Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eternal High Noon

Recently at the Mission, dropping into blessed sleep, I was jolted awake by the unmistakable sounds of a prison-style in-your-face altercation brewing in the bathroom.  In my bunk, hearing "bring it on, fucker!" and "step off, shithead!" it was easy to picture the two men facing off, thrusting tattooed chests out, swinging arms and fists downward and outward at the same time, an animal aggression trick humans use unconsciously like a cat raising its fur to intimidate attackers.  

Around me people sat up, edged toward the bathroom if already standing, but everyone relied on sound and imagination for the moment to anticipate the violence.  No Disciple or security member seemed present as the yelling and verbal darts ratcheted up to fusillade level: "Back off! fuckhead!" "Gonna be in a universe of fucking pain, dude!"  Etc.

In gunslinger movies generally no one faces anyone down on a dusty street, the townsfolk cowering behind the false front wooden buildings, concealing an unfair advantage like a deadlier weapon or a hidden sniper; both combatants are pretty evenly matched, hands poised above holstered revolvers as crumpled handbills skitter by in the wind and the music does a rattlesnake rumba.  All that matters are nerves and speed.  But that night an extraordinary thing happened, out of sight, within hearing--a soft, velvety, instant diffusion of the face-off.

"Look down at your fucking ankle, dude," said one combatant, his voice so altered from combat mode it startled, hooked you, nailed you.  "No, I'm not talking about that pussy rose or ivy or whatever stupid tattoo you got there.  I'm looking at that thing you got strapped around your pathetic pussy chicken bone ankle, you piece of dog shit."

We all could see it: the two felons standing in front of the long mirror over the four cruddy sinks that serve up to 200 men nightly for shaving, tooth and armpit scrubbing.  One was doing time in the Mission for theft or drug use or maybe his wife just wanted him out of the house until he cleaned up.   The other, likely a sex-offender, had been released from  county lock-up with a satellite GPS ankle monitor under the demented and insanely misguided get religion at the Mission at night, seek your righteous fortune during the day, just don't stray out of the proscribed areas or get too close to children or you'll be taised,  billy-clubbed, pepper-sprayed, boot-stomped, pistol-whipped and tossed back in a cell like a broken scarecrow Program.

"I'm out," the velvety-voiced instant alpha male continued.  "Nothing's gonna happen to me, maybe a write-up or suspension.  You got Big Daddy's Hand on your little chicken bone and Big Daddy's Eye in the Sky on you, pussy-boy."

And just like that it was over.  I tried to read the mood of the dormitory as the "winner" of the duel sauntered out of the bathroom and made for his bunk in the darkness.  A bit of murmuring but that's all.  Anticlimax, I guess.

But I lay awake for quite a while thinking of how often over the years as a teacher I've automatically, gratefully, cravenly, and perhaps conscientiously used the accoutrements of administrative authority to tame an unruly student.  Every school and classroom provides slightly different weapons and tools for this purpose, but they all involve badges, ominous write-up forms, escalating color threat levels, pizza party point removals, threats to sic Vice Principal Corborubius and his pet snake in the silver cage on you, and sheer I'm-the-teacher-you're-the-student-so-close-your-little-yapping-mouth-bravado.

Whenever I've expressed my misgivings about how easy it is to put the Psychic Mojo Meltdown on elementary school kids, people say reassuring things like, "Kids need to learn to mind.  They make bad choices, they get the consequences."  "You want chaos or order?  Don't feel guilty."  However, it gets more complicated the older the students get.  Once a high school student who'd taken a disliking to me (I'd asked him to stop throwing marbles and do his assignment) said, "I'm going to kick your ass after school."  I chuckled at the hammy playground cliche', had him escorted out by security, and forgot about it until after school, when the kid, about 17 and 6 feet tall and quite well-muscled actually confronted me about a block away from campus as I walked to the bus stop.

"You ain't nothing without that badge or that security radio they give you."  I still had my identity badge clipped to my breast pocket.  He stood in the middle of sidewalk.  To get past him I'd have to step on some one's lawn or off the curb.

I unclipped the badge, slipped it into my trouser pocket and said, "Look, you're a minor, you're going to have to take the first swing so I can claim self-defense when I pull your arm out of its socket.  But no matter what happens, I'm the one who's going to lose. Big time.  So the fact that you're a kid and I'm a grown-up subject to laws means you're cheating just as much as I was when I called security. But I wasn't cheating.  I was doing my job."

I brushed past him, staying on the sidewalk.  Our shoulders bumped.   Once on the bus, it took me nearly 15 minutes of deep breathing to calm down even slightly.

As my breathing slowed, I thought back to 8th grade and an evil bully named Clyde who tormented me and several other wimps unmercifully in a Boy's Cooking class we ended up in because Wood shop was full.  Clyde used to come up behind me when I was reading a science fiction novel, waiting for my bread dough to rise or for the muffins to be done, and whack me hard with a billiard ball he'd somehow attached to a heavy handle.  The pain was unbelievable.  He did this to other kids, too, but our principal didn't give a damn about bullies.  In fact, he'd stand by and watch with an eager greedy grin any time a fight developed on the playground.

My father had recently died, and my mother, hobbled with grief and money woes, couldn't help, so one day I--a chubby, pimply, fearful, grief and anger-filled mass of confusion and rage attacked Clyde with a heavy cast iron frying pan.  Mind you this was directly after one of Clyde's billiard ball attacks and I was blind and teary with pain.  I'd say we were evenly matched gunslingers.

I bashed him about five times over the head with the pan before Mr. Mendoza, a maintenance man who did occasional double-duty as a security sweeper and just happened to be in the cooking room, pulled me away and got the frying pan out my hand.  

The only thing that saved Clyde from brain damage or death that day was his very standard for the times monster-mushroom cloud Afro blooming over his evil face.  Today, decades after my father's death and that unbearably sad and fearful year of 1975, when I see a playground injustice or take a sneering bully out with a referral form or witness a rich young thug abuse an overworked waitress,   I have the unbidden, unavoidable wish that Clyde's goddamn Afro hadn't been so 1970s big and cushy.  

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