I used to live on a quiet street that was next to a busy one. The busy street had bars and nightclubs, and at night students flocked there. That street was a show: you could stroll along and watch the cars (bumper to bumper) and the moving drifts of people. Late in the evening, when my box of an apartment had grown too small, I’d make the small but noisy trip to the supermarket and back. The supermarket, Four Brothers, was a box in its own right, but a large one and brightly lit. I stood on line with my beef chewies and my pint of orange juice, and watched the shoals pass before the plate glass window. Listened to them too, because on a spring evening FB’s doors would be open. Kids always have a lot to say, and so did the kids passing by, all of them and all at once.
When I’d paid my money and stepped on the street, I’d listen to the car horns and look at the yellow headlights and trapped gray windshields, rank after rank down to the corner of Murray and Lorimier. The noise slapped me and the kids hurried by with their elbows, and I picked my way through the elbows and the head lights to the street’s other side, where a few steps took me into the quiet. Along the way I’d seen tight white dresses and girls with cheekbones, and now I had my orange juice and the chewies.
I lived in that neighborhood for a dozen years and saw thousands of kids on my supermarket runs. Out of these thousands of kids, I spoke to just two and did that just once. If you’re all alone buying beef chewies, conversation may not be your thing. It isn’t mine and naturally I wish it were. I don’t know what made the difference that night. Maybe it was because my time in that particular neighborhood was almost done and I wanted to live a little. But I passed from the busy street to my quiet one, and then I wandered onto a scene and I asked what was up.
The scene was this: two boys, one tall, one short, emerged from a row house on my block. They appeared to be speed-walking. “Gladly!” said one. “Get yourself checked!” said the other. They said this forward, so to speak, and loudly. They didn’t look back, but wanted to be heard, and meanwhile they were motovating away. A window on the house’s second floor was wide open and somebody was leaning out. I could hear voices from up there, a clutter of voices, and the window was bright.
Then I fell into step with the boys; we were headed in the same direction. “What was that all about?” I asked.
The boys told me. They did so at length and with great animation, and our exchange about the matter lasted from the spot where I found them to the front steps of my building. Admittedly the distance from place to place wasn’t large, since I was just down the block. But as I sat down on the steps, the story began all over again and gained new details. Soon we branched out to the boys’ philosophy of life, and then to topics that I no longer recall, though girls featured heavily. At one point the fellows acted out a scenario that involved some aggressive tumbling. I watched from the steps, my humble bag of orange juice and chewies by my feet.
The story that emerged, and emerged, was that a boy had pulled a knife on them. This was at the party they’d just left. The boys told me the news when we were still within sight of the rowhouse. I think my reaction was what caused them to stick around, because my reaction was to laugh. “A knife?” I said. “A knife?” Normally people produce an incredulous laugh in order to make a point; mine popped out of me. Then I had a thought. “I bet you anything he didn’t know how to use it,” I said, which delighted the fellows. I expanded on my thought. “Look,” I said, “if somebody does something like that, it’s because he doesn’t know what else to do. You know, the situation’s closing around him and—” Here I lifted my hand high and announced, in the guise of the knife wielder, “Now I’m in charge.” I said this in a wobbly voice, a voice that I touched in with delicate skill. I took a fierce but highly contained leap with “I’m,” the word squeaking straight off my palate and then upward.
Now the boys were entranced, which wasn’t my intention. It’s just that I saw the truth and wanted to speak it. Years ago I read in the comic book Preacher about the origin of poor Arseface, a perishing loser who started out as a dumb, wimpy kid who smoked shitty pot and got pushed around. How did Arseface-to-be react to the pushing around? He waved a knife in the air and then (if I remember) dropped it. Or there was Gia Marie Carangi, the subject of Stephen Fried’s fine book Thing of Beauty. The model considered herself a tough chick from Philly. She wore leather and carried a switchblade, and one day she had to get on a plane and the airport people took her knife away. She called up her agency, crying about it. And finally there was me. When young I’d been a backpacker and found myself in a bad situation with some Italian kids who were large, rich, and arrogant. Playing the scene over, I’d often thought about what I could’ve done. A couple of times I’d imagined pulling a knife and driving them back. But I knew I wasn’t a knife person. In fact, I figured, I dreamed of a knife just because I was lacking in personal force and needed something to replace it.
The boys didn’t know that. They just knew that I spoke with conviction and that I saw the knife clown the same way they did. By the time we got to the steps I expected the boys to pass on into the night. But they didn’t; I’d made a couple of friends. They were dark, with olive skin and black hair that rose in curls, and they had fine features, though the fellows didn’t seem to care about their looks. Mainly they wanted to bounce around. That seemed their chief interest in life, and they held still at no point during our conversation. All right, they also liked poking. They’d poked the boy at the party, and that was how the trouble started.
Their mission, they said, was to free people up. They’d taken mushrooms that very morning and reflected on the absurdity of how people can’t contact each other, the cocoon (though that’s my word) that each person carries about. The shorter of the boys had tried talking to his mom about it, but no good. Then the two fellows had played Frisbee in the park and taken more mushrooms, and then evening rolled around and they left for their friends’ party. There they plunged from room to room, head-butting pals and, of course, poking. These pokes were blindside affairs: the boys would sneak up on a pair of victims and let them have it, then dart away as laughter rang. Unfortunately they didn’t know one of their victims, and this fellow had overreacted. Hence the knife.
I suppose we talked 20 minutes or so. Conversation makes me feel like a fish-eye lens is somehow at work. Things up close are very close; things at the edges warp away and take strange shapes, and those things definitely include time. During our 20 minutes I know that one boy had to be directed into an alley so that he wouldn’t piss into some nearby bushes, and that in due course he was followed by the other boy. At another point the three of us took some pleasure from sighting a girl and her skirt across the street, her legs flashing from patch of shadow to patch of light as she made her way wherever she was going. Her shape was quite something. We held still while she passed, then congratulated each other on seeing her. This brought up the subject of Nora, the desk girl at the gym I used to go to. She looked so great sitting, and then she stood up and you saw how tall she was and how it was all still great, it all held. Nature had thrown together a beautiful skyscraper for the world to see. The boys regretted that Callie, the hostess of their party, was nowhere near that status. “She’s not hot,” said the short one.
But we had our differences. The boys couldn’t compute them, but there they were. I said that I liked Nora but that I could tell she and I had little in common because she used hairspray and didn’t read—during her job’s plentiful downtime she looked at the TV mounted on the wall and settled for whatever was showing. The boys blinked when I said that. When they urged me to come with them as they journeyed from club to club, I tried to get across that this was something I’d never do. I told them I’d lived in the neighborhood a dozen years and that I must’ve been in those clubs and bars no more than four times. This sentence was a roller coaster for them: halfway through they perked up, expecting to hear the jaded vet’s record number of visits, and then came the measly payoff and they had to sag.
Finally there was this. We’d come back to the unfortunate boy and his knife. “I was in a situation where I wanted to do that,” I said. “You?” the tall kid said. He and the other boy goggled, and I was surprised that they were surprised. “Yeah,” I said. But I didn’t tell them my story. Who needs to look bad?
Now our time was drawing to a close. The party had finished and the partygoers were surging down the block and toward, I suppose, some other party. They arrived in two waves. First came six or eight boys led by a mustached, compact, square-shouldered fellow. The gang greeted their two friends and assembled as a mass at the foot of the steps. Watching the two boys, I’d felt like the audience to a pair of knock-abouts. Now I felt like an audience had thrust itself on me and that I was on stage. This was more conversation with more people than I could’ve expected. But my circuits didn’t overload. The mustached fellow announced that he had a question. “Are you their dad?” he asked. I volleyed back my answer. “Sure,” I said. “I’m their guardian. The court appointed me.” Which doesn’t quite track, but there were laughs all around. I think this was the first time that I’d made the gang, any gang, laugh, not unless you count the nerds who shared an office with me at the little reference publication where I worked out of college.
I suppose a couple of minutes passed before the next wave. This was led by Callie, the hostess. The gang of boys merged with her crowd, though my two fellows stuck with me. Checking out Callie’s not-bad young face and her sheet of black hair, I dropped my eyes low enough to recognize the undeniable downward and backward thrust of her rear end, which resembled that of a duck big enough to sit in a chair and have its feet on the ground. “Yeah,” I said to the shorter boy, a bit glumly. “I see your point.” This brought another burst of laughter, one provided by the two boys. I hadn’t been looking for one, but I took it.
Over by Callie and the rest, the mustached fellow waved as the crowd moved on. I told him I was going to take my Geritol. The short and tall boy squared up in front of me and shook my hand, something they did with grins on their faces but still formally. Then they joined the tide and swept away. Callie flung her arms around the tall boy’s waist, all forgiven. I reflected that some fellows have hot girls in their destiny and that he probably didn’t. Maybe he and Callie would wind up together and sink into adult life, and they’d be no worse off than many other couples. As the street became quiet again, I picked up my plastic bag with the juice and the chewies and went inside.
My episode with the fellows has replayed in my head a good number of times. I guess I have enough reasons for liking that little incident. But here’s one that took me years to figure out: on that night I was a man.
—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay3