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I determined to lose my fight virginity when I was in the fourth grade. I was a “husky,”1 non-athletic boy with long hair,2 so if I felt I had something to prove, it was probably just to myself. There was a class tough named Chuckie who was a good three inches shorter than any boy in my grade. An unlikely bully on paper, he had an impressive Afro and exuded an air of “I-will-kick-your-ass-just-for-what’s-in-your-head” that was a big part of his reputation. “Chuckie’s gonna get you at 3:15” was not a phrase you wanted directed at you. So I avoided him, but I also admired him: his Capone confidence, his outsized cool. He certainly played a key role in the Culture of Fight3, but ultimately I think the imperative was really just part of being a boy of a certain age. A simple exchange was an opportunity to get the upper hand, whether through put-down or shove-down. And I was a fairly obvious target.
If I was going to fight it seemed wise to be methodical about it. Why leave such a thing to chance? Playing my cards right, I could select my opponent rather than wind up with someone stronger or handier than myself. I did the rundown: (A) It would have to be someone at the school, so the word would get around. (B) It had to be someone in my grade or higher, so it didn’t seem like I was picking on a younger kid. (C) It couldn’t be anyone exceedingly weak or debilitated. That could backfire badly. So I waited. As it turns out, I waited a while. This should have satisfied me, but I couldn’t help feeling inferior in the grand scheme of fourth grade things.
An opportunity presented itself on my front porch one afternoon. I was no doubt watching TV, perhaps a rerun of some long-forgotten sitcom like “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” or “The Farmer’s Daughter”. The doorbell rang and I ignored it. My brother came in a moment later and said that Charles Dickerson was asking if I wanted to play. While not exactly a close friend, Charles was a classmate and occasional playground companion. He had a distinct vocal twang that my siblings and I found funny. “Tim-ah-tee,” my brother mocked, “It’s that kid, Charles. He wants you to come out, Tim-ah-tee.”
I went and stood in the doorway and said hi. Charles seemed embarrassed and awkward. He was about my height, but very skinny; his shaved head accentuated his long face and delicate features. Seeing him there on the steps, vulnerable and needing, something malignant inside me suggested I try to pick a fight. This was my chance. While I didn’t dislike Charles, his neediness kind of bugged me. It was something I didn’t like in myself, so seeing it in someone else was not only unattractive, but also an unwanted reminder of my own shortcomings. So the lesser angels of my nature took over. I taunted him, scolding him for showing up uninvited and bothering me, for saying my name so strangely. I may have even accused him of doing something to antagonize me, perhaps taking a step toward him in the hope it would spark some sort of tussle. But Charles, not surprisingly, just looked hurt and confused. He retreated down the stairs and walked away.
The utter failure of this attempt had a doubly negative impact: I still had no fight to brag of and I felt like a total asshole for what I did to poor Charles. I knew I would no doubt have reacted as he did if confronted in the same way, but I couldn’t exactly apologize for it. That would be even worse! Perhaps if I persevered in my quest for a fight I could at least gain his respect and awe. But how? He really seemed my best bet for a premeditated fight. Finally I gave up. I was only a year and change from moving to middle school. I would cut my losses, keep my head down and stay out of trouble: the classic short-timer strategy.
And then one day at recess the worst possible scenario played out: right by the octagonal cement water fountain at the center of the school yard, I ran afoul of a mean girl. Flanked by a couple of her friends, she thrust her chin forward and she called me something or other, giving me a convincing shove. Why she wanted to test the mettle of the chubby long hair is still beyond me, but I was faced with the decision – fight or flight? Neither option seemed truly appealing. It was a lose-lose-lose scenario. Fighting a girl, even a trio, was not going to win me big points, and, more importantly, this girl was fucking mean. She meant business, or so it seemed to me. There could well be punching, hair pulling or worse. I would not fare well. But to run from her? The inescapable humiliation of the situation overwhelmed me.
And that’s when the scream escaped me. A hot set of claws raking my throat, it was a roar of rage and fear and impotence and pain and guilt. Out of my control, it blasted at the semi-circle of girls. Their expressions changed instantly, from confrontation to confusion, and they took a step back. This white boy was cray-zee. He had snapped. It was amazing. Their reaction shot a thrill through my being. This show of fear, while based on the relatively negative assessment that I was clearly insane, was still a power. It drove my scream across the playlot. Kids stopped what they were doing and looked. What the hell was this? Nothing like it had happened before. The girls continued their retreat, but I followed, my howl preceding me like a column of fire from a flame-thrower. They moved faster, stumbling a bit in an effort to get away. Finally I stood alone as the last thread of a screech faded. All eyes were on me. If I couldn’t be tough, I could at least be unstable. I saw instantly it had the same effect. I was no longer an easy mark. I was dangerous.4
1I have always hated shopping for clothes, but never more than when I was a kid and my mother was directed to a pair of Wrangler jeans in a “husky” size. The word not only has an odious sound (like a consumptive clearing his throat) but its clunky effort to avoid the word “fat” somehow made it even more demeaning. Go Back To Reading
2Once in an elevator an adult even asked me if I were a boy or a girl. No doubt this was a dig, suggesting that I get a haircut. Being a child I said nothing. Later I came across the perfect retort in one of my older brother’s underground comic books: one of the Freak Brothers is asked the same question and he screams back, “Why don’t you suck my dick and find out!” Go Back To Reading
3I didn’t grow up in the toughest of neighborhoods. This was Hyde Park/Kenwood, home of the University of Chicago. It was integrated, progressive and solidly middle-class. And Beulah Shoesmith Public School, while no North Shore academy, also wasn’t the stuff of The Blackboard Jungle. Whatever racial tension there may have been was pretty benign, all things considered. Once, as I walked home from school in the Spring of 1977, I was punched by a kid I didn’t know, who explained, “I saw Roots!” I couldn’t argue with that. I had seen it, too. As reparations go, he wasn’t thinking big. Go Back To Reading
4Those who know me have pointed out that I really only show my aggression as an adult when driving or talking on the phone with unfortunate customer service reps. I assume that this is because these situations are removed from direct confrontation, but also because it involves employing a beller of impotent rage. Some things never change.Go Back To Reading