If I were a gangster, I would make sure my name was ‘Fingers’ McCracken. “There goes ‘Fingers’ McCracken!”, they’d all say.Or “Shh! It’s ‘Fingers’. You know. ‘Fingers’ McCracken.”
I have been thinking about the suddenly pervasive bullying discussion.
In 12th grade I spent almost all my time in the music room, as that was where I felt most empowered. In fact, I don’t, um, know if I told you this, but I was elected “Musician of the Year” by my peers. Did I tell you that? I didn’t know. So there it is. I was. My name on a plaque in the music room foyer and everything. I thrived in Miss Giambrone’s classes and I also enjoyed talking to Mr Landers, the band teacher. In our music theory class, he used to play us things like Don Ellis. I loved how the audience clapped along in 7/4 to “Pussy Wiggle Stomp”.
However, high school being what it was, I also had to take other, less protective classes in less protective environments. Classes like Phys. Ed. Or “gym”. I had whatever the opposite of “athletic prowess” is. I sucked at everything up to and including square-dancing. Moreover, and even more daunting, we were supposed to shower in the presence of other boys. Now dear reader, I was not then, nor am I now, the most fastidious person in the world in regards to my own hygiene. Since we have kids I give it the old college try, that’s for sure. I’m better. But back then, with virtually no parental guidance, I more or less winged it. But I wasn’t “comfortable with my body”. Moreover, I was also wanting for pristine underwear.
See, we didn’t own a working clothes-washing machine. Ours broke when I was maybe 12 or 13. Maybe before that. So since, I guess, we were too poor to get that thing fixed, ever, we had to wash our clothes in the bathtub, and dry them by placing them in carefully arranged rows along the back of the stove. This is what I alluded to in my song “Calico” on my last CD, “Vultures and Diamonds” (available on CDBabay and iTunes) when I sang “in a cloistered cove, there, behind the stove, where our clothes will dry…”, referring of course to where our cats used to hide from me. Why would they need to hide? Another tale.
Many a small but fucking scary fire would start in this fashion, so after a while I didn’t even bother doing that. Swish swish swirly swirly hands and bubbles in the detergent and hot water. Then I would wring them out as best as I could and place them on the stove. When we couldn’t pay the gas bill anymore, even that was useless. So I’d either wear them wet (in warmer weather) or wear the same clothes for days on end, underwear included. I suppose you could say I got sort of a reputation. Sometimes, I would fish my cleanest dirty shirt out of the bathroom hamper and go with that for the day. This hamper was vile as a litter box, and was never empty. Always the empty bottles, the plaid pants, the striped shirts, the underpants.
So getting dressed and undressed in front of my peers was something I didn’t feel very good about, but the incident I am recalling was the one day I actually took a shower after another strenuous session of dodge-ball. The shower was more or less pointless, as I had never thought to bring a change of clothes. I pretty much wore the same already spent wardrobe in gym class as I did in every other class. It must have been some scent. That was my reputation. It had been since I started puberty. Someone who was unclean. Easily dismissed.
But no one dismissed me when I sang.
On this day I was trying to hide my dirty clothes from one Kevin Harbison, a muscular football player. We had known each other in passing since the 9th grade, with not so much as a word between us. Alone in our locker pod, as I stood naked and trying to be as small as I could be, he began, wordlessly, emotionless, and looking nowhere, punching my arm. Over and over, harder and harder. it came out of nowhere. And all I could do was ask him to stop. Which I did. But he wasn’t communicating or seemingly accepting communication. I replay it in my mind over and over, still, today, if the mood strikes me. And with all this talk lately about bullying, it came around again.
Soon, I sensed a gathering crowd of boys, silent. No cheering, no words at all. Silent. Was it 30 seconds? 5 minutes? I couldn’t say. I didn’t fight back. I had no clothes on, and I would have rather taken a fist to my arm repeatedly than show my more-yellow-than-white underpants in an attempt to dress myself at least. Why was he doing this? Where were the coaches? Was I being taught a lesson to toughen me up? The utter solitude hurt more than any beating could. And when he was done, as my face flushed with embarrassment and disgrace, I stumbled off to music class. And I don’t think I ever saw Kevin Harbison again.
Sometimes, when the caffeine buzz dissipates, when the din of office machinery wanes and the kids have gone to bed, I think about Kevin Harbison. What would I do differently? What would I say to him if I saw him? How much better would it have been if I felt that first punch and lurched into a violent rage, causing prison-style violence on his person so that he would never EVER do this to someone else?
And in that moment, as I relive that shame, the secret anger and bitterness that defines me, and as I remember how his eyes glassed over, as the repeated sound of fist slamming into arm became less a challenge of superior strength and more a comical dance of sadness, I look down and realize that, quite unconsciously, my fist has balled up.
That’s why, when I took my kids to an anti-bullying seminar at a local business last week, it might have seemed to the parents around me that I was a little more intense than anyone else. I take it personally, because I do fucking know how it feels. And I know that if I were to see Kevin, his explanation would be, correctly, “Come on, we were just kids”. Usually the bully doesn’t carry this stuff around with them for any length of time, blithely explaining away their boorish behavior with some reference to their under-developed intellect. It’s too bad that the victims are the ones who remember all too well what the price is. And I’ll be fucked before my kids are going to have to live through that.
And now my hand curls up again.