A few more minor events stand out. There was a girl, 10 or 11, who had a paper route on North Beacon. My little gang – my Lebanese neighbors, a Jamaican girl from across the street – and I secretly mocked her. She must have been the only white girl in the neighborhood besides me. We called her “Paper Girl” and congratulated ourselves on our cleverness.
Having been on either end of “jumping” incidents in the not so distant past, I somehow got it in my head that I was tough. My mother was a legitimate ‘tough broad’. I must have assumed it was passed on genetically, like our matching strong, slender, veiny hands. Sitting on the stone steps of our building, I finally had to realize my full badass potential.
She was on the other side of the street, a main road, and not easily traversed. Despite the distance, it was instantly established that of the two of us, she was, in fact, the badder-ass. I had a cheerleaders baton, metallic blue, dimpled aluminum, an unlikely gift, I can’t imagine who was thinking what when they chose it for me. Perhaps I’d stolen the thing. In any event, Paper Girl was picking her way through four busy lanes of traffic without the benefit of a crosswalk or one of our usual protective adult escorts from the projects, and I took this opportunity to boldly take off running. There was a large delivery truck parked just up the street and I took up a defensive position directly in front of it, in the road. I stood there for a few moments, aware of my weapon, not daring to peer around the truck where Paper Girl was surely scouring the curb for my blood. Rather, I studied the opposite sidewalk in the fruitless hope that Paper Girl’s sense of responsibility had overcome her hunger for vengeance. I couldn’t stand in front of the truck forever. I gripped my baton, heavy in my hand, and stepped cautiously beck onto my block of pavement. There she stood, shoulders back, angry, intelligent face, fierce in her small femininity, with her canvas bag of newspaper draped across her frame. I instinctively raised the baton in what I can only assume was some half-assed attempt to look threatening. Paper Girl snatched it out of my hand swiftly and effortlessly, and held it, its blue tinted shaft sparkling dimly in the fading light, her expression shifting enough to convey her opinion of me as thoroughly unworthy. I think I expected her to brain me with it, which struck me as fair enough at the time. As it was, she nearly knocked me on my ass without so much as twitching a muscle of her own.
“What’s your problem?” This was not the stance of your average 10-12 year old. She was a little taller than I was, bigger, dark hair, average looking, nothing distinguishing aside from her bearing and expression. She was white, delivered newspapers in minority neighborhoods but didn’t go to school with us, a local Catholic school perhaps. Whatever the case, she was at ease confronting a street rat without any back up. And I found all of this very intimidating and strangely fascinating.
I had no problem, of course, so how could I respond to her reasonable, overtly-mature query? Nothing, I was just trying to look cool in front of my neighbors?
“Um, nothing, I’m sorry.” My first ever impromptu apology, and genuine at that. I did not applaud myself.
“I don’t want to be called that.” Of course she didn’t.
And just like that she dropped the baton, the metal and rubber stoppers clinking on the curb. I watched her and her dignity cross the street, for once fairly devoid of traffic. My pals watched. Kids didn’t behave that way, our underdeveloped egos are far too immature, there should at least have been raised voices, posturing, threats. I started back towards my building and climbed the steps, passing my friends in silent shame.
“J, your baton.”
“You can have it.”
The 11pm rule was in effect and it wasn’t even dinner time. Perhaps M would be too shitfaced to notice me and send me straight under the covers. I didn’t care either way. There was a lesson somewhere in the Paper Girl incident, and I had to decipher it, even if it meant solitary confinement. I learned a lesson taught to her by blue-collar (we were no-collar), church-going parents who also instilled in her the value of responsibility and the value of a dollar earned, and the value of not taking shit from anyone. All of that by, what, 5th grade? I didn’t, or wasn’t able to articulate it to myself at the time, I just lay there on my bed, embracing the shame of the encounter – thinking why would I be mean-spirited to someone I had never met but who was unassailably respectable. If you were mature enough to think in such terms, and I had only now graduated to them. Something had happened – I felt ashamed and thought surely I would certainly never mock anyone again (at least to their faces, I was only nine after all and there’s only so long the impressions of a 10 year old declining to beat you with your own baton will remain.) There was a message of integrity somewhere in there, though lying there in the half-light with the constant sirens of God knew what emergencies and my mother with her vodka and Amaretto and her porn magazines strewn about the coffee table in the other room, it was difficult to adequately interpret it.
I would learn to employ the lessons subtly imparted on my by the pissed off Paper Girl. I scared off a few bullies in middle school (“Go ahead, kick my ass if it’s going to make you feel better, but I’m not giving you this necklace.”) and high school (“What is your problem with me exactly? You don’t know me for Christ’s sake”. Spoke my peace to otherwise terrifying bosses, stared down would-be attackers. But I never realized any of it was an actual strategy gifted to me until the summer I was pregnant with my first child and became fed up with the local psycho Doberman pinscher. I was 20 and without the baby-weight, amounted in stature to 5’3”, 90 pounds. This figure of teeth, muscle and erect ears was always prowling the neighborhood, by Revere Beach, and just like everybody else, he became crankier, and therefore scarier, as the summer and its abusive heat wore on, tormenting passersby and never contained by what could only have been an asshole of a keeper.
I was headed to work one morning, walking to the Blue Line train where I got to drag my giant belly up several flights of stairs to be tossed about the ancient subway car until I switched to the Orange Line for a brief respite before switching finally to the un-air conditioned and always crowded Red Line. I dreaded the commute. And here was this dog, large, muscular, ferocious, ready to grind my bones to ash. He began with a stalk and then started his growling and snarling that preceeded the volley of heart-stopping dog-shouting, threatening horrors beyond imagining.
The mother-to-be in me rose in a surprising fury. I recognized instantly that this Doberman was not the boss of me, not now, not ever, and that this was his desperate plea for me to put him in his place. I had had it with this evil fuck of a dog. I turned on him and he stopped short as if he’d reached the limits of his lead. I spewed pure mindless fury.
“Back the fuck off you stupid son of a bitch, what the hell is your goddamned problem? I am through with your intimidation. Guess what? I’m not afraid of you or your cropped tail or your pointy ears or even your perfect attack-dog teeth. So you bring it motherfucker, go on, right now, do your worst badass-dog thing and be sure you enjoy it because I’m going to tear out your fucking throat!”
people, most people, decline to give our animal counterparts due credit – mental, intellectual, emotional. This dog, he understood every word I said, nay, SHOUTED. He absorbed the authenticity of my tirade, the sincerity of my threat, the legitimacy of my ability to carry it out, to realize my brutal promise. He turned and fled from my otherwise vulnerable frame. I never lost that aggressiveness, the quasi-courage that this dumbass dog wrenched out of me. But really it’s Paper Girl who’s to thank, wherever she is.
© 2012 J. Gallagher
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