How to Pick a Fight

We live in a New York neighborhood that doesn’t seem like a New York neighborhood. Battery Park City is a relatively new notch added on the lower west side of Manhattan, built in the 60s and 70s from earth excavated for the World Trade Center buildings and a few other large-scale public works. Head west across the West Side Highway, and you leave TriBeCa for blocks that feel like a concoction of city and suburb. A good third of the area is given over to park, including a large lawn that runs up to the Hudson river, and an extensive playground with bars, swings, sand, and fountains that run from March to September. Kids have the luxury of playing the sport in season on a full-size ball field as their parents cheer them on. Follow the bike and walking path downtown, and you trace the outline of South Cove with its parallel-parked yachts and people looking at the river as they eat high-end lunches. An astonishing amount of joggers and bikers practice their fitness along here, dodging kids being pushed in or walking alongside strollers. Keep going south and you run into Wagner Park, with its own lawns and unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor. Then on to Battery Park itself, now all park and no battery, full of tourists and vendors selling tickets and trinkets to them as they snake onto boats to Ellis and Liberty Islands.

The whole stretch feels alive, green, (relatively) clean, and safe.

Fear brought us down here. Battery Park City sits just across the street from the World Trade Center site, and the area was devastated by the 2001 attacks. Most of the neighborhood was shuttered for months, and when residents could return to their apartments, many packed up and took their things far away. The new apartment buildings going up at the time were left unfinished while the city dug itself out of the destruction. The neighborhood restarted around 2003; landlords cut rents and offered promotions to lure people into buildings back under construction. Our son M arrived over two months early around that time, and our tiny apartment perfect for a young childless couple was suddenly too tight for our new life. We left the Greenwich Village neighborhood from which we watched the towers fall and moved toward the site of calamity. That was 14 years ago.

Battery Park City now pretty much has a town’s worth of everything, including its own multiplex. M and his friends (a mix of girls and boys) like to grab burgers and a movie, then indulge in some solid teen boredom in one of the local parks. M asked if he could see the reboot of Stephen King’s “It” with his friends the Friday it opened. He’s way better than I am at compartmentalizing this type of fear, and since his friend’s father agreed to go with them, my wife and I were fine with the plan. If he slept terribly because his imagination drew menacing clowns in the shadows, well, perhaps he would learn a little something about himself.

M did come home spooked that night, but not by Stephen King. He said that he and his friends were hanging out in the park laughing with and at each other about how loudly one of them screamed during the movie, when a group of about six boys roughly their age approached them. “Look at these faggots,” one of them said.

I’ve never been in a fight. My older brother and I wrestled, even hurt ourselves sometimes (I, as the little brother, was usually the hurt one), but I’ve managed to escape that part of manhood. I’m not sure how exactly. Growing up bookish and weird in very small-town Kansas at a time when the value of every boy and man depended in large part upon their toughness, I had to be a tempting target for boys more fluent in the language of violence. I was picked on a little, like nearly every male was, but I suppose I was good enough at sports to qualify for some beating exemption, or maybe it was because my father was one of two lawyers in town.

Or maybe it was size. I arrived as a freshman in high school a little over six feet tall and kept growing to 6’5”, which meant the calculus for roughing me up got more complicated. I remember once in college joining a friend already in line for a bar. The woman behind us told her male friend to confront me about budging in front of them. “Do you see how big that guy is?” he said. That was the end of it.

M and his friends didn’t react initially. They wisely let the kids posture themselves into boredom and move on to more provokable targets. One of M’s friends, though, is a bit of a hothead, and as the boys walked away, he shouted “Dicks!” The group promptly turned around, the lead kid smiled, and they came back.

Size doesn’t guarantee safe passage through the country of masculinity, though. My college was just up the interstate from one of the largest military bases in the country. It was the early 90s, the US was balling itself into the fist that would eventually be known as Desert Storm, and driving past the vast base I could see the Humvees and helicopters already painted the color of desert. One night, a carload of young recruits prowling the edges of campus happened upon a friend of mine who is taller and bigger than I am, and they beat him pretty badly. I suspect they picked him because of his size, an opportunity to test their new fluency in the language of violence.

M said he knew the kids came back looking for a fight. M is tall, too, not really imposing, but quick on his feet. He noticed that an older (and taller) kid hanging at the back of their group looked uncomfortable with how things had escalated, and M appealed to him. “Let’s just forget about all this,” M said directly to this kid. “It’s not worth it.” Then M encouraged his friends to leave, and they began walking through the park toward the busy South Cove area. The other kids walked with them, their leader working hard to menace everyone along the way, and M kept up his appeals. As they reached the South Cove, the other kids finally decided they weren’t going to find what they were looking for — or they found enough thrill in their threat — and left M and his friends alone.

If this were a movie, M would train to fight, stand up to these bullies, use his potential for male brutality to earn their respect and mine. But I knew the night could have gone differently, even here in this relatively safe neighborhood. I also knew, and know, that fear of violence for women has a ubiquity and persistence that’s difficult for me to understand. Despite New York City’s strict gun laws, M could have easily been telling us this story from an ER bed, or my wife and I could have been telling a version of it to each other, again, over a headstone.

“You did the right thing,” I told M. “Don’t pick fights.”

“But what,” he asked, “if a fight picks you?”