I almost got my lights punched out, as a child over something that I swear was unintentional and unexpected.
You see, my barrio on the upper end of Railroad Avenue was also named Tough Street. It seemed to me, as about a 10-year-old, that the boys in each house got progressively meaner and tougher as one walked along the ascending house numbers.
An oversimplification was that the boys on the 100- and 200-blocks of Tough Street were wimps; the boys in the 300s and 400s a little tougher; boys who lived in the 500s and 600s generally ran away from trouble, and by the time we reached the 1000-block and beyond, there was only fear and trembling on the menu.
Remember, I said my perception of boys’ level of anger was an oversimplification. Our block, a place I often drive past now in my dotage, was special to me, my having lived there more than 20 years.
At the time — I can say this with absolute confidence — ours was the tidiest house in the neighborhood. With the family’s help, Dad kept our house, on the 900 block, neatly painted, trimmed, scrubbed and manicured.
To be fair, other houses were neat and tidy as well, but ours was still prettier.
I believe there were perceived attitudes among some of the neighbor boys that because we kept our property up, we thought we were better than others. There’s a clause in Spanish that we heard often: “Se creen mucho,” which loosely translates to “They think they’re special.” We never adopted that attitude; we simply kept our house and yard spruced up.
Now here’s how I almost got my lights punched out:
On my way to school, I waited for a neighbor boy, Dickie, to walk with me, as we often did, usually meeting Waldron, Chris and Paul on the way.
This day, it was only Dickie and I, but soon came along a much bigger, older and tougher boy, from around the 1200 block, who introduced himself as Dickie’s cousin, from California. I thought the introduction had been cordial, but that soon changed after Dickie told his cousin, “This is Mannie . . . y se cree mucho.”
I’m sure Dickie meant the added phrase jokingly, but the cousin didn’t take it that way. He stared at me. I wondered whether kids from the west coast have a different slant on one’s “creendo mucho”? Regardless, the cousin, while still smiling, threw a punch at me that I was sure loosened some teeth. The most disturbing part was that I did not know why I deserved such a painful introduction.
I was reeling, unable to remain standing, and stunned by such an unorthodox introduction. The pain was awful, but what I dreaded even more was the likelihood of there being a slew of witnesses as “Mannie got beat up.” “Mannie,” by the way, was my nickname, still used by childhood friends.
With the celerity with which he delivered the first and only punch, the cousin left, waved good-bye and even smiled. I never saw him again.
Dickie and I didn’t talk much on the way to Immaculate Conception School. When we arrived, I rinsed out my mouth for several minutes to wash the blood away. That must have done the trick, as I was able to keep all my teeth.
Even our homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Aguitada, failed to notice my recent christening, followed by a baptism by immersion at the water fountain.
Much later, as Dickie and I reminisced about that day’s encounter, he said his cousin must have thought I was laughing at him. Why? Maybe because I smile(d) a lot. And even later, I discovered that some people don’t like to be laughed at; they often think they’re the butt of some private joke, when such isn’t the case at all.
I had never even thought of that incident until my last year of teaching, at Highlands University. Students are more mature there, and teachers such as I were in our 50s.
An incident that reawakened my memories of the Cousin Encounter happened one spring shortly after I was drafted to serve on an impromptu disciplinary committee that involved a male student who had been prohibited from entering a dorm where his girlfriend lived.
I was merely one-seventh of the committee that voted to restrict the man’s access to the dorm, due to some implied violence. Between classes one day, the student approached me, asking me to reverse the committee’s decision and thus allow him to visit his girlfriend whenever he wanted.
Remember, this was between classes; I was rushed for time, I didn’t have any authority to reverse the committee’s decision, and I must have been smiling as I explained my handstiededness to the young man.
Well, that smile must have set the student off. Obviously angry, he invited me to “step outside and settle this.”
Me, mix it up with a student in his prime?
The matter, which involved the dean, some committee members and a campus policeman, was settled — somehow, but for a long time I was puzzled by the fact that as a faculty member, I was invited to exchange blows with a student a third or fourth my age. The dean assured me that the young man who threatened me was “on his way to apologize,” but that never happened.
That confrontation and its aftermath — a complicated series of meetings — reawakened my recollections of the Cousin incident of so many years earlier.
It made me realize how easily an upset person can explode and make threats over a misperception, i.e., a smile that he must have mistaken for a sneer.
But yet, I continue to smile a lot. And if people notice that and ask me, “What’s so funny?” I might have to become creative very quickly and explain that I was born with a permanent smile over which I have no control.