My friend Ben punched me in the stomach on the playground. We were in kindergarten. It didn’t really hurt that bad, but it shocked the hell out of me. I’d never been punched before and I couldn’t comprehend the violence. I remember I flamed up in anger, but before I could react with that anger I started crying, and the anger came back toward myself, as outwardly I was then a boy who was crying in front of everyone and that was a bad thing to be. Next thing I knew I was running to the teacher on playground duty, feeling ashamed as I did, but feeling that I had to use those tears somehow. When I told the teacher what happened, she said, “For the rest of recess you stay on that side of the playground and Ben will stay on that side of the playground.” My mouth fell open. I was a kid with a deep moral code and I expected the adult judge to enforce the code. But she was punishing us both, and Ben was getting the better half of the playground. Maybe I deserved it for being such a wimp and tattle tale, but it was a sick moment. There was the introduction to violence followed quickly by the realization that justice means different things for different people. I guess I felt I was better than punching, that we all should be. I am not better than punching now. If I could go back in time I would go to that playground and punch Ben as hard as I can.
When I was 12, I went to high school football game with my friend Nate. Our favorite thing to do at the games was to stand behind the goal posts and try to catch the ball after a field goal attempt. That night there were about 25 other kids back there and they were mostly older than us, so our chances of catching the ball were low. Still, a field goal was kicked, the ball went long, and I was fast, so I was able to sprint back and get to it. When I saw that it was going to bounce I dove, and in the middle of the dive I was knocked out of the air by a huge black dude, who ended up with the ball. As he walked triumphantly toward the end zone to throw the ball back to the ref, Nate, who had seen the mid-air knock, lifted his head toward the guy, and, under his breath said to me, “Nigger.” But he hadn’t said it quiet enough. A dude close by turned and said, “What you say?” But he wasn’t looking at Nate, he was looking at me.
“I didn’t say anything,” I said, and I felt good and moral because I was telling the truth. “You said nigger,” he said, and then he turned to the guy who’d caught the ball, who was now walking back from the fence, and he said, “Marcus, this guy right here called you a nigger!” “No I didn’t!” I said. I turned to Nate and he was just looking at the ground. Marcus walked up to me. He was a foot taller than I was, had a big ole gut, and his head was shaved. His head was steaming, too. I could see it in the stadium lights, hot smoke from his sweaty skull floating up into the cold air. He came within a foot of me and stopped as his friends gathered round. “You call me a nigger?” he said. “No,” I said. “I heard it, man!” said his friend. “I didn’t.” I said. “You calling me a liar?” the friend said. “No,” I said. “Well what you wanna do?” Marcus said to me. He was staring down into my eyes and I looked right back at him. And I balled up my fists just in case. “You wanna hit me?” said Marcus, “I know you wanna hit me!” I let my eyes travel from his face to his big fat gut, right there in reach, and I did want to hit him. I wanted it bad. Here again was a failure of justice, a betrayal of a friend, and anger, and I wanted to punch his fat stomach and make my fist go through. “You wanna hit me?” he repeated. I looked at him one last time, squeezed my fists, tensed my arms, and . . I walked away. Behind my back the kids called me names and laughed as I retreated, Nate in tow. I walked behind the bleachers where nobody could see me, and I cried. Nate looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Why are you crying?” “I don’t know,” I said. If I could go back I would punch Marcus in the stomach, and after I was done getting my ass kicked by all of his friends I’d find Nate, who would no doubt have fled, and I’d punch him too.
I was walking to my car in the movie theatre parking lot, 16 years old, when I heard a voice yell out, “Hey, faggot!” I made the mistake of turning to see the speaker, a slightly older dude who had two friends with him, and I realized he was talking to me. He was maybe 20 yards away. “Are you gay?” he asked me, in a kind of evil way. I took a second to think of what to say. And incredibly, I said, “Yeah, I’m gay.” I wasn’t gay then, and I’m not gay now–I didn’t even know a gay person then–but I said, “Yeah. I’m gay.” The guy opened his eyes real wide and laughed, and his friends laughed, too. I balled up my fists at my sides, ready for a fight, and they started walking toward me. But I changed my mind and walked as quickly but cooly to my car as I could. The car was close by and I got in, started the engine fast, and pulled away. As I waited to turn out of the parking lot onto the street the dudes pulled up to me and the driver, the same kid who’d asked me if I was gay, rolled down his window. He puckered his lips and smacked them in this sick way. “Hey faggot, you want a kiss? You want a blowjob? Lips are lips, right?” His friends laughed hard, and I pulled out onto the street.
I didn’t and I don’t know why I told them I was gay. It makes no sense. It was a lie and it put me in danger. The only sense I can make of it is: Those kids were being jerks, to me, and well, to gay people, and this pissed me off. So, in the moment I must have made a heroic and stupid decision to represent all gay people. It’s as if my full reply was, “Yes, I’m gay, and what’s wrong with that?” Moreover, it must have been that saying No, in my mind, would have been to somehow ally myself with the homophobes, like, “No, dudes, I’m cool just like you guys are.” Saying No could have also made me look like a liar to them, like they’d made their minds up that I was gay, and that my denying it would have made me a coward. I guess I stood up to them a little bit in that way. But if I could go back, stupid as it would be and for whatever stupid reason, I would fight them.
There are phases I go through when I feel something pent up, and I joke around that I want to go out and get into a fight. Once or twice when I lived near a not-so-nice place in Brooklyn I walked late at night into those streets to tempt fate. But nothing ever happened. Sick or not, I admire my friends who fought with their brothers when they were younger and people who have been in bar fights. The reason why is I’d like to know how it feels. Meaning, I’d like to know how it feels, less the punch and more the expression, and the close connection to another human. I guess I’m not a violent person. Violence scares me and baffles me. But I’m terrible at raw expression in real life, and I wish I weren’t: I admire people whose nervous systems have less inhibitors than mine. So I write a lot of songs with a narrator who knows his mind and speaks it, and about characters who say and do bold things out of hurt and anger. Because, to my chagrin, I have rarely been able to. The only place I’ve ever been able to throw a punch is in a song.