My boyfriend in early high school was a semi-thug; he later became a policeman. Mike loved to humiliate me in front of my friends thinking that was a measure of control; he was nice to me privately. Talk about dichotomies! He lived a half block off the local playground. His hang out was at the candy store across/waaaayyyyyy on the other side the playground; I hung out across from his back alley in the Community Services building that was my nightly destination. My close friends and I were allowed to go there to visit our adored mentor, a junior high teacher who loved us back by regaling us with hysterical stories of his not-much-younger students no doubt embellished for our great amusement.
Ladies really did not hang out at candy stores – I knew that – so I did not traverse there often. Later in our relationship we met there, but I rarely felt comfortable there without Mike. Philly was a city of candy stores so this was hard to negotiate esp. if you lived in older neighborhoods where every corner boasted some kind of store. Candy stores were the precursor of 7-11 with soda fountains, indeed, the fount of all neighborhood gossip, with all the convenient bread and milk products.
A friend, call her Gemma for expediency, wanted to go out one early summer evening but due to a three-day holiday our center was closed, mentor Art was away on a trip, and my boyfriend was down the shore (Atlantic City pre-gambling) with his parents. Gemma got me fired up – I was happy to hang at her house, but she was bored and though we were having a typical 14-yr old sleepover, it was a warm, sultry enough late Spring evening to get us antsy. Her mom, a die-hard neighborhood tough allowed us to go out provided we were back by her proscribed time. Though she frequently amused us with stories of her growing up in rival hoods, how she had to fight her way through always tainted “a dirty Jew” or like epithet, she never believed her girls were capable of that kind of toughness. Nor did she ever encourage it though she clearly believed it was a grand virtue.
So Gemma and I walked through the neighborhood anticipating the fun we’d have at the candy store. Mike was away, but his friends were always amusing, fun to hang with for a few hours before we went home to giggle and yent the night away. The night was gloriously balmy, a beautiful sunset wrapped itself around the city, and we were in rare form. Gemma and I had similar humors, we made each other laugh, certainly the best aspect of friendship. Arriving at our destination I instantly felt we were intruding on a sacred spot – good girls navigating the slums as it were. Gemma felt invigorated; she was attempting to be her mother incarnate; all I wanted to do was to leave – just enjoy the evening walking at a time in our lives and the history of man that we could without being molested. We lived in good neighborhoods. I appeased her:
“I’ll stay for ten minutes but I know these guys don’t want us here – I’m real uncomfortable.”
“C’mon Vendela, it’ll be fine.”
Gemma wanted to flirt with a guy she liked, which I had to support since I had a boyfriend knowing deep down this was a dire choice. We were in bad territory…that ten minutes unfortunately proved me right. Had we gone inside, grabbed some candy and left we’d have been fine. But we opted to stand outside, playing and laughing, until the local Jewish girl gang showed up. They really were no different than we were, except for their self-perceptions and the fact they were from another school, another culture. Truth be told, Gemma and I were from the “tougher” Junior High by reputation — and like I said, I hung out with all groups including tough girls. We all danced in the girls’ lunchroom to the same tunes…along that same immobile, permanent seating.
Suddenly the winds changed. What appeared to be flirtatious fun turned to nasty fast-flung smart-ass remarks. Directed at us. The boys were not our friends though they were nicer; the girls were hell-bent on humiliating us, to the amusement of the boys – and to get us to leave since we were encroaching on their territory. Gemma never saw that.
What I never knew prior was that one of the girls was jealous of me because she liked my boyfriend – I was the target of her personal sarcasm and threats to “…punch your fuckin’ face in.” The other girls chimed in because that’s what little women did to prove to their little men how equal they were. I never felt the need to prove that – can’t say why; maybe I had enough bullshit at home to ever give a crap. My outside life was my retreat, my home away from home to survive a pretty lousy emotional roller coaster childhood; I needed my friends to get me thru that. Bad kids were easy to avoid if I did not communicate with them. “Just walk away,” I thought. And I tried. Gemma never saw that either. She’d been seduced by her mother’s stories and what she thought were mom’s expectations.
We two were harangued for those interminable ten minutes until I turned to Gemma, saying emphatically “I‘m going.” She pleaded with me to stay thinking her sarcasm could beat theirs but this was not a test of wits — she didn’t see that either. She thought we’d all become friends through this ridiculous Kabuki drama. Masks all the way round. Who’s tougher, meaner, more a woman. Please, get over your 14-year old selves.
When the threats became real I started walking; Gemma could stay. My mother’s best friend lived around the corner and I could call my mother from there….Frankie, my personal menace kept trying to scare me by threatening to “pound me down,” but my fortitude and ire were rearing their ugly heads, rising rapidly. I figured real womanhood, real strength (my Bubba Bessie, paternal grandma walked her way through London suffering TB with a 10 yr old son also infected after being refused passage to America – this was true grit) came from standing down the idiots on parade. I refused to buckle where Gemma was petrified. I was scared too but I rejected showing fear. Though my heart is generally on my sleeve, when needed I can be as inscrutable as the next guy. Besides I was getting pissed off.
I’d never have beaten anyone up – I hate fighting and physical violence as much as the verbal kind. Even flame-ups in so-called kindly writing communities annoy the living hell out of me. Confront yes, inform of condescending and bad advice, yes, but snark the hell out of someone in a mean-spirited, cruel way? That’s not a community I ever want to participate in — that’s no community, just a better mask. Again, I digress…
Those threats along with menacing dark skies after the sun went down, clearly scared Gemma even more. She started blubbering, incoherently saying things she thought would amuse if not placate the enemies or stop them in their tracks. She was a funny girl but attempts at cynicism in the wake of fear were turned to Jello-like sophisms. You cannot reason yourself out of a fight with an angry mob; by definition a mob is subject to stupidity. I knew this at the tender age of 14; I banked on this knowledge to get me the hell out of this bad situation. I never believed they’d physically harm us.
I started walking away – frontward, upright, forthright as possible without running like I had a stick up my ass if you wanna know. Gemma, whimpering pitiably, fell over herself walking backwards, fearful these girls would jump us. I trusted my instinct they would not; theirs were mere scare tactics to reclaim their territory.
“Gemma, get your ass up, and walk… forward. They won’t hurt us. The boys have to jump in since Mike’s my boyfriend,” I scornfully whispered.
“T-t-t-t-they’ll h-h-h-h-h-hurt us…,” she whined.
“They’ll hurt us if you don’t walk proudly, fearlessly. Your mother’s the South Philly girl who tells us those stories all the time…” My mother was just a girly Kensington girl whose parents owned a dress shop.
I was right. Walking purposefully, audaciously, straight as an arrow with pride, I easily imagined my grandmother in all of her tsuris (Yiddish = troubles) saving her young sisters from Cossacks in the Russian pogroms by hiding under a simple straw bed. Gemma finally caught up with me her knees nearly buckling under the fear. The one guy who “liked” HER was our savior. At the end of an interminably long block on the side of a hauntingly empty nighttime playground was this guy with a jeep (forward thinking then) offering us a ride home. We were breathless, scared, and happily accepted his timely gift. And we could not shut up, hysterically laughing while on the verge of tears and significant relief.
The sleepover was energized by this furor – she begged me not to tell her mother — fueled by orange juice and liverwurst, with an ice cream chaser (feh!), we analyzed this event to death thru the night. The next week, the holiday weekend over, my other friends heard about this: MY tough girls rallied behind me and threatened to pummel the crap out of our menacers. Because they could, because they knew and liked me, and they earnestly felt for my perennial sadness. These were big-boned, mean-looking girls, too, with lots of slathered black eyeliner and white lips: the Goths of their time sans vampiric models. A preponderance of gang girls without affiliation – as in IChing #44 Coming to Meet – confronting the Idiots on Parade (we all know that nothing, esp. anger, is without consequence) dovetailed with my boyfriend swooping in to save the day, my female protectors intimidating on one side while Mikie Boy slapped Frankie broadside her mean, sarcastic little face. I can’t say I was sad about it, though had he told me I would’ve stopped him. I really do abhor violence.
Sadly Gemma and I were never the same – individually or as best friends. She’d revealed her fear under inflated bravado which really scared her and ultimately annoyed me, while I discovered great inner strength necessary to me then for so many reasons. We never discussed the event; the shards of our friendship drifted away, ground to beads of nothing, like glass on a tarmac where evidence of an accident is blown away by wind over time and lots of traffic. Funny thing is, Gemma later became friends with Frankie: the death knell of our friendship. She conveniently forgot what happened and how; that was the stake in the heart of the small remainder of our closeness.
Oh well. C’est la vie.