“Checking in?” the guard asks.
“I just need the vest.”
Eager to do my bit of patrolling the streets around my daughter Maya’s school and get to work, I leave my briefcase, pick up the almost-red mesh vest, and head out for the mean streets of the Upper East Side. Out on the sidewalk, I don the vest, velcroing the two halves of it together. It’s neon yellow reflector material reads: Campus Parent, School Control. It is when I get to Lex and 94th Street that I realize the vest looks a lot like the Department of Sanitation vest worn by a group of workers busting up frozen, black curbside snow.
It is now 10:35 a.m. and my patrol partner is clearly not going to show on this half-day of school. That means I have one and a half hours to go. I will time my circuit so I am close to the school when the high schoolers are heading out while not being seen by one kid in particular, who would rather hide in a snowdrift than have her friends see her mother at school wearing The Vest.
Patrolling Lexington Avenue, I gaze at the brownstones with teak doors, the glassy shop selling high-end tubs, and a furry woman tugging a leashed dog. I circle back toward school. A guy across 94th Street is zipping up his pants. I’m thinking, “What are you doing, chump?” He walks on. Stops. Walks again. Only four minutes into my patrol, and I am seeing people as if they are up to no good. But I take a mental note, keep him in mind.
A guy who looks like he did a little time, a scar on his forehead shaded by hood, eyes me in my vest.
Maybe my hyper-vigilance is because for the last two years I’ve been writing a murder mystery set in New York.I wonder as I wander how cops keeps themselves in check when they’re trained to look for trouble and start seeing signs of it everywhere. As a rookie you must have to go against instincts: when you think a guy’s on the brink of criminality, you have to question if you’re right. When you have an urge to rush toward trouble, you slow down unless you’re certain.
I head over to the stretch of Park Avenue that students often walk to get to the 96th Street station. The NYPD patrol cop on duty on this cold sunny day says good morning. I say hello, feeling part of the club.
Four middle schoolers come around the corner from the school. I have an urge to follow them, make sure they don’t get mugged. They head to the corner candy shop on 96th Street. The big danger there may be Kim Kardashian or Trump, separately or together, gracing the front of a tabloid.
On Park Avenue where the sun is shining, an old woman wearing sneakers too much like mine and a long blue down coat hurries toward the meridian. I hurry after her. Will she make it all the way across before the light counting 5, 4, 3 reaches 0?
“I’ll walk with you,” I say, my voice sounding authoritative.
The high schoolers are still not out. And it’s only 11:15.
By now I have given up on the security desk’s map that dictates parent patrollers do a specific figure-eight loop around the neighborhood. Instead, I am following my own street savvy by walking streets most traveled by high schoolers.
I round the patrol cop again, send a casual wave. Same team.
A manbunned man riding his bike on the sidewalk. A mom in yoga pants talking to a doorman, it seems flirtatious. A couple speaking Russian.
Just when I’m thinking the best thing I could do to promote safety for these teens getting a “specialized” education would be to go into the local Starbucks and stop them from sugaring up on vanilla cremes and grando caramel macchiatos, I run into a mom-friend who tells me that last fall some kid “got punched in the face” on this block. I have a renewed sense of purpose. As I walk down Madison Avenue, however, I wonder what I could have done to prevent the attack. The last time I took a women’s self-defense class it was 1985, and I still weight 100 pounds.
School’s out. I shadow my first prey of sorts--a short middle schooler--all the way from Park Avenue to the train. His is the vulnerable walk of the pigeon-toed. Once I see that he’s descended the subway stairs, I head back towards school.
“Hey, that’s Maya’s mom.” A trio of kids who’ve known me since they were five walk toward me. Clearly they’re about as impressed by me in uniform as the traffic cop on Madison Avenue who doesn’t even look up when we cross paths.
In front of the school are four high schoolers throwing icy snowballs at each other. Finally! They see me and hesitate a little. I have an urge to tell them to take it to the park. I switch to something more rational and say: “Be careful if the elementary school kids come out, okay?” They cheerfully agree.
It is now 11:30. This is interminable.
I wind around the school building, which takes up an entire block and about four minutes. Can I leave early?
High schoolers are now pouring out of the building and all around the streets. I notice which kids I’ve known since kindergarten are getting thinned out as they grow, which girls cluster with the ones who look like them, and the ninth grader I’ve seen around school protesting one injustice or another.
When I return to the front of the building, I see that pedestrians are nervously darting around the snowball kids.
I do my job: “Would you guys pause when there are others walking the block?”
It is now 11:45. Since Maya should be coming out soon, I text her that I’m “still patrolling.”
She texts, “LOL. Going to Shake Shack with friends.”
I text, “Do you want to take a picture of me?”
“You can take a selfie.”
So I do, standing in front of a children’s French clothing shop, a dubious smile on my face, the vest I will soon have to return looking surprisingly misshapen and worn.