IV. The fight in the locker room
At New Utrecht High School in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn—a few miles from 40th Street—there was a group of Italian guys who dressed in pegged pants and pink shirts and pointy shoes with metal taps on both the heels and toes. The taps made a clinking sound in the hallways, a warning to everybody else to step back if you knew what was good for you. They were the neighborhood's tough guys, most likely in a gang. Even though, sometimes, they would get together on the sidewalk and sing rock and roll acapella together.
One of those guys, Frankie, was in one of my classes. He was the only guy in that group who was small, like me. Actually just my size, and just about my weight.
One day we got into an argument. We were in class, I think it was home room, the first room you’d go to in the morning. We got into a real argument—I don’t know about what—and the way arguments between boys were solved in those days was, you’d turn it into a fist fight. But we couldn’t fight right there, of course, so the next best thing was to threaten each other that we would get you after school. So Frankie said to me, or I said to him, Be down in the locker room at 3 o’clock. And then Frankie said, or I said, I’ll be there.
And then I said, shaking so hard I could barely think, yet knowing I could never show him that I was scared, Just make sure you’re there.
The rest of the school day, sick unto death, I had to decide what to do. I didn’t really know how to fight, which was bizarre, growing up in a working class neighborhood, with teen gangs and such all around (the Ditmas Dukes were a few blocks away in one direction; the Gremlins in the other). And I was told by my mother, over and over again, that “Your father never got into a fight.” My mother said it proudly, but I knew the reason he never fought was that he was a coward—afraid of people to such an extent that whenever he’d meet someone new he’d emit a fear so powerfully I could smell it.
Anyway, I never learned how to fight. I never learned what every other boy in the world knew as a matter of course. Of survival. I never fought. My father, who only knew how to cower, never taught me.
What I did know that day, without knowing how I knew, was that if I didn’t show up, I couldn’t live with myself. I would be taunted, and pushed and shoved and punched and laughed at not only the next day, and the next, but for the rest of my life. And I also knew, that if I did show up, I’d probably be beaten to a pulp.
I showed up. So did Frankie, in the locker room, with the concrete floor and metal cabinets, which were in the basement of the school. But this time, it wasn’t just the two of us. Frankie showed up with four of his friends. All sporting the ducks’ ass haircut and curled-hair “bombs” down the forehead, and pegged pants and pointy black shoes with metal taps.
I think I froze. But I was there, and before I knew it, Frankie and I had our arms around each other’s necks in a mutual strangle hold. We were shouting at each other, something like “C’mon faggot, C’mon, faggot.” He landed a few punches, I’m not sure if I landed any. What I heard were all his friends cheering him on. “C’mon Frankie,” they said. “Kill ’im!” They were whooping and shouting.
Then at some point, maybe after about twenty minutes, or twenty hours, Frankie asked if I would “give,” which means give up, or acknowledge that he had won.
I said yes.
Then we shook hands. He left with his friends, who were patting him on the back and laughing and shouting.
I left, alone, and took the D train home to 1546 40th Street.
But the sick feeling I had had earlier that day had disappeared. In its place was one of elation, even though I had not been able to get Frankie to “give.” (That would have been gravy.) I had showed up. I had showed that even though my fearful, cowardly father had “never been in a fight,” even though I had incorporated his lifelong demons into my own guts, I had just faced an abyss, and plunged into it, and emerged whole.
I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to see Frankie.
V. Bigger than myself
Girls and boys carried books differently in high school hallways. The girls at New Utrecht, in the 1950s, would hold a stack of books pressed in front of them, cradling them to their chests with both arms wrapped around them, almost like you hold a baby. It didn’t matter how many books they carried, or how different the sizes; they would hold all of them the same way. Inevitably, one girl with her books would say to another something like: “He was so cute, what a doll!” Then, after the briefest of silences: “But is he conceited!” And the other girl would nod, knowing beforehand what her companion would say, because she herself would soon say the same words, with the exact same inflection, to somebody else.
Boys didn’t carry books like that, and didn’t talk about girls that way. They would put as many books as they could hold into one palm, usually the right palm, and hold them tightly, fingers hurting from the strain. Their upper arm—from armpit to elbow—would be pressed against the side of their ribs, while their lower arm—from elbow to hand—stuck straight out, at a ninety degree angle to their upper arm.
If any boy was stupid enough to hold the books in the more comfortable way the girls held them, he’d be either hounded as a “faggot,” or, worst case, beaten.
How did boys talk about girls? When they did, which was rare (at least in my underdeveloped circles), it was more like, “Do you think she bends?” Not hard to figure out what that means.
One rainy day, as a junior at Utrecht (you rarely said New Utrecht; only Utrecht), I was walking through the front aisle of the assembly room, that big, cavernous room with a stage up front, and rows and rows of seats affixed to the floor. I walked the way any real boy would walk, with a hint of a bop—a slight bouncing motion, sauntering from left to right to left—which was supposed to show you were tough. I carried my books the boy way as well, holding too many in my hand. A curl of hair wound down my forehead. My pants were pegged, a recent development, and the heels of my shoes bore metal taps. All tiny me, making myself bigger than myself.
As I walked from one end of the assembly room to the other, I noticed a kid in a front row seat, some ten feet or so ahead of me, his legs spread out in front of him—blocking my path. The usual anxiety gripped me. Do I challenge, or retreat? Do I continue sauntering along, with my make-believe tough guy stance, directly up to him, daring him to make me alter my path, thereby either placing myself in a position to get pummeled, or forcing him to face my terrifying mercy? Or do I in fact alter my path, like a girl might do, say by changing my direction, walking up onto the stage, and passing around him, thereby letting him “win.” And thereby acknowledging that I’m a . . . nothing?
Since he didn’t seem too big, I took the first option. I stared at him, sauntering directly towards him with my books in my aching hand, implicitly threatening, praying to God to make him feel that if he didn’t withdraw his stuck out legs, he’d pay with his life.
He withdrew his legs. I bopped on past, walking straight into relief heaven.
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