Over the years, I’ve written a fair amount of autobiographical pieces but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to re-explore some of these episodes from a more critical, radical perspective. With that in mind, to follow is yet another revised memoir-of-sorts.
Even though I grew up in a “tough” neighborhood and trained myself in hand-to-hand combat, I’ve never been eager to fight. In fact, I always surprise myself if I do something considered “brave” (by societal standards) in that area. One such moment occurred just before I turned 18.
My friend Angelo was dating a girl named Gina. A second generation Italian, Angelo was about a year younger than me. I’m not certain how old Gina was. Probably 15 or 16. She was petite, fiesty, and loved to dance. In fact, she inspired the usually unfashionable Angelo to dress not unlike Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
Prior to this arrangement, Gina had been seeing Doug, a guy from another neighborhood. Of course, men and boys from different locations fighting over “ownership” of women and girls is an essential part of the masculinity paradigm.
Anyway, a large crew of us used to regularly hang out in Gina’s basement. It was not only spacious but her mother and stepfather were also frighteningly lenient in terms of what they allowed us to do under their roof. I’ll leave that part to your imagination.
One night, I was hanging out in the basement with a couple of friends, but Angelo and Gina were elsewhere. Suddenly, Angelo burst in with the big news that Gina’s ex-boyfriend had decided to pay her a visit. He was cruising around in his Mustang with a male friend and when they encountered Angelo and Gina, violent threats ensued.
Gina ran upstairs to her room, but Angelo — offended that anyone would dare make a claim on a girl who clearly “belonged” to him — came to me for help because, well, I was somebody you’d want on your side in such situations. I calmly agreed, but in my head I was praying that the outsiders were long gone and this situation would be resolved without confrontation.
Inner turmoil aside, Angelo and I quickly found Doug and his friend. We tossed rocks and batteries at their car until they sped away. Word spread quickly and soon we had about 10 other guys milling around on Gina’s block — each of us secretly pissing our pants but outwardly mimicking the pre-programmed patriarchal postures and poses. When nothing happened for about a half-hour, I guess we were pretty satisfied with ourselves and thus collectively let our guard down a bit. That’s when the counterattack happened.
About six or seven carloads of guys came screeching up to the corner and everyone on our side took the fuck off — everyone, that is, except me, Angelo, and his younger brother, Pasquale. Why didn’t I do the wise thing and run?
I had a vague sense of loyalty to Angelo and Pasquale (they lived across the street from me) so when they stuck around to fight, I kinda sorta felt like I had to stay with them. There was that and there was also the not insignificant issue of reputation. Who knows how fast ideas and concepts bounced around my brain in those two to three seconds, but I somehow settled on being vastly outnumbered by about two dozen angry dudes rather than risk being called a coward.
So, I stood my ground and when two or three guys tried to pounce on Pasquale, I pulled them away. Miraculously, the invading gang didn’t start pummeling us. In the moment, I was way too busy making sure no one snuck up on me from behind to bother analyzing this strange choice but looking back, I’m guessing it was an odd blend of two factors:
Fear: Sure, they had us at a major disadvantage but they were in a strange neighborhood and once a fight begins, well, anything can happen. We all knew this and deep down inside, we were probably all too petrified to start something that could only end ugly.
Foolishness: Instead of beating the shit out of us and getting back to the safety of their “turf,” these dopes opted to first humiliate us with pathetic taunts and threats. They had clearly seen far too many movies and their feeble attempts at flair were laughable. In fact, when Doug sprung out of his Mustang, he did so in such a hurry that he left it in drive and the car rolled right into a garbage can. Pasquale and I stifled a laugh as we noticed the small dent.
Humiliated, Doug circled us and played the taunting game. “You like to throw things at cars, huh?” Shit like that. Big mistake.
What these morons hadn’t counted on was Gina telling her step-dad, Pete, about the fracas. Pete liked us (especially Angelo) so, being a macho, blue collar kind of dude, he didn’t take kindly to a bunch of outsiders fucking with us when we were just defending “our” territory. Also informed of the situation was a guy named Timmy. He dated Rita, the girl who lived upstairs from Gina. Timmy was maybe four or five years older than us and had a reputation around my way. (He ended up drowning at Rockaway Beach a year or so later but that night, he was there for us when it counted.)
So Pete and Timmy come out and started shoving punks out of the way until they reach the epicenter of the stand-off. Timmy slapped a bottle out of one punk’s hands and scowled: “What the fuck you gonna do with that?”
The punk had no answer. We were still outnumbered about 25 to five, but he backed down. If you’ve ever been in such a situation, you know that something big had just shifted.
Pete was maybe in his early 40s, not big but he carried himself like a brawler. He picked out the biggest guy in the batch, slammed him up against a car, and got in his face. “Who wants to fight? Who wants to come to my fuckin’ block and fight?”
“My” block. Again, ownership is a crucial, essential part of manhood. I understood this down to my bones and at the time, Pete’s challenge seemed right and proper to me. Timmy stood with his back to Pete and warned the others to not interfere. None of them tested him.
You could feel the confidence draining from Doug and his boys. Me, Angelo, and Pasquale — desperately eager to impress our elders — suddenly started staring them down and even pushing them. At that point, Pete looked around at how many guys were surrounding him. Oh-so-slowly, he opened his flannel shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his belt.
With a sinister whisper surely learned from an overdose of Clint Eastwood, Pete sneered: “Which one of you motherfuckers is first?”
Confession: I was in my teenage glory. When you’re heavily conditioned as a lower middle class male in New York City, you dream of such moments. (cue the shame and self-loathing) I can guarantee that there wasn’t a guy amongst us who hadn’t cheered when something like this happened in a movie.
Doug and his now-demoralized band had seen those movies, too, so they fulfilled their predetermined role. They backed away towards their cars with Timmy shoving anyone he deemed as not moving quickly enough.
“This better be the last time I see any of you pussies around here,” Pete bellowed.
Ah, there it was. I almost mentioned that word earlier when I typed this line: “I somehow settled on being vastly outnumbered by about two dozen angry dudes rather than risk being called a coward.” Let’s face it, no one was gonna call me a coward. If I ran, I’d be labeled a “pussy.” Forever. And do I have to explain what that misogynist slur means in this context? Do I have to elaborate on the lines drawn early on among young men and how one must be ever-diligent to stay on the right side of those lines?
When Doug’s crew was gone, Pete winked at us, rubbed Angelo’s head, and went back inside as we cooly yelled “thanks” after him. I say “cooly” because you never wanna let on that until Pete and his gun showed up, we were scared shitless and out of options.
As the friends who bolted began to reappear, we repeated the story, over and over — each time embellishing it a bit to make ourselves look even more badass. In just one hour, me, Angelo, and Pasquale had earned the ultimate respect for not being pussies, and “Pete’s gun” became part of local lore. But the biggest winner — and still undefeated — was the cult of masculinity.
You’d think I would’ve learned something valuable after coming within inches of being sent to the hospital (one of countless times I barely dodged such a fate) but, alas, phallocentric conditioning runs mighty deep. It’d eventually take me years to even begin peeling away the layers and decades to make any worthwhile progress.
Ironic postscript: Shortly after the near-death incident described above, Gina broke up with Angelo and made a play for yours truly. However, I was too well-trained in the manhood game to ever “steal” a friend’s girl. (cue the shame and self-loathing — again)
Mickey Z. is currently writing his 14th book, How to Lose Friends & Influence Nobody: My Life as an “Activist.” In the meantime, he can be found here.