When I was fifteen years old and in 9th grade, I got to school by walking nine blocks through a rough neighborhood to get to the elevated train, a.k.a. “The El”. Okay, it was my neighborhood and I was very familiar with it, so it didn’t seem that rough at the time. Looking back with perspective, yes it was rough in many bad ways. That’s another story.
I climbed the steps of the El stop, showed my transpass to the attendant and walked through the turnstile to wait on the platform for the train. Four stops down the tracks I exited into another equally bad neighborhood. I felt gut wrenching trepidation every day when I stepped off the El stop and looked down the seven-block long hill with the crime-infested housing projects at the bottom. My school was on the other side of those projects. For a fifteen year old, skinny, blond, white boy, it took a lot of intestinal fortitude not to shit my pants. I did this five days a week.
I got mean looks, cursed at, called some pretty hateful things, and taunted, but I just kept walking. One day after school, on my way back up the hill, I looked up and knew I was in for a physical confrontation. Three guys, probably double my age, all over six feet, all over 200 pounds, all with prison tattoos walking toward me on the same sidewalk. Do I cross the street? Do I run? No. At that time, my thought process was to keep going. Any deviation would show weakness and that would cause a lot of other problems. Looking back, it was probably a bad decision.
The first punch to the head somehow came out of nowhere, even though I was expecting something. The second punch from the next guy caught me in the forehead. I think he broke his hand, because I heard him yelp and saw him retract. The third hit me on top of the head. I didn’t go down and I kept walking. I did not run. I didn’t look back or at them right away, but half a block later I did look back. They were continuing on their same path in the opposite direction. The one on the end was holding his hand.
I got on the El and rode home. I put ice on my head, took some aspirin, and ate dinner.
The next morning, I got on the El and went to school. I still had the knots on my head and my friend Tim asked me what had happened. When I told him, he got angry. He lived in that neighborhood. He walked with me after school that day and asked me to come to his house for a bit. Um … okay. When I stepped through the front door into Tim’s living room, you could almost hear the needle being scratched off the record. The room went silent and Tim’s mom, uncle, and brother looked at Tim as if he’d brought home a kangaroo. He introduced me and told everyone what happened. For the rest of the year, I had no problems. I still don’t know if it was cause and effect.
Today, I can’t imagine my two teenage boys having to deal with that and I would never want them to. But, for me it was life and I didn’t know any different. It just was what it was. Crazy.
When I was twelve, I woke up one summer night to gun shots. I went downstairs and opened my front door. There was a woman in a bra and panties leaking blood all over the sidewalk with a large hole in her chest. When I was fourteen, I sat on my front steps one night and watched as an older neighborhood kid, high on some bad drugs, toss around four police officers until they finally subdued him. It was my friend’s older brother. At sixteen I got into a confrontation with a gang leader, but we didn’t get physical. I stood up to him and we parted ways. Later that morning at school, I learned that he attacked a kid that looked like me in the hallway and put him in the hospital. I guess he had to make a statement.
The list of experiences like these goes on and on. Every day I had to utilize a combination of skills, such as diplomacy, respect, awareness, observation, confidence (mostly fake), posturing, assertiveness, awareness, intuition, and interpersonal relations just to negotiate my way through life. Street smarts? I guess so, but for me it was the norm and again, I didn’t know any different.
Growing up in and around that environment can make you hard, untrusting, and confused as to which way to go. At fifteen, you’re trying to find your way in the world as a man and what does that mean. I had good parents, but the surrounding influences take their toll. Should I be tough and act tough and beat the crap out of people for looking at me sideways? That would give me a rep as a badass, right? No. It wasn’t in my nature. I like people. Join a gang? No. I never really felt the need to be part of some club. No freedom there. Stand on the corner all night smoking cigarettes with the rest of the neighborhood idiots? No. Didn’t seem like much fun to me.
Philadelphia is the fifth largest (most populated) city in the country and ranked fourth in terms of crime rate. My saving influence was martial arts. I trained and studied at a very good and traditional school. Not kiddie karate. No this was serious and earning belts didn’t come from writing checks. I learned what real toughness was all about. Good toughness.
This is where I began my Zen journey.