Horses, crime and the DMV

Bizarrely enough, I am back at my desk while it is still daylight outside and my blood pressure registers in the three figures, and I have not gored a red-hot poker through my head or anyone else’s. (And not just for lack of a poker — or an oven mitt to hold it with.)

Lenore Skenazy Free-Range Kids

Lenore Skenazy
Free-Range Kids

All this is remarkable because I spent the morning at the Department of Motor Vehicles. In Manhattan.

The strangest thing about this episode is that if any comic ever even utters “DM,” the audience is already laughing. Dane Cook’s DMV line is: “You know what they should do? When you walk in the front door, they should have somebody hiding just punch you in the face. ‘Cause at least after, you can be like, ‘Ah! All right, well, waiting in line’s not so bad after the punch in the face.'”

But this morning, the lines were nearly nonexistent. You couldn’t see what the chair cushions were made of, because none of them had been ripped open. The computerized keep-’em-moving system was working like one in an IBM commercial, and of the four clerks I encountered, three were competent, bordering on chipper. (And one could have been FedExed from the Soviet Union, circa 1978.) The whole visit took about 25 minutes.

Which is to say: Sometimes things get better — even problems so seemingly intractable that they’ve become punch lines.

This is true even of some messier issues. Take horse manure (please!). Don’t ask why, but I was just reading about the horse manure problem in New York City in the 1880s. With more than 150,000 horses in the city, each outputting 15-30 pounds of the stuff — that’s 3 million pounds daily — the city was piled high and deep, with no solution in sight.

Eric Morris, an urban planner quoted in the book “Superfreakonomics,” researched this forgotten bit of history and found that the problem was so bad that well-off folks would pay a sweeper to clear a path when they had to cross the street. In wet weather, everywhere you stepped was slimy and vile. But when it was hot out, the manure turned to dust and coated people inside and out. Vacant lots served as dung heaps. One newspaper predicted that by 1950, New York would be buried 9-feet deep in brown stuff.

But of course, you know how this story ends. Nowadays the only horses left are for nostalgic purposes, gently trotting tourists around Central Park. (They are, at least, until our new mayor gets rid of them; he is a man obsessed.)

My point is: Just like the lines at the DMV, the horse manure problem pretty much vanished.

Which brings us to crime. Survey after survey finds a disconnect between the crime rate and our perception of it. The fact is crime has been falling for about 20 years. For instance, there were fewer gun deaths in 2010 than in 1993, even though our populace is bigger. In fact, gun crimes are down 75 percent since the early ’90s. That’s incredible! Yet a Pew Research Center study found that 56 percent of Americans think violence is up. They are stuck in defeatist mode.

So today if you make a joke about New York’s crime rate or filth or DMV, you’ll probably get a knowing laugh. People think pessimism equals sophistication. But what should really make us smile is the amazing truth: Things can get better.

They already have.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”

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