Why you should care
Because, well, people die all the time. Better to not be one of them.
In 1967, in New Rochelle, New York, the sidewalks were made of gray slate. Mr. Brown sat atop a horse-drawn cart packed to the edges with junk, and the Italian knife sharpener pushed a roll-away with a grinder wheel screwed to it, strolling while screaming, “Bring out your knives.”
And on Crescent Avenue, what had been a nice house on the edge of a field was now a nice house at the base of a highway where my great-grandmother lived and, after my parents divorced, so did I. It was solid Lil’ Rascal-time in a neighborhood that was largely populated by the domestic help of the wealthier folks in greater Westchester. Italians, African-Americans, all living the semi-suburban dream of houses with yards, but among highways, factories and still, deserted fields.
I regularly walked to the Italian grocer with a list I couldn’t read, by myself. I had a best friend named Louie De Luca. It was the idyll of my young life: Summer was full of Kool-Aid and busy with parties, and winter saw the coal man filling the chute with coal and me meandering down to the basement to toss briquettes into the boiler. In a house almost never darkened by sorrow. Even in light of the two times I almost burned it down by failing to remember that some kinds of science don’t start at home.
I was 5 years old, and I had a kind of freedom that was almost Huck Finn-esque. I’d climb through the bushes at the back of the house and wander into my friend Ronnie’s house. A house that was almost everything a kid would want and almost everything my house was not: crazily ramshackle, a backyard full of empty refrigerator boxes, old mattresses and Ronnie’s older relatives sitting on the unpainted wooden stairs getting their hair processed, drinking from mason jars and, if we were on the front porch, screaming at the jumped-up muscle cars to “burn rubber!” as they drove by. And they would.
The three older boys each grabbed a pitchfork, a shovel and a stick.
One July day I wandered in — the doors never seemed to be closed, or if closed, they never seemed to be locked — and the air was sullen. Ronnie and two other cousins of his were there. At age 10 or 11, Ronnie was the oldest, and carried all of the muscled bravado of an older brother. And I, an only child at the time, attached to him as such.
We filed out after him like we were in the Army. It was a mission. I had no idea where we were going, but the fact that we were going was impressive enough. As we crossed their yard, each of the three older boys grabbed a pitchfork, a shovel and a stick. There was nothing left for me to grab, so I walked along between them, my hands swinging at my sides. Excited.
We walked the two blocks over, crossed some unruly shrubbery and stomped through the broken clods of dirt in what had once been a plowed field but now sprouted nothing but dirt and heat. After standing around in the field for a few minutes, I finally spoke.
“What are we going to do now?”
“We’re going to kill you.” I started to laugh, but the laughter was not returned. There was no mirth on those three faces, and their eyes were steely, like the backs of nail heads.
I refused to verbalize a prayer.
They grabbed me by the hair and the beating began. I remember watching the shovel and the pitchfork where they lay in the broken dirt. When the beating stopped they yanked me back upright and Ronnie held me by my hair and said, “But before we do, we want you to pray. To pray to God.”
I refused. I mouthed words, but the only prayer I’d had occasion to make at the age of 5 was a bedtime one. But that’s not necessarily why I refused to verbalize a prayer. I refused because that was who I was then, just like that’s who I am now. The feelings that you might have expected me to feel — fear, terror — were totally and completely absent in that moment. I felt one thing: anger.
So I knelt in the dirt and mouthed empty words while they hit me. And then, whether it was because their arms were tired or not, there was a beat, a missed beat, and seeing my house off in the distance, I took my chance and ran. I ran as fast as I could and didn’t look back until I got to the hedge break, where I saw my last glimpse of them standing in the field next to the shovel, stick and pitchfork, silent and staring after me.
I never went over to Ronnie’s house again, and when everybody at my house asked me how I had gotten so dirty, I answered truthfully: “I fell.”
I never saw him, or any of them, again. Despite how, as an adult, I could guess that those kids had their reasons and were probably abused themselves, what I was left with above all else was this important life lesson: People are dangerous and unreliable. It’s a fact that has colored my world view ever since, in good stead. It has largely informed all of the weightlifting and martial arts practicing I’ve done over the years, and honed an extreme sensitivity to changes in the air and the queering of vibes that comes from living among humans. It taught me this as well: Be prepared. Outnumbered is not always outwitted, so long as you’re wise enough to bring a gun to a gun fight.
Good advice under any circumstances. That is, if staying alive is of very much interest to you. And it should be. It should be.