My girlfriend and I went dancing last night in Jackie Robinson Park, courtesy of the Harlem Swing Dance Society. As homage, I wore a pink tie over a polka dot shirt, a black sport coat, newly tailored white pants, and Speedo sneakers. She wore a complicated black top and a beautiful billowy skirt that moved belatedly, as if commenting on her graceful movements out there on the dance floor.
We were in my old neighborhood, Sugar Hill, the archipelago of old Harlem whose spine was Edgecombe Avenue, snaking up from 145th toward Coogan’s Bluff at 155th and beyond, always overlooking the river and the Bronx. W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Sonny Rollins lived in the 400 block. Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lena Horne lived at 555, next door to the Morris-Jumel mansion (oldest residence in Manhattan: see “Hamilton”), which was right next door to my old building at 596, the place I fled to in 2008, hoping to escape everything, including a broken marriage and a stalled career.
Dancing is like street fighting and writing. You do it because you want to, not because you know you’re any good at it. I’ve always wanted to. When asked about the fighting in my distant past, I have said, to my girlfriend among others, “I have no skills, but I have experience.”
I’ve been dancing enthusiastically since 7th grade, when Bobby Krause and I decided it was a good way to get the girls. I’ve been writing since 2nd grade. I could say the same thing about these more benign vocations: “I have no skills, but I have experience.” Now I’m about to change things, I’m going to acquire dancing skills. My girlfriend and I have signed up for swing dance lessons. Next thing you know I’ll be taking a creative writing course.
I’ve been fighting all my life. Everybody has to, just to stay alive. But it is true that I’ve been more pugnacious, shall we say, than most people. I’ll tell you one story, and leave it at that.
One night in a bar in DeKalb, Illinois, home of NIU, when I was differently stalled, on the dissertation, the woman who was then my girlfriend and would later become my second wife was flattened by a biker—the motorcycle kind—who was moving through the crowd as if on a mission. I scooped her up, she was fine, and then went after the asshole.
I bang him on the shoulder and say “Listen to me you fuck, you just knocked my girlfriend down,” he turns and says “Don’t touch me, I’ll fucking kill you, you stupid fuck,” so I say “No, I’m gonna kill you, you fucking asshole,” and we start fighting, grappling actually, I’m just trying to get him on the floor where I can control the contours of this encounter, and he lands two punches, but I trip him, he’s down, and I ask myself how far I want to go, do I bite him if I have to, do I break his nose from the bottom up?
We’re separated by bouncers—I’m one of them, this is my night off!—and then expelled, by my own colleagues, who are very nice about it. It’s late, no big deal, but before they escort me out I say to the biker, “I’m waiting for you, you stupid motherfucker.”
I know his crew is there, they’re all leathered up, I don’t care, I’m going to beat the shit out of this guy, just him. My girlfriend comes outside, she says, “Please don’t do this, let’s go home,” and I shrug, I say, “Well, I’m committed now, can’t walk away.” She leaves.
The stillness of this moment is enchanting. It’s January, but it’s not cold. I take off my parka, fold it and put it close to the door, I’m standing there in jeans and a T-shirt, it feels like June, it feels like I’ve finally made a decision. I reach over, feel my pulse, like I did before football games, and it’s below 70.
The bar closes, the biker and his crew burst out of the door. I stand there, I don’t say anything, and I realize that the reason my heart isn’t racing is that I don’t care how this turns out. I’m about to be a participant, but I’m mostly an observer. Let’s see.
He steps into the street and says, “All right, asshole, what you got?” He’s hoisting a huge studded belt over his shoulder, he’s waving it, I realize, with some effort. I walk over, step off the curb, now we’re face to face, and I say, “You better know how to use that thing.”
He swings it, it’s too heavy for his strength, it’s almost slow motion, so I block it easily, almost lazily, and hit him with the right hand. I remember that my fist landed on his right cheek and that I could see his teeth move, they looked unmoored for a second, and that all these images were very satisfying.
His crew took over, they beat the shit out of me. I guess they did, I woke up hugging a parking meter, the biker was standing over me with his ridiculous belt, and a female friend of mine was shouting, “Jesus Christ, enough, leave him alone.” They did. I walked home that night.
Dancing and writing are better for your health than fighting in bars or in the street. It’s been a long time since I tried the latter. Not that fighting is bad for you, or me. Like I said, I’ve been doing it all my life, and “indulging in a fair amount of self-romanticization about it” as well, to quote my girlfriend on the subject. No, it’s that dancing and writing are better because they’re sublimations of fear, of anger, of sexual anxiety, rather than mere repressions and mutilations, which always end in aggression, destruction, desolation.
We all have a death wish. Mine has been transacted more physically and stupidly than most. You might say more directly, as my friend Mike Fennell has recently suggested in explaining to the world that my fascination with excrement is pretty disgusting.
The moral of my story is more ambiguous than you think. Fighting is good for you. But you don’t have to beat the shit out of anybody. Yourself included.