Is It a Riot If It’s Just the Four of Us?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for every action, there’s an immediate and opposite total overreaction. Lesson bloodily learned in Brooklyn, circa 1980.
By Eugene S. Robinson
This story is the second installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically and electrically lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson.
I must have listened to the Specials’ song “Concrete Jungle” about 15 times that night.
The lyrics run thusly: I’m walking home tonight / I only walk where there’s lots of lights / In the alleys and the doorways / Some throw a bottle right in your face…
In literary terms we might call this foreshadowing. But I was getting ready to go see a midnight showing of the Clash’s early epic flick Rude Boy, and I was geeked on the possibility of an evening of anglophilic entertainment. And by “geeked” and “getting ready,” I mean I was putting on the entire motley: full-blown rude boy/ska kid rebellion expressed in one electric-blue vintage sharkskin suit, burgundy fitted shirt, black narrow silk tie, white socks and loafers. Yes: loafers.
The theater was out in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where blocks of Irish and Italian microhoods stretched for miles back in 1980. It was also where Saturday Night Fever, a cinematic paean to the aspirational desires of blue-collar cugines (think Italian cholos), was filmed. I was familiar with the area, having competed in Mr. Teen Bensonhurst in the next neighborhood over, so meeting my date there that night seemed easy.
I wandered across the avenue to do the decidedly un-New York thing. I went to see if I could ’help.’
The street outside the theater was lined with what Brooklyn saw remarkably little of back then — punk rockers, ska kids and new wavers. The air was full of chatter about shows people were planning on going to, possible Johnny Thunders sightings and trips to London (real or imagined).
Rude Boy may not hold up so well today, with its plot following roadie Ray Gange who leaves his job at a London sex shop to hit the road with the Clash. It was a little, er, light, but fun was had by all and, after getting my date to her car post-film, I passed back by the theater and the still-milling attendees to get the subway back to Flatbush. Only a few stops, but a world away in New York terms.
But in the middle of Bay Ridge Avenue, a donnybrook was spilling out all over the street. Four white guys, one black rasta, all doing a mad scramble around a cab that had stopped right in the middle of the large, six-lane avenue. Not knowing who was right and who was wrong didn’t stop World War I, and it didn’t stop me from wandering across the avenue to do the decidedly un-New York thing. I went to see if I could “help.”
But as I closed the distance, a guy came running up with a German shepherd and a large crescent wrench. At which point the rasta jumped into the driver’s seat, the two white cats who had been in his cab jumped into the back seat, and the cugine with the wrench let the dog go while he jumped onto the trunk and smashed out the back window in a last-ditch attempt to get at the interior of the cab.
The cab skidded off. The cugine rolled off into the street a few feet from my feet, and all at once the three guys turned from the cab to me, now standing alone in the middle of the avenue.
“What the fuck do you want?”
See, in New York, at least back then, you had to understand this was on par with any other kind of regional greeting. Not to be taken too seriously. But I had spent the summer pumping iron and hanging out with what I imagined were these guys’ crosstown cugines in Ridgewood at the Olympia Gym. Collectors, enforcers, bouncers and otherwise hardcases. Which skewed my sense of proportion that night.
“You talking to me?” I replied. Yes. Just like DeNiro. And it was now a standoff between me and them and a crescent wrench and a slightly confused German shepherd.
The jawing back and forth continued as we moved from the street to the sidewalk, where they reached into a wire mesh garbage can and started grabbing beer bottles, which they then cracked on the side of the can. Now it was four broken bottles and a crescent wrench.
They dropped the bottles and the wrench, and ran for their lives.
Well, a good man always knows his limitations, some even before it gets this far. I lowered my fists, which, yes, had been raised, and I smiled a beatific smile that summed up the ridiculousness of my predicament and how I had come to be here. The smile gave them pause and was probably why I was not sliced to ribbons outright. It was so oddly out of place, the smile, but they recovered nicely and started throwing the broken bottles at me.
The bottles bursting on the ground around me were solely designed to get me running, which was highly undesirable. In my mind’s eye I could see how a running man of color in a largely racially homogenous neighborhood at 2 or 3 in the morning might inspire a witch hunt. Howard Beach was still six years away, but this shit had been in the air for years.
So I refused to run, but as I stepped off of the curb to cross the street one bottle hit its mark. It felt like a warm water balloon had burst beneath my clothes. Head wounds typically bleed a lot, and this is undeniably what I had. I watched the burgundy spread down my burgundy shirt. I could feel the blood in my underwear, and in the next moment I could feel that whatever happened next would have import well beyond the moment itself.
And what happened is, I screamed.
So loud and full-throated that the entire street seemed to stop moving. My three attackers certainly did, and when I turned to them I had murder in my eyes, as well as blood all over my suit from my torn-open ear.
They did the only thing that made sense to do at that point: They dropped the bottles and the wrench, and ran for their lives.
They, whoever ‘they’ were, shoved me in a cab, threw some cash at the driver, and told him to get me out of there.
Which made sense, as I was chasing. I caught one of them back in the almost-closed movie theater, and amid the screams of gathered onlookers I beat him until the spell was broken by an older guy coming in wanting to “see the black guy.” This was not a voice of anger now; this was the voice of reason. A voice that was specifically worried about the cops.
He claimed to be the uncle of the now-bloodied man under my feet, and he hustled his nephew out and they, whoever “they” were, shoved me in a cab, threw some cash at the driver, and told him to get me out of there.
The cabbie and I drove in silence back to Flatbush. Later, in the hospital, as a doctor sewed the cartilage in my left ear back together along with skin and fascia, the pain finally became apparent. It continued for the next few days through my flight to California and my start as a freshman at Stanford.
Since it hurt too much to wash, I showed up with blood still caked to my face and my earlobe at a 90-degree angle to my head. The bubbly, bright-faced Stanford volunteers in their red T-shirts, their faces full of sun and smiles, asked, “Hey! What happened to your ear?”
”Well … it’s a loooong story.” And another smile, and silence, and the sun shining solidly on that balmy Sunday in September.
Read last week’s installment in Eugene S. Robinson’s True Takes, Me + Andy Warhol.