Once upon a time in a faraway land, Part 1

I remember standing outside the high school waiting for the bell to ring for. Until the bell rang students had to wait outside untill they unlocked the doors and let us proceed to our classrooms. 5 black boys approached from a gang called the Blackstone Rangers (Stones). I was a pipsqueak. I was 4’11” and I had Free Lunch stamped on my forehead and these guys wanted lunch at my expense. I didn’t know these guys, but they had a keen sense of smell and picked up the scent of my fear.

I needed to do something and fast. I sized them up and ran through my encyclopedia of bluffs and the first one that occurred to me was to act as if we were all together in this escapade. This normally doesn’t work for a little white Jewish kid about to be robbed. but I had spent a lot of time around guys like this and I am a good mimic. I could talk the talk even if I couldn’t walk the walk. I knew these guys were gang-bangers just from their look.

 A gangster’s style was dress-casual. He wore lose fitting, almost baggy clothes. His shirt was an Italian knit and he wore pants with two pleats at the waist with room in the leg so that a gangster could pimp. Pimping was a way of walking with a kind of shuffle and slightly slouched and emanating attitude. They frequently wore narrow sunglasses that they had to look over the top of when talking.

The way this worked, when thugs approached, I would initiate the encounter by talking to them. I mean I knew damn well they planned to rob me, so I greeted them first, “Hey, what’s up?” (It is called, act as if.) Then I asked if “Anyone has seen JB.” See JB was the baddest kid around and a leader in the Stones and we went to grade school together. So I would got the jump on guys by asking for JB. The fact that I knew his name gave me credibility. so usually after that, they don’t ask for money. A rule of the streets was to not rob a friend of a gang leader.

Now if that doesn’t seem like much of a plan, it wasn’t but I had a back up bluff. That next part was to act as if I could fight. I acted like I would want nothing more than to have these guys mess with me so then I could whoop someone’s butt. Totally grounded in fantasy! Fact is if you acted first you might throw them off balance psychologically long enough to get in the school. One way to do this is as they approached I would ask them for some money and act huffy when they don’t got it. So the 5 spread out in a semi-circle in front of me. They arrroached me intending to secure compliance and get my money or pounce.     I know I have to make eye contact and hide fear. So I stare at the closest one and ask  “Hey, someone got a quarter?” The reply “Huh? Are you out of your mind boy?”, (a reasonable assumption when a small white boy tries to coerce several young black boys out of “spare change”) I would reply along the lines of “Hell yea, I’m out of my mind. better believe it! So who got a quarter? Don’t be tight. man. Someone give it up. don’t be cheap, help a dude out man.”

I was not only a small white boy, but I was dressed preppy. The uniform style of dress amongst my peers was Brooks Brothers button down shirts, khaki pants with cuffs dark socks and Bass Weejun penny loafers.  I might have been slightly more convincing if I dressed like the white thugs we called greasers. Anyways, if that bluff failed….run.

This particular encounter just typifies the type of incidents that took place regularly in my neighborhood. This time it ended with the five boys walking away, heads nodding in bewilderment and wonder about what exactly had just happened and who the hell was I. These encounters would have the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My palms would be quietly sweaty. My heart would beat so loud I thought anyone near by could hear it.

Amazingly, for me, acting like a teenage Jewish kid was much more difficult. At least acting like a “cool” Jewish kid. The encyclopedia of bluffs was quite useless in this realm.  I arrived to high school from a grade school that was over 50% black. In grade school I had taken to speaking the language of my black peers. So, in high school I had to learn to minimize my inclination to mimic the sound and speech of a young black boy who had emigrated to Chicago from Knoxville TN.

Many of the Jewish kids in my high school were in organized fraternities and sororities which were comprised mostly of Jewish kids. I have never met anyone outside of Chicago’s south side who had these clubs in their Chicago area high school. It seemed important to be accepted into this fraternity environment. I can’t tell you why but it did. My older brother had been in a fraternity, but I didn’t like him much. For sure I desperately wanted to be cool. But the reality was, I was too young and too awkward to blend in well. Fraternities just didn’t place a value on having members who were 12-year-old, freshmen, short, non-athletic, jive talking and not particularly affluent. I was 3 years away from a driving permit, and my body wouldn’t see pubic hair in the immediate future.

It took about 6 months of lobbying to be accepted into the second lowest-ranked fraternity in school. Ranks were based on the number of cool guys you had in the fraternity and gentiles and blacks were not considered cool and don’t count. I suspect most non-Jews were invited to join to bolster the athletic standing of the group (Ringers). My fraternity was considered just slightly cooler than the one fraternity that accepted both people of color and gentiles. But my membership resulted in 2 friendships that span over 43 years so I consider it a good investment.

Anyway the point is I had a harder time passing in my natural state for what I was (the little Jew kid) than passing as something I wasn’t and didn’t appear to be (the little black kid).

I can’t tell you the first thing about being with a sorority girl as I was barely able to negotiate being a preteen boy in a teenage world much less hope to date girls. I had no business being in high school. I wasn’t a good student or mature beyond my years. Hard to say if I was even age appropriate as I had no way to determine that. I had gotten ahead in school through some stubbornness, luck (bad/good), timing and mistakes. So while most kids had already consummated their childhood before going to high school, I was still wrapping up my juvenile affairs. bar mitzvah, puberty, walking, you know the basics. There is much more to this story. I was on a trajectory which would lead me to 5 failed years of high school and becoming a drop-out. It was the precursor to becoming a real criminal. But here is an insight. I got sick and tired of being picked on. Not only was I robbed the first day of each of the three Chicago high schools I attended, I was assaulted my first day of college preparatory boarding school in New Hampshire. In the sophomore year I was brutally attacked and nearly drowned by a rabid anti-Semite Palestinian student. I promised myself that someday I would get a gun and I would end the reign of terror of bullying and getting robbed which seemed to summarize my early years.

You want bully. I’ll give you bully.

Talking with my pal Joe Peek this morning about how I really enjoyed intimidating bullies when I was younger, (up until about 6 months ago). When friends or strangers got bullied I liked intervening. My friend Lynda Christmann Nauseda was being messed with when we were young and she was a visitor to the south side of Chicago from the burbs. Somebody figured that made her fair game for hassling. (Always check who is around before you start messing with folks. Never know who is looking out for whom if you do not properly scope the situation.)

He didn’t ever wish to hassle Lynda again. And the thing is, I am smaller than most bullies. Truth, I was never that strong in my teen years. Honestly, I felt scared when I injected myself into situations. But I was compelled to do it. I never really felt it was a choice. It just had to be done. I didn’t need to be big and muscular. All it took to stop most bullies was someone who had the fortitude to step up.
I once intervened with some young military guys playing cards on Amtrak. They were listening to an old drunk former marine spout racist crap. I injected myself from across the railroad car into their conversation and chastised the older marine for his language and cautioned him not to use the word again. The best part was the young guys thanking me later on for what I did. I think once the crowd thins most men will act responsibly. But so many men find it so difficult to oppose the group. They lose themselves in the crowd. Then there are those who are just plain mean. But while they may have a mental affliction which deprives them of empathy for the victim, they will draw strength and encouragement from the crowd. Take away the followers and you begin to suck the life out of the gang mentality.
Where is an anti-bullying program run by ex-bullies? Why do the TV ads use people like movie stars and Shaquille O’Neal? Get me your most macho ex-con. Get me the former bullies. I say, record advertisements about bullying with the guys who know how a bully thinks. Victims making videos about bullying are just reaching other potential victims. That does not influence the bully. Time to get to the bullies. Teach them how to “man up”. Teach them to speak up. Empower them to say or do what goes against the grain, something you would not like saying or doing it and it is not what you would usually say or do.

Want to know who influenced me to do the right thing? Guys who could bully others but didn’t. Scary guys who stood up for those in no position to defend themselves. They taught me what I could do. I role modeled them. Know my favorite anti-bullying technique, not recommended for the weak of heart? Raise the level of intimidation to a higher intensity. I used to reply to bullies with an attitude of, you want aggression, I’ll show you aggression. You want intimidation, let me show you intimidation. Of course I tended to also role modeled my heroes propensity to commit crimes, but that is a story already told. Scroll the Internet and you will see what videos there are which are intended to prevent bullying. http://www.pacer.org/bullying/video/

Bully prevention does not have to be about being nice. It should be about not being mean. It shouldn’t be about helping the kid getting bullied. It should be about how uncool it is to be the bully. I carry a gun because the nice policeman won’t be there when I need him. So, it is nice the policeman will come when called but better yet, I do not want to need the police.
These videos are very sweet and are voiced by lovely young people, behavioral experts and celebrities. Screw that! If you use celebrities, try using Danny Trejo or Esai Morales in a commercial.  or.

That gets my attention. Drive a stake through the vampire’s heart. Shoot the zombie in the head. Then maybe I can retire peacefully from the need to stop the bully. Maybe the next time, his pals stop him dead in his tracks before there is a real victim. Hey, just my humble opinion. Remember, be humble, you may be wrong.