Episode 10: Arena, part 2 – Survival of the Thinnest
New York 2000
I take a cursory glance for stray dogs or people along the dark street as I step out of the warehouse. During the year that I’ve lived in the desolate Brooklyn neighborhood known as Bushwick, I’ve realized that both can be equally dangerous to encounter in the night. My breath is visible in the brisk December air as I increase my pace for the three blocks walk to the subway station. The first street is fairly safe since we have two occupied buildings on this block filled with creative types who’ve decided that it’s worth the hassle and risk of living in illegal, non-residence warehouses in exchange for the extra space. This street ends at the Boar’s Head processing plant, where I take a left and quickly turn right again to walk along what is the most dangerous street in the route because it is dark and its few businesses are always closed at night. My senses are on full alert after living in New York for seven years I’ve developed Spider-Man-like Spider-Sense that alerts me if circumstances are dangerous.
If I make it down this block and turn left towards the subway, I’ll be in safe territory, with a fire station located just around the corner. I’m dressed in a heavy pea coat, with a tight scarf to protect me from the cold, wool gloves, pants, and vintage black leather combat boots from the 1940s that I’d scored at the Sunday flea market in Manhattan.
I hear the rhythmic clip clop of my boots on the sidewalk as I keep pace, when I suddenly I hear a brief, stifled noise behind me. I’m halfway up the block as I glance back and see two young men running towards me; one looking to jump me directly from behind while the other is running along the sidewalk across the street in an attempt to pass me and cut off my route to safety. I immediately gauge the distance needed to reach the safe end of the block, put my head down and start running for my life. I’m fully prepared to feel something hit me in the back, whether it is a flying tackle, fists, or a rock, but am relieved as I reach the corner unimpeded.
As I step out in view of the safety of the fire station, I look back, panting heavily and see both young men have stopped, glaring at me from about 50 feet away. I fully turn to face them, laughing with rage as I raise my middle finger and yell, “Fuck you two pitiful little pricks! Try practicing your sprints next time!” They just indifferently turn away, walking back into the darkness of the street.
After I reach the subway station, I use the payphone to call the local police precinct and in the most clichéd, sarcastic New York response I’m told, “So you’re calling to report that you were ALMOST mugged?” I reply, “Yeah, if you would just have a squad car circle the neighborhood it would at least scare off the muggers so they can’t jump anyone else tonight!” I hear a muffled groan before they hang up.
Living in New York awakens our animalistic nature in order to survive. We move in herds along the concrete paths of the city, making our way from place to place as we work and gather enough sustenance to return to our burrows and nests in expensive highrises, roach-infested apartments, or aging brownstones. I would often see this animal nature come out in people, including myself, when confronted with the limits of survival. It took a long time for me to release this within myself, especially since I was an over-protected child, but maybe those brutal lessons about the nature of life and death that I had learned as a boy while hunting with my father had eventually paid off.
Pasadena, Texas 1981
I’m wiping up the blood and re-bandaging my foot, but cringe as I hear the doorbell ring, knowing what it’s about. I look at the Casio calculator watch on my scrawny wrist and see that it’s exactly 4:30. My mom goes to the door and then returns with a confused look on her face, “It’s Curtis. He wants to speak with you.” I finish wrapping my foot and hop to the door to face Curtis, who gleefully relays the info that an enthusiastic crowd has gathered at the end of the block to watch me get my ass kicked. I tell him that I’ll be there soon and shut the door, then say to my confused mom, “I’ve gotta go down the street for a few minutes, but I’ll be right back.” My mom had just driven me home from a visit to doctor Hamm, where I’d had an ingrown toenail cut out, a painful but truly nerdy ailment. Before half-hopping out of the house, I pull one blue Adidas running sneaker on, but leave the other foot exposed since the bandage is too big to fit into any shoe.
My three years at Southmore Junior High had been bad, but moving on to Sam Rayburn High School was even worse. At least David Gregg was still around, and I’d also become close friends with fellow freshmen and Dungeons & Dragons nerds Mike Johnson and Steve Moore. More problematic was crossing paths with a short, stocky bully named Steve, nicknamed “Meatball” because of his shape. This guy defined the term “chip on his shoulder,” possibly over-compensating for his size; he was looking to prove himself and I happened to make a fine target. Now I was headed down the street away from the relative safe confines of the school to meet him face to face.
A few years earlier, in 6th grade, I had encountered a similar bully in my “home room” class. In true bully/nerd hierarchy, he sat at the back of my row while I sat at the front, but every time he had to walk past he would make certain the teacher wasn’t paying attention and would level a bruising punch to my shoulder. After attending the safety of South Shaver elementary school where my mom worked as the school secretary and had personally chosen each of my teachers, I was unsure of how to respond in this new, unregulated environment.
One night while at the dinner table with my parents and sister, they noticed a huge bruise peeking out of the sleeve of my striped t-shirt. After several questions, I revealed the source of trouble, and even though my mom in true over-protective fashion wanted to phone the teacher, my dad said I needed to fight back. I remember the lesson as he took my thin hand and showed me how to close my fingers into a fist, making certain to not tuck my thumb in where it would break from the impact. He finished the lesson with, “When this kid hits you again, jump up and punch him back! He will eventually leave you alone.”
The next day at school I anxiously waited for him to pass with a mixture of nauseating fear and finality. Before long he trudged up to the front of the room, throwing another punch into my sore shoulder. I jumped up in my desk and swung with all of my might at his arm, landing a glancing blow that only made him laugh. He punched me again, more brutally than usual before walking away. The teacher simply sat comatose as usual, grading papers and uncaring. I still remember hearing my new friend David Gregg laugh from the seat behind me, since we were always seated alphabetically in those days. Surprisingly, my dad was right, because the bully soon moved his attention to another victim who would not fight back.
Those years at Southmore didn’t provide me with any lessons in physical self-defense, but I did develop a keen ability to use biting words as insults when attacked. As junior high progressed, I’d developed a level of caustic sarcasm that helped shield me through my public school years. By the time I’d reached high school and encountered the bullying tactics of Meatball, I’d become the Muhammad Ali of words, but as my father had taught me that night at the dinner table, strong words won’t always save you. Sometimes you have to fight back.
When I’d first encountered Meatball in the cafeteria at Sam Rayburn, I’d dismissed him as a loud-mouthed guy just looking for any attention, but before long I realized the extent he would go through to get it. Meatball was keen to prove his manhood to anyone within earshot, but this also made him an easy target for my verbal barbs in response. Before long, he was furious at my constant response of insults, easily jabbing at his insecurities. It didn’t help him any when he showed up one day with his hand bandaged and revealing that he’d cut the tip of his finger off on the meat slicer at the butcher shop where he worked after school. In hindsight, I’m sure that I was ruthless, also seeking validation for my own insecurities by attacking his obvious weakness. School is often a brutal place, as kids learn to navigate their new bodies filled with churning hormones, along with the first taste of the freedom of adulthood. In classic bully fashion, Meatball eventually arranged a time to fight me after school, as if we were formally reenacting scenes from dramatic teen films in the 1950s.
As I hopped down the neighborhood street to meet him for the fight, I pondered how this might have been avoided. Maybe I should have not fought back verbally and just let him be. Perhaps this was an instance when I should have ignored him and he’d have grown bored, simply going away to focus on someone else. By rising up in response, I’d actually provided him with what he wanted, the chance to prove himself “a man.” And here I was, hobbling along the sidewalk towards a waiting crowd of 15 bloodthirsty kids. In hindsight, I don’t even know who most of these kids were or where they had come from! How did they even find out about this goofy rite of passage occurring in a stranger’s front yard down the street?
While I clumsily made my way up onto the cool, perfectly manicured St. Augustine lawn, Meatball began to taunt me, saying that my bandage was a ruse to avoid the fight, but in spite of my handicap, I knew that this fight was necessary. Win or lose, I understood that I needed to be there, both as an example to the kids in school, but more importantly to myself. I realized that I couldn’t talk my way out of this moment, so I was prepared to face that reality along with the consequences.
Meatball began by yelling insults and saying that I needed to throw the first punch. I wasn’t prepared to start something that I didn’t even want to be a part of, so we circled around each other; me hopping on one foot as the kids gathered in a circle to form our makeshift arena. The tension increased as Meatball worked up his anger and courage to take a swing, fueled by the taunts of our blood-crazed, bored suburban audience, including Curtis, who seemed sadistically intent on seeing blood shed. As we circled around, mimicking the start of fights we had seen before at school or on TV, I was half-dazed in the humid early summer air as the steady drone of cicadas rose and fell in chorus around us.
Suddenly, I heard an all-too-familiar, southern voice pierce the air as the circle of kids quickly broke apart. “Jeffrey Don! What are you doing here?!” Glancing through the audience who were disappointedly moving aside, I saw that my mom had silently driven up alongside the house, sitting behind the wheel of her massive silver Mercury Marquis. I heard the low hum of the electric window finish rolling down as she said, “Git in here.. RIGHT NOW!” Meatball and Curtis were already walking away before I made my way to the car, crawling into the backseat. I heard the smooth hum of the window roll back up, sealing us into the hermetic safety of the family vehicle I jokingly called the “Land Tank,” as my mom drove us down the block in silence.
New York 1993
It’s an early evening in November, a few months after moving to NY, and I was headed home from my studio at Pratt, where I was a student in their graduate painting program. At this time in my life, I was sharing a tiny “railroad” apartment with my friend Giovanni a few blocks away from the Metropolitan subway stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood was mostly filled with second generation Italian-Americans and was a reasonably safe part of Brooklyn, convenient for the access to the L Train subway line, an artery that heads straight into the heart of Manhattan along 14th street.That night, as I was leaving the subway station, I walked out of the side exit which leads to a flight of stairs, followed by a short tunnel about 20 feet long before turning to more stairs to the street across from the fabled 24-hour greasy spoon of Kellogg’s Diner. As I walked out of the turnstile and headed up the first flight of stairs I didn’t pay attention to the two young men I passed casually seated on the steps. After I reached the short tunnel I heard one man from behind give a brief whistle while two additional young men appeared, charging towards me from the end of the tunnel. Realizing the trap, I turned to run back, but it was too late. Two guys pushed me against the cold subway tiled wall and rifled through my pockets, while the other two kept watch. Although I didn’t see a weapon, one guy barked out, “Where is your money? If you don’t give us any money I’m going to shoot you in the face!” As they thoroughly frisked me they found the $50 bill I had folded and tucked into the elastic of my sock. One guy combed through my empty wallet, while another looked disappointed at only finding my old Walkman cassette player and a few tapes in my shoulder bag. They threw the wallet on the ground and started to walk away before I blurted out, “Can you leave me the cassette player? It’s not worth anything!” The mugger simply handed it back in disgust before they all retreated down the passage, running up the stairs and disappearing into the night.
Soon after, it was difficult to overcome the debilitating sense of feeling victimized. I swore to myself that from then on that I’d always avoid becoming another passive victim; being aware enough to either avoid another trap, or if not confronted with a weapon, to actually fight back. I replayed the mugging thousands of times in my mind, searching for empowerment by creating different outcomes through my responses that didn’t simply amount to sitting in my desk and letting the 6th grade bully punch me as he walked past.
New York 2004
I stop at the grocery store on the way home from work on this mild, February evening. It’s only about 7pm, but of course it’s already dark outside. As I leave the store near the corner of Metropolitan and Graham Avenues in Brooklyn, I pull out my earbuds, plugging them into my iPod, which I tuck into the pocket of my navy pea coat. I set the music to shuffle an 80s Numbers dance mix before taking one plastic grocery bag in each hand and stepping out onto the sidewalk. Just as I crossed Metropolitan Avenue, walking past the subway exit, I take note of my life, which feels good. My paintings are selling well. The apartment I’m currently sharing in this neighborhood is nice, spacious and inexpensive by New York standards. My part-time job isn’t too demanding. My studio is passable. And my new girlfriend, Kerri, is a sweetheart dynamo of positive ideas and enthusiasm. In spite of these things, I still find myself hindered by a general malaise that’s always lurking just under the surface. I stop, setting down one bag so I can turn up the volume, before walking on down the semi-busy street, passing the small, local businesses that are still open. Dave Gahan’s voice fills my head as I enter into a trance, walking in time to the music.
You wear guilt like shackles on your feet
Like a halo in reverse
I can feel the discomfort in your seat
And in your head it’s worse
There’s a pain, a famine in your heart
An aching to be free
Can’t you see all love’s luxuries
Are here for you and me?
Everything on the street moves slowly in time to the beat of the music, as clear and precise as the production on the gospel-tinged song by Depeche Mode. The chorus kicks in and I feel my heart swell as I focus on the sounds, lost in the music and ignoring everything around me.
And when our worlds they fall apart
When the walls come tumbling in
Though we may deserve it
It will be worth it
I slowly walk past two young men and casually notice that one of them is wearing an orange jacket, which is covered in writings from a sharpie marker. I keep walking in a daze.
Bring your chains, your lips of tragedy
And fall into my arms
And when our worlds they fall apart
When the walls come tumbling in
Though we may deserve it
It will be worth it
I suddenly feel two arms reach around me from behind, grabbing me near the shoulders and my immediate thought is that Kerri has come to surprise me. But as I’m about to respond to this surprising embrace, I glance down and see that the arms are orange sleeves covered in writing. The earbuds fall as I hear a whispered voice utter, “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound.”
I immediately let go of both bags of groceries and lift my arms high, breaking free of the hold before dropping again and swinging my elbows into the chest of the stranger. I then realize that the busy street I’m on is now uncharacteristically empty of pedestrians as I begin to repeated yell, “HELP! I’M BEING MUGGED,” along with, “GET THE FUCK OFF OF ME!”
Somehow my glasses are knocked off, leaving me even more vulnerable while I’m swinging wildly, trying to keep both men from gaining any grip on me. They begin to throw punches, one hitting me solidly in the face as another is trying to restrain me. I keep yelling and fighting; refusing to give in before I’m knocked onto my back on the ground. I’m still writhing and kicking furiously, pushing the probing hands away from my pockets as one guy keeps attempting to restrain my arms. Suddenly one mugger straddles me, his legs spread over my chest as the other guy finally pins my arms. The man straddling me jumps and with a move that would make Rowdy Roddy Piper proud, he drops, with one knee landing solidly in the center of my chest, violently knocking my breath out. I panic as I realize that I’m unable to breathe, twisting wildly in hopes of throwing him off while I think, “This is it. I’m done for.”
Suddenly, I hear the voice of a woman say, “Get off of him. I’ve called the cops.” The probing hands stop and the guy kneeling on my chest stands up as I gasp at the sacred air refilling my lungs. I look up and in my hazy vision I see a woman silhouetted in the light as she stands at the front door of her brownstone apartment. The two muggers casually walk away, disappearing around the corner as if nothing unusual has occurred.
I then glance across the street and see a group of people who have emerged from the corner laundromat, gazelles watching safely from across the watering hole as the vulnerable one is attacked by hyenas. I bellow out at them, “COULD ONE OF YOU FUCKING HELP ME NOW?!” The woman from the brownstone appears next to me, handing me back my glasses, which have somehow survived perfectly intact. It’s then that I can see the blood splattering along the ground, dripping from my broken nose. The woman and I begin to gather my groceries from the ground, placing them back in the two bags, all nearly intact aside from the bundle of spinach with leaves strewn across the sidewalk peppered in blood. Eventually two policemen arrive, making certain that I haven’t been severely injured before futilely circling the neighborhood and then taking me to the police station.
At the station, I step into the bathroom, hoping to clean myself up when I look in the mirror, shocked that I don’t recognize the bloody, bruised animal that I’ve become. I smile at myself through the pain, proud that I finally fought back and managed to hold my own while leaving my assailants empty-handed. Over the next few days I replayed the scenario hundreds of times in my mind, but unlike my first mugging, I’m not left feeling like a victim. Even though it was dangerous to fight back, I’m proud of finally stepping into the arena and discovering that I could stand my ground.
One month later I was in Texas, visiting my family and David Gregg. At this point David had fallen into bad health, moving back into his childhood bedroom at the house with his aging parents. One night, David lay on his bed with an omnipresent heating pad under his broken back, while I sat in his desk chair and told him the story of my attempted mugging. He just sat in silence, shacking his head slowly. As the story ended, he rolled his lanky frame off of the bed and walked over to his chest of drawers, gently pulling one out and removing several items before revealing a hidden compartment. He reached inside and took out a large 5” folding knife, which he deftly opened with a flick of his wrist, testing the blade and sharpness before folding it back up and handing it to me, saying, “I want you to take this. For protection.” I replied that I appreciated the offer, but that it would most likely only get me killed if I carried a knife. David shook his head as he put the knife back into the compartment, before with a smile he turned and said, “You know that in certain cultures it’s an insult to decline a gift. An insult punishable by death.” I just laughed and replied, “David, we can’t always pretend to be Klingons.”