Why you should care
Because no one will give you credit for doing the right thing the wrong way.
There are no isolated incidents. Incidents are linked, even though the threads seem tenuous. Bullied as a boy in riot-torn Harlem, I held on to my rage until I exploded. I transformed myself from a shy, bookish boy to an out-of-control beast for short periods of time. I’d smash you with half a brick, kick you, whatever it took to protect myself.
“Any man whose errors take 10 years to correct is quite a man,” American physicist Robert Oppenheimer once said. True enough, especially in light of my home life being horrific too. My father was old-school West Indian. His father drowned his son in an inch of water. His words. He beat me rain, shine, spring, summer, fall. He told me on more than one occasion, “I’ll beat you until you cry.”
An hour later, not a fucking tear. Not a drop.
My older brother escaped punishment by being timid. He did well. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and NYU Tandon School of Engineering. I graduated from John Adams High School.
On April 11, 1981, I started working for the post office. By the end of 1981, my life had taken a dramatic downward spiral. From 1974 to 1981, I wrote poetry nonstop. Studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I wrote The Garden of Lucifer, The Testaments of Lucifer and Vernal Equinox. The inspiration evaporated.
Postal employees proved to be a rough crowd. Ex-longshoremen, barroom brawlers, cops who … ran before Internal Affairs took their pensions.
My girlfriend and I broke up. We met when I was 13. We had been best friends for a long time. She stopped working, going to school, and despite having birth control pills, she became pregnant twice. I asked her to leave. She moved in with a girlfriend. I quickly became out of control. Again.
I started sniffing coke, popping black beauties and yellow jackets and drinking Southern Comfort. I purchased a Marlin 30-30 lever action rifle from a licensed dealer. I purchased a .38 caliber blue steel revolver from a Vietnam vet. I didn’t have a handgun license.
Postal employees proved to be a rough crowd. Ex-longshoremen, barroom brawlers, cops who worked 20 years and ran before Internal Affairs took their pensions. It was a very violent environment. Two workers were killed in the building by other workers during this era. A bully also stepped behind me as I was using the urinal one day. When I pulled a 10-inch, double-edged blue steel hunting knife from a leather sheath he jumped back about five feet. We never spoke again. His name was Sonny. Maybe because he was a dead ringer for Sonny Liston.
Fast-forward to a cool, crisp September evening. I was high, as usual. I met my date at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was carrying the .38, my hunting knife and brass knuckles. You know, just in case. Just in case of what? A riot? We were going to Carnegie Hall Cinema.
I don’t remember the double bill. I had just worked the midnight-to-10:30 am shift. That included two hours of mandatory overtime. I was exhausted. Standing on my feet all day and hauling heavy mail bags took a lot of getting used to.
I noticed a man staring at us. His attitude was hostile and confrontational. I was in an I-Don’t-Give-a-Damn mood. Mr. Dressed in Black had a Doberman straining at the leash. The sparsely filled park was thinning out even further. My date and I sat on a bench. I pulled a joint from my vest pocket, lit it and started smoking.
I’ve been saturated in ugly situations before and this was brewing into one: I placed my finger on the trigger.
The man in black started yelling at us. The gist of his diatribe was that the races shouldn’t mix.
I became enraged. He was getting closer. I stood up. My date wanted to go. Part of me wanted to leave. The movies were starting soon. But part of me didn’t feel like being chased out of the park like a punk. I also didn’t even want to be there. I didn’t want to be with her or see the movies. I was lonely, which was the only reason I’d agreed to it.
But I’ve been saturated in ugly situations before, and this was brewing into one: I placed my finger on the trigger.
The Doberman was now howling like Cerberus. A sense of calm washed over me. The owner released the Doberman. I pulled the gun, pointed and shot twice. The dog was hit once in the head, once in the body. He yelped and fell. His owner froze, finally silent.
My date and I left quickly. She mumbled something and walked off. I never saw her again. I wish I had shot the owner.
I wandered around Central Park for at least another hour. I made sure that I headed uptown, away from the incident.
I was amazed at the person I had become. As a kid I was the bully’s favorite. I was the smart, timid kid most likely to be slapped around. But my main problem was my father. Our contentious relationship soured most of my interactions with men because I’ve always hated men like my father: loud, blustery, filled with pseudo-macho crap.
Back when I was a kid my father introduced me to a “macho” friend of his. He was the guy who was going to teach me how to be tough. Our family had just moved to Queens and it was the first day of the 1969 World Series between the Mets and the Orioles. My father’s friend worked with him at MTA. He lifted weights and studied karate.
But out in front of my parent’s house, a rabid dog was threatening a girl. He was barking feverishly, frothing at the mouth. The girl was paralyzed with fear. I took off my belt and started swinging it. The dog backed up a little. I tapped it on the shoulder. It ran like Usain Bolt.
I spotted my father’s tough guy. He was trying to hide among 30 other onlookers. I asked him why he didn’t jump in. Silence. And palpable shame.
Two years after I shot the Doberman, I accidentally killed a man while defending a woman who was being beaten by him — a move that took me 10 years to correct.