It was a Saturday afternoon, 3:30. I was returning from a long overdue run, a habit I have difficulty maintaining in winter. I could tell something was going on in the courtyard in front of my apartment building, because people were ambling over to it, as people are wont to do when drama is occuring in public spaces. I circled around them and approached around the side. Some guy in a baseball cap was screaming at a girl.
My mistake was in not taking the situation seriously enough. It was my building, after all, on a Saturday afternoon. This guy and his problems were in my way.
These are mere excuses.
Think of how I must have looked to him. A white boy, wearing strange running clothes, my old lightweight jacket much too small. Vibram FiveFingers on my feet. In the midst of the gathering handful of Dominican men, I was the one who stood out. I’ve learned, since moving to NYC, that I am much smaller than the average city male. I was a perfect target in that moment.
In that moment, as men gathered to watch him in his turmoil, his eyes locked on mine. His face was bloodied. He had been in an altercation. He was charged with anger and shame. He was taller and heavier than I.
“What the fuck are you looking at, white boy?”
He charged. I backed up, not quite believing that anyone would just begin assaulting a stranger without any reason. He did.
I ducked and backed up and ran a little bit. Apparently, this was an invitation to him for full on onslaught. On hindsight, the smart thing would have been to run completely. I would have easily outpaced him. But part of me was outraged. This was my building! So I stopped and faced him, as he commenced swinging. He missed most of his punches, but grabbed my jacket and threw me down on the sidewalk and dragged me down to the corner of the street.
I managed to mostly maintain my balance and get back to my feet after landing on my knees, but he was on me, kicking and punching. I was able to avoid any serious blows, but I could sense in that moment that I was utterly overpowered. I was a victim.
“Fuck you, cracker! Fuck you, cracker!” he shouted with every attempted blow. I was the representation for him of everything that had gone wrong in his life. The vessel for his release of anger, shame, and fear.
Before he could cause any serious damage, a couple of the bigger bystanders chased him away.
“Never come back here again!” two of them shouted, as the guy backed away down the street cussing them out.
One of them made sure I was OK, and continually assured me that this sort of thing doesn’t happen around here (unfortunately, not entirely true. My neighborhood isn’t exactly the pinnacle of peace. My wife witnessed a man stabbed in broad daylight last year). I nodded and shook his hand. I wasn’t all that shaken up, all things considered. In my last 2 years in the classroom, aggression and violence were unfortunately somewhat common, so perhaps I wasn’t as prone to getting emotionally aggravated (at least, not immediately). I was bleeding in places, but otherwise intact. He seemed to have landed a kick or punch to the back of my head, and a few on my body, but nothing on my face.
It turns out that he had been in some kind of fight with his “friends” who lived in my building, and had been beaten up with a glass bottle (hence the bleeding face).
Later that night, as I lay in bed, I kept reliving those moments in my mind. “Your heart is racing,” my wife told me.
This was the worst aftereffect of senseless violence, the replaying, over and over. Asking myself why I didn’t immediately attack. Angry at myself for letting myself get into the space of a person who was obviously in a heightened state of aggression. I recognized that if this hadn’t happened in the middle of the day, I knew that I would have been seriously hurt.
I could tell myself that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the fact is, I let my guard down and I walked into a situation without better assessing the danger. This could have been avoided.