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Saturday, April 19, 2014

IS THE CITY OF NEWBURGH TOO DANGEROUS FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS?

  To answer this complicated question, first you have to listen to my story about the Fish Cop.  I swore I wouldn’t tell this story until our kids had all graduated but everyone involved has given me their consent so here goes.  The Fish Cop story, like most of my best stories, starts out in the Team Mom mobile.  It was September 2013, and I was taking 5 rowers up to Mystic, CT for the Coastweeks Regatta.  All of the rowers, except for Little Michael, were persons of color, resided in the City of Newburgh, and were also scholar-athletes, who know how to handle themselves in a “street situation.” 

Now, once upon a time, a very long time ago, Mrs. Lo also knew how to handle herself in a street situation.  As a young, reasonably attractive female at NYU, I often got followed in the streets of NYC, but not by police officers (unless they were trying to get my phone number).  I developed a different set of “street instincts”.  Street Instincts are what have kept many of us urban dwellers alive in many situations.  A country girl will unknowingly be followed through the streets of New York City for blocks and possibly be accosted.  A street savvy girl will pick her moment, turn around, look the stalker in the face and say, “Stop following me you one-eyed freak or I’m calling 911.”
            Back to Coastweeks.  We were meeting the rest of the 45-member Newburgh Rowing Club up in Mystic, CT and Big Coach made a really big deal about us getting to the trailer, helping unload the boats, and going over the course map.  However, we got to Mystic way later than everyone else because we had stopped to watch my older son Christian’s Goldbacks YFL football game.  It’s impossible to keep in touch at a Regatta when Coach is unloading so what had happened, although we didn’t know it, was that he and the other rowers unloaded from about 5 pm – 7 pm.  We arrived in Mystic at about 7 pm.  We went to the only location we knew of, the same place we had been setting up the trailer for the past 3 years. 
            This was at the Mystic Seaport.  We all had our Newburgh Rowing Club windbreakers on, with the hoodies up because it was cold.  We tried to get into the gate but it was locked.  Kelvin received a text from a rower who said, “You guys just passed us, come on over to the trailer now.”  It turns out the trailer was 2 blocks away but of course we didn’t know that. 
            “How did everybody else get in?” said Michael.  I figured Big Coach had a key to the gate or there was some entrance we couldn’t see in the dark.  “Let’s just hop the fence and see if we can find them,” said one of the rowers.  At the time, it sounded like a good idea.  After all, there was a rower who could see us and was calling us over.  Everyone hopped the fence one-handed like the teenage athletes that they are.  Michael and I had to be helped over.  We looked around and the place was eerily empty.  Did I go to the wrong Regatta?  Do I have the wrong date?  These things do happen.
            The rowers wanted to keep looking for our coach but I said no, let’s leave, we tried our best, they will get the boats unloaded and I will go over the course map with you, let’s get some sleep.
            We all started walking the 5 blocks to our car.  At about T minus 5, Soup said to me, “We’re being followed, Mrs. Lo.”  I looked around, the sleepy village  streets were deserted.  Michael was singing the Lion King song.  Don’t be silly, I told Dajour, there’s no one here.  At about T minus 4, Kelvin said to me in Spanish, “I can take Michael on my back and run, Soup will take you, Kayla, and Richard and you guys run in the other direction, whoever is following us doesn’t like us.” 
            Kelvin, I said, you poor, sweet misguided child, it is so nice of you to try to protect us, but I tell you there’s no one following us.  Little did I know that, just on instinct alone, he could not only sense we were being followed he could sense the dislike.
“It’s a cop, Mrs. Lo, with a flashlight and a badge,” said Soup.  Oh, well, that’s good then, we’re safe, guys, I said.
            That’s when the Fish Cop yelled, “Halt where you are people!”  I instinctively grabbed Michael, and I told the rowers NOT to run.  We had our backs to the Fish Cop and, for the first time since I left New York City, where I was once attacked on the subway, I was legit scared.  Because the tone of that voice told me that Fish Cop didn’t see a Team Mom, a 9 year old boy, and 4 rowers on the honor roll in private school, she saw people of color with hoodies up.  Even though I was a 48-year-old trial attorney, pillar of the community, and mother of 2, the instinct to run was overwhelming.  However, I was afraid we would all be shot in the back.  I just wished overwhelmingly that my husband was there.  Or Coach Kennedy.  But it was all on me.  Dear Lord, I prayed, Please send an archangel to protect us.
            Finally, my long dormant, almost dead street instincts from 20 plus years ago kicked in.  There was nothing to do but calmly turn around and face the situation head on.  Listen guys, no one is going to run, I said.  You are going to slowly take your hoods down, turn your palms up to show they’re empty and slowly turn around but stay where you are. I am the only one who is going to walk forward and talk to this officer.  I should add that these varsity athletes, even if they had to pickup Michael, could have sprinted to Hartford in no time if they wanted to -- but they are good kids and they listened to me.
            I turned around to see who I was facing.  An older, angry woman who did not have the benefit of getting to Waters Edge Salon and Spa every Friday like I did glowered at me.  And that’s when the Lawyer in me kicked in.  First, identify yourself and diffuse the situation.
            “Good evening, Officer, my name is Juliana LoBiondo, I’m the Team Mom for the Newburgh Rowing Club and these youngsters are some of our top rowers, we are delighted to be here in historic Mystic Seaport for …”
            “Shut it, Blondie!” she snapped angrily.   Blondie? Did she just call me Blondie?  What the heck, I’m not blond, I mean I had to start highlighting my hair once it went gray but … FOCUS, I must stay focused.  “I have you on tape, Blondie, you were all trespassing on Museum property and I am the officer who patrols the museum and protects Mystic River!”  Lawyers affectionately refer to the DEC officers as “Fish Cops” so I immediately downgraded the whole thing to a teachable moment.  She might force us to eat worms but she was not carrying a weapon other than a nightstick.
            “With all due respect, Officer, we were not committing the act of Trespass.  We are invitees and as invitees we cannot, as a matter of law be trespassing.  Nor did we have any  malevolent mens rea, in fact, our team is spending thousands of dollars to be in town for the Regatta, we were invited here and we were trying to reach our Coach and our boats.”
            Throw a little Latin at people and it always buys you some time. 
            “Then why did you jump the fence when there is a buzzer to open the gate?” she said.  “And what the hell’s with that Little Kid -- is he retarded or something?”
            I looked behind me.  My Sweet Little Michael had his palms up and he was looking up the the night sky, swaying and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.  He later explained that when we go to Church and say the Lord’s Prayer during Mass we turn our palms up to the air and that’s what he thought I wanted him to do.  Plus it was making him feel better.
            So she’s bitter and mean to kids, and uses the “R” word, OK, I don’t need to be that nice.  Gloves Off.  Check.  Lawyer Brain in Hyper Drive.  Check. 
            “No, ma’am, he is not retarded.  Does Mystic have an ordinance prohibiting Developmentally Challenged people from walking around, or from praying in public?  In fact, does the Village of Mystic know that you are harassin paying tourists and you are scaring little children?  Is this even within your scope of duties?  Who is your supervisor and are they appointed or elected?  Under whose authority were you issued a badge?  I would like to have the name and phone number of your supervisor and I would like to know under what circumstances you are …”
            “The buzzer doesn’t work, Mommy,” interrupted Michael who was all of a sudden was standing next to me.  “I tried the buzzer -- I remembered it from last year and it doesn’t work.” 
            The Fish Cop looked down at Little Michael, then age 9, with his chubby cheeks, his big blue eyes and the thick eyelashes and a small piece of her grinchy heart melted.  Then she looked at the other kids, all clearly rowers, fit, athletic, handsome and beautiful.  Standing there politely waiting for this Crazy Fish Cop Lady to be done. 
            She realized she had read the situation all wrong and started to wilt.
            “Since you seem like a nice lady, I won’t file Harassment charges,” I said.
            “This time,” said Little Michael.
            And we turned and walked away.  “Michael, how did you know about the buzzer?”  I said.  “I’m a coxy, Mommy, I have to watch out for my rowers and I have to test out all the equipment.”  I was liking my kid’s instincts.
            “How come you didn’t tell her you were a Lawyer and show her your Attorney ID,” the kids all asked me.  Because, I told them, I wanted you to see that you don’t have to be a Lawyer, you can just be an ordinary citizen and you don’t have to be scared.
            Mrs. Lo and the Student Ambassadors and my own kids have all bonded in so many ways and the Loyalty runs so deep.  But this was a big one.  Squelching the instinct to run, and listening to me. 
            What does this have to do with have my the schools in Newburgh?  I am proud of my long dormant street instincts.  My rower kids are proud of being from Newburgh and have street instincts that would blow away anybody I ever knew in Manhattan, the 10 years I lived there.  And guess what, both of my kids have a touch of street instincts.  Christian has walked from our house to the Boys and Girls Club on 285 Liberty and has slept over his friends’ houses in the City of Newburgh many times.  Our rule is to walk the streets in pairs.  One person alone is a problem and a big group can be a problem of a different nature.  Michael not so much but he is in the car when I drive all over the City of Newburgh, to his school, the Boathouse, the Boys and Girls Club, Delano Hitch, NFA and now our office.  He rows with kids, ages 10 and up, who often walk down from their residences in the City of Newburgh to the Boathouse.  Although nobody walks home at night -- either a parent, a coach or Mrs. Lo drives them.
            I hope all the streets of Newburgh are crime free some day, not just the ones near schools.  But what can be done to make the streets surrounding our schools in the City of Newburgh safer?
·       Bring back the School Crossing Guards.  We should have school crossing guards for the many kids who walk to school and have to cross the street.  They are employees of the City.  The City used to have them but then ran out of money.  Instead of spending money to tear down the Newburgh Rowing Boathouse, why don’t we invest in school crossing guards?
·       School Safety Zones.  At one time, there were safety zones created around schools in Newburgh.  I believe the idea was that the Police would give top priority to any place where there were school children.  It would be a great idea to bring that back, for Head Start, Horizons, GAMS, Bishop Dunn, and for the middle schools (South, Nora Cronin and San Miguel) and the high school. 
·       Create School Safety Booster Groups.  I realize the City doesn’t have money for anything.  But let’s not do stupid things with what money we do have  like tearing down the Newburgh Rowing Boathouse.  Why not work with the community and parents and local businesses to start School Safety Booster Groups.  When a high school team needs extra money for their uniforms or athletic banquet or what have you, they have a Parent Booster Group.  They raise money, whether it’s selling candy bars or seeking donations, to help the team.  Why not create Booster Groups to at least get back the School Crossing Guards.  That would be a great way to create jobs and it’s a job we really need to have here in the City of Newburgh.
In the meantime, there is no Bubble we can put over our kids to keep them 100% safe.  Look at me, I grew up in bucolic Fishkill but hated the country life; I got a full scholarship to NYU and lived in NYC for 10 years.  Instead of trying to build a wall between myself and Newburgh, I made it my life’s work to really getting involved. You can too:  Volunteer at the Newburgh Rowing Club or the Boys and Girls Club of Newburgh or the many other organizations helping kids.  We could live anywhere.  We chose to live in Town of Newburgh, send our kids to school in the City of Newburgh and have an office in the City of Newburgh.   Because as Big Coach says:  “If you’re not doing Something, then you’re doing Nothing.”
            Have a great day everyone! And, as always Remember to Count Your Blessings! <3 Mrs. Lo
EPILOGUE – At Coastweeks 2013, Michael’s boat took first place in their event.  The Student Ambassadors took Silver in their event, the only boat that was faster than them was the US Coast Guard Academy.  And Mr. Lo and Christian surprised us all by driving up after the Football Game (they won, Christian had a Touchdown), and joining us for dinner just in time to hear the Fish Cop story.  And we lived Happily Ever After.  In Newburgh <3