A Day in the Life

A blog re-run as a tribute to John Lennon, who was shot and killed in front of the Dakota in New York City on December 8, 1980. Impossible to think it was thirty-three years ago.

(Click on the YouTube video for today’s soundtrack.)


As we drove into the city with our kids over the weekend, my husband and I discussed a recent article in Vanity Fair – an obviously fictitious interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 2010, assuming that he had survived the gunshot wounds inflicted by Mark David Chapman on that crisp December night in 1980, and had traveled along through life, just like the rest of us. He and Yoko would have divorced, and John would have fancied himself a gentleman farmer somewhere in upstate New York, protesting against the fracking industry and Monsanto.

The article was decidedly clever, and I mentioned a few of the highlights to my husband as we drove along West End Avenue, forgetting for a moment that the kids could hear our conversation from the back seat.

We arrived at the parking garage on West 80th Street and stepped out of the car.  My daughter stood next to me and said quietly, “John Lennon was shot in New York City?” She actually looked frightened, and confused.

My nearly nine year-old has been a Beatles fan since she was a preschooler, and although we had told her that only two Beatles were still alive, we had spared her the details of why. In our weaker parenting moments, tragedies like these were presented in a vague, almost ethereal sense — events that had occurred in the unreachable past, and which weren’t  up for discussion. Events that we as parents found ourselves glossing over and evading, as our children reached milestones of speech and comprehension, and could understand what was blaring from the television and the internet and from hand-wringing mothers gathered in clusters together on playgrounds in the hours and days after random, violent occurrences. The subject of 9/11 has been a bumbling conversation every time it’s arisen in our house. I’m not even sure if my daughter fully understands what the World Trade Center is.

Since my husband and I take our children into the city often enough, I sensed that part of her shock was in realizing the danger that occurs on New York City streets. To her, the city means Dylan’s Candy Bar and Central Park playgrounds, the indoor Ferris wheel at Toys ‘R Us and skating at Rockefeller Center, mini-pizzas at Two Boots in the West Village, and shopping for funky pencils and ice cream in Park Slope. As her native New Yorker mother, I’ve failed her — because I’ve suggested fabrications about city life, and because such a candy-coated existence isn’t real in a daily urban setting. If I’m going to be a responsible parent, it’s becoming time to tell her so.

In 1980, I was ten years old and lived in Queens. We five-borough residents had survived our city’s decline of the 1970s, somehow, but we were obviously scarred by it. Even the youngest of us, sporting plaid school uniforms astride banana-seat bicycles, knew a childhood different from those in more affluent parts of the country. Knifings and gunshots, the South Bronx and subway graffiti and looting — those words were all part of our elementary-school vocabulary. We knew why our grandmothers didn’t wear their wedding rings when they went out shopping, or why our mothers told us to tuck our First Communion gold cross necklaces under our Peter Pan blouses when we got on the MTA bus. We were all unwittingly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as such afflicted often are. For us, it was our normal.

I had gone to bed before learning of Lennon’s shooting on December 8, 1980, but the following morning, my mother woke me up early to share the news. She was crying when she opened my bedroom door and said, “Kathleen, John Lennon was shot last night.  He’s dead. Please pray for his soul today.” I can still see her sliver of face hidden by the mahogany-paneled door to my bedroom. I can still sense her shock and sadness, and the fact that she was not my thirty-two year-old mother at that very moment, but the teenager she once was, who had shrieked at the grainy image of all four Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, flickering in her parents’ living room in Queens.

When I think of that morning, I remember that the shooting itself wasn’t what was odd. Only the victim was. Those things happened to us, to ordinary New Yorkers. Not to someone like John Lennon.

My parents didn’t handle such details so delicately. No one’s parents did. People died. Things happened. You got up, shook it off and kept going. We didn’t have support groups and websites and grief counselors back then. We had resilience, I guess, and in these moments, I’m not always sure that my children are of a generation better served by the constant viral outpourings of others. There’s something to be said for remaining separate, and safely detached. Stoicism too often gets a bad rap these days.

When my daughter asked about the shooting, I told her plainly that yes, John Lennon was shot, a few blocks from where we were standing. I had pointed out the Dakota to her several times for its architectural elements, but neglected to mention the crime that had taken place there.  I asked her if she wanted to walk past the building. She said no and didn’t mention it for the rest of the day. I’d like to think that the information is forgotten, but I know that it isn’t. She and my younger son will need to begin collecting such facts, and weather such microchinks to their childhood armor, as the realities of life present themselves.

My children know a different New York City than the one I grew up in, thank God. But if I want them to feel confident in the city, to understand it and be able to walk on its streets as a near-native, and not as a vulnerable, out-of-place tourist, they will have to understand my childhood vocabulary. They must learn this language, if they want to live in any large city. It’s my job as a parent to prepare them for such actualities, but I know that I can’t prepare them for everything. These small moments — when my daughter’s sense of security is somehow rubbed away — are painful for a parent to witness, but it is what must occur. The city she knows is not the city it is, and I’ll need to teach my children that, in times like these.

Sometimes, in my misplaced nostalgia, I long for the grimy, seedy New York of the 1970s. I wonder what Fran Lebowitz is doing with herself these days, now that New York is an amusement park, and a cartoonish, garish, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon parody of itself.  In recent visits to Manhattan, I’ve noticed that common street-smarts have gone the way of the buffalo.  People leave Starbucks with open wallets and fistfuls of bills. And nothing happens to them. We eat fancy sit-down meals in the Meatpacking District now, for God’s sakes, where people once lay dead in the streets, victims of drug overdoses, psychotic johns and muggings.

I still love New York. I hope my children will always share that same fondness as well. But I worry about what the city will become as we face another inevitable economic decline. And as this helicopter-parented generation comes of age, I wonder how we, their parents, have so grievously erred, in spite of our sincerest intentions — what we’ve overlooked, and what we’ve wrongfully shielded them from to make their journey less difficult.

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