A Bully For You

  Bully vb bul.lied; bul.ly.ing : to behave as a bully toward

Browbeat, cow, hector, intimidate

(Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

When I was of middle school age I had an encounter with a neighborhood bully. I was not a tough kid but I was a longshoreman’s son and being the object of persecution for some other kid was not a  possibility I was willing to entertain.  In my neighborhood the only thing worse than being beat up, was being labeled a “punk”.

My bully was slightly bigger, a bit older and more athletic than me. It was rumored that he had been tutored in boxing by the great champion Emile Griffith. Emile Griffith had killed a man in the ring. In the eyes of this 12 year old standing up to this bully was a life threatening moment.   I had been told (by whom I don’t recall) that if one does not stand up to a bully the torment will continue and things can only get worse.  Standing up, even if it meant taking a whooping would usually halt any future hassles because bullies don’t like to work that hard. They are essentially lazy, shiftless and devoid of self-worth. They likely have been bullied themselves. In the case of my bully, his bully was his dad.

I stood up to my bully and to my surprise all he did was turn to his “crew” and say “do you believe this kid?” Then he smirked and turned his attention elsewhere, waving his hand at me dismissively.   I stood there defiantly holding my glare, trying to look a few degrees tougher than him. Looks can be deceiving. It wasn’t long before I had to make an unscheduled trip to the bathroom.

Bullies cross all demographics. They are white, black, Asian, rich, poor, middle and working class. They come in all ages and can be found in every type of work place.  No gender has a monopoly on bullying. Bullies are more often than not, male but they can as well be female and even transgender. Although to be fair, the last group is more likely than not to be victimized by bullies.  Bullies also travel in packs. The movie Mean Girls comes to mind.

Our new president is a bully. He threatens those powerless to fight back, in particular undocumented immigrants and he even holds the specter of deportation over the heads of some whose legal status should be unquestioned.   At his rallies he has insinuated that violence against those who disagree with him might be in order. Indeed, at his suggestion, dissenters were routinely victimized physically. His misogyny is legend. It should not be comforting to minorities that the man who has a seat in the White House as his chief political advisor is someone who has cozied up too often to the white supremacist movement.

Some who knew him as a child from his old Jamaica Estates neighborhood in Queens, describe him as a bully even then.  One story has him throwing stones from the behind the fence of his own house at a toddler in a playpen in the yard next door. Another story has him borrowing a bat from a team mate during a baseball game and after an unsuccessful plate appearance, breaking the bat on the sidewalk and offering no apology or restitution to the owner.   His misbehavior caught the attention of his father who quietly shipped him off to military school for his secondary education.  Such is the advantage of wealth and privilege in child rearing.  My bully stopped going to school in the sixth grade and his parents either didn’t notice or didn’t care.  He took to hanging out in the park all day playing basketball before graduating to other temptations of juvenile delinquency of the times, glue sniffing and eventually heroin.

In the years that followed our “encounter” we kept a fair but respectful distance from each other. After a while we developed an odd sort of cordiality. By the time I was getting ready to leave for college our roles had fairly reversed. Years of drug addiction had withered his once athletic frame to a scarecrow like form. The hottest girl in the hood who had once been his steady had rejected him for the neighborhood’s best athlete who himself was off at college on a basketball scholarship. Soon they would marry and that prospect obviously stung. I had done some distance running in high school and remained physically active. I also had never fallen victim to the street toxins that had sapped him of his vitality. I was now about the same size as him, a bit heavier and much steadier on my feet. I no longer had any reason to fear him physically. I had a very attractive girlfriend myself in Woodside, Queens where I now spent a considerable amount of time. He was essentially alone, except for the denizens of the park he either copped from or with. Life itself had bullied the bully out of my bully.

As I sat down on a bench near him he greeted me and inquired about my plans to go off to New Mexico. On a sweltering hot day he wore long sleeves, I imagine covering up the needle tracks on his arms.

I had played ball against him, we had occupied the same approximate airspace over the years and I am sure we must have acknowledged each other from time to time, but I cannot recall actually having a conversation with him until that hot afternoon.  He asked me why I was going out there. The truth was I really didn’t know.  I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had never been to New Mexico before and didn’t know anyone there.  A friend of the family knew someone who attended the small liberal arts college in Santa Fe years before and had “a good time”. That was enough for me, that and the distance. The blessed distance. I acquired an application, filled it out, mailed it back and found myself accepted, much to the consternation of my mother.  I didn’t give him that much detail, confining my response to something generally ambivalent like “just doing something different”.

Then he said something that astonished me. He said he wished he could do something like that and in that instant the resignation to his despair was palatable.  He had once fancied himself as the King of this mountain and had come to realize this peak was not even a molehill.  I tried to encourage him as best I could. I tossed the same old clichés so easily offered by well-meaning people who really can’t contribute meaningfully in an effort to offer a tidbit of hope and also, in the process quell my own feelings of powerlessness.

Within two years he was dead. From what I have been told he spent his remaining time on this plane living in doorways and curled up near the garbage containers of the basement apartments below street level of the many brownstones in the neighborhood. His very existence defined as a continuous   evasion of the police for his numerous unanswered bench warrants.

There are many similarities between my bully and the one now residing not near a garbage container but in the comfortable confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The biggest difference however is not what might seem obvious at first glance, class and wealth. No, it is power. My bully’s power was an illusion, a defense mechanism produced by his own fears and insecurities as he attempted to wade his way through a world his background had left him ill equipped to face.  But the person living in the White House has real power and that combined with the over aggressive trait that all bullies share makes this bully truly dangerous.

My bully reached an epiphany of self-discovery which I believe this president is incapable of.  Sadly it arrived too late to salvage the remainder of his life. He would not live long enough to bankrupt himself even once. He had stumbled upon his humanity. His arrogance evaporated, he spoke to me because, simply put, nobody else likely would listen. No one noticed this change in him because no one noticed him any longer.

As the president commands gestapo like practices against immigrants while marginalizing a free press necessary for the function of a real democracy, Americans are standing up to this bully in protests and rallies.  I sincerely doubt the same type of sympathy I felt for my bully on that summer day over forty years ago will be available to this bully if the day comes when he must elude his own bench warrants. Sad.

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