Some people find comfort in food — like their mother’s meatloaf. Some people find comfort in a television show they grew up watching. Some people might even find comfort in a scent that reminds them of someone.
Me? I find comfort in the things that make most people uncomfortable. The things that make people squirm or feel like the world is ending.
Violence — and not bullshit television violence, either — toward me or even the slightest hint of violence occurring within my immediate vicinity? Check.
Screaming and yelling? Check.
Someone cursing me out and telling me all of the things that I have done that makes them hate/dislike me? Check.
Constant streams of criticism and belittling? Motherfucking check, y‘all.
This doesn’t mean that I am someone who actively seeks out violence. That would be far from the truth. At this point in my life, I will do anything I possibly can to avoid any kind of violent altercation — I’ve been hit in the face enough to know it hurts. A lot.
What it does mean, however, is that violence is something I am far too used to. Like being rocked to sleep. Like a well-worn pair of sneakers.
I am well-aware of how this must sound to people.
The first time I purposely struck someone in the face I was maybe nine or ten years old. It was right around Hanukkah, and my teacher had asked me to explain the meaning behind the holiday to the rest of the class, which in retrospect seems really dumb considering how many Jewish kids were in that class. Either way, I have never been very good at public speaking, and at that time in my life I still had a horrible speech impediment where all of my “S” sounds would whistle and wheeze out from between my teeth like a tea kettle.
Plenty of kids picked on me for that.
During recess, I was waiting patiently to get my turn on the swings when a much bigger kid decided to shove me from behind. I stumbled face-first right into the steel support beam that held the swing-set in the ground. When I turned around, the kid had his right arm stiffened out in front of him in a Nazi Salute.
“Heil Hitler! Sean is a Jew! Heil Hitler! Kill the Jew!”
He yelled it so loudly that almost everyone on the playground was now watching us. I didn‘t know what to do. I was confused because he was also a Jew, and I wasn’t sure if he was playing some sort of joke or not. I also knew I could not let him get away with what he had just done, but at the same time he was so much bigger than me and I was afraid he was going to attack me and hurt me. My face already felt hot and swollen from running into the steel beam.
He did it again, only ten times louder this time.
“Heil Hitler! Sean is a Jew! Heil Hitler! Kill the Jew!”
I felt myself filling up with something hot from my feet. I didn’t know what it was then, but it was rage.
“Why are you doing this? You’re a Jew, too. Stop saying that.”
“Fuck you, you can’t even talk right you’re such a Jew. Heil Hitler! Sean is a Jew!”
After he shouted it this time, he lunged at me with his big flabby arms, trying to grab me around the neck. I don’t know where it came from in me, but I somehow cocked my right arm back behind my ear and uncorked a shot right to his nose as hard as I could. He kind of yelped and garbled when I did it, but he was so big and his momentum carried him right into me, knocking us both to the ground. I tried to roll out from under him, but he was so heavy and he had me pinned down pretty good. I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled as hard as I could to try and get him to get up off of me, but he started punching me in the gut and I had the wind knocked out of me.
Right around then is when another teacher came running over and pulled him off of me. Right around then is also when I saw all of the blood — all over his face, all over my hands, all over my shirt, all over the grass. The other kid started crying, lying to the teacher and telling him that I had attacked him for no reason. Some of the other kids who were standing around told the teacher I had attacked the kid because the kid called me a Jew and gave me the Sieg Heil. As soon as the teacher heard that, he dragged us both to the Principal’s Office.
By the time my mother finally showed up at the school to talk to the Principal and the other kid’s mother, the Principal had already been secretly showing me some basic boxing skills behind the closed door of his office.
“Never let anyone physically attack you, Sean. You have to learn how to defend yourself. The world is a mean place sometimes.”
I was leaning up against the wall outside of a shoe store right near the entrance to the Herald Square subway station around two o‘clock in the morning. I had just finished a fifteen hour day printing and shipping over one hundred thousand square feet of blueprints. I was fucking beat. It was pissing down rain so hard that I could barely hear the woman I was seeing on the other end of the phone. I was smoking and trying to convince her to pick me up on my way back into the bowels of Brooklyn so we could have a few drinks. A few laughs.
“Yo, gimme one of them smokes, son! I just got out The Pen! C’mon, son?”
Looking up, I see a very shifty and large black man standing in front of me in the rain. He is bouncing on the balls of his feet. He is still wearing the slip-on shoes they give you in prison. For a second, I think to myself that maybe he is asking me for a smoke to distract me, so he can maybe rob me. I also realize he has made the mistake of thinking I am an easy mark.
Here’s the thing — I have this horrible affliction. Nothing pisses me off more than people who try to talk to me when I am on the telephone. I hate using the telephone as it is, so whenever someone has the gall to try to speak to me when I am in the process of using one I lose my ability to be polite. I mean — it isn’t like they’re being polite, is it?
“Excuse me? Sorry, man. This thing in my hand attached to my ear is called a phone. I’m on the phone right now. You have any manners? Get the fuck out of my face.”
I watch a grin crack across his face. Out of the corner of my eye I see two of New York’s Finest standing at the hot dog stand. I watch him take two quick steps toward me, the muscles in my legs tensing, my face staying the same. I take a slow drag off of my smoke and I can hear my lady friend on the phone saying “Sean? What the fuck. Sean? Don’t you dare get into a fight, I do not have any bail money.” I smirk at him.
“Oh, you’re some sort of bad dude? Gimme one of them smokes, motherfucker. I just got out The Pen — you know what I’m sayin’? Just got out The Pen tonight, motherfucker. Tonight!”
As the last syllable snaps out of his mouth he also snaps a quick and hard right uppercut into my stomach. I don’t budge at all, and I continue to make eye contact with him with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. He steps back quickly — almost like a rabbit hopping backward — and puts his hands out in front of his face.
“Did you just fucking hit me, man? No. This is why you ain’t getting shit from me, man. You think I’m someone you can just roll up on and punk out? Fuck you, man — I don’t give a fuck if you just got out of hell, let alone The Pen. Fuck you.”
“I’m just playin’ with you, dude. C’mon, son? I knew you could take a punch, big guy! Just gimme a smoke. I just got out The Pen!”
The adrenaline rushing through me was making the screaming coming out of the phone sound like crackling messages from a long-lost satellite. I took one quick and hot drag off of my smoke and then pulled it snug between my thumb and index finger, aiming at it my obnoxious new sparring partner. The cops were slowly creeping their way over to where we were standing. I must have been yelling.
“You want a motherfucking smoke so bad — here, take this motherfucker and step the fuck off! Get the fuck out of my face and learn some fucking manners before I fucking kick your ass!”
And with that, I flicked my still burning hot smoke right off of the dude’s face.
When it hit him, he jumped back and made a yipping sound. It was still pouring down rain, so he hurriedly bent down and picked it up, putting it right into his mouth and dragging on it. I just stood there glaring at him, garbled transmissions floating in the space between my phone and my ear.
The two cops walked right by me as the guy took off down the block. They just gave me the simple NYPD head nod, as if to tell me they saw what went down, and totally approved. I took a deep breath and went back to my call. My lady friend was breathless and still freaking out.
“What the fuck just happened, Sean? Are you okay? Did I hear you say someone hit you? What the fuck?”
“I’m fine. Some dude just needed to learn some basic etiquette about phones and asking people for things. So — you want to pick me up at the 36th Street station?”
A girl I went to High School with hit me with her car in the parking lot of a Denny’s one night. I stood in the middle of the parking lot, trying to get her to listen to me about something, but we were both very drunk and very young, so she got into her car and accelerated right through me. I flew up and over the top of the car and landed in the middle of the lot all twisted.
She snuck in through my window later on that night and we had sex.
A couple of weeks later, she told people I had impregnated her. I knew this wasn’t true, and that she had said it because I had stopped talking to her after she and I could not stop arguing all the time. One of my friends asked me what I would do if she was actually pregnant.
“Hit her with her fucking car, I guess.”
When I first went back to school after my extended stay at a psychiatric facility, things were immediately awkward on that first day. The school I went to was an “alternative” school — we went to class Monday through Thursday from three in the afternoon until nine at night. Most of the kids who went to that school were either teen mothers or guys who had been in and out of juvenile detention.
I went to school there because I could not play well with others at the regular school I was supposed to go to that was full of rich kids, and because I was so bored there that I never went to class — choosing to get high on whatever illicit substances I could find and roam around all the time.
I was the only kid at the alternative school to ever take the SATs.
We had a twenty-five minute break between classes at the alternative school. Most of us would go across the street and hang around the parking lot of a strip mall that had a Burger King, a Hallmark Store, and a Chicago-style hot dog place called “Cub’s Park” — which had the best fucking cheese fries I have ever had to this day.
There was this kid I went to school with there who was my nemesis. He was this really big and goofy Mormon hessian named Brady who had Tourette’s. I had met him a couple of years earlier, and from the first moment we met this fucking guy never let up on me, always talking shit and trying to bait me into fucked up situations. I never made fun of him for his Tourette’s, because I figured that would be unfair. I did make fun of him pretty harshly the day he came to school wearing those ugly-as-sin knee-high moccasin boots that were semi-fashionable back in the early-to-mid 80s. He also only seemed to own three t-shirts he deemed worthy of wearing: an Ozzy Osbourne shirt, a Krokus shirt, and a really beat up and ugly Dokken t-shirt.
I was standing around smoking with my closeted gay friend and a couple of girls when this older guy I had never seen before walked over and got in my face.
“I hear you’re some sort of bad ass and know kung fu and shit? Is that true?”
I felt my face getting hot. I was so loaded on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills that I could feel my tongue getting fat in my mouth. I was terrified but excited at the same time.
“No, I don’t know kung fu. You must have heard wrong. Sorry, dude.”
I looked over the guy’s shoulder and saw Brady snickering with a couple of his other stoner buddies. I knew right away that he had probably put this guy up to this, since he was incapable of getting me to fight him no matter how hard he tried. I wanted to crawl underneath the nearest car and cry. This was my first day back at school after being out for almost three months, and I already felt unsafe there.
“Well, I heard you know kung fu, dude. And I’m about to kick your ass, so you‘d better know something.”
As soon as he said it he got right into a fighting stance. He bounced one leg forward and one leg back, putting his hands up in front of him with a huge fucking grin on his face.
“Sean’s a fucking pussy — he’s not going to fight you! He had to be hospitalized because he’s such a pussy. Isn’t that right, pussy?”
Brady was now standing directly behind the guy he had put up to fucking with me. I could feel the sweat running down my back. I could feel the tears starting to bubble up toward the light in my eyes. I felt flushed and like I couldn’t breathe at all. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t going to fight some guy who looked like he was in his twenties who was obviously some sort of kung fu guy, and I was too terrified to move.
“Fuck you, Brady — leave Sean alone. What the fuck has he ever done to you except take your shit all the time? You’re lucky he hasn’t kicked your ass yet, you twitchy motherfucker!”
I turn to see who is standing up for me, and realize who it is — there were only two black kids at my school, twins named Ronnie and Reggie. Ronnie was standing by my side now, sinews in his neck standing out, arms flexed and tensed at his side. Their cousin Scott was notorious for being the baddest brawler in the part of Phoenix we all lived in. Because of that, and probably because all of these rich and spoiled white kids had never been around black people before, all of these supposedly bad-ass stoner and metal guys were terrified of the twins.
“This has nothing to do with you, Ronnie. Sean’s a fucking pussy and he’s been talking shit about him knowing kung fu. Kevin here is just going to give him a little lesson.”
At this point I had to be visibly shaking. Everything around me was starting to get blurry and weird, like when I would get into fights with my father and he would stand in my doorway after beating the shit out of me, his shadow making crying sounds and apologizing with a beer can in his hand, saying things like “it wouldn’t be like this if you didn’t push me to it — I never wanted to hit you, but you take things too far and I have no choice.”
I watch as Ronnie, and now his twin brother Reggie step right into this Kevin guy and Brady. There is a lot of shouting. I feel my gay friend grabbing me by the arm. I see a car door open. I feel myself getting pushed into the back seat. I hear more yelling. I hear the dull slapping sounds of fists into flesh. I hear my name being called out. I hear someone yelling something about the police being called as the car I am suddenly hidden within quickly backs up and pulls out of the parking lot like a rocket. Someone hands me a cigarette. I can feel the tears rolling down my face.
I dropped out the next day, only going back to school after a couple of my teachers showed up at my house and convinced me that everything was going to be okay.
My nemesis never fucked with me again.
The stereotypes about Irish fathers and their sons are true. My father loved me very much, but he would also belittle and berate me for things other people would easily let go of. To add to that, I was a terribly outspoken and boisterous motherfucker as a teenager.
You can only imagine what it was like to live under the same roof with the two of us.
It’s no wonder at all why I do not want to be a father.
A kid that ran in the same punk rock circles as me and some of my friends committed suicide underneath a bridge on a local golf course. I didn’t know him very well, but a lot of my closest friends did. We decided to go to the wake together, but because I went to school at night, I had to cut school to go.
After the wake, a few of us were sitting around in the very same Denny’s where I had been hit with a car in the parking lot. We were all sitting together in a big booth, trying to joke around with each other. Kyle’s body was probably the first dead body most of them had seen, even though I had already seen my fair share at that point.
I remember reaching across the table to put more sugar in my coffee when I saw a shadow moving quickly toward the area we were all sitting in.
It was my father.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You’re supposed to be in school, Sean. Is this what you do all night — you cut school and hang around in here with your fucking loser friends drinking fucking coffee?”
Everyone at the booth froze. My father was red-faced, vibrating, and his fists were balled-up tight like he was going to hit me. One of my friends squirmed like he was going to get up and out of the booth, but my father slammed his fists down into the middle of the table, sending coffee mugs and ramekins full of ranch dressing flying everywhere.
“Dad — stop it. We just went to a wake. This kid Kyle committed suicide. We all knew him. Just stop it. Please go home? I’ll be home later, I promise.”
My father stood stock-still. His face started to turn purple. He scanned the group of us sitting there, seeing me and all of my punk rock friends wearing shirts with collars under our leather and jean jackets. He noticed the girls wearing dresses. I saw the recognition in his eyes that I was telling him the truth.
It didn’t matter, though — he was already beyond the threshold and through the doorway.
My father leaned in closer to where I was sitting and backhanded me across the face. Hard. The smack echoed throughout the already silently watching dining area. The waitress who had been waiting on us screamed. A man in a cowboy hat at the next booth started to move, but my father turned his head and barked a stream of anger at him, and then he cracked me again.
“When you get home all of your shit will be in the driveway. You have a decision to make, asshole — Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Fuck you and your friends. And fuck your dead friend, too.”
When I watched as my father turned and started to march out of the restaurant, I saw my mother standing in the doorway, mortified. I could feel the sting on my face, and I got out of the booth and asked the waitress for a towel so I could help clean up the mess all over the table. My friends all kind of sat there in shock. One of the girls asked me if I was okay, and I ignored her, choosing to focus on making that table cleaner than it was when it was brand new.
As I was being dropped off at home a little while later, one of my friends decided he was going to come inside with me, because, as he put it “someone should be there to protect you — he’s not going to hit you if someone else is around.” I laughed at him, and reminded him that my father had just struck me in front of an entire restaurant full of people — even though a small part of me was hoping he was right.
Right inside of the front door were four or five black trash bags, obviously full of my things. As soon as I picked one of them up to lug it back to my room, my father came around the corner and grabbed me by the arm. My friend started to protest vocally, but my father said to him “If you think I won’t kick your fucking ass too, you’re as stupid as you are fat, you fucking dumb shit. Get the fuck out of my house, now!”
I watched the front door slam shut behind him.
A few years ago, before my father died, a friend of mine told me that I had no choice but to forgive him. I heard my friend out for a few hours, and then the next thing I know that friend was killed in a terrible accident. After that, I felt like I was truly obligated to forgive him, if not for any other reason than to honor my late friend and the advice he had given me.
Turns out, to forgive someone, you also have to learn how to forgive yourself for your role in things. That doesn’t excuse the other party from the things they did, but it surely makes forgiving them seem a little more understandable and true.
Violence and I kind of broke up for good as soon as my father took his last breath.
Now that I am older, I can almost smell it in the air when violence is about to happen. I have found myself sitting in city parks reading a book, and suddenly I catch that tingle, that scent — and in no time flat there is something going off around me. I think all the years of walking on eggshells and worrying about where I was going to catch my next beating from has made me almost like a radio antenna tuned to pick up on these disturbances.
I sometimes find myself filling up with sadness. Not the typical depression type of sadness, but a type of sadness that only a junkie really knows — the type of sadness that appears when you know that no matter what you do, nothing will ever come close to the way it felt the first time. There are times when the only thing that can relieve that sadness is someone getting in my face, or even sending me an anger-filled e-mail or text message. I have caught myself at times acting purposely obtuse and irritating toward people just to hear them say my name with anger attached to it.
I’ve worked really hard over time to understand and deal with the violent parts of my own nature.
I will say this, though — there are times I really miss having someone call me a pussy and punching me in the mouth. There is something powerful in that exchange.