Tuesday, December 28, 2004

“Awright, that does it,” I’d tell my father. “About time I beat the living crap outta you.” Then I’d put the old man in a headlock and start punching him in the arm.

He had one of two reactions. Sometimes he’d do nothing and just yell to my mother, “Oh, look at this. Hittin’ his father. Call the cops.”

We were just kidding, imitating our next-door neighbors from years ago. When they had that same interaction, they were dead serious.

It was one of those domestic disturbances that got everyone’s attention. Maybe because it was surprising -- Jared Heller was one of my best friends. We knew each other since we were two and a half and hung out all the time. He was basically a good kid, at least with me. But with the parental units, it was a different story.

Mr. and Mrs. Heller weren’t abusive or neglectful. Just completely ineffectual as authority figures. Discipline was a word that didn’t exist in that family, and they desperately needed a vocabulary lesson.

I’d go over his house, and Jared -- or his little sister -- would be cursing out their parents. I don’t mean storming off, muttering a “fuck you” under their breath. I mean screaming at the top of their lungs: “I fucking hate you, you bitch, you shithead cunt!”

I’d stand there with my jaw on the floor. If I even gave my parents a dirty look, I’d end up richocheting off the walls, but Jared’s mom would just speak gingerly back to the brat, practically whining. “Please, Jared. I love you, Jared. Pleeeeze stop, Jared.” Ya think he did?

When Jared was around fourteen and demanded a dirt bike, Mom and Pop Jellyfish did manage to put their tentacles down and say no. Well, Jared decided he would buy it himself; where was his bar-mitzvah money -- all those checks from Uncle Mort and Aunt Harriet and other relatives he never heard of? Deposited into a college fund, they said. But that was his, dammit -- he earned it. (Forgetting of course who paid for Hebrew school and the cost of the bar-mitzvah reception and all...) Well, if his parents were gonna keep his money, he would take something of theirs.

Jared went to the garage and grabbed his father’s golf clubs, figuring he could sell ‘em and buy his beloved motorized ass-hammer. When Mr. Heller tried to stop him, Jared started pushing him around, feeling empowered by his oncoming puberty. Did his father set the kid straight, put him in his place, teach him respect of his elders? Nah, Daddy Doormat ran chickenshit back to the house and dialed 911.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental, but it was a shame, seeing my buddy go bad. Jared later got mixed up in drugs, wound up in juvie hall... And our friendship completely deteriorated. Last time I saw him, when I went back in NY for a visit, Jared seemed okay, until he started preaching to me about some new cultish religion he had joined. So much for Hebrew school and the bar-mitzvah, I guess.

It made me think of this other kid from the neighborhood, Steven. He was a tough kid, a bit of a bully, and always a troublemaker. He moved away when we were around ten, but our parents stayed friends, maybe partially because they had similar attitudes about raising their kids. So I’d see Steven once in a while, and thought it was funny that this Jewish kid was such a teenage “Guido”, wearing the wife-beaters, gold chains, driving the muscle cars, and tawkin’ like Tony Soprano.

We hung out once in NYC just before I was moving out to LA, and I was surprised at the adult he turned out to be. Still very much a brutish Long-Islander, but now wearing a suit and delivering his lines with a genuine friendly charm. No wonder he was doing so well as a stock broker. Steven said things like, “You bein’ a writer. Fuckin’ A. That’s perfect. I remember you were always readin’ those comic books, tryin’ to write and draw your own. You’re gonna kick ass out there.” Or “Hey, I saw your mom, she looks great. She’s so thin.” (Mom wasn’t thin, but compared to Steven’s portly parents, everyone was Calista Flockhart.)

And then he said, “And when you father was over, I shook his hand. Shit, he’s got a strong grip.”

“Yeah, my dad’s got those giant hands. He’s still a pretty tough guy.”

“Lemme ask you something.” Steven said, “You think you could kick your father’s ass?”

“I don’t know.” I had never thought about it. “He’s still bigger than me. But he’s got no stamina. So if I can dance, rope-a-dope him, I could wear him out. But if he gets in one good punch...” I asked Steven, what about his father?

“Well, he ain’t bigger than me, but, y’know, he’s my old man. Our fathers ain’t gonna let their kids kick their ass, know what I mean?”

I nodded. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation, but it was an interesting question.

I told my dad about it, and he agreed: I’d better protect myself long enough, avoid the haymakers, otherwise I’d be kissing canvas.

So when I’d come over and tell the old man it was clobberin’ time, the other thing he’d say is: “Yeah, you think you could kick your father’s ass?” And he’d swing back at me with surprisingly fast hands as if to answer the question.

It wasn’t always me buying the one-way ticket to Oedipalookaville. My father would occasionally stick his boulder-sized dukes in my face. “When’s the last time I punched you out, boy?”

“In your dreams,” I’d say. “When’s the last time you took a nap? Ten minutes ago?” Man never actually slept at night; just took cat-naps all day. “I think you’re overdue for another fantasy, Pops.”

“No really, when’s the last time? I think I hit you, what? Once or twice in your life?”

This was another thing he’d say all the time. I usually shrugged it off with a joke. If I reminded him of times he did inflict corporal punishment, he’d want to relive the crime that justified it. So I had to feel like shit about something really stupid I did as a kid.

The first time I can remember was when my dad got stuck with the job of babysitting my big sister and me. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the ongoing battle between us. It was always something: She ate the last Mallomar, I took the TV clicker, she was in my room, I was breathing her air... And after we ignored the final warning from my dad to keep the #$!%& noise down, somehow I got caught in his path. I remember feeling like a deer in the headlights, frozen in fear at the top of the stairs, seeing this Mack truck storming up the steps three at a time, glaring with those slanty eyebrows, closer, closer -- wham! I swear he knocked me from the top of the stairs, down the hall, through my bedroom door, across the room until I slam-dunked against the back wall onto my bed. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but one thing I know was true -- it wasn’t fair; she started it.

The last time my dad lost it with me was my 16th birthday. It was a weekend, and a group of my friends were hanging out at someone’s house. The get-together wasn’t specifically for me, but I knew I’d soak up some extra attention from the girls. So I put on my coolest casual clothes, lookin’ good, baby... and Dad decided right then we had to do some dirty strenuous chore out in the backyard. No, it couldn’t wait, we’d been putting it off long enough. I’d like to note for the record: the man never took care of his tools or equipment, just left it outside in the rain and snow for months. So I groused and tsked and groaned as his filthy rusty socket wrench nearly stained my nice new shirt and this dirt & vermin-infested heavy pool equipment was scuffing up my pants. Yeah, I know, I was being an insolent teenage punk-ass. And the old man couldn’t take it anymore. “Dammit, boy!” He grabbed me by my shirt, pressed me up against the fence, and shoved his clenched meat hook in my face. “You want something to complain about?!” When I later got to my friends’ house (in my shirt now wrinkled from Dad’s clutches), I received a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday to You!” The timing wasn’t bad, actually. I was still shaken up by my father’s outburst (on my bday no less) but the girls thought I was choked up at their thoughtfulness when I muttered: “*Sniff*... thanks.”

I’m just recalling the ones I can laugh at now. There were much worse incidents. I mean the stupid things I did, not so much my father’s reaction. So when my dad would say again: “I hit you what? Maybe once, twice in your life?”, I finally had to set him straight.

“Look, Dad. You hit me once in a while. I know you want to think you didn’t, but you did.” His parents were very old-fashioned, a bit too strict. So my father had sworn he wouldn’t hit his kids, but as it turned out, well, he wasn’t perfect. He lost his temper more than once or twice, and my brattiness didn’t help. Still, by a certain age, he had my respect, so his anger and disappointment with me was punishment enough. I told him it was okay, I don’t feel like I was abused or anything. But if it juices up my autobiography, I might embellish a little.

So when we threatened to beat the living crap outta each other, I suppose it was nothing more than a weird way of showing affection. Certainly no deep-seated resentment there. Even if I could kick my father’s ass, he would never need to call the cops on me.


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