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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

A Close Call Dissolves the Illusion of Safety

October 05, 1998|SANDY BANKS

The sun has gone down, but the lights have yet to come on, leaving portions of the park bathed in darkness. We are sprawled on a blanket, waiting out the waning minutes of a soccer practice gone on too long.

It's cold, my oldest daughter complains. I shoo her toward the parking lot--"Go wait in the car. We won't be long"--but I stop short at the sight of a man loping toward us, looking over his shoulder, then back at me.

"That your car?" he yells, pointing back at what is, indeed, my car, shrouded by shadows in a now-dark corner of the all-but-deserted lot. "A guy . . . breaking in . . . teenagers . . . a slim-jim . . ."

I hear only snatches of his account as I grab my keys and gallop past him, heading for the spot where I'd parked. My heart is pounding as I click the car doors open, climb inside, start the ignition and back away into another, safer place.

*

It was the kind of close call that can make you feel grateful or frightened . . . or both.

A car full of teenagers had cruised by, doused its lights and pulled alongside the curb next to the lot where my new sport utility vehicle stood. One young man got out, holding one of those small metal rods that car thieves use to jimmy door locks. He was reaching for my door when the sound of an engine starting in the space next to mine sent him scurrying back to his buddies.

My car doors were locked, but my purse and cell phone were in plain sight on the floor. We were, after all, just a few steps away in a neighborhood park that, when we arrived, had been crowded with soccer players, softball teams and tennis lessons.

It would have taken just a few seconds to bust the lock and get into my car. We were lucky that in those moments, a bystander had saved the day. We'd avoided a theft, a confrontation with the thief or worse.

My three daughters were waiting wide-eyed and breathless when I returned to our blanket.

"Everything's fine," I said, coaxing them toward the car and loading our folding chairs, water bottles and soccer balls.

We drove home with their faces pressed to the windows, scanning the traffic for any signs of the small, gold-colored car full of teenage boys our witness had seen speeding away.

For days they would do this, yelling out from the back seat whenever they spotted a little gold car. "It's them!" one would shout, and they'd duck down, trembling against the seat, convinced they'd identified the enemy.

If only, I thought, danger were so easy to spot.

*

That night, they piled into my bed, still too worked up and worried to go to sleep.

"Do you think they know where we live? What if the bad guys followed us home? Will they try to steal our car again? What if they break in while we're asleep? Are there many bad guys in our neighborhood?"

I tried to explain about car thefts and joy riding . . . how these were probably nothing more than knuckleheaded kids out to make trouble to enliven their night. I reassured my kids in the way I always have when news accounts of mayhem have invaded our lives.

But my explanations couldn't penetrate their fear. This had hit a little too close to home.

It was my daughters' first personal brush with crime. And suddenly the trappings of security that cushion their world felt ripped away. It was proof positive that there are bad guys in the world--in their own neighborhood, no less. Bad guys with the power to invade our lives.

For the girls, this brush with disaster was less a tragedy avoided--as it was in my eyes--than a reminder of all that could have been, a sign of how close we stand to disaster each day, how very vulnerable we are.

"We used to be safe, but it was an illusion," my 9-year-old wrote in her spelling book when a sentence for "illusion" was required.

It is one week later, and I am still trying to talk them through, tallying up all the ways our luck has held. But a bit of their fear has seeped into me. I check and double-check the door locks each night, shut all the windows when we leave for the day. And I'm only parking under street lamps these days . . . to illuminate the danger I now clearly see.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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