Why you should care
Life imitating art is probably a lot cooler than it sounds before you’ve blown up a Starbucks.
As kids in New York City, Kyle and I knew each other distantly.
“Our biggest meeting was like 50, 60 heads. It was crazy; it was just like a big circle of teenagers with two going at it in the middle.”
We reconnected. I was drawn by Kyle Shaw’s Fight Club, like in the eponymous film, even if it may have been a solution to the clichéd first-world problem.
“There’s no more rite of passage for young guys. You wanna be able to prove yourself; you wanna be like, ‘This is where I’m at, I need to attack something, I need to engage myself.’ In every other country and civilization there’s some sort of bracket, you know. Tribes had battles, or they had to go to the woods and come back and they were a man, and there’s bar mitzvahs, and there’s a bunch of different rites of passage, but I never had anything like that. For me it was Fight Club.”
Kyle had been a loner, bullied before his foray into fighting. Now he was the big man on a secret campus.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie. We were brothers in arms. I fought you; now I know you better than your mother might know you, in a different sense. We were all bonded together. We were like a growing pack. After Fight Club we’d all go out; someone had a fake ID, and we’d get some sort of liquor or beer, smoke weed, and we would just roam around because we had nowhere to go. We’re just like this pack of fucking kids like, ‘I wish someone would fuck with us. I wish someone would say something to us.’ We were open to the idea of more conflict, some of us.”
Coxsackie was a different type of danger, because when you’re dealing with maximum security you’re dealing with … murderers, rapists, all sorts of gangs.
Monday, May 25, 2009. Memorial Day. 3:30 a.m.
A Third Avenue Starbucks was the closest property to the bomb, and the most damaged one. Hence, the incident was usually cited in the news as “the Starbucks bombing” or “the Memorial Day bombing.”
Detectives theorized that Kyle Shaw escalated his street-fighting group into an anarchist unit, mimicking the Fight Club film. As in the movie, no one was physically harmed, but New Yorkers post-2001 were reasonably disturbed by any whiff of terror.
“They said, ‘You could either cop out to this three and a half years, or we can go to trial and you’re gonna be facing 25 years.’ It was a tough choice.”
Kyle took the deal. Many saw it as privileged lenience; if he were a different color and nationality, he might have wound up at Guantánamo indefinitely.
Though the sentence was short, it was strict. He was classified as a “Central Monitoring Case” and moved to Coxsackie, a maximum-security prison.
“Coxsackie was a different type of danger, because when you’re dealing with maximum security you’re dealing with people that have life. You’re dealing with people that are murderers, rapists, dealing with all sorts of gangs. They have nothing to lose.”
He tried to keep to himself and be respectful, but couldn’t always avoid prison violence. Coxsackie’s economic system was itself a sort of fight club.
“This guy, Paddy Irish, he was in the system for like 25 years … [My bunkie] goes, ‘I will bet a carton of cigarettes [Kyle] will fuck your ass up today.’ So, unbeknownst to me, they shook on it. Paddy Irish walks up to me and just cracks me right in the face. And we start brawling in front of everyone. I woke up sometime later,” he laughs, “and my bunkie gave me six packs of cigarettes. He was like, That’s your cut. And I was like, Ah, OK, I understand now.”
“How can we really shake things up?” We had a real alpha-male, takeover kind of mentality, and somebody took it too far. And I was the ringleader.
During the following years, he fine-tuned his rapport with the other inmates, adjusting to life behind bars, fighting occasionally.
“[Martial arts] saved my life in more ways than one in prison. And it’s something I look at now as like water — I can’t live without it.”
On Nov. 8, 2013, Kyle Shaw was released.
He immediately began looking for an academy and ways to compete in sanctioned fights. As he sees it, his rough past erodes a smoother future.
“Competition is, we’re playing by a set of rules — whether it’s mixed martial arts where we’re in a cage with gloves, or jiu jitsu where we’re trying to submit each other and there’s a point-ranking system — opposed to survival. [In street fights and prison] if I survive I win. I’m going to survive no matter what, so I’ve already won that part. Now I have to worry about scoring more points.”
That bloodlust from street fighting is gone, replaced with new discipline.
“When you’re a teenager, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna win! I’m better than you!’ But now it’s kind of just like, ‘I wanna be better than I was.’ We’re going against each other, but ultimately we both win, because we’re both getting better.”
That fateful explosion in 2009, as much as anything else, has shaped his trajectory.
“I did not place the bomb in front of Starbucks on Memorial Day.”
He does acknowledge fomenting a certain environment though.
“Definitely, I think someone in the Fight Club did it. I mean, we were talking about ideas. There was talk. We were saying, like, ‘How can we really shake things up?’ We had a real alpha-male, takeover kind of mentality, and somebody took it too far. And I was the ringleader. I was the face of the operation. So, I was placed [in prison] for it, and, you know, it made me the person I am today. So it’s not the worst thing in the world. I think that if I kept going down the path I was going, something much worse would have happened to me.”
Additional editorial assistance by Eleyna Haroun and Greg Mac.