It’s 7:35 on the Today show—the time reserved for big, national stories. (George Clooney isn’t scheduled till later.) Ann Curry is speaking directly to the camera, her face friendly but concerned because her next guest just may be insane. “So,” she asks her six million viewers, “is she an enlightened mom or a really bad one?”
The shot widens to reveal…me.
My son, Izzy, is by my side, stuffed with NBC’s free cookies, both of us here because I’d recently left him, deliberately, in the first-floor handbag department of the Manhattan Bloomingdale’s.
He was nine and had been begging me to please let him find his way home from someplace—anyplace—on the subway, by himself. After all, we live in New York City, and getting around by public transit is a basic part of life, like yelling at cabbies in the crosswalk. It’s also a rite of passage, the first step toward feeling grown-up. So on that sunny Sunday, I gave him a subway map, a transit card, $20 for emergencies, and a couple of quarters in case he had to call me. (No, no cell phone. Nine-year-olds lose things.)
Despite a tiny twinge, however, I had no intention of losing him. New York today is as safe as it was in 1963, making it almost embarrassingly ungritty—but reassuring. So I waved goodbye and left in the other direction. After 45 minutes, he arrived home, far more tickled than your average commuter.
A few days later, I wrote about his adventure, or nonadventure, for my paper, the New York Sun. Little did I realize this would be the Subway Ride Heard Round the World.
Somehow the idea that a kid could navigate the city on his own, and that a mom would let him, was big news. Huge! It turned out the Today show interview was just the first of the day. After I dropped Izzy off at school, I sped up to MSNBC to talk about his ride again. When Fox News called, I turned around and grabbed him back out of school, and off we zoomed to Neil Cavuto. The segment got more feedback than the Bear Stearns bailout hearing.
Pretty soon, NPR was calling. Newsweek. The BBC. Malta. Bloggers were going crazy, so I started a blog, too, Free Range Kids, and letters came pouring in: “Bravo!” vs. “Why didn’t child services come to your door?” Then came a call from the South China Morning Post: Izzy’s story was perfect for Asia.