Monday, December 22, 2008

War Zone

In a recent post on Edgehill House Tracy said something to the effect of my growing up in a war zone. Allow me to explain.

I grew up in the remnants of an ethnic neighborhood, one of probably many predominantly Italian neighborhoods in Clarksburg. I remember feeling like a minority, being predominantly German amongst all the proudly Italian kids and families. Like many working class neighborhoods in the 80s we had factory closings affecting many families. There wasn't a lot of middle ground - you were either rich or poor. Most of the people in my neighborhood fell into the "poor" category.

I was afraid the war zone comment (and I'm not blaming her; I'm sure I've said it myself more than a few times) would conjure up images of the modern war zone neighborhoods. We didn't have people shooting each other or stabbing someone over their shoes. What we had was more of a propaganda war, waged in grim determination by my grandmother.

The way I heard it as a kid, everyone was potentially out to get you. This was the eighties, the height of Satanic Cult hysteria. If someone offered you a ride, they were killers or kidnappers. If you went to the NVAC (North View Athletic Center, where we played our little league games) alone, you WOULD be found in the surrounding woods, dismembered in a black garbage bag. This was presented as fact.

Now, on the other hand, the following really happened, in no particular order.

Once, when I was fourteen or so, a man knocked on our door about midnight. I was the only one up, and had been warned never, ever to open the door for strangers. I turned on the porch light and looked out to see a guy covered in blood. Literally. He was bleeding from his mouth, nose and his freaking EYE.

I had to know. I opened the door. The guy was drunk (big surprise). He told me that so-and-so had jumped him and wanted to know if I would drive him to the dudes house. They guy who beat the hell out of him - that's who he wanted to go see. I told him I didn't have a license and offered to call him an ambulance. He said he'd be fine and staggered up the street. I watched him go, falling down a few times. I wound up calling 911, explaining that a bloody guy was wandering around, trying to get to the guy who had bloodied him. I thought he needed an ambulance, but the police were the ones who showed up and took him away.

The other example that springs to mind happened before bloody guy. I had stayed up all night drinking Mt. Dew, and decided about 9AM that I was hungry. I didn't know how to cook, maybe there were no groceries...for whatever reason, I decided to walk about four blocks to get a hot dog at the Dairy Mart.

As I walked home with my hot dogs an older kid was walking up the street; we met up right in front of my house.

"I'll fight you for a dollar."

What the hell. I didn't know what to say. I just looked at him, bag of hotdogs in hand.

"You want me to pay you a dollar to fight you?" I don't know why the hell I said it. I had been up all night, so I wasn't thinking straight.

"No, we'll fight, and the winner gets a dollar from the loser." I remember him being super calm when he said this. I didn't know this person, he wasn't mad at me or anything. I guess he just thought fighting was a good way to win a buck.

"No, thanks," I said.

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah man, I'm sure." I remember being glad that I was right in front of my house. I thought I was about to get mugged.

"OK," he says, and just walks away. Just like that.

Now, neither of these examples led in any way to my being abducted or murdered. They did, however, drive home the lessons my grandmother constantly drilled into us: people are out to get you. I've been combating this mindset for years. I don't carry a gun around. I broke myself of the compulsion to carry a tactical knife, butterfly knife, switchblades...I even broke my brass knuckle habit.

I still think about it all the time. Tracy says that it's unhealthy to have this mindset, and she's probably right. But my friend up the street was beat up twice in two months over the summer, and once at Dewey Street I caught a drunk guy peering through my back can't be too careful.

So maybe I am a little paranoid. I try not to be, but I think some things are ingrained in your personality, put there by well meaning family as you grow up, little seeds that germinate into madness in your adult life. I try to look at people and not think, "if that guy were to grab my throat, I'd hit him with this beer bottle". I'm down to a flashlight and a kubotan as my only weapons. So I'd say I'm making some good progress.

But I still think my mother is right. Whenever this conversation comes up at family gatherings, she always has the same final insight.

"Sharon Tate didn't expect anyone to kill her, either."

Thanks mom!

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