April 27, 2008

The Statistics of Contempt


This morning as I was leaving the bank, a woman recklessly pushing her armor-plated double stroller down the sidewalk veered sharply and unexpectedly into an elderly man walking with a cane. He, in turn, fell into me. I was able to catch him and hold him upright and he seemed to be okay. Just a little flustered. The woman, of course, had said nothing, apparently considering an apology or even a simple “excuse me” unnecessary under the circumstances. She was a mother after all, and therefore privileged, so she simply continued careening on her way.

            Over this past year or so, I’ve developed what you might call an unhealthy obsession with local stroller culture.

            It’s become a cliché, I realize. I’ve written about it plenty here already. Hell, even the venerable New York Times (usually a good twenty years behind the curve) has run multiple stories about the stroller situation in this neighborhood. The monikers abound—The Stroller Mafia, The Stroller Nazis, The Stroller Brigade, Mommybots, Nannyville. There are others. But as with most clichés, there’s more than a whiff of foul truth about it. You head out on these neatly-trimmed, quiet, tree-lined brownstone streets at nine o’clock on any given weekday morning, and you’re taking your life in your hands.

            It’s become so ridiculous, in fact, that I have taken to counting the number of strollers I encounter every morning while running my usual errands. Worse, I’ve been keeping a running statistical record at home. (No, I know it’s not healthy, but everyone needs a hobby, and I don’t have the room in here for a train set.)

            I’m fairly strict about it. Only strollers count—no grandma carts, no free-range children. Double strollers don’t get two votes. And even though it’s tempting, an oblivious thimblehead walking beside a stroller, pushing it with one hand while yapping on a cell phone only gets one vote as well—as do those parents who think it’s “cute” to let their children push the strollers themselves.

            I keep a running tally for every separate trip to the store, the bank, the deli, wherever, so long as I remain within the confines of the neighborhood. Then when I get home (and after the rage has subsided some), I divide the number of strollers encountered by the number of blocks walked to come up with a simple strollers-per-block (SPB) ratio. From those daily numbers, I’ve maintained a running average.

            My god, but I’m pathetic.

            In any case, over the past year or so (since I began keeping records), I’m averaging 1.45 strollers per block. Think about it—there has been at least one stroller (and usually more) for every block I’ve walked. It’s insanity.

            There are factors that can affect these numbers, however. There is a distinct rhythm in the fluctuations of the stroller population. Different times of day, different days of the week, and different routes can yield some radically different numbers. Mondays and Thursdays are particularly heavy days. If you head outside at nine a.m., you’ll be putting yourself at risk, but if you head out half an hour later, the streets will be nearly clear of strollers (they come out again at eleven, and again at two). The single block between my apartment and the Rite Aid is, without question, the most heavily-trafficked block in Brooklyn. It was one such trip, in fact, that provided me with the one-block record of thirteen strollers. Thirteen in one block! And you wonder why this has become an obsession? This neighborhood is nothing but a giant, mobile, open-air day care center.

            This morning set yet another record, when a sixteen block round trip to the bank yielded thirty-one stroller encounters (that tops the previous record of twenty-five), or an average of 1.94 per block. And one casualty.

            The child-free adults in the neighborhood mutter and complain about the problem, but only behind closed doors, and usually in whispers. They don’t dare say a negative word when they’re outside, for the simple reason that they’re terrified, most of them. Indulgent, affluent parents are too powerful a lobby (and what’s more, those strollers can really hurt when you get rammed).

            It may be foolish and suicidal, but I’ve taken, sadly enough, to ticking off each stroller loudly as it passes. So if you happen to be perambulating along peacefully one day and you pass an ugly, angry, sloppily dressed fellow who barks “seventeen!” as you drive him into the parked cars with your German-engineered stroller, don’t worry—I’m not some homeless guy off his meds; I’m merely keeping a running tally of my growing contempt.

            Padding the numbers a bit is the fact that so many of the indulgent, coddling parents around here feel compelled to cram their children into strollers long after it’s appropriate. I remember a few years back seeing a neighbor drag out the stroller for her four year-old who was standing nearby. At first I assumed the child had some sort of medical condition—MS or something dire like that, and so needed a wheelchair. But no. No, it was just a stroller.

            I’m no parent, but as a rule I think that if a child can walk perfectly well on his or her own, or is old enough to speak in complete sentences, he or she is too old to be pushed in a stroller.

            But I guess I can understand the reasoning. This has become an upscale neighborhood, after all, which means that “convenience” is paramount to these people. And there’s nothing convenient about actually walking with a young child. They want to stop every few yards to examine the weeds, or the passing dogs, or a puddle. It just slows everything down. It’s so much easier to shove them in the stroller and push them where you want to go. Thank god for the supersized strollers, I guess—maybe they do serve some real purpose after all. These kids can get pretty hefty by the time they’re five.

            Speaking of dogs, that’s another issue. There are lots and lots of dogs in this neighborhood, too. Now, I like dogs, and dogs seem to like me some, so I don’t mind. But there is something weird about it that may or may not be related to the stroller issue in some way. Morgan and I have been noticing this for years, and it came up again this morning.

            There are definite trends in the popularity of certain dog breeds. At one point, everyone had a Dachshund. At another, everyone had a German Shepherd. Then everyone had Corgis. Now more and more people seem to own beagles.

            There was a point a couple of years ago, though, after the Times ran a story about this new pug-beagle hybrid, when everyone around here—and I mean everyone—had a puggle. Remember those? They were the only breed around—all the others simply vanished. Then, just as suddenly five months later, the puggles were all gone, and I haven’t seen a single puggle around here since.

            So what the hell happened? There are just as many dogs around here as ever, but they’re different. Where did all the puggles go? Was there some epidemic that I didn’t hear about that wiped them all out? Or did all of these status conscious fuckers simply dump them when they were no longer fashionable? Maybe they cooked them and fed them to their beloved obese children.

            See, this all helps explain why I can no longer spend more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time outside my apartment, and why I always return exhausted and angry. This is why I have dreams in which I’m Richard Widmark, but instead of shoving an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, I wrench a double stroller out of some self-satisfied cow’s hands and send it clattering into traffic. I hate these people so very, very much.

            I think I gotta get a job or something.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.