In this essay, people’s names and certain identifying places and street names have been obscured.
A ritualistic vulgarity pervades nearly every male-only environment, and each welcomed initiate is quickly and willfully infected with it. Our better angels are not only denied entrance, they are insulted and threatened at the door. It often erupts by surprise. A careless word or action here. A response there. Then violence.
I was no stranger to explosive menace. It was so entrenched in my military school that I encountered it within two hours of arriving. The same ethos suffused my firehouse; more mature, more dangerous, and union protected.
This violence, this particular violence, occurred on a near cloudless afternoon, without the humidity that can turn a summer day in Chicago into a health hazard. That morning we lazily checked hydrants, the most satisfying duty of being a firefighter. It put us on display to the public in the best possible way, no danger, no tragedy. Simply the mild flexing of muscles to open the hydrant, expelling a brief gush of water into the street, waving to children, and exchanging smiles with passing women, both young and old.
Our firehouse, a modern building, did not have the stone-and-brick facade so commonly depicted in movies and television. Ours had all the elegance of a warehouse. It was essentially a two-story, three-bay garage with a single-story bunkroom and locker room to the west, living room and kitchen/dining hall to the east. Engine, truck, and ambulance occupied the bays, and while the engine and truck each required nearly every square foot of theirs, the ambulance, parked fifteen-feet deep into its bay, allowed room for a vestibule, our makeshift front porch. During the summer our great red doors were always open. Using whatever chairs were available—no two were of the same design or era—we would sit in the ambulance bay, look out onto the street, and chat with one another and our neighbors passing by in the sunshine, occasionally stopping.
I sat in a chrome steel chair with orange cushions, relaxed office furniture from the late 1970s.
▴ ▴ ▴
When I was eleven, an incident of non-lethal gunplay at a neighborhood playground scared my mother into deporting me from bustling Chicago to the Indiana hinterlands, to become a cadet at an undistinguished military school.
My first day at the sprawling, green campus—while unpacking in my cottage, a lazy approximation of Georgian architecture—an older boy crossed the perfect lawn, his long shadow beside him. He approached my open window, smiling, pressing his face comically against the screen. The distortion was amusing, like a 1940s bank robber in a stocking mask. I let out a polite laugh.
“You’re the new kid. I heard we got one today.” He was tall and flabby.
“Yeah. They showed me around and my mother left without saying good-bye,” I answered.
“That’s how they always do it, so there’s no crying, no messy farewell. Come here, let me tell you a secret about getting along here.”
I had cried earlier when my “big brother” returned me after my brief campus tour—chapel, sports center, sunken garden, dining hall—to the genuinely Georgian administration building. My mother’s abandonment had left me weeping. The dean suggested I go to my cottage and unpack, exactly what I was doing when the boy I would later learn was Seeley—we were known by our last names—approached.
“Closer,” he said, looking side to side, then whispering, “This is a secret.”
Desperate for help navigating the new environment, I moved just inches from the screen. Seeley smiled, then vehemently spit in my face. The spray was so copious and diffused by the mesh that droplets landed from my hair down to my chest. He cackled, walked away cackling. I wondered what would possess someone to do something like that. Only eleven, and small for my age, I couldn’t retaliate against an enormous seventeen-year-old. I was a good boy, so I put my rage in my pocket. It wouldn’t stay there for long. It wouldn’t be resurrected on Seeley, though. It would be a townie, a long-haired boy in the tatty strip mall two miles from my school. I would kick him in the face. I would stamp on his head. Seeley’s behavior was a contagious lesson. I would simply pass it on.
One late afternoon, after football practice, the midwestern autumn parroting summer, an older boy gave Seeley a beatdown behind the gymnasium, a beatdown so furious both his eyes were swollen nearly shut but still allowed a rill of tears. He struggled, like a beetle on its back, failing several attempts before finally righting himself. Upright he still wavered, the grass below matted into a crude silhouette of his bulk, and he blubbered incoherently with long strings of snot hanging from his nose, spittle draining from his mouth, alongside tears. Snot, spit, tears: portrait of an asshole’s comeuppance. Onlookers showed no sympathy. He staggered away aimlessly, whimpering. I was positively delighted. A bully’s reckoning that I would commit to memory. No genteel, gloved matches in the gym, followed by handshake. Overwhelming, mad, terrifying violence was the secret to success.
▴ ▴ ▴
By second semester in college, I was an art student. I had willful holes in my jeans. I had dreadlocks. I was in a band called The Nutrients. But I was going to Europe. To see the great paintings of the Renaissance: St. George Dragged through the City, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Judith Beheading Holofernes, Magpie on the Gallows. A new passport required a trip to city hall where I saw a notice for the fire department exam. Frivolously, I applied. But I had no municipal ambitions, no wish to be a firefighter, a city sealer, and most certainly not a cop.
My experience with police officers was uniformly unpleasant.
Later in college, I locked my keys in my car, picking up dinner from a popular fish shack, parked by a busy road. I had phoned the city nonemergency number, and a copper speedily arrived. Lucky me.
After slim-jimming my car, and my profuse thanks, he said, “You know, if you had to call a garage or Triple A, that would have cost you a nice piece of change.”
“Yes, I know. And time. Who knows how long that would have taken?” I wasn’t understanding him. My scallops were getting cold.
“Yeah, that would have cost you a nice piece of change.”
Smiling, I thanked him again.
“How much do you think that would have cost you? A nonemergency when there’s a lot of other business, real police business, I could have been doing.”
I finally understood. I had fourteen dollars in my wallet and opened it.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said regarding my indiscretion. We were right on Division Street and the river. Understanding, I turned my back to the passing cars and showed him what I had, fanning the bills like playing cards. Sneering at the singles, he plucked the ten. He then reversed his cruiser and, with his siren and lights, forced the traffic to stop for him. He sped away feigning emergency; during our entire transaction his radio had been silent.
Another encounter was along Pratt Boulevard, near Chicago’s northern border. While walking to the ‘L’ after finishing minor repairs at my girlfriend’s apartment, a police car made a sudden and dramatic U-turn and screeched to a stop. I froze. Two policemen advanced and pushed me against a parked car. Officer One wrenched my army surplus rucksack from my shoulder. It held my dead grandfather’s power drill, drywall screws, putty knife, tape measure, and a tub of spackling paste. Also my sketchbook. He emptied the contents onto the sidewalk—the drill bounced and skidded—while Officer Two, the older of the duo, took my wallet from my pocket and unpacked the cards, bus tokens, and a twenty-dollar bill onto the hood of the car.
Officer Two: What are you doing here?
Me: I was helping a friend who just moved in.
Officer One (kicking the contents from my bag across the sidewalk): Yep, these are a working man’s tools.
A pleasant late spring gust blew at us from the direction of the lake. My twenty floated down to the curb, then into the gutter. I collected my tokens and tools. My grandfather’s drill, an old silver Speedway, was dented and rasped by its kick across the sidewalk.
Officer Two (pointing to the twenty): Is that yours?
My hand froze mid-reach.
Officer Two: I said, is that yours?
I thought: Of course, it’s mine. You took it from my wallet after you stopped me for the offense of simply walking down the street.
Me (sheepishly): No. That’s not mine.
Officer Two: Then I must have dropped it. (He pockets the twenty.)
Officer One: (Silent)
They drove away, heading west on Pratt again, with my grocery money. I’d have to cadge my roommate. While some would say that what happened was not a bribe, but outright theft, I would point to the transactional relationship that Chicagoans of a certain description have with their police department. From my position it was payment for services not rendered. I was not handcuffed, as has often happened; I was not sadistically driven to an all-White, working-class neighborhood and released, resulting in a run for my life; I was not cuffed and importuned for oral sex, as one of Chicago’s finest requested when I was walking through Boystown. My refusal resulted in being taken downtown (I lived uptown) where the desk sergeant immediately rejected me. I was obviously not the suspect—neither six feet tall nor forty years old.
▴ ▴ ▴
Our porch sitting was disturbed when the ambulance was suddenly needed. We dragged the chairs from the ambulance bay, and our two paramedics drove off, giving two short grunts of the siren to alert pedestrians and drivers, then a full wail as they pulled into the street and headed toward the lake. We reassembled the front porch, and the neighbors casually regathered, moved on, and were replaced by others. Minutes later we got another ambulance call, but our ambulance was already gone. Truck 66 would respond to the incident at a tavern on the corner of Lewis and Rosemont.
When we arrived, a bar patron was bleeding from his mouth, a cop bleeding from his fist. The wiry cop had cold-cocked the tipsy customer, whose mouth was open; his exposed teeth had gashed the cop’s hand. We bandaged cop and patron. The patron was not arrested, the cop should have been, but in the logic of his chemically enhanced bravado he had gathered more reason to punish the next poor citizen who would cross his invisible line.
Returned to the firehouse, we could resume our porch sitting. We each reclaimed our original chairs. The ambulance was in its rightful place, the paramedics were inside cleaning and restocking and would soon join. The sun was less direct. Nearby someone was having a barbecue. From another direction, country music could be heard. People from the neighborhood walked by. Some waved. Some did not. Some stopped to chat briefly. Some were exceedingly effusive.
O’Sullivan shouted from the kitchen, “Cap, I’m not your goddamned secretary!” It was my sister on the phone, offering me her opera tickets—Falstaff, the second of two Verdi productions that season—but I couldn’t. I would be at the firehouse for the twenty-four hours encompassing the performance. Like Verdi, I was in love with Shakespeare. It would have completed my Verdi/Shakespeare trilogy—Macbeth, Othello, Falstaff—but I had recently traded days. No longer merely a candidate, I still wanted to give the impression I was committed to being a firefighter (even if I wasn’t).
When I returned, my orange chair was occupied by one of our neighbors, a walk-by tippler. Tall and slender, he wore a lacquered-straw cowboy hat, worn and filthy, atop a stars-and-bars bandanna, below which poked a miniature ponytail. He hadn’t been there when I took my phone call, but had now made himself at home, bending the ears of the assembled firefighters, McGee in particular. His deep southern accent was not slurred, but his chatty digressions showed that simply the sound of his own voice compelled him.
The other firefighters smirked, but he was oblivious to their snorts and giggles.
That is when I spoke.
“You’re in in my chair.”
He either didn’t hear or didn’t understand I was speaking to him. He carried on. I told him again.
“You’re in in my chair.”
He turned slowly, perturbed at the interruption, and saw me. He looked me up and down, smirked, and turned back toward McGee, resuming his story.
My colleagues snickered, enjoying this, eager for what would happen.
I repeated, “You’re in my chair.” He turned slowly and gave me a look. I recognized it, that contemptuous look I had seen before, often punctuated by spitting on the ground. Arrogance without accomplishment, an unearned haughtiness that clings, leach-like, to an imagined superiority over a class of people matching a certain description, opposite and unequal. But I had had enough of assholes for the day.
I repeated my request. This time he responded. He sneered and spoke slowly, almost musically, “Fuck you, nig—,” but he couldn’t complete his insult, he was suddenly in motion. I had reached down to the bottom of the chair, my chair, grabbed one of the front legs, and lifted it quickly and high. It tilted sharply, throwing our mouthy guest backward, and his head made a resounding crack against the concrete floor. A few uh-ohs were heard from my colleagues; McGee was grinning.
I stared down at the man, at the fear in his eyes. He looked around, expecting the White firefighters to rescue him. They did not. They were enjoying their favorite show. I lifted my foot and he covered his face. I stamped down on his cowboy hat. It cracked loudly, and bits slid across the floor. I put my foot on his throat.
“You ignorant fucking hillbilly cocksucker. I will put my fucking axe through your goddamned, greasy, hillbilly head.”
I tore off his southern pride bandanna, then told him to get out. When he rose to one knee, I kicked him in his backside; he fell onto the concrete floor again, face first. A mix of neighborhood citizens were watching. Many cheered and whooped.
“I don’t want your moonshine, sister-fucking ass here again, understand me, boozehound? When you walk down Coolidge, you walk on the other side of the street. This side is off limits, you smelly, drunken, illiterate, hillbilly, possum-eating prick.”
He shuffled away, looking back fearfully, then remembered my warning. He crossed the street. I never saw him again.
My colleagues were at first silent, savoring the exhibition, then they eagerly passed comment. Monaghan was first.
“Little testy, aren’t you?”
“Those quiet ones always are,” Kowalski countered.
Holman, the engineer, made his comment a pronouncement, “Joe College wanted to chop that guy’s head off.”
Joe College. I had never heard that phrase outside of old movies. But Holman was the oldest man in our house, on all three shifts.
“I think he would do it,” Kowalski overestimated me.
“Quite a vocabulary, though,” Esposito laughed. “‘Possum-eating, sister-fucker,’ I gotta use that!”
“Is that what they’re teaching in college these days?” Holman asked. Always impatient of my questions and suspicious of my motives, he would add this incident to my oddball dossier.
McGee looked at me queerly, adjusting to this new aspect of the goody two-shoes who refused to drink locker-room beers with them. A bloody spot on the floor, not insubstantial, marked where the storyteller had struck his head.
My first feeling was not triumph but shame. I was breathing heavily, not from exertion but adrenaline, and hungered for more, as if I hadn’t been brutal enough. I blamed it on the laissez-faire boorishness of firehouse comradeship; I had degraded myself with my vaudeville virility, I had become a product of the company I kept. I blamed them.
Then I stopped myself.
I remembered the townie, all those years ago. How I chased him down after finding him at the shopping mall, where weeks before he had spat the same word at me—in its entirety and from a safe distance. He was tossing his hair and charming two attentive girls when I approached, fists clenched, and the fear in his eyes showed he remembered exactly who I was and knew precisely what was going to happen. But he couldn’t outrun me. Or my need.
It wasn’t the firehouse that planted the seed of violence in me. Fights would break out but would quickly be broken up. Firefighters restrained their colleagues, and we would all be partners again, yet the wound of simmering resentment remained—a lawn rake in the tall grass where one careless step earned a recollective smack in the face—and the rematch would begin. It wasn’t the firehouse but the boys school, the very place my mother sent me to escape violence, that gave me an appetite for its visceral tremor, for wherever men are confined together a miasma of testosterone fogs and infects the atmosphere; the exclusive company of men is not only a stimulant, it is a poisonous pantomime, and it cannot help but play to its audience because manliness is a performative act, a role for which the auditions are always open.