Why you should care
Because sometimes the better part of valor is just to keep on walking.
Eugene S. Robinson is a journalist, musician, playwright and author of two books.
Moving Manhattan-ward along Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn was a block-by-block affair in the 1970s. The antipathy among blocks wavered between mild disdain and open contempt. In 1974, at 12 years old, I imagined myself above all this. I was a badass — a very middle class badass, but still.
A steady diet of kung fu and blaxploitation flicks and the occasional karate class had set a mood of preteen indestructibility. Complete with vests over a shirtless torso, a body barely dented by early bodybuilding and an Afro pick stuck in my hair. No one could tell me anything, and in our weekend sojourns through town, my friends and I would make the sidewalk seas part.
We traveled in a pack — Scooter, Joey, Peter, Mike, sometimes Erik and Kyle — warding off the full-blown teenagers. Things weren’t bad between the block we lived on — Rutland Road between Bedford and Rogers Avenue — and the “other Rutland” — between Bedford and Flatbush. It’s just that each was its own block-o-sphere. And we had learned crucial lessons about steering clear of the few trouble spots we had: Jimmy the Drunk, Hootie and his progressively more terrifying older brothers, or Andrew.
Andrew was a trouble spot all his own. A talented guy who started out life the son of a popular calypso musician, Andrew was four years older and had been a drummer for his father’s band until a tantrum led him to throw his entire kit into the water during a lakeside show. After losing his gig, Andrew could be found where guys like him often were: fucking shit up.
We’d started out well enough, he and I. He tried to teach me how to play the drums in his parents’ basement, but my lack of percussive talents, increasing interest in weights and general alpha male shit set us on a collision course. We fought frequently, and on at least one occasion my mother told him, “If I see you touch my son again, I’ll kill you.” See being the key word.
On a balmy summer day, we turned from Flatbush onto the “other Rutland,” aglow with the retold exploits of whatever movie we had just seen. We saw Andrew holding forth with a bunch of kids we didn’t know. He stopped us. I could see him trying to figure out how to get from Point A to some sort of Point B. The kids who had previously been enduring him were happy for the respite. We carried nunchucks, the martial arts fighting sticks joined by a short length of rope, tucked in our back pockets. We had sticks. We had even fashioned whips from lengths of rope that we wore through our belt loops. Like Indiana Jones, well before Indiana Jones.
The second he started cinching the rope tight around my wrists behind me, I knew I had made a crucial mistake.
Andrew started walking around me, and my guys stood uneasily around the inside edge of a wider circle that had formed around us. As a kid, and even now, I found myself afraid of very little provided I was awake to face it. My concerns trend more toward diseases, accidents, being murdered in my sleep. Things that strike you unawares. But conscious world threats? Just puzzles that need to be figured out.
“Let me see that rope.” He snatched it from my belt loop. He walked around me and I turned, keeping my face to his. “You think if I tied you up with this you could get out?”
Under very few other circumstances would this have worked, and make no mistake — it wasn’t working here. But if the choice was a fistfight on an unfriendly block or some weird rope trick? I’d go for the rope trick.
“Sure.” He tied my hands in front of me. Now that the entertainment had begun people watched, entertained. I obliged, slipping my hands out of the inexpertly tied knots with a flourish.
“That was too easy. What if I tied you to the pole?”
Drunk on the showtime “love” from the crowd, I agreed. But he shoved me against the pole, and the second he started cinching the rope tight around my wrists behind me, I knew I had made a crucial mistake. I flexed against the ropes, but there was no give. Andrew came back around to face me.
“Can’t get out, can you?”
“Untie me.” He slapped my face.
“Now you’re not so tough.”
“Untie me, man.”
“You going to cry? Huh? Only little girls cry. Maybe that’s what you are. A little girl. Well, there’s only one way to find out.” Andrew started rubbing my chest.
He took another length of rope and put it around my neck, tightening it, while loosening my pants and the lights started to dim, voices grew indistinct. We were probably about five minutes in, but it felt a lot longer than that. In the distance I saw Rutland’s other tough guy, Frankie. I raised my head and hollered for him, as loud as I could, “FRANKIE.” Seeing the circle of gathered kids, Frankie came closer, and as he approached the group backed off.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Andrew didn’t answer, mostly because there was no answer. Not to “why?” or anything else he could have asked. Frankie pulled a knife out of his pocket, cut me off of the pole and told Andrew, quietly and without bluster, “If I ever catch you doing something like this again, I’ll kill you.”
Andrew said nothing, and as we walked back to our Rutland, we said nothing to each other. I peeled off, went home and surveyed my options. They ranged from kill him to kill him. I grabbed a bat. A kitchen knife. All seemed either not enough or too much.
When my mother and my stepfather got home with my sisters in tow, I gave them the Reader’s Digest version of what had happened, thinking my mother would make good on her previous vow of retribution. But not having actually seen it, my family brushed me off with a proviso to stay away from him.
I never saw Andrew again that I remember, even though I must have. But that Christmas I got my first full weight set, and started boxing at the Boy’s Club. And things were never the same again.