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The Business End of a Wrench Taught Me Being a Dad Means Avoiding Risk

It was a painful lesson.

One of the joys of parenting is becoming a full-time amateur actuary, tirelessly processing an infinite chain of risk-assessment calculations before determining and implementing the necessary course corrections. When you catch your stubby-legged toddler heading for the stairs out of your peripheral vision, you streak across the room to eliminate a dangerous variable. It’s easier for that fail-safe to kick in when you’re protecting your kid, but it takes more for you to realize you need to tone down your own heroics to ensure your family is safe. It took a bike thief and the business end of a wrench to teach me.

Risk calculation is like the Apple’s Preview application, it’s a program that’s always running in the background. And it doesn’t apply just to your kids; it applies to your own safety (which, paradoxically, you come to care about largely in the context of your kids). Maybe you’re a little more cautious now about jaywalking in front of buses than you used to be, since, if you don’t time it right, that’s one less parent for your kid.

This program goes online, ideally, the day you bring your baby home from the hospital. I thought it had for me, too, but this recent incident made me wonder if I really do know when push comes to shove, when to stand down, and when not to put myself – and by potential fallout, my family – in harm’s way.

Last month, as my 30-somethingth birthday wound down and moments after I’d put my dinosaur-obsessed 2-year-old to bed, I walked down the four flights of stairs from our apartment to bring back up my and my wife’s bikes, which I’d chained up that afternoon in front of our building. When I stepped onto the front stoop, the bikes were gone. But someone was still there, fiddling in the fading light with someone else’s bike still on the rack. He looked up. This was the precise moment the tiny risk assessor in my head should have pulled the automatic stand-down lever, but didn’t.

“Where are my fucking bikes?” I inquired.

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The figure in the shadows ran.

With no coherent thought, but spewing expletives, I pursued.

We ran — and ran and ran, past the bodega, past the ice cream shop, past gawking onlookers. After three blocks he slowed down, apparently thinking he’d lost me, since I’d kicked off my flip-flops, and was running quietly in the street, ducked down behind a wall of parked cars. Then I crossed onto the sidewalk and jogged up behind him. As I got within arm’s reach, I realized I had no plan. I didn’t have my phone on me, so I couldn’t call the cops. I wasn’t going to tackle him or punch him. I’m not that guy. And anyway, I was spent from running. I also fully realized, for the first time, that I had no idea who this guy was or what he was carrying or what he was capable of.

And yet I’d come this far.

So, I asked again where my bikes were. He jumped, and we took off again, but more slowly this time and it wasn’t long until we both stopped. And then we just walked — a slow-speed, non-pursuit, side-by-side down the sidewalk, both of us gasping for breath, he on the left, me on the right. I saw him now, face-to-face, for the first time: He was maybe 15 or 16, young in the eyes and soft in the body.

I told him I just wanted the bikes back and I wouldn’t press charges. He said he didn’t take them. I called bullshit, and we continued this circular conversation for another block, past a couple of confused bystanders, past taxis. I thought of asking someone for help, but how? I knew if I stopped or stepped away for a second, he would take off again. I was trying to buy time – but for what?

At one point, he told me he didn’t want to hurt me, and it was then that I noticed the adjustable wrench he was handling in his pocket. Moments later, briefly, I looked away from him, up the sidewalk. Where were we going?

And then, a bolt-blow to my stomach. I doubled over. When I caught my breath and looked up, he was a full block away already. I was done. I lifted my shirt. No blood, but he’d gotten me good with the wrench.

I turned and headed back toward home. For no clear reason, I crossed into the middle of the street and continued walking.

Then out of the darkness emerged three similarly aged kids on bikes riding toward me. As they neared I saw one of the bikes was my wife’s.

That’s my fucking bike, I said. The kid riding it  — also around 15 — said someone gave it to him. I repeated myself, and he got off and gave it to me without protest. I mounted the low seat of my wife’s bike and pedaled home, barefooted, knees bobbing close to my chest with each pedal, feeling, ironically, like Deebo in Friday.

I’m fine. I had a stomach ache for a couple of days, and a wrench-shaped bruise on my stomach that melted away within the week. I walked away with a good story and the everlasting pride of knowing that I can run down a chubby kid 20 years my junior. Plus, my wife got back the pedal-brake bike that she never rides anyway.

And I’m alive, with all my vital organs intact and no hospital stay required. So, there’s that.

But what happened to my onboard actuarial program that should have screamed out from the start for me to let that kid just run away? Why, when presented with an obvious series of escalating risks, did I pursue each of them?

Any number of things could have led to a different, far-worse outcome: The kid could have had a gun or a knife or more energy or more anger. He could have gone for my head with that wrench, or he could have hit me again (who knows where) while I was doubled over. Or, any one of those three kids on bikes could have done something. Once I’d locked onto the kid with my wife’s bike, the other two faded from my periphery. They could easily have taken advantage of that.

But none of those things happened.

And yet the scariest thing — and the hardest part to shake — is that given multiple opportunities to take the higher, safer ground, I chose to put myself in harm’s way for two bikes that retail at $300 apiece – and, I guess, to satisfy my own anger or pride. And for those costs, I risked my life and wellbeing. I risked leaving my wife without a husband, and my son without an eager enabler of his dinosaur obsession.

Logically, I know how stupid what I did was. I’m learning to fight those baser instincts for the good of my family. It’ll just take some time to not react in the same way I did before becoming a father. I’m pretty sure if I ever walk onto my stoop again and see someone stealing my bike, I’ll walk back inside and shut the door behind me. But just to make sure, I’m going to keep riding my wife’s bike for a while, teetering and pedal-braking my way around the neighborhood until I’m sure I got the message.