Maybe we all need Mary Poppins

03/02/2013 8:00 AM

05/16/2014 9:19 PM

My route home from work has two extra left turns now.

The evening commute used to take me past a charming faux-Spanish building that housed JJ’s restaurant before a gas explosion blew it to bits.

JJ’s was one block west of my condo. You had to slow to a crawl to navigate the skinny passage on West 48th Street between the queue of urban all-terrain vehicles waiting for valet parking on the left and a plywood wall painted with a cheeky mural (“JJ’s: A View of Napa Valley”) masking a construction zone on the right.

Driving that short block at a snail’s pace was a figurative and literal decompression passage between the go-go daylight hours and the slower pace after twilight.

Through the driver’s side window, I could see which colleague was sharing a laugh with friends at the bar and which neighbors were packed around the crowded sidewalk tables on mild evenings. Behind the plate glass dining room windows, candlelight softened the features of well-dressed office workers arrayed around the coveted front corner table.

Now there’s no more turning onto West 48th, creeping past that living tableau of conviviality. Instead, barricades and security cars with spinning lights block the street, and I have to keep going past the construction zone, then left and left again past manicured apartments with no street life except dog-walkers.

Passing that black hole in the neighborhood, thinking about the woman who died there and the people who were injured, one thought continues to cross my mind: This is why we need a nanny state.

Some conservatives like to throw that term around mockingly when anyone suggests government should play a role in safeguarding the populace. Their vision is one where citizens pay hardly any taxes and look out for themselves.

Events leading up to the explosion and resulting four-alarm fire illustrate a crucial shortcoming in the you’re-on-your-own school of thought.

Namely, a lot of people lack basic common sense. Or they lack the knowledge to accurately assess the danger they may be facing.

Shoppers, diners and residents in the Country Club Plaza district, which JJ’s is at the edge of, reported a noticeable odor of gas for more than an hour before the explosion. Witnesses reported the fumes inside the restaurant were so strong some employees were holding towels over their noses and mouths.

And yet, tragically, the staff and many guests stayed despite the odor until they were told to leave just minutes before the blast.

When concerned friends and relatives began calling and texting to make sure I was OK after the horrifying images flashed onto TV screens just after 6 p.m. that night, I reassured them that I had been miles away all afternoon, and, more importantly, even if I had been at JJ’s or at home, I would have fled the area at the first whiff of gas.

It is cruel and heartless to blame disaster victims and that is not my intent. I am lucky that the smell of gas has always terrified me. But there are plenty of other areas where my common sense is wanting.

And that is the point. We all have vastly different IQs, upbringings, education, life experiences and physical abilities. All those things combine to determine how well we are able to identify risk and take appropriate action to avoid harm.

That is why I like the idea of government taking an active role in protecting the safety and well-being of its citizens. If some people want to liken that to Mary Poppins unfurling a large umbrella to protect her young charges from a rain storm in the park, that’s fine with me.

I’m happy to pay higher taxes in exchange for more peace of mind that the bridges I drive over won’t give way beneath me, that the food I buy at the supermarket is safe, that someone is watching when I swim out too far into the ocean and that people who aren’t as afraid of the smell of gas as I am will be evacuated to safety when there is a serious leak.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @cindyhoedel.

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