least some parking-lot security, although there are plenty of places nearby that don’t. Rest in peace, Ben Goldman. I’ll think of you as I struggle with an issue every urban parent must face: How to teach street smarts.

It’s a balancing act, to be sure. I firmly believe that overprotection — of yourself or your kids — isn’t a good idea. When Lenore Skenazy allowed her 9-year-old to make his own way home on the New York City subway system, she was both vilified and praised — the story received national attention — but I was in the latter camp. Learning when to be careful starts with not being afraid all the time, and confidence, the most important invisible armor you carry, comes with accomplishment. Most people on the street, even on 8 Mile Road, aren’t out to kill you, hurt you or even rob you. But some are. Knowing how to tell the difference, and when to be extra-careful, isn’t easy. I go places in Detroit lots of people won’t, and someday I might pay the price for it, but at least no one can say I didn’t drink deeply from the stream along the way. I have the advantage of not having a penis, that unreliable point man that leads so many men to their doom, but I also have an appetite, and I sometimes wonder if I’ll end up dumped in a vacant lot because I went looking for the wrong authentic gumbo or pizza or whatever.

Still. Life is most interesting when you leave the strip-mall districts behind. I try to teach this to my child. Fortunately, she doesn’t have a penis, either.

I heard an interview with David Simon during the publicity tsunami for “The Wire,” and he talked a little bit about safety in the city. “This isn’t Beirut,” he said of Baltimore, by way of explaining his decision to travel even its worst neighborhoods armed only with a notebook. Of course you have to be smart about where you go and when you get out of the car. But you can’t be afraid all the time, either.

You people who live in large urban areas — how do you teach your kids to be smart on the street?

Posted at 12:54 pm in Detroit life |

19 responses to “Street smarts.”

  1. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on August 28, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I’ve been carjacked twice and mugged once, and in all three situations was asked “what’r ya doin’ here?” My answer didn’t keep me from losing some cash or driving a load of guys where i wasn’t planning on going, but the fact that i was delivering car seats or meals got a different attitude. If i’d been a guiltily stammering fellow who was looking for a score or a trick or a party, it would have gone less well.

    Which is to say, it isn’t an absolute guarantee, but if you’re not out being a moron, fewer moronic things will happen to you. Bad things happen to nice people trying to help others, but those are the rare exceptions (and i prefer the solvents of daylight, staying where others can see you, and knowing that others know where i am and when i’m coming back, whether camping in a state park or delivering a stack of baby items downtown).

    The overwhelming majority of bad things happen to people involved with bad stuff, and a little caution covers much of the remainder. That’s what i teach the Little Guy (10 right now), and he’s been through and around edgy neighborhoods enough to know Dad is careful, but not wacky cautious, and just keep smiling and nodding your head while the officer is telling you stuff that you don’t want to hear.

    If he were a she, the conversations would no doubt be a bit different in many ways, but i think as many people get into trouble by overcompensating for fear and minimizing the thinking as they find trouble by breezily walking into it. That happens, but to live as if that’s the default mode means squeezing most of the joy out of life, IMO.

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  2. Judith said on August 28, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    I can’t imagine putting a nine-year-old alone on a New York subway. As most point out, the statistical chance that an adult predator will strike are minimal. But have you thought about what would happen if most parents let their children ride the city buses/subways without supervision? Talk to a school bus driver regarding the effort it takes to maintain discipline! The kids are confined to a small area with nothing to do.

    First of all, many older children would bully the younger ones. Or they would force homage like sharing candy or money. Some children would tease just to cause a commotion. Many children would be so distracted by what is going on in the bus they would miss their stop. Objects would be thrown through the air and loud childish voices would fill the area, causing many adults to become angry. What would the adults do?

    If a child were touched inappropriately, even by another child, there could be many fearful moments for weeks. Would the bus driver/adults riding the subway be expected to maintain order? If so, what is the liability?

    I’m sure there are some short trips that could be studied for safety and then used by mature children. But the route Lenore Skenazy chose for her son even included changes along the way. What would she do if he called for help via his cell phone, but he was miles away? And even she does not plan for this to be a common occurrence, showing her acknowledgment it would not be wise.

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  3. coozledad said on August 28, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    if they’re going to build a titty bar that caters to software engineers, they need to locate it properly, and install the necessary ramps and safety padding. The Chuck E. Cheese corporation is probably adept at demographic-appropriate site selection and landscaping, and this is a likely avenue of diversification for them.
    Honestly, though. I can only imagine how sad you have to be to visit a titty bar unless it’s some theater of cruelty cast party, or they serve liquor in quart jars. Someone pointed out awhile back in a story I was reading about nude restaurants or catering, that he would be deeply suspicious of any fudge desserts. I share that apprehension.

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  4. LAMary said on August 28, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I’m a horrible mom who has been putting my kids on public transportation for a few years. We’ve had two “incidents.” One time younger son got on the right bus but went in the wrong direction and ended up in some distant suburb. He called me at work and told me he could see a mini mall with a Domino’s pizza across the street, and gave me the street name. I determined where he was with the Domino’s website, then got him on the right bus using the metro transit website. It all worked out fine. Second incident was about two weeks ago. Same son, now 14, was waiting for a bus in Chinatown when a kid maybe two years older came up to him and demanded his money. My son told him he didn’t have anything but his bus token, and moved a few feet away into the middle of a group of people. The would be mugger took off. In the many trips my kids have taken on mass transit, only the attempted mugging scared me, but to be truthful older son had worse threats to his well being in his suburban middle school locker room. He had a little extortionist working him for a few weeks before he told me and I talked to the school.
    I rode buses around Paterson, NJ, not a very nice place, when I was a kid and never had anything nasty happen. My kids have made gone on buses and trains to concerts, friends’ houses, their dad’s house (although the mass transit in Malibu is sparse) and except for one attempted robbery, nothing really bad ever happened. We’ve lived in a funky part of town their whole lives, their friends vary a lot in economic situation, family situation, languages spoken. My sons speak some Spanish, a little Cantonese, and one has a little bit of Belize patois. They’re not tough kids at all, not fighters, but they pay attention to their surroundings, they don’t try to be cool or tough, and they don’t walk into bad shit blindly. I hope our good luck continues.

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  5. Mike said on August 28, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    I think back to some of my adventures in murder err… motor city and I still experience the occasional flash of fear for my personal safety years after the event.

    That fear was notably absent at the time so perhaps this is one of those things you make up for as you get older.

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  6. Hattie said on August 28, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    A good book to read is *The Gift of Fear.*
    Don’t avoid situations, but have your radar out. I think it’s something kids have to learn. If they don’t they may avoid interesting but not very risky situations, or they may fail to avoid dangers that are obvious.
    Street smarts are a great skill to have.

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  7. Dexter said on August 28, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Great topic. I am country boy who was fearless as a young man , venturing wherever I wanted to go into US cities, and was pickpocketed once and mugged once, in Chicago and Macon, Georgia respectively.
    We reared three daughters and all I ever told them was to stay in groups and be careful when they visited placed like Chicago and Washington on school trips.
    My daughter lets her kids, ages 13 and 14, fly back alone to visit us a couple times a year from their Las Vegas home. I always worry when they are travelling alone…so far, so good.
    The 14 year old boy has been known to ride city buses all over Vegas, get lost, call home and then get grounded for a month.
    Years ago I read where all kids in Finland carry cell phones to school and everywhere…no one would even think of sending their kid out the door without his cell.
    I believe in this…and was truly pissed off when the Las Vegas step dad punished the older, 18 year old by taking away her cell phone. She is a senior in HS this year, she works at a K-Mart, evening shift, and drives home at midnight. What kind of fucking moron would want his step daughter out on the Las Vegas streets without a cell phone?

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  8. alex said on August 28, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    What a sad story for the family, who lost not only their husband and father but also their innocence and their privacy.


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  9. ellen said on August 28, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Moved to SE Washington DC on my own after college and took plenty of wrong turns into questionable neighborhoods. Had to step past plenty of tranny hookers and crack dealers to get to all of the “in” clubs. Then moved to South Africa, which makes Detroit look like Lincoln, Nebraska, in terms of violent crime. Never had a problem, either place.

    Certainly, some of it was random good luck. But maybe a bit of it was due to my parents never telling me, when I was a kid, that I couldn’t go somewhere. Instead, they would talk to me about contingency plans, strategies for dealing with various situations, and the benefits of being aware of your surroundings.

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  10. LAMary said on August 28, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    I think most of the inappropriate touching of kids that goes on is by people who know them or are in positions of trust. Priests, relatives, parent’s boyfriends, stepfathers, neighbors. A neighbor’s daughter was being molested by her older stepbrother for two years.
    Most of the humans on this planet don’t have any reason to bother any other humans, and we all should be looking out for each other. I remember being on a very crowded subway in NYC, standing up, holding the pole. A creep was trying to get a little touchy with me, and a stranger, seeing what was going on, moved himself to a position that prevented the creepy guy from being too friendly. Just a step. I thanked him.

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  11. ellen said on August 28, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Judith: In London and elsewhere in the UK, almost all schoolchildren take public transportation to school. Without parental escort. They looked ages 8-16. The kids did just fine sharing the bus with commuters. I observed general horseplay, but nothing out of hand.

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  12. Dexter said on August 28, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    LA M: Creepiest cretins out in public are those subway-feelers.
    I’m glad you had a guardian angel that day.

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  13. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on August 28, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    LA Mary is correct, based on the data and any CPS caseworker you talk to anywhere, all 50 states and most time zones. Stranger Danger is a ratings-generated beast, rare in the wild and hard to spot even in captivity.

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  14. Colleen said on August 28, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    I think it’s sad if we let all the “what ifs” paralyze us. it makes for fearful children who think the world is a bad and scary place and anything not suburbia is “sketchy”. I also think children are a lot smarter and more capable than many parents let them be.

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  15. Peter said on August 28, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    I would much sooner let my 13 year old take public transportation than to ride his bike in my SUV Warthog From Hell obsessed neighborhood.

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  16. MichaelG said on August 28, 2008 at 7:16 pm

    I told the story about my daughter falling asleep on an SF Muni bus in a comment when the Ms. Skenazy story first emerged. I go with Mary and Nance. Today my daughter is confident and capable and strongly self-sufficient. She also has well developed self preservation instincts and lots of common sense. I be proud. She’s doing a pretty good job of raising the next generation too.

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  17. susang said on August 28, 2008 at 9:15 pm


    I loved your post a few years ago about Bloody Gourge. Children need to wander and explore and build self confidence.

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  18. Carolyn said on August 28, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Our one-and-only roamed the cul de sacs of Southwest Fort Wayne from the time she was 4 years old. She had freedom in her early childhood there that I didn’t think possible in this era.
    She was 7 when we moved to rock ’em, sock ’em South Florida. I felt like I couldn’t let her out of my sight.
    Then, go work in a newsroom that serves up a daily menu of horror stories about children – and get to learn the details that never make the papers.
    I don’t know what changed, maybe it was her, maybe it was exhaustion, but I started noticing that she could hold her own with anyone.
    Maybe it was sports. A brief career in gymnastics led to her development of the “death stare” that I see her resort to in a bully situation. She’s much tougher than I am – which I admire.
    We’ve moved on to the swim team – lower impact, a chance for some team building.

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  19. basset said on August 28, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    Been telling my 18-year-old son for several years… walk like a man, not a victim. Makes a difference.

    And, of course, be aware of where you are and what’s around you, and if it doesn’t feel right, get the hell out of there.

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