Flunking life’s lessons

So my neighbor was getting the shit beat out of him the other day. I knew this not because I was the one doing the beating, but because it was so fierce that I could hear thuds through the cinderblock walls that separate our tiny studios. For those that know me, you might be reminded of a few Facebook status updates I posted when I was still visiting friends in Camden, NJ. There were a couple times when violence came knocking at my doorstep, quite literally.

The first was a scuffle between two women, one white and another black. A third, also black, was either trying to break it up or was egging them on, I wasnt sure. The one woman was actually strangling the other, and it was her head thumping against the front door (and the accompanying yelling) that caught my attention. The second time was a bit more brutal and startling; a man (he happened to be black) was beating a frail, disoriented prostitute (who happened to be white) in the street by our drive way. That time it was much more sudden and very obvious something was going on. I rushed outside with 9-1-1 dialed into my phone, ready to hit ‘send.’

When I got out there, I was faced with how to diffuse the situation, being a man of nonviolence. I was struck with this instinct that infused me with some mysterious notion that being a young, virile (sober) male meant that I was in control. I’m not saying this is justified, but merely stating what I observed after the fact, which is why I call it an instinct. The young man left with a few last tossed insults and insistences, encouraged by one of the regulars from our porch, not wanting ‘trouble.’ By “trouble,” I later came to understand, he actually meant the police.

The one thing that really got to me in that case was that the woman, once she got to her feet with a bit of assistance, refused any offer of help I extended. Blood was, from what I could tell, almost pouring out of a head wound she sustained, but she simply would not come inside with me to receive first aid. I was pretty insistent, but felt that ultimately, she needed to accept help in her terms. That was at about 11pm, and it took me 6 hours to get to sleep, wondering if she was able to finally control the bleeding (since many forms of intoxication apparently thin the blood and confound coagulation [and yes, these kind of things really go thru my head]). That and the copious amounts of blood, a degree of which I had not experienced since some events in combat, were enough to rob me of a restful night.

So it is no wonder that I remember these instances as I reflect on my neighbor’s circumstances. I continuously wonder about what he’s involved in, since there are always very unique characters stopping by for brief encounters, none of whom strike me as the most upstanding members of society. That, and there are about 10 bikes he keeps outside, which I still cant figure out. Anyway, so this back and forth is making its way through our cinderblock walls, and I’m wondering if I should intervene. The problem with that is that to even consider whether I should or must intervene assumes that I have some kind of authority to speak from, which maybe I do, but maybe also I do not.

By the time I think of this, I am then able to hear muffled thuds, much like those I heard upon my door in Camden, so I toss all the intellectualizing aside and, again, type in 9-1-1 just in case I need Big Brother. I open my door and pretend to be catching some fresh air (which is actually important considering how humid it gets in my apartment). The stranger is outside yelling at my neighbor and sees me. I pretend to glance up from my phone nonchalantly. There’s no such thing as nonchalance when people are fighting, I’ve found.

As the stranger turns to me, I see something in his hand, firm enough not to flex as his body moves in my direction, but not reflective and therefore hopefully not concrete enough to do damage should he desire to. He asks me threateningly if I plan to call the police. “No,” I lie, “playing games.” He reminds me that I am better not to anyway. With this, he steps to within a foot of my doorstep and shrugs his shoulders toward me, suggesting he means business, concurrently reminding me of the unidentified object in his hand. That was a threat, not just to my physical well being, but to my castle, my home, my sense of safety, but also to my masculinity. This man had tried to assert himself over me, in my own place of residence.

I think it was at that point that I gave the proverbial boot to the proverbial Gandhi sitting on my shoulder, opposite the proverbial [insert the name of any MMA fighter here]. Still pretending to be absorbed by my phone, I went back inside and closed the door. I then placed my phone on my bed and wandered toward my kitchen area. As I mulled it all over, what had just transpired and my reaction to it, what was morally being asked of me at that point and what options might lay before me, I kind of lost myself in my thoughts. When I finally blinked and kind of sobered up, I found I was holding my meat cleaver in my left hand and my fluting knife in my right.

See, you want a thick knife in your non-dominant hand, because you can flail with it or just chop for maximum damage. In your dominant hand, you want a light, small, non-serrated knife. Your ‘off hand’ is like a sharp bludgeon, while your ‘on hand’ can still punch and/or puncture. The blade in your dominant hand faces away, so even if you miss a punch, you still can slice, or just ‘hammer’ with the blade for full force and penetration with the smaller knife, twisting as you retract to maximize damage to soft tissue, bone as well, if you’re lucky. This also allows you to grasp an appendage between the dull edge of your small knife and your own forearm, by pointing your thumb, to control an arm or a leg, or the neck of your opponent. I learned this in the Army. Unfortunately, I haven’t unlearned it very well. That’s why I dialed 9-1-1.

When they arrived, I sat outside, not wanting to hide from the fact that, yes, I did call the cops. What I didn’t do was tell them what exactly went down, hoping they would diffuse the issue without unnecessary force. The implications of relying on a police force is always difficult for an Anabaptist-leaning pacifist, as I’m sure most of you are aware. What really disturbs me is that I effectively just outsourced my violence. I substituted the violence I felt I was capable of with the violence of ‘public servants.’ We all know that rarely do police officers honor the fact that they serve the public, as opposed to the other way around, but that’s another blog.

So I hope I might be forgiven for trusting in the sword of the state, for neglecting all the other possible alternatives. I hope that the next time I am offered the opportunity to love forcefully, to be the change I want to see, that I can find the strength and the sobriety to respond and not just react. The distinct impression that I am left with, considering the increasing number of times I find myself in the very position that I was asked as a conscientious objector (“What would you do if…”), is that God is trying to teach me something. There is a lesson that I think I grasp intellectually, but that I am not applying in the real world. If the amount of questionable characters that continue to appear next door is any indication, I suppose the next opportunity is not too far in the future…

2 thoughts on “Flunking life’s lessons

  1. Hey, I found your blog from browsing on twitter (a friend of a friend, etc.), and I noticed you mentioned Camden. Were you working with urbanpromise? I worked there a few summers ago, and so your stories here brought back memories.

    • I didn’t work directly with UP, I lived next door to the building I think they occupied. My friends are real involved in the community and especially the Catholic church on Ferry and Broadway. I was there in 2007 and a little bit of 2008, but the events I listed on this entry actually occurred over the last summer (in August, if I remember correctly).

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