was a lazy left cross, a slow arc with no real follow-through,
no force behind it. It caught me on the chin, wrenching my
jaw out of place.
Shouldn’t have thrown it from up on his toes like that, I
thought. Should have planted his feet, punched up from the
legs, should have gotten his body weight behind it. He threw
it out way too wide.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing, I thought.
He hits like a girl, I thought.
I’m going to beat him till he twitches, I thought.
I took two or three steps toward him as he hopped backwards,
still up on his toes, bobbing. Punk thinks you can learn to
fight by watching TV, I thought, fists clenched. But he’s
going to find differently.
He backpedaled in a showy way, wheeling loose fists in small
circles, elbows still too far out and too low. Abdomen, throat
and face all open and unprotected: a soft, slow, smug target.
For long seconds I could feel all my mundane frustrations
focusing into a fine hot point, a point I was training—like
a young sociopath frying ants with a magnifying glass—directly
on his retreating Adam’s apple.
One punch, I thought. Every line I’ve ever stood in, every
late fee I’ve ever paid, every obstacle I’ve failed to gracefully
negotiate, every project I’ve left half-done, every opportunity
I’ve ever shortsightedly squandered, every indignity, disappointment,
gaffe, faux pas and blunder will be balanced by one punch
into the unguarded throat of the thug who wordlessly and without
warning assaulted me on the sidewalk near the tennis courts
on a beautiful spring evening.
This blot, this blemish, this boil on the face of a day graced
with almost Whitmanesque beauty would allow me—whether he
willed it or not—the chance to literally and symbolically
settle the score. My jaw had not yet begun to ache; I wasn’t
hurt—I was gloriously vengeful. I felt for those seconds that
all the petty brutishness of life had coalesced into this
one unprovoked outbreak of violence. And I was going to put
things right; I was going to fight back. I was going to stand
my ground against randomness and fright. Before me was the
representative, the very personification of pointless aggression
and free-floating hostility, of insensitivity, of man’s inhumanity
to man, and I was going to beat him into the dirt.
And I was going to enjoy it. I was licking my chops.
But in the seconds it took to get to him, as he bounced back
closer to the crowd of teenage onlookers, I noticed how much
of a piece he—in his red hoodie and baseball hat—seemed with
He’s a child, the thought came. Not more than 15 years old.
You’re about to beat a child, not an abstract or poetic assemblage
of socioeconomic tensions, not the malevolent spirit of an
antagonistic age in corporeal form, not a juvenile golem animated
by antisocial rap lyrics, A.D.D. and necrophilic video games,
not an externalized embodiment of internal schisms. Nothing
so literary. Just a kid.
An angry, screwed-up kid.
A kid so angry and screwed-up that he took a swing at a guy
twice his age, twice his size, completely randomly, without
a word or meaningful look exchanged.
What makes a kid that angry, that reckless, by 15?
What makes someone crave an excuse to lash out at a stranger,
without a thought for consequence? What makes someone long
for the opportunity to cause pain simply for the sake of feeling
some sense of personal efficacy, influence or agency?
Why would someone think that frustrations and disappointments
can be compensated for by violence?
I stopped advancing and let the kid walk. I made some empty
and half- hearted threats about punitive legal retribution.
He was absorbed into the crowd of children and they—as a churning,
undifferentiated mass of designer sweatshirts and expensive
sneakers—bubbled down the sidewalk away from me.
I walked two blocks to the nearest pay phone, and called the
cops. The adrenalin was leaching out of my system and I felt
weak and trembly. My jaw was starting to throb, and I couldn’t
close my teeth together without a hot pain sparking down my
neck and up into my left eye. I began to feel foolish, standing
on the corner waiting for the police to arrive. I argued silently
with myself that I had done the wise and humane thing—the
right thing—but the prospect of standing up for myself with
a Bic and clipboard made me feel somehow small and ineffectual.
I thought of insults I could have hurled, verbal assaults
on his masculinity (“Is that the best you can do, Suzy? You
afraid you’re going to break a nail, sweetie?” and so forth),
but suspected that this tack would only provoke him to use
more extreme violence on someone else in the future.
So, I had, in fact, done the right thing, the prudent thing,
the peaceful thing.
The cop arrived, asked whether I was seriously injured, and
took a description of the kid. He said he’d keep an eye out,
but that the chances of there being any real resolution were
slim. Even if he found my assailant, by some fluke, the kid
would be back on the street within hours.
drag him to juvie,” the cop said, “and they’ll just release
him to his mom.”
Release him, in all likelihood unpunished, back into the world
that bred such resentment and impotent anger in him that he
swings on strangers. Release him back into a world where displaced
anger is the rule, rather than the exception.
I shook the officer’s hand and thanked him for his help; as
he was preparing to get back in his cruiser he said, “You
know, you should have beat his ass.”
I thought about it,” I said. “But he was just a kid, like
don’t care if he was 8,” he rejoined, climbing back into his
cruiser. “Next time, kick his ass, otherwise they never learn.”