On ‘Backing Down’ From A ‘Streetfight’

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked across a pedestrian crossing on Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, I found a large SUV, turning right, barreling down at me; he braked hard, even as I yelled out “I’ve got the ‘Walk’ sign, dude!” He yelled back, “We both got the light!” I yelled back, “I’ve got right of way!” He yelled back, ‘Fuck off!’ I yelled back, “Go fuck yourself!” Clearly, this was a fruitful and productive exchange of views on how to best negotiate street crossings. As I turned on the sidewalk, I noticed he’d pulled over to the side of the street, and was waiting for me to walk by his car. The driver was not alone; he had a belligerent female companion in the passenger seat who had also been screaming obscenities at me. I continued walking on the sidewalk, past the parked car on my left, keeping my eyes straight, walking on to my gym class. As I did so, I could hear their jeering; clearly, I had not risen to the challenge. My bravado was bigger than my bite; I had ‘backed down.’

Fair enough; I did. I smarted for a while afterwards, but it was the correct decision. I was outnumbered; even if I could have engaged in the undignified business of throwing punches or grappling with a belligerent stranger–who looked to be roughly my size, but about ten years younger–on a city sidewalk, I would have left myself open to being clocked upside the head with some hard object by my opponent’s companion. I could have, for instance, taken a bottle to the head or something similar. Given her visible demeanor, this sort of ‘participation’ in the fight was not unlikely at all. Street fights are always dirty; this one would have been no different. Given the emotions on display just earlier, this would have been a dirty business through and through. No one would have intervened; no one intervenes in street fights in New York City. Or anywhere else for that matter. I did not want the police involved; I did not want to suffer physical injury, a high price to pay for trying to remind a driver that he did not have right of way on a pedestrian crossing when the light turns green. Quite possibly, because the parameters of such fights are so poorly defined, I could have suffered an injury disproportionate to the original provocation. For as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve been haunted by the memory of the bodega store owner who tried to stop a teenager from shoplifting and was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head; the resultant injury caused permanent brain damage.

Quite simply, there was no upside to my responding to this provocation, to continuing this conflict. I swallowed hard, fuming, and walked on straight to my gym, where I worked out and flattered myself by performing a reasonably hard gymnastic move several times during my workout. Then, sweaty and satisfied, I returned home in time to say goodnight to my daughter before she went to bed. Her father hadn’t been ‘manly’ enough earlier; but this was good enough for me.

A Seinfeldian Encounter In My Barbershop

For the past few years, I’ve had my hair cut at a local barbershop, a few blocks down from where I live. It is an old-fashioned family establishment, owned and manned by a father and son pair (Italian), backed up by a Ukranian gentleman. (A classic Brooklyn institution, to be sure.) Initially, I would get my hair cut by any member of this trio, but then, eventually, I gravitated to the Ukranian barber, who seemed to have got my preferred style–a military-flavored crew cut, with a very close cut on the sides–just right. Nothing too complicated, but still. This establishment of a ‘favored’ barber brought with it, for the first time, a certain awkwardness to my visits to the barbershop.

For on occasion, when one of the father and son pair were done with their customers, they would turn to me and indicate they were unoccupied–at which point, I would say that I was going to wait for my friend to finish with his current engagement. After the first couple of times, they stopped asking me, moving on to the next waiting customer. My preference had been indicated, and matters soon found a new equilibrium. I would walk in, stake out a spot, wave on other customers while I waited for ‘my man.’ ‘P’ is a taciturn man, and my haircutting sessions with him only included a few conversational exchanges; a few pleasantries, and then, both he and I would lapse into silence while ‘P’ went about his work, competently and efficiently. (On my left, the barber’s son cut his customers’ hair in rather more conventional style: a free-wheeling conversation about sports, family, television, music–the whole nine yards.)

Then, a few weeks ago, awkwardness returned. I was due a for a haircut–badly. Unkempt and rough around the edges, I was dying to get cleaned up. My busy schedule meant that very few times in the week would allow me to visit the barbershop. One opportunity went by after another; finally, on a Friday morning, I resolved to reduce my hirsuteness before I went to work. Haircut or bust. I walked in only to find ‘P’ missing. On asking where he was, I was reassured–by the younger owner– he would be at work soon: “he shows up around this time; grab a seat.” I did so, and opened up a book to read. The minutes ticked by; my Friday could not wait for too long. As I read, I noticed that I was the only customer waiting in the shop. Once the haircut currently underway was completed, I would have the floor to myself. A previously unthinkable option had presented itself: betraying ‘P.’

And so it came to pass. As the customer ahead of me was cleaned up, I stood up and removed my jacket. I could not wait any longer. If I was lucky, my haircut would be complete before ‘P’ walked in and caught me cheating on him.

But as the white sheet went on, and as the clippers began their work, ‘P” walked in. We exchanged pleasantries; I cringed. My treachery was now a public matter. I could only hope that while my haircut proceeded another customer would engage him and distract him. But it was not to be. Bizarrely enough, for the next twenty minutes, while I received my haircut, the barbershop remained pristinely empty, even as ‘P,’ standing by his station next to me, stared moodily–and perhaps darkly and grimly–at the street outside.

That was one long haircut. It was made even more so by the fact that my barber kept up his usual stream of friendly chatter, to which I, with guilt racking every fibre of my being, reciprocated as best as I could (the Yankees, the Mets, local schools.)

Finally, the time came. I handed over my payment, included a tip, and then, as I headed out, bade everyone goodbye. Thankfully, ‘P’ squeezed out a smile–it looked like one–for me. So did the beaming young man who had just cut my hair.

I have no idea who is going to cut my hair the next time I walk through the doors of my barbershop. Stay tuned. I’m rough around the edges again.

A Cup Final On The Playground’s Jungle Gym

On Wednesday evening, as is my usual practice, I picked up my daughter from her daycare, and began walking home with her. The unseasonably warm weather suggested a little detour in the tot-lot on the way back was a very good idea. (I remain unenthusiastic about visiting playgrounds but my sense of parental duty overrides this unease of mine.) There, in the playground, my daughter confronted a familiar challenge: the combination jungle-gym/slide which serves as centerpiece for juvenile mayhem.

This particular variant features two slides, three sets of stairs, and two ingenious tests of balancing/climbing ability on the side: a set of semi-circular rings with a running bar which can be traversed by a child who grasps the side and then walks from ring to ring, and a set of interlocking metallic ‘Olympic rings’ set at a slope, which can be used as steps of a sort. My daughter had mastered the first challenge a while ago, but the second remained out of reach. The leg length and the grip strength it required were bridges too far. Moreover, my daughter would often freeze when I would start to instruct her on how she could solve the various challenges the rings posed. I had backed off, worried that I might be making her more anxious.

Now, there we were yet again, staring at a familiar nemesis. We had visited the playground last week, and then again, a familiar pattern had manifested itself: my daughter ascended partway, stopped, overcome by doubt and anxiety; I stepped closer, offered some advice; she froze; she dismounted. Now, she went off again to climb the rings, and I hung back, checking my phone for messages. I was determined to stay out of this one.

My daughter took her first steps, and soon hit a dead-end. She shifted her feet and moved left. Then, she reached up and pulled, moving up to the second level of rings. Now, again, she was stuck. For a moment, she took one foot off the rings, a sign that she was considering dismounting. I groaned inwardly. Then the foot went back on, and she moved right, looking for a better foothold. Crucially, she had not turned around to look for me. Perhaps she was going to go ahead with this thing. She looked up, saw a hold. She would have to reach and pull herself up to a spot from where she would be secure and could then use the bars on the side to take the final step to safety.  I tensed.

I realized, at that moment, that I was experiencing a sensation that I had previously only felt while watching sports: cup finals, penalty shoot-outs, tennis tie-breaks, the frenetic closing stages of a one-day cricket game. I was ready to be overcome with elation, while simultaneously terrified at the thought of failure. I was urging ‘my team’ on.

My daughter pulled, and swung up. She fumbled on the bars, but grasped them nevertheless, and then stepped to safety. As she did so, she suddenly broke into a grin and announced, “I did it; all by myself!”

Standing behind her, I had executed, as circumspectly as possible, the kind of punching-the-air ritual I often execute when a goal or touchdown is scored, a catch taken, an ace served. My team had won. Against itself.

The Children’s Playground AKA ‘The Yard’

Parenting entails many unpleasant duties. Changing diapers and dealing with toddlers reluctant to eat, sleep, or behave like rational human beings–which they aren’t–are often ranked lowest on the scale of parenting unpleasantness. But for my money, little can rival accompanying your child to the playground.

Here it may all be found: a mixed-age, mixed-gender space for interaction, populated by children and their curiously disengaged parents, featuring aggression, rudeness, selfishness, and ample opportunity for traumatic brain injury. Here is a cauldron of class and ethnic interaction and mutual misunderstanding and confusion, of excessive parental protectiveness and its counterpart, malignant indifference.

I was convinced, long before my wife and I had our daughter, that children were not innocent, that they were not unsullied human beings waiting to be despoiled by maturity and civilization. There was always something of the monstrous in them, too many glimpses of the unrestrained Id were all too clearly visible. The memories of my childhood–its bullies, the brawls, the tantrums, the ganging up on the weak, the merciless hunting down of the quirky, the taunting, the teasing, the mocking, the clique forming and exclusions–were still clear; I have had no desire to ever revisit it. Adulthood was not degradation and descent; it was growth in both the physical and moral dimensions. Within reasonable bounds, of course.

My experience at children’s playgrounds has given me ample opportunity to confirm this gloomy diagnosis of mine. Children are monsters. And in a space featuring everyone from pre-walkers to fleet runners, from those wearing diapers to those free of them, the range of interactions on display frequently show them off at their worst. You want your child to learn ‘the ropes’, the ‘tricks of the trade’; you want to be suitably disengaged and yet protective; you want children to ‘figure it out by themselves’ without adult intervention or supervision; and you cannot bring these competing desiderata together into a coherent vision of how to conduct yourself at the playground.

Sometimes you want to tell a parent to stop checking their phone and do something about their child’s selfishness; sometimes you want to tell a child (and his or her parent) to look a little closer at the misanthropic tendencies on display; sometimes  you want your own child to provide a better representation of your parenting abilities. Sometimes you want to make a hard right turn and avoid the playground altogether.

At the playground, you find your vision of the correct moral upbringing of your child dashed against the hard rocks of those Sartre called ‘hell’: other people. They will rapidly reconfigure it all; they will make you say things–if only under your breath–like ‘well, perhaps you should have pushed your way to the front; perhaps you should have shoved that other kid aside; the next time someone blocks the slide, just slide into them.’ Here, it all comes apart; here, you realize where the sophomoric theorizing about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the invocations of ‘its a jungle out there’ come from.

Many years of this lie ahead. Some kinds of time should fly.

A Persistent Reminder Of A Hardened Heart

A few weeks ago, as I approached the entrance to the subway station I use on my way back home after a trip to the gym, I noticed a familiar figure standing by its stairs: a man of indeterminate age who stands at the top step, next to the door for a deli, asking for change from subway passengers and deli customers (his location is strategic and well thought out.) His normal tone of request is never aggressive; just a little plaintive with just the trace of a wheedle. And he is persistent, repeating the same plaint: his down- and-out-ness, his desperate need for the smallest bit–a penny, a dime, a quarter–that anyone can spare to move him along just a bit toward the desired goal of a full stomach.

On this day, his tone was significantly different. He had shifted into a more insistently repetitive tone: his vocal delivery of his plea had become a monotone, delivered once, and then followed up, immediately, with a precise copy on its heels: “Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have; Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have.” And on, and on. Whereas previously, he had only directed this plea to emerging or entering passengers and held his peace otherwise, now it seemed a tripwire had been hit, and he had been catapulted into a new state of being. He now sounded jarring and harsh, and the persistent repetition of his lament was now more invasive. It made me move quicker–past him, down the steps, and into the station. Anything to get away from that  Chinese water torture–it was like having a cup with a few coins rattled, again and again, in my face, under my nose, their jingling threatening to unravel me, bit by bit, thread by thread.

As I walked on, I remembered I had never, ever, given that man any of my spare change. I have, over the years, become impervious to the many beseechments that are sent my way in this great city: from those who lie on sidewalks, a cardboard sign detailing the precise state of their misfortunes, economic, personal, or medical; from those who walk into my subway car, announcing the loss of a job or home, the parlous state of their family and children, their hunger, their desperate desire to convince us that the money given out as alms will not be spent on alcohol or drugs. I have, more often than not, simply looked a little closer at the book I have been reading, and turned away. Perhaps I fear charlatans; perhaps I have become numb; perhaps I think my efforts at ‘helping’ are better directed elsewhere.

Now, I had fled from a scene of escalated desperation; I had turned away, again, unable to respond adequately to this nagging reminder of how, in this city with its fortunes and misfortunes, with its too-big-to-process tragedies and comedies, I had let my heart harden just a little.

The ‘Trivial’ Roots Of Resentment

Some three decades ago, I went to buy tickets for a major sports event. I was a teenager, eager to see top-class athletes in action; I woke early, caught a bus to the ticket box-office and joined the long queues that had already formed by the time I arrived. The lines grew and grew; tickets were sold slowly and inefficiently; the pushing and shoving began. There were policemen in charge of this mass of disorderly humanity; they decided to restore order by a series of pushes and shoves of their own.

I complied with orders: I moved, keeping my position in the queue. But clearly, I had not moved quickly enough. Suddenly, I received a hard blow to the back of my head. Stunned, my head spinning, I looked around to see what had happened. A policeman stood there, glaring at me, “What are you looking at! Move!” (This translated version sounds considerably milder than the original.) He was bigger than me; he carried a hefty baton that I knew could easily crack my skull open.

I moved.

I hadn’t done anything wrong as far as I could tell; I had complied with instructions; I had been in the wrong time and in the wrong place, in the firing line for an officer of the law, one easily inclined to descend to violence when things didn’t go right, when his easily exhausted patience ran out.  In the space of a few seconds, I had been physically chastised and humiliated; I had been put in my place; I had been reminded I had very little power when it came to confronting these guardians of the peace.

So I smarted and glowered and fumed. For days and weeks and afterwards, every policeman I saw reminded me of that day when I had been abruptly slapped upside the head and told to get my ass in gear. Later, in my university days, I heard a story of how a policeman had made the mistake of harassing two young men–out for a late night smoke and a stroll–who had decided to fight back. He didn’t have backup, and he had thought he could simply bully them the way he usually bullied his usual victims: the homeless, the initerant poor, the cabdrivers on a night-shift. They had grabbed his baton, thrown it away, and then delivered a series of quick blows to his head before running away into the night. When I heard this tale, I grinned and snickered. “Fuck that motherfucker. Serves him right. That’ll teach him a fucking lesson. He’ll think twice before he messes with some kids again.”

I was not a juvenile delinquent. I was not someone was repeatedly accosted by the police (though I had several more edgy encounters with them in my university days, all of them reminders of their ability to swiftly, crudely, bring blunt power to bear.) So I often wonder: if I could, thanks to one violent and disempowering encounter with the police, a humiliating and reductive one, develop such a chip on my shoulder, just how angry and resentful would someone get if such interactions were a daily or weekly occurrence?

I know, I know. I should have moved on. I should have brushed off that chip. I should have matured. But I wasn’t old enough to know better.  And again, I know, that the cop who got beaten by those youngsters probably cracked down a little harder the next time he saw a couple of ‘punks’, and made sure he took some buddies with him to crack heads.

But pushing folks around, rendering them weak and vulnerable, reminding their of their helplessness in the face of those who enjoy a monopoly on coercion and the exercise of state power remains a deadly recipe for the generation of resentment and anger.

An Officer’s View On The NYPD Protests: Still Blinkered

Steve Osborne, proudly standing with his back to the Mayor and the city of New York, comes to tell us why the New York City Police Department has been throwing an extended tantrum that would put a toddler to shame. (Interestingly enough, the NYPD has given itself a ‘time-out’ and like harried parents everywhere, we are oh-so relieved and wondering if the offender should stay in there just a little longer.)

Osborne’s Op-Ed is not much more than Pat Lynch Lite:

Mr. de Blasio is more than any other public figure in this city responsible for feelings of demoralization among the police. It did not help to tell the world about instructing his son, Dante, who is biracial, to be wary of the police, or to publicly signal support of anti-police protesters (for instance, by standing alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton, a staunch backer of the protests). If there is any self-pity involved, which I doubt, it is only because we lack respect from our elected officials and parts of the media.

Quick question for Osborne: Did you read my piece about the ‘deadly self-pity of the police’? You really should. You might be able to rent a clue if you did so.

Osborne writes one sensible, revealing, paragraph:

Most cops I know feel tired of being pushed to do more and more, and then even more. More police productivity has meant far less crime, but at a certain point New York began to feel like, yes, a police state, and the police don’t like it any more than you do. Tremendous successes were achieved in battling crime and making this city a much better place to live and work in and visit. But the time has probably come for the Police Department to ease up on the low-level “broken-windows” stuff while re-evaluating the impact it may or may not have on real, serious crime. No one will welcome this more than the average cop on the beat, who has been pressed to find crime where so much less of it exists.

As the NYPD’s ‘strike’, its refusal to arrest anyone ‘unless absolutely necessary’, has shown, the sky has not fallen on our heads while the police have decided to kick back just for a bit and ease up on the usual ‘up against the wall’ nonsense. (The police seem to not have studied the history of strikes: they are meant to show you are indispensable, not the other way around.)

As for the rest: Spare us this incessant whining, this invocation of weeping, anxious women waiting at home for their soldier men to return from the front after doing battle. I’ve met many men who fought in real wars, and they never went on and on like this self-absorbed lot who can’t get it through their heads that their methods might have something to do with the lack of ‘respect’ sent their way. Stop asking for respect, and start showing some for the citizens you police. You might be surprised with what comes your way.