Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chasing Dignity

-- An earlier version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 2006
“…Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.”

– from “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In the summer of 1978, with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” playing to the delight of a midnight show packed house, a fight broke out in the middle of Grace Street. Insults, rocks and bottles flew back and forth between the two factions of four each: VCU frat boys vs. an Oregon Hill crew. Their battle was unfolding a perilous 25 to 30 yards from the Cinemascopic all-glass front of the Biograph Theatre, a Fan District cinema I then managed.

The box office had just closed and the cashier had started her count-up. At the same time a group of my Biograph Swordfish softball teammates was in the lobby playing a pinball machine. As manager, I felt obliged to drive the danger away, so I opened an exit door and yelled that the cops were already on the way, which they were.

That was good enough for the frat boys, who scampered off. Their opposites simply switched over to bombing me. As they advanced rocks bounced closer. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk. I closed the door, then a piece of brick smashed through its bottom panel of glass to strike my right shin.

When we lit out after them, there were six or seven men running in the impromptu posse of employees and pinball players. The hooligans scattered, but my focus was solely on the one who’d plunked me. Hemmed in by three of us in a parking lot, he faked one way, then cut to the other. His traction gave way slightly in the gravel paving. As he stumbled to regain his balance I tackled him by the legs.

The others got away. With some help from my friends, we marched the captured 19-year-old back toward the theater. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. During the trek east on Grace, the culprit said something that provoked one in my group to suddenly punch him. That, while the punchee’s arms were being held.

A policeman, who had just arrived, saw it. He sarcastically complimented the puncher for his aggressive “technique” before the street-fighting man was hauled off in the paddy wagon. In contrast, I told the vigilante puncher he had overreached in hitting the kid unnecessarily, especially while he was helpless.

Surprised by my reaction, my softball teammate laughed.

Which prompted me to say something like, “Hey, we’re no better than the fascist bullies we’ve claimed to deplore if we resort to their tactics.” He disagreed, saying essentially this — that his summary punishment would likely be the only price the little thug would ever pay for his crime. Another in the group agreed with him. Others saw it my way, or they said nothing.

It wasn’t long after that night I found myself poring over an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” The excerpt above is the evocative piece’s last paragraph. During that rereading, it occurred to me the shattering glass door had been the sound of the hippie era ending for me.

Yes, as the '70s fizzled away we baby boomers were about to discover that our sweetest day in the sun -- with its righteous causes and rock ’n’ roll anthems -- had been another dollop of time, a period with its look and sound, not unlike others. In some ways, the Roaring ’20s redux.

A month later I agreed to the court’s proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor for breaking the glass and paid for the damage. A payment schedule was set up. As we spoke several times after that, I came to see the “hooligan” wasn’t really such a bad guy. Payment was made on time. Eventually, he asked for the name of the man who’d punched him. While withholding the name, I agreed with him that the blow had been a cheap shot.

About a year later, on a late summer afternoon, a thief snatched a handful of dollar bills from a Biograph cashier, then bolted out the front door. The cashier’s frightened look triggered an alarm in your narrator’s sense of duty/propriety; her face was quite expressive.

As this happened half of my lifetime ago, I was still young enough to think chasing criminals down the street was normal. Quaint as it may sound now, it seemed then that some collective sense of dignity was at stake.

In short, it took less than 10 minutes to discover the thief’s hiding place, then turn him over to the policemen who’d shown up. During the search I received some unexpected help in cornering the thief. As I had run west on Grace Street behind the 20-year-old grab-and-run artist, another young man — a total stranger — had jumped out of his pickup truck to join in the chase.

Later, when the dust settled, I thanked the volunteer and asked him why he’d stopped. He answered that he knew I was the Biograph’s manager, because a buddy of his had once pointed me out. His friend? It was the same Oregon Hill street-fighter I’d tackled a year before.

My assistant thief-chaser also told me his friend assured him I’d dealt fairly with him. Consequently, a favor was owed to me. Before he left, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood the guys stick together. Thus, he’d supported me in my time of need, to help pay off his friend’s debt. We shook hands.

Over the years what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying. No doubt that’s because so many times over the years, in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, I’ve done nothing to write home about — even the wrong thing.

At least in this story, maybe, I got it right.

The point?

Dear reader, in spite of the wall-to-wall cynicism of our current age, there really was a time when cheap shots were seen in a bad light. Moreover, returning favors was part of what held things together.

Through the mist of “ghostly rumbles” and “asthmatic whispers,” to some graying hippies, that hasn’t changed.

– 30 –

All rights reserved by F.T. Rea.
1181 words

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