Tuesday, November 29, 2005
David Letterman likes to do this mock-nasty face he calls the skunk eye.
He twists his mug up to one side until he's glaring at you with one squinting eyeball. It's a classic dirty look and I think it's funnier than hell.
But in real life, dirty looks aren't so funny. This week an amatuer boxer was shot to death in Brooklyn after he and his killers exchanged dirty looks. That's all they needed to start shooting: a hostile variation on the skunk eye.
The victim's nickname was "Squint" because of his poor vision and there is a theory that this habit led to his death. The shooters interpreted his squinting as a challenge and naturally the only rational response was to gun him down.
A dirty look is the flashpoint for violence. For years I've heard people say if you look at people the wrong way in this city and you'll get shot. And they're right. So many fights start with the loaded question, what are you looking at?
I was in a martial arts class when I was about 20 and the instructor beaned one of the students with a staff while showing him a technique. The kid got up, angry and sneering, and the instructor got his face and asked "are you giving me dirty looks?"
The kid was pretty upset, but he wasn't going to say too much to a high-ranking black belt. And personally, I thought the instructor was wrong to clobber the guy like that, but you know I kept my mouth shut.
When I was in college I had a guy scream at me on the subway platform claiming I was staring at him. As he was twice my size, I didn't argue. But I still remember a woman at the platform looking at me after this freak was done screaming. I'm not sure if she wanted me to take this bastard on, but if so, she was sorely disappointed.
I got into a very nasty confrontation with my father when I was in college. He had this habit of barging into the bathroom without knocking and I got angry. He started yelling and when I came out I got into his face.
Life With Father
My mother, poor woman, stood between the two idiots and it looked like it was over, but then the son-of-a-bitch looked at me and I looked back, giving him the finger with my eyes. He shoved my mother aside and ploughed into me and I started smashing his face with the blade of my hand, screaming "I'll fucking kill you!" over and over.
My brother cam running out of his room and broke it up and I went off to school. It was one of the more disgusting episodes in my life, but that was one day I didn't feel like backing down from my father. He was always, always hitting or threatening to his us. That gets tiresome after a while.
But what did I accomplish by "standing my ground"? I upset my family, especially my mother, who deserved better, and left myself with an ugly memory that still makes me shudder after 22 years. It doesn't seem worth the effort.
Now at age 84 with Alzheimer's my father is less of a problem and too old to do much damage, but then we did have our little spat on Veterans Day. (See "Man Down.")
Yeah, I'm a tough guy with the nuts in the family, it's just the ones outside the home who scare me. About two years ago I got into a stupid little disagreement with some schmuck in my gym who thought I was stealing his towel (!?). And this was just after I finished a boxing class. I told him I didn't know what he was talking about and took my shower.
When I was dressed and ready to go, I looked his way and he was looking back with that same challenging look my father had some 20-odd years ago. This time I looked away. I blinked first, I backed down, I wimped out, whatever you want to call it.
I guess most normal people would say I was smart not to get into a brawl in my gym, which could have ended in my being injured or killed. (Remember Squint?) And the whole thing sucked even more because it was early January, the start of a new year and I was thinking positively about life. And this idiot had to ruin everything.
And who the hell am I kidding with the boxing anyway? I've been sparring more with the instructors lately and I've seen that fighting, even under controlled conditions, really hurts.
I tell myself that I do this as a reminder that fighting is not an option, but I think there's part of me that enjoys the suffering, that trading blows with a professional fighter makes me some kind of bad-ass. It's foolish, but we live in a society where pushing people around is seen as strength and where tolerant behavior means you're a wimp and wuss, and so many other colorful terms.
So lesson learned. I don't want to end up on the front page of The Daily News. I'll mind my own business, keep my mouth closed and keep my dirty looks to myself. Just don't shoot me.