The truth is, I’m not a fighter. Not even close. In fact, just thinking about physical combat moistens my mitts. Luckily, most of the altercations of my youth were minor. A bully shove here. A kick in the nuts there. One of the most frightening moments involved this giant kid in seventh grade named Matt Murphy, whose goal in life was to depants me, which he did, once. Subsequent attempts (and there were many) failed because after that first humiliation, I tied my sweatpants string until it hurt. Darren would pull and pull – sometimes with the help of an underling – but eventually he’d give up and say, “What the hell, dude?” or “Fag,” as if I wasn’t playing by the rules.
Thank God for hip bones. They were the one snag that kept him from pulling my pants free. I wore sweatpants just about every day in seventh grade because that’s what my parents bought me. I grew quickly and I guess they reasoned sweatpants were a practical solution as they couldn’t afford a new pair of jeans every couple of months. Maybe practical for them, but aside from being a fashion no-no, my raging hormones resulted in hourly boners that caused me to walk around with a book pressed against my midsection. Eventually, I doubled-up on underpants to strap down the unruly bastard. I don’t think Mom ever figured out why she had to wash so many.
I guess my only true, full-on fight occurred my freshman year of high school against a kid named Terry Wallace, and it must have been quite a spectacle since neither of us stood more than five feet tall. Most of what I remember is me trying to catch Terry’s fists before they hit my face, then me shoving and watching him trip on someone’s backpack and planting his face into a locker. Then me trying to catch his fists again until an English teacher broke it up.
Based on post-suspension feedback, onlookers considered the fight a close one. I think his tripping over the backpack helped me save face, as if I’d pushed him down. And I say “Thank you, Jansport,” otherwise perceptions of dominance would have shifted heavily in his favor.
When I came back from suspension, all I heard for days were comparisons to Rocky IV – the macho movie every self-respecting heterosexual 14-year-old boy knew by heart. But in the end, he was considered the victor, hailed as a diminutive Rocky Balboa and I a bean-sized Ivan Drago. Thankfully, Terry didn’t deliver a teary-eyed, post-fight speech to recommend boxing as a way to repair Russian/American relations, but it’s a shame that James Brown never dropped by to sing “Livin’ In America.” Maybe his dazzling footwork would have kept my peers from staring at me as I wept toward the principal’s office.
As I sat outside that office, I buried my face in my hands and sobbed, knowing I’d get suspended and teased for who knew how long. And you know what. I don’t care what some people think. Whether you’re a man or a woman, sometimes it’s good to cry. To really blubber it out when you need to. It can help you cope and avoid causing trauma to your psyche. It’s healthy. Except when classmates can see you through a window.
The thing is, I could never really win a fight. Not really. I simply couldn’t punch someone in the face, too afraid I’d cause permanent damage. And anyway, the idea of bashing your fist into someone’s head just to say I DON’T LIKE YOU!seemed like overkill.
If I didn’t like a classmate, I’d avoid him.
If he didn’t like me for some reason and wanted a dust-up, I’d try to see if we could resolve our differences rationally.
If that didn’t work, I’d attempt to defuse the anger by making him laugh.
And if that didn’t work – as a circle formed around us – I’d try to encourage laughter from the crowd until the combatant either laughed or lost interest, which happened far more than I can remember. In fact, it happened so often that I honed two techniques that worked like a charm: celebrity impressions and the most pathetic breakdancing in history. I was still the smallest kid in my grade level until 10th grade and learned early that I’d need to carry a big shtick to survive. And one thing that reliably slayed peers was my ability to mimic TV characters and celebrities.
By ten, I’d come a long way since my first impersonation of John Travolta. I could imitate just about anyone on command: Ronald Reagan, all of The Smurfs, Gary Coleman from Diff’rent Strokes with his “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis” – although in tense situations I’d substitute “Willis” with, say, “Chad,” a bulbous cretin who enjoyed towing me around in a headlock between second and third period. Eventually Chad stopped strangling me and asked me to do my routine instead.
But Muppet impersonations yielded the most laughs. I killed with The Swedish Chef, Rolf the piano playing dog, and especially Beaker, who incidentally was the easiest to mimic, accomplished by saying “Me me ME me” with the occasional pitch change. People often thought Beaker Meeped, but it was more of a Me. These are the subtleties that separate man from ape.
My use of breakdancing as a defense mechanism didn’t originate as a comedy routine. Not at first, anyway. At the time, breakdancing wowed at junior high dances and pretty much any music-blasting venue. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and believed that if I could learn the moves, it might be my ticket out of dorky town – a chance for people to see me as something other than the spaz who stood level to a bar of soap. Nothing was cooler than breakdancing in 1983 except for Cindy Lauper – to me, anyway (I sort of wanted to be her, only male). I admired her attitude, her energy – the way she seemed to be saying, “I’m just as tough as boys” in her music videos. I thought she was super sexy, too, and adored the way she dressed.
Anyway, to learn how to break, I constantly listened to a KTEL’s aptly named Breakdance. The album included a giant fold-out poster, with Learn to moonwalk, electric boogie, footwork, headspin, and top-rock written in motivational script on the cover. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” was the track I returned the needle to over and over again.
After hours of practice, my room’s abrasive carpet clobbered my feet. I bet I ruined a dozen pairs of socks. And whenever I felt I’d really nailed a move, I’d finish it off with the moonwalk followed by a pirouette and the splits – or at least as close as to the splits as I could get without bashing my ‘man’ parts. Sometimes I crashed hard into the floor, much to the annoyance of my parents in the room below.
I practiced breakdancing nonstop, nurturing my secret talent as if prepping for a talent contest until my feet burned or Dad screamed through the ceiling.
Then one Saturday night at Chuck E. Cheese, I unveiled my new talent.
My friends and I had joined kids who’d formed a circle around the breakdancers. And these guys were good, too, which wasn’t surprising. For kids my age in 1983 in Springfield, Chuck E. Cheese was the place for serious poppin’ and lockin’.
Most people in the circle did the wave or the robot. One breakdancer caterpillared and I swear crushed his genitals. Then, after a guy in blue parachute pants spun on his head and high fived his way off the floor, the record-scratching intro of “Rockit” roared from the overhead speakers as if Herbie were personally coaxing me onto the floor. I felt the time had finally arrived to debut the new me.
I walked to the center, paused, and – God, I get so embarrassed thinking about this part – dropped my head for dramatic effect. I hadn’t even planned what I’d do, but after quickly realizing no one had done the moonwalk yet, I decided to forgo all the other moves in my repertoire and instead show them the best moonwalk they’d ever seen. For weeks, it would be the talk of my peers. Girls who hardly noticed me would hear the tale and see me in a new, enticing way. After that night, everything would change.
That was the plan, anyway.
When I started sliding backward, my feet were unfamiliar with a slick, non-carpeted surface and I slipped and nearly fell. After a quick recovery, with “Rockit” sending encouraging chills up my spine, I moonwalked about 10 steps, felt I’d nailed it like Michael Jackson, and half expected an encore. But instead, people laughed and shook their heads. I couldn’t understand the reaction. As I walked out of the center, a bigger kid passed and said “keep practicing, man” before doing his bit.
My friend Pete later told me that people laughed because I looked epileptic. And apparently I had this stupid expression of something like surprise on my face as I went through the motions. To this day, I’m thankful that I didn’t drop into the splits. The cacophony of laughter might have scarred me for life.
After that night, I abandoned any dream of making it on Soul Train, but decided instead to embrace the moonwalk as my comedic ace in the hole if I ever got into a pinch.
Of course, there are other ways to avoid fights. One of the techniques I often saw in the movies was the old walk-away-and-pull-off-moral-victory routine, and I always wanted to try that one but knew it wouldn’t have worked for me. I had this nervous habit of needing to get in the last word, and someone would have just punched me in the back of the head as I walked away and we’d be back to square one with me moonwalking or muppeting.
A few times out on the road, I perspired in fear of a savage beatdown as if still in the seventh grade. When I arrived on a dock or walked around a fuel island or truck stop, a lot of drivers and dock workers simply didn’t know what to make of me. The fact that I often wore hemp sandals and a SpongeBob shirt probably prevented me from melding into the trucker milieu, but I wasn’t about to change my personality to suit strangers.
I didn’t look like the typical trucker, though, so men constantly sized me up with their internal machometers.
Some would see my SpongeBob shirt or hemp shoes and the needle of their meter would immediately point to Pansy! or spin out of control like the gauges of a submarine taking on water, just before it explodes. Comments like “Nice shoes, princess” and “Hey dip shit. Did your mom dress you?” were common. I pretended not to hear.
The closest I got to a trucker fight was on a dock in Portland, Oregon. I’d been waiting to unload and a trucker with a gaunt face and wide eyes walked by, looking like a man in the throes of meth addiction. I was lost in thought and happened to be gazing in his direction, but not at him. He thought differently.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” he said, glaring.
Confusion and fear snapped me into focus. When I realized the guy was addressing me, I tried to assure him I wasn’t looking at him.
He said, “Bullshit.”
I said, “Sorry.”
He said, “Yeah, you should be,” stood there for a few seconds, and sized me up. It felt like junior high gym again. Thankfully he lost interest and walked off, probably to cook more meth in his truck. People on the dock stared at me, expecting a retaliation of some kind, but I remained quiet and stared straight ahead. It was humiliating, but at least a fight was averted. And I wouldn’t need to moonwalk.
Another beatdown that thankfully wasn’t happened one night in Idaho. I stopped at the counter of a truck stop after fueling and showed the attendant my license number – information required by every truck stop I’d ever been to. He said he didn’t need it.
“Oh, okay,” I said, surprised. “Most of the time people need that.”
“Well,” he replied, snottily, “What I need and what you need may be two different things.” I wanted to say, “Okay, I’ll tell you what I don’t need. I DON’T NEED YOUR ATTITUDE!” but instead said, “…Oh, sorry,” because I was a coward slapping around in hemp shoes.
Maybe he’d had a bad day or was simply a jerk. Or maybe he thought I was gay and that he had the right or moral high ground or something to speak down to me. Or maybe it was the big letters on my SpongeBob shirt that said Oh, Tartar Sauce! Whatever the reason, I reminded myself that I wouldn’t see him ever again so there was no need to get worked up.
After multiple negative comments directed my way, the humiliation and frustration could have crippled me, if I’d let it. When it got a bit too much, I tried to think of something uplifting. I pictured myself in college, in a career of my choosing, with a partner who loved me for me. Or I’d recall some of the positive people I’d met on the road, like of our waitress, Michelle, at Skipper’s Seafood and Chowder in Tacoma, Washington, who somehow perceived that Al and I were feeling blue and gave us each a free piece of coconut pie. Al’s favorite!
Positive gestures or comments from one person could fuel my soul for days.