Raw: Street Fighting and Why I'm Taking A Break from The Weight Room
I am here to testify that, yes, there is a difference between the violence you see in movies and tv and the real thing. Especially when it unfolds within a few feet of you. I've watched enough Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, and spy movies as the rest of them, but two days with as many fights has left me with the sober question, where the hell have I been until now?
Two days ago my friend from the Korean Spa experience and I were doing our morning routine at the local Y. After the working day begins this place is a study in contrasts. Old folks mastering the art of retirement and giant bodybuilders who may or may not have jobs. In the machine room on the main floor these two mix fairly benignly, but its a different story upstairs in the heavy-duty free-weight area. Gloves are mandatory, are too, it seems are the tiny muscle shirts and weight belts. Old guys, unless they are Jack Lalanne wannabes still towing barges at 80, are either too afraid to go in there are smarter than we apparently are.
I suppose coming in with a purse instead of a Nike bag stuffed with towel, water bottle and assorted dirty clothes sets me apart but my friend is a regular there (and bigger than me) so I try to ignore the pitying stares of the hardcore builders. But on this day, something was brewing. A pair of smallish men were shoulder-lifting some serious weight and had cordoned off the area with a bench. Apparently this is bad form because another guy took exception to this and started to annoy them, first by doing sit ups on the bench, and then, I learned later, he lost his head and grabbed the barbells and smashed them into the stand.
This is when we became aware that something was going on and within five seconds all hell broke loose - two men wailing on each other and others pushing and shoving or trying to pull them apart. The sound of a punch is not the same as the kind they reproduce on a Foley stage. It's softer and sounds like a butcher pounding out a steak with his fist. And way, way scarier. The two men were totally out of control and ferociously powerful to boot - as they wrested and threw punches they were within inches of all kinds of deadly equipment poles. We ran out of the room and interrupted the step class next door. By the time the instructor rushed in the other men had successfully pulled the two apart and the one man who had started the fight took off, his nose bleeding profusely.
No one had time to intervene and when we asked at the front desk why no-one had picked up the phone he apologized because he had been busy with a customer. He claimed he'd never heard of another fight like that but it was hard to believe, what with the crowded space and a lot of men pumping up furiously. For what, I wonder, if not for this show of male dominance?
Ok, this was my first time witnessing an actual brawl between two people and because I escaped injury (5 feet over and may have been a different story) I thought it a bit of a good story and an anomaly. But it left a deeper impression than I'd realized.
The next day I was sitting on the curb, waiting for my daughter at the exit gate of her middle school, chatting with another parent. There were four or five of us milling around when I heard a faint commotion up the street where the high school property ended.
Then a shout from up the street.
"I'm gonna get you, n**ger! Your ass is mine...!!" I wasn't sure what was going on but before I could stand up, a teenage boy, shirtless and frankly pretty benign looking came striding down the hill. To be honest, he was handsome and in the prime of his life, with golden skin and honey curls, and it took a second to realize it was him yelling, and the object of his anger, a group of other teenagers, was further down the street, directly in front of the middle school gate. Everything after that happened so quickly - the cursing boy was followed by six or so others who, as they gathered speed, took on a frightening gang-like apparition, gearing up for a fight, hands balled into fists, their strides large rocking back and forth, almost primitive.
By now we were all frozen, focused on what was about to happen and just as powerless. The other boys turned and stood their ground, and while we and the two teachers who normally open the gate, the two groups smashed together in a wild melee, fists flying, kicking, scratching, shoving. The teachers tried fruitlessly to stop what was going on but they, and the couple of dads waiting were outnumbered. The boys were in a blind rage and nothing or no one could stop the wailing of fists, legs, pushing shoving. Some were beaten to the ground, others pressed against the fence. One parent shouted to them he was a cop and in the face of a derisive snigger, pulled out his badge and shoved it in one boy's face but it failed to make much of a dent.
Meanwhile, the kids had been let out of class and were coming toward the gate. The teachers kept it closed and just as the fight started they stood there watching from the other side of the fence. Some parents kept their distance across the street for safety, some had their phones out taking pictures (or videos), and I started yelling, "There are little kids! Little kids! Stop!. One father got in the face of a fighter and there was some pushing and shoving - I'm sure all of us had our primal, parental instincts in force and we were all caught up in it, one way or another.
I'm not sure if anyone called 911. The two teachers trying to get control had walkies but not sure if they had time to use them - the confusion and violence took all of their attention.
And then it broke up - the instigator and his boys took off back up the street snickering and yelling more insults back at the other boys. The gate opened and the kids streamed out, parents hustling them off and others getting into waiting cars gesticulating wildly with their stories.
My daughter saw the whole thing, and when we got home I was still in the grip of an enormous surge of adrenaline - I paced around the room, stunned and frightened. What if there had been a weapon? There was something old-fashioned about this fist-a-cuffs rumble, but this was pure luck. And our kids were there, pressed to the fence, waiting. Vulnerable.
I called the high school and talked briefly to the Assistant Principal. He thought one group might have been truant boys who had tried to get on campus the day before. The campus police had been summoned to disperse them. Since it had happened so close to the high school, it is possible the other boys knew this was coming and had tried to leave campus by the back gate which is why they were by the middle school.
Two fights in as many days. A witness, I realized I had not come away unscathed. I wanted to fix it, to protect my daughter, to make the violence I'd seen go away. And in the scheme of things, in the world we live in, in the world of war and anger and racism and genocide I realize I've had it pretty good. I made it this far without ever being touched by the dark side of human beings made physical and very real.
I can't imagine what it must be like for people caught up in a life of violence. But now I have a small, a very small window into the fear and the lingering vulnerability. My own small version of traumatic stress. I can write about it, I can help my daughter process it, but I can't take that memory away.
I am different now. Just as we all are when we go off the cliff of our experiences, when we fall into the unknown. In the end we have a reckoning and a choice. I choose to stay and keep this small part of our world from reaching a tipping point. I see the complex fabric, I live the risks. I live my convictions because to ignore reality is to let the bullies win.
And I will protect my daughter for as long as I can.
Ironically our kids had been dismissed that day right after a school-wide assembly with a guest speaker who was there to talk about ways to resolve conflicts in a positive way. He was quite inspiration, Sweetpea told me. She loves her school and all the amazing teachers and opportunities it provides. She has a chance to be in a marching band among the best in the state. Her world is opening up, little by little.
"Oh, and there's an F-word scratched by the soap dispenser in the school bathroom," she added, as we made our way home.
Sometimes protecting our kids is more difficult than it looks.