Saturday, September 29, 2012

In Dubious Battle

It was an early summer evening a few years back.  The sun was slothfully making its way towards the horizon, altering the colors of the sky as it went.  It was one of those magical evenings where you can't help but feel good. 

That summer Hammond Avenue was under construction, so once I crossed the bridge from Duluth, I took the detour through Superior's North End.  It was a part of town I usually didn't have much cause to visit, consisting as it does of mostly of bars, warehouses and strip clubs.  Being that it was still pretty early in the evening, the raw, sin seeking stream of humanity that usually milled about this part of town had yet to make an appearance.  So, I just drove on through, with my arm out the window, and the radio on. 

A smile came over my face as an awesome song I hadn't heard in a long time, "In the Air Tonight"  by Phil Collins came on.  It was one of those moments that just makes you feel good - the weather, the music, the time of day.  But a moment later, all of this would be turned on its head.

A loud smack echoed from across the street.  Tragically, it was a sound that I had heard before, and it instantly registered in my brain.  The sound took me back to years and years before, when I had lived in the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin.  There, in the apartment beneath mine, a cruel man had regularly beat his wife and two little kids.  Through the walls, my roommates and I would regularly hear that smack.  We tried to clumsily intervene a few times, to confront the bastard, as well as to offer his wife help.  But nothing we did stopped the abuse.  Not too long after they moved in, they left, leaving me with a gnawing, lingering feeling that I should have done more - a feeling that I've carried with me ever since.

But now, here I was, confronted once again with a similar situation.  There, on the sidewalk, in front of the Odyssey bar, a man was slapping a woman in the face.  They were yelling at each other, and he was using the back side of his hand as an exclamation point. 

I turned off to the side of the road, leaned out the window and yelled at the man from across the street.  All I could think to say was a simple, inarticulate "Hey!"

The couple apparently didn't find my contribution to their argument that compelling though, for they continued shouting at each other, ignoring me.  I sat in my car for a moment, considering what to do, my stomach in knots.  When the man hit the woman once again though I turned off the engine and stepped out onto the street.  My throat felt so dry and tight that I could barely get it out, but I managed one or two more "heys" as I crossed the street.  They both continued to ignore me, but the moment I stepped up onto the curb the bastard reeled around and began to shout at me.

"Get the f*** out of here!" and "you f***ing sh** face" were among the choice phrases I recall him bellowing at me.  While I don't recall my exact response, I do remember I had a heck of a time wedging it in between his torrent of expletives. 

Whatever words I found, they didn't go over well, with either party.  Now both of them were hurling insults at me, demanding that I mind my own business.  And that's probably just what I would have done, if it wasn't for what happened next.  Not to be out done by his lady, the fellah let loose another string of angry words, but this time he backed them up with a shove.  It knocked me back a few inches, almost back over the edge of the curb.  What followed next was predictable; one primitive brained man had challenged another primitive brained man, and well, there's really only one possible outcome in that scenario.

Despite being pretty big, my shyness and social awkwardness meant that for most of my teenage years I was butt of a lot of teasing.  In a complete turnaround from my elementary school days, where I was at the top of the social ladder, high school was pretty darn close to an actual hell for me.  However, after years of being relentlessly picked on, I did eventually learn to stand up for myself.  That meant getting in a fair amount of fights, but that's the way things go in this messed up world.  So when this jerk on the sidewalk shoved me, the knots in my stomach and the nervous tightness in my throat gave way to a surge of adrenalin - and the physical autopilot that usually accompanies it.

I shoved the man back, hard.  I could tell that he was drunk by the clunkiness of his movements, and I remember a feeling of arrogance coming over me.  Back during this time a group of friends and I had started up a little underground boxing club.  We use to break into this old abandoned school outside of Lake Nebagamon and use it as our ring.  No one was every able to beat me in a bout, though that probably had more to do with the fact that I was a good 50 pounds heavier than any of my friends.  In any event, I figured I should be able to take this guy.  He was roughly the same size as me, but, he was drunk, he was a jerk, and I was guessing he probably wasn't the undefeated champion of any underground boxing club!

Needless to say, the tit for tat shoving continued - he would shove me, and I would shove him back, each time a bit harder than the time before.  Like an absurd macho see-saw, we kept going back and forth, until suddenly, the jerk took a swing at me.  I don't know how I did it, since it's not something I've had to the wherewithal to do before or since, but somehow I instinctively ducked his punch.  I couldn't believe it, that's the kind of thing that happens in the movies!

At this point my confidence was so high and huge that there briefly was talk of declaring it the 10th planet (remember, this was back when Pluto was still considered to be our solar system's 9th planet).  I started hitting this guy with my left and then my right, alternately aiming for his chest and his stomach.  My goal was to knock the wind out of him, thus enabling me to walk away clearly the winner.  I kept hitting him harder and harder, getting into my boxing groove.  I'm sure he was swinging at me during this time too, and/or trying to block my hits, but truth be told, it's all kind of a blur.

After what seemed like an eternity, but which in reality was probably was less than a stop watch minute, I had the sudden realization that my punches weren't working.  I was swinging as hard as I could, and landing most of them, but seemingly to no effect.  Maybe the alcohol made him immune to pain, or maybe I just have a lousy swing.  Whatever the case, a pang of fear suddenly rippled through my body.  What was I going to do?  How the hell was this ugly mess going to come to an end? 

Perhaps in my moment of panic I briefly froze, or maybe the jerk just got lucky, but the next thing I knew a rock hard fist banged me right smack in the face, stunning me.  It was the first hit I'd taken that really effected me, and it effected me big time!  And in that split second that I stood there, dazed, my opponent stepped back and kicked me hard in the crotch.  Oh my bleeping bleep did that hurt!  I had totally forgotten how indescribably painful it is to get kicked in the sack!  I swear I saw nothing but black as I crumbled to the ground like a dropped sock.  Once I hit the pavement, I curled up into the fetal position, clutching my crotch and rocking back and forth.  I must have looked quite the sight.  For all practical purposes, the fight was over at this point, and I had clearly lost.

While I'm not sure when they arrived - perhaps they had been there since the fight began - but I became aware of a small crowd standing around us.  I recall some laughter, no doubt at my expense, and the smell of cigarettes.  And then, after the jerk kicked me two or three times in the stomach, they gathered around him and all went back inside the bar.  I have no idea what happened to the woman.  I vaguely remember her still cursing at me when the fight began, but then I lost track of her.

After a few minutes laying there alone on the dirty sidewalk, I stood up, and then slowly and painfully waddled back to my car.  I collapsed into the front seat.  Looking up at the rear view mirror I saw my shame filled, defeated face.  An ugly, puffy black bruise was already swelling up under my left eye.  Looking down at my hands I saw that the skin in between my knuckles was all scratched and banged up; I'm guessing from the metal buckles on the jerk's denim jacket.  And the throbbing pain still coming from my crotch, wow!  I was quite the mess.

I rested my head on the steering wheel for several minutes, let out a big, long sigh, and then headed for home.  By now the sun had set and dusk was descending on the fair city of Superior.  I trudged up the front steps and opened the door.  My roommate John was sitting alone on the couch listening to music and sipping on a mug of coffee.  He looked up at me, and after studying me in the semi-darkness for a few minutes, remarked how it looked like I'd "had one hell of a day at work."  Thankfully, for my pride's sake, I laughed rather than cried at that remark!

In the years since, I've never come across that man or that woman again.  On a number of occasions though I've imagined what may have happened to them.  The scenarios usually consist of her standing up for herself and leaving the jerk, who in turn gets the justice I failed to deliver.  But these are just silly daydreams.  More likely than not though, not much has changed for either of them.  And as for me, I still can't figure out if what I did was the right thing to do, or a fool's errand.

The site of this dubious battle has changed though.  Today, while the cigarette littered sidewalk is still there, the Odyssey bar is no more.  Mayor Ross tore it down at the same time as he tore down the historic Palace theater.  He said it would revitalize the downtown.  I was pretty upset when the ole Palace came down.  It's a damn shame when historic buildings get razed instead of saved. But I didn't mind one bit when the wrecking ball took its swing at that bar.  And who knows, maybe that jerk was inside when it came down!  A guy can dream . . .

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