For Karen the Small Press Librarian, I recently exchanged interviews and e-mails with Dave Newman, author of Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children. It’s an academic novel about life off the tenure track for a working family with children in Pittsburgh, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the lives of college teachers, parents, and writers. In passing, Dave mentioned that when he was growing up in western Pennsylvania, it was common for boys to fist-fight at carnivals and county fairs, and then he wondered if he wasn’t the only person he knew who used the expression “fist fight.” So that led to my own ruminations on the subject, whether or not to add a hyphen or make it one word, and I also remembered that long before I became a hulking literary menace, able to beat down an entire capitalist higher-educational economy with a work of fiction, I was just another scrawny white boy, geeky and shy, terrified that I’d have to fight in public or fight at all.
You often hear older men lament the fact that too many kids these days want to resolve conflict with guns and knives when “back in the day” two boys would settle things with fists. Even if one boy “licked” the other, they’d both be alive at the end of the fight. Where I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, boys did that, and I can tell you it didn’t make me any more comfortable with fighting. One of my greatest fears as a teenager was that I’d get pummeled in public, lose badly, maybe even to a girl, and that it would encourage others to kick my ass.
But earlier, before age thirteen, I was in a few fights in my more “primal stage.” In 5th grade I got whipped by a kid in my class who grew up to become the first gay transvestite I was aware of actually knowing before he began dating older guys and wearing dresses. At age 10, I’m sure I couldn’t define “transvestite,” and although I may have connected on a punch or two, he won the battle. As icing on his cake, just before the end of recess on our school’s caged roof, he used his braces to cut a clean tear in my brand new corduroys. They were light blue thin wale and very important to me at the time.
At around the same age, at summer camp, this kid who used to poop his pants would also read his Bible late at night, keeping his light on under the sheet. I can’t remember if it was the light itself that bothered me or the fact that he acted like he was above the “lights out” rule, and I hope I wasn’t so animalistic that it was the smell of shit I wanted to defeat. Anyway, I see the fight now as the second weakest (me) needing to assert himself by picking on the weakest (him). Outside our bunk, by a tree and off to the side of the other campers, I did pick a fight and maybe I won that one in the strict physical sense of winning. I remember going easy on him toward the end, letting him get up, and he was upset although he didn’t rat me out to a camp counselor. You could say that any fight is one to be ashamed of, not proud, but this was even worse than usual because I think he had asthma or another physical problem, or he was just small and thin. I was skinny and about average height, but I have a memory of knowing I could jump him and win before I “started it,” so I’m certain this fight was consistent with my basic cowardice.
In the mixed but segregated area I grew up in, race was very much part of my consciousness, and I also remember fighting a white kid I grew up with where diverse but white-majority University City met working-class and poorer black West Philly. He was always on the other team when we’d play two-on-two touch football with a balding tennis ball in the local church yard. We were public school kids, and if holidays didn’t align we’d even be out there when the Catholic school kids were in school. One day, this kid started a fight with me during a break in our cement-turf football game, or maybe there’d been a dispute, and although I don’t remember feeling pain he punched me in the sides maybe twenty times, drilling me again and again, his heart and fists full of rage. As I recall, I only got in one punch, but it was a direct hit to the face. A black kid on a bicycle, whom we didn’t know or play with, rode around us in a circle chanting “Fight, fight,” and enjoying the show. I think I asked him, “Who won?” and then I’m pretty sure he lied for diplomacy’s sake, and said something like “You got in a punch. I saw that.” Years later, in my late twenties, while browsing in a used bookstore, I saw my assailant and playmate rush inside to get cash for books with no sense that he was there to read or purchase, and I’m not sure of what I should glean from that.
I never cried during or after any of these fights, but I would cry at school, even into my junior-high years. It’s hard for me to recall the exact cause of these tears, but I think they were due to teasing in my earliest schools days, but later I think they were due to tests or friendships or not having answers when called upon. For whatever reason, every once in a while, I’d crumble under the pressure of it all and start bawling. I did this often and late enough in life that when I transferred to a large high school before tenth grade, I still held a great fear that I would cry in front of my peers. Although the two are connected no doubt, that fear was more immediate than the one about losing a fight because from experience, I’d learned that physical blows didn’t make me cry but mental anguish could.
But the fear of fighting remained, and included great anxiety that I’d get challenged to fight by a girl and get my ass kicked even more thoroughly than those repeated shots at my ribs. I’d seen girls fight like wild animals protecting cubs; once at lunch in middle school, I saw one girl grab another by her braided hair and fling her onto the lunchroom table where she then slid all the way to the other end. Where I grew up, many girls were big and would tower over the boys well into high school, and I remember once walking home from school in fourth grade, a big black junior-high girl left her friends and ran up behind the eldest boy in our group, maybe a sixth grader, leaped on him, and yelled, “I just love white meat.” He screamed in agony, showing clearly he was afraid of this girl, and I remember feeling grateful I was too scrawny for a meal.
As it turned out, I recall only one time I cried in high school although once in North Philly, when walking back to the Broad Street Subway, I got cold-clocked, hard in the mouth, by a random rough kid from a neighborhood school. He punched hard and fast, and I still have a small scar on my inner upper lip from this incident, but once more I didn’t cry. The friend I was walking with was scared I’d try to go after the kid, but that’s the last thing I would have done. Rather, I stood stunned and quiet, as if wondering how they ever came to call us by the collective “humanity.”
On this anniversary of 9/11, maybe I’ll write to our twice-elected President, the fellow I voted for three times, and at least partly because he was somewhat black and could win, appeared to be on the side of the little guy, and was maybe even a pacifist at heart. I could ask him what he learned in law school about humanity or fighting or under what circumstances violence is the answer. I’ve read that in college, President Obama carried around a tattered copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I’ve also read that Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a post-9/11 New York City novel that he has enjoyed more recently. Because I liked these two as well, I could say we have similar tastes in literature. With that in mind, I could even send the President a copy of Dave’s book, but I won’t dare joke that instead of bombs and “surgical strikes” he offer to fight Assad or Putin or anyone else with his fists.
Or on third or fifth thought, I could be grateful that my own muddled conflict is merely this meandering essay, and I haven’t been assigned a leadership role for solving problems in the Middle East.