You might not know it to look at me, but I used to fight. I like to think I hide it well, having lost, for the most part, my Philly accent, and being able now, for the most part, to manage the fire that triggers the impulse to throw a punch. I look and sound these days pretty much like the college creative-writing professor I am: black-rimmed glasses and Oxfords and g’s at the end of my -ing verbs. Except in certain circles, I refrain from calling men “cuz.” These changes have allowed me the privilege of escaping poverty. To get here, I needed to find someplace to put all the violence I saw as a kid — inside my house and out. I needed to move past the violence in which I took part after my dad left and I became, at thirteen, the “man of the house,” according to my mom. This meant that when the world brought trouble, it was my job to fight it, a duty that surely would have gotten me killed if I hadn’t been able to leave it behind, both physically and mentally.
Philadelphia has many long-neglected urban neighborhoods. I’m from Kensington, which once housed so many factories and textile mills it earned the title “Workshop of the World.” Those factories and mills were gone by the time I lived there, and the people who remain in the row homes built for their workers were often dismissed as “Kenzos.” It was assumed our dads were drunks, our moms were dumb, our sisters got pregnant before they could drive, and we had spent time in jail or rehab or both. If you grew up poor, you know that nothing you say will prove those sorts of perceptions wrong. It’s like there’s a second skin on you that won’t come off: a skin thick enough to keep you alive. A kid who grew up getting in street fights carries them in his knuckles and jaw, his cheekbones and knees. A kid who has held food stamps is always holding them — blank-faced Jefferson on the five, blue-inked Lincoln on the soon-gone twenty — even if now, as an adult, he’s clutching a thousand bucks. And a kid who watched his dad beat his mom is always that kid, listening from his bed in the dark, waiting for the night to explode.
Earlier today I looked out the window at the year’s first hummingbird sipping from the feeder in our rural-Connecticut yard. I caught my reflection in the glass and saw again the smashed window in our Lehigh Avenue rowhouse in Kensington. Across three decades and three states I saw Jimmy from Oakdale Street outside — shirt off, boxers visible above his drooping cargo shorts, a big, bloody gauze pad taped to his side. He’d just thrown a metal kitchen chair through our front window. Now I was on our stoop’s top step, holding the bat I kept behind the couch for when trouble came. The chair was stuck, half in and half out, above our house’s yellow aluminum siding. It had smashed the bottom pane of glass and cracked the top one in a bunch of places. It had split the wooden frame that held the panes. The whole window would need to be replaced.
My mom was there, too, her response something to the effect of “Hey, you bastard! You’re gonna pay for that goddamn window!” Jimmy wouldn’t, although his younger sister, Kim, on whom I had a mad crush at the time, would. Kim was there, trailing her brother, and beneath Jimmy’s shouts I could hear her saying, “I’m sorry. I’ll pay for it. I tried to stop him.” She worked at the water-ice stand down the street, Famous Italian Ices. How many hours did she have to work at subminimum wage plus tips to pay for our window?
Jimmy was out of breath and pale and looked like he might crumple to the ground any minute. He was telling me to “come on,” angry because I hadn’t helped him, hadn’t taken the knife from Benny, who’d put him in the hospital during their fight the previous week. “I could have friggin’ died,” he said. A crowd of us had watched the fight. He could have come after anyone who’d been there. I have a hunch he picked me because he was twenty and I was fourteen. He was looking for a fight he could win.
He reached to touch his side, but his hand shot away from the gauze like it had been zapped. He was crying. He backed up to a fireplug, leaned against it, hawked up a wad of phlegm that dribbled down his chin when he tried to spit. The neighbors on either side, older couples who would have moved if they could, were yelling at him to “get the hell out of here,” to “go lay down” before he killed himself, but he said he wasn’t leaving until he had kicked my ass. “Come on,” he said to me again. He pushed himself off the fireplug and assumed a fighting stance, left hand over right, like my dad had taught me one night after he’d beaten up my mom.
“Jimmy, man,” I started to say, but he shouted over me until he was red-faced. My mom called him a bastard again, and he screamed, “Shut up, just shut up, bitch!” My mom made like she was about to go down the steps and take care of him herself. Then Jimmy did an odd thing: He apologized to her. Not for throwing a chair through her window. For swearing at her.
But it was too late. Somewhere between the couch and the door, I’d become the man of the house, capable of hitting someone with a bat because he’d threatened my family. I was already down the steps.
Growing up, I’d heard older guys say all the time, “Around here you settle things like a man.” It didn’t matter what the “things” were. And it also didn’t matter if only one of the “men” doing the settling was grown. There was, of course, a bottom limit to the age at which you were considered a man, but if you showed up at fourteen to certain places in Kensington, chances are you were no boy.
A minute earlier my mom and I had been watching M*A*S*H episodes I’d taped on VHS. Correction: I’d been watching. She’d been snoring on the love seat’s flattened cushions with one of our cats curled on her hip. We’d bought that love seat — the wagon-wheel pattern, log-cabin armrests, and those cheap, puffed-up cushions — from a used-furniture store on Aramingo Avenue. Almost everything we had — our rugs, our fridge, our stove, our washer — had been bought used or handed down to us. I could have given you a tour of the neighborhood walking through that house.
What about the cops? There were some you could count on, including guys who’d grown up in the neighborhood, but we had long ago stopped expecting them to get there in time (there were only so many to go around) or to be of much help when they did show. And I’d been told not to call the cops for something you could settle yourself, because you could get a guy sent back to jail for priors that had nothing to do with you, and “that ain’t right.” Besides, that person wouldn’t be in jail long, and the neighborhood, already pretty small, was downright tiny when someone was looking for you. The Kensington Code was firm: Settle things in the street. Settle them yourself. Then, win or lose, let them go.
Another rule: if it was one-on-one, you fought with your hands. A “fair one,” we used to call it. You put your bat down. You kept your knife in your sock.
But the chair blurred everything.
This gets to the fire I mentioned at the beginning. It’s like you’re engulfed in flames until you become not on fire but fire itself, burning deep in your gut, breathed into life by something akin to wind. A chair flies through your window and someone’s screaming for you to come out and you’re fourteen and he’s twenty and there’s nowhere to go and no cops coming and no one to make this any better, and you become a flame that can’t be extinguished.
I feel a need to say that I wasn’t a bad kid. I got good grades in school and had friends and went to church and wanted a future for myself. Some part of me knew that I was only going to be in Kensington for a little while, that someday I would live someplace far better and safer.
I wasn’t built for fighting, either, inside or out. But I would use that bat five times in all. Each time, on my way out the door, I wanted someone (especially my dad, who was long gone) to put a hand on my shoulder and tell me it was all right, to come back inside, I didn’t have to do this, that whole “man of the house” thing was garbage and certainly nothing a kid who couldn’t yet shave should have to take on. But that hand never came, and there was no one else to go out and confront the guy who broke into our car; or my sister’s ex after he punched her in the face for wearing makeup to school; or the glue sniffer who broke into our house and then had the balls to walk past it the next day, nasty soaked rag pressed to his mouth, wearing my AC/DC T-shirt; or my coked-up cousin Johnny, who kicked our door in and told my mom he was hungry; or Jimmy.
My bat hit the outside of Jimmy’s left knee at the precise moment he took a step toward me. That first swing knocked his left leg into his right but didn’t stop him. It was the second swing, which got him a lot harder and behind the knee, that knocked him down in the shadow of a telephone pole. He didn’t fall flat. His knees hit first, and he got his hands out in time to catch most of his weight before the side of his face hit the cement in front of my neighbor’s bottom step.
The only sounds I heard were my own breaths and grunts. When Jimmy tried to stand, I thumped the bat into the middle of his back. (His head was right there. One swing and it would be over. But I wasn’t going to do that. I was not a murderer. I didn’t have it in me, not then or at any other time.) I felt the bat sink into the muscles around his spine. As he tried to get up again, I switched stances and brought the bat down across his forearms. I circled around him and swung at his thighs, his knees, his back again. I didn’t know what else to do but keep swinging until I was exhausted and it felt like I was hitting him in slow motion.
What was going to happen to me next? How do you go back to the rest of your night, the rest of your life, after this? I could hear sounds around me again: the gathered neighbors, the stopped cars idling on the street, the el train clacking past, the windows of its bullet-gray cars leaving ghost trails of white light. But I kept swinging. Surely someone else would end this. Someone would step in. That’s what always happened when one of the guys in a fight was clearly done. Where was that person now? I was out of breath. I was weak and strong at the same time. I looked around at Pat and Blind Ed and Hammerhead and Dit Dit and KJ and Tode watching with both hands on his cane.
Finally Jimmy’s sister Kim grabbed the top of the bat from behind. She didn’t pull on it. She just said, “Stop,” and I did. I stepped back, and my mom put her arms around me. Kim helped Jimmy roll over on his good side, then get to his knees, which she probably shouldn’t have done. She should have waited for an ambulance. Jimmy had priors, though, she said. If he got picked up for throwing the chair, he’d be looking at real prison this time. After Kim got him to his feet, his arm around her shoulder, Jimmy told me this wasn’t over, that I should go fuck myself. I couldn’t look straight at him, but I saw out of the corner of my eye how hunched over he was, how he couldn’t straighten his left arm, and what the ground had done to his face. I saw the bandage flapping loose at his side and the staples that had broken open and what had gotten inside them. How had we ended up here? “Watch your back,” Jimmy said, before Kim and Chickie from Tinney’s Bar helped him into Chickie’s car.
Writing this, I’ve lifted my hands from the keyboard dozens of times and rubbed my face. That fire is still here. I haven’t told anyone about it before now. How can you bring it up without driving people away? It connects back to something that happened when I was a kid, in my earliest memory: I’m maybe four, and I’m reaching up for my dad’s belt buckle to push him back from my mom. We’re in the kitchen of the Levittown house before we lost it. He’s got her up against the side of the fireplace that separates the kitchen from the living room in all those Levittown houses. He’s squeezing her throat. She’s crying with her eyes closed and her mouth open. His face is so tight you can see every vein in his neck. Pure hate in his eyes. He’s capable of anything. Her head’s tilted back, her just-permed brown hair flat against the mantel. She’s coughing spit, which I can see in the air between them thanks to the lights he installed beneath the kitchen cabinets. My dad is killing my mom, I’m thinking. I know what the word kill means, and I feel how lonely I’ll be, how terribly empty my life will be without her in it. “Stop,” I say. Then I shout it, over and over, but he keeps going. I don’t know if he hears me or if I am even saying it out loud. I’m four and I know what is happening and I know this event will take from me the only safe person I have. My body feels like a flame. She’s calling my name, “Danny,” then saying, “Help.” I push my way into the tight space between them and reach up and hook the tips of my fingers over the top of his belt buckle. (I can close my eyes and feel it right now, and on the other side of my fingers I can feel his rough flannel work shirt, the soft belly behind it. I can smell that stale cigarette smoke that hung near the ceiling. I can feel the familiar softness of my mom’s polyester nightgown pressed to my back.) I don’t even try to back him up. I just stand there, holding on to his belt, squeezed between the two of them. Then I start repeating what she says: “Don’t.” Screaming, “Help!” She’s crying louder than I’ve ever heard her, and I’m crying. Then she goes silent. Then I’m saying everything she said, all at once: “Stop.” “Help.” “Don’t.” “Look at your son.” That’s when he does stop. He does look at me. His hands loosen. His shoulders slump. He lets out a long sigh. He sits down in front of his small glass of Schaefer at the kitchen table, lights a Pall Mall with a Zippo he clicks closed with a flip of his wrist, and calls me to sit with him in the sink light’s fluorescent glow.
Why didn’t she call the cops? She would plenty of other nights. This was the seventies. The cops would knock on the door. He always answered. They never came inside. If she yelled out that he’d hit her, my dad turned into Mr. Charming and told them of course he hadn’t. “Don’t listen to her,” he’d say. “Too many highballs. Hit her head on the floor.” When the cops told him he’d go to jail if he did strike her, he said, “Now, what do I look like? My family is everything.” His slick pompadour gleamed in the yellow porch light. The cops told my parents to keep it down. There had been a complaint. They’d need to issue a summons if there was another.
I became fire in my first memory, and I kept becoming it, getting between my dad and my mom until the day he left. That day I came home from eighth grade and found him on top of her in the kitchen, a Marine combat knife to her throat. She’d helped my blind uncle, his brother who lived next door, sign and mail some checks that morning. My dad had come home early from work. (Or maybe he hadn’t gone to work? Maybe he’d parked outside the house to spy on her?) He’d accused her of sleeping with my uncle. I pushed him off her, and he screamed that he was leaving, like he’d done so many times before. That day, however, I didn’t beg him to stay. Even though I knew he brought in the only money we had, I told him, standing between him and my mom, that he was goddamn right he was leaving. Fire. Destroying us all. And off he went, with trash bags of clothes in his rusted orange truck.
That night my mom made me take a vow: to never tell anyone about what had happened. I was never to speak about how he’d tried to kill her, or about any of the times he’d hit her, or about the roaches or the food stamps or the government cheese. In this way, without meaning to, my mother became my first creative-writing teacher. I spent years feeling ashamed of and lying about the experiences that had shaped me. This stunted my development and kept me spinning in place, controlled by the same old angers and triggers, until I learned that our stories can destroy us if we keep them bottled up, and that finding words for them can open doors to new lives.
When I was away at graduate school, a copy of a literary journal came in the mail to my mother’s house, addressed to me. It contained a poem about that afternoon with the knife. My mom opened the envelope and read it while she was on the phone with me. I apologized for betraying her, but I could tell that something essential had been released. She sobbed for a few minutes, then managed to say, “It’s OK. It’s the truth.” And we cried together.
However long it took for that thing with Jimmy to happen, it was too quick for the cops to come. One didn’t show up until maybe half an hour later. I was upstairs in my room by then. From my window I saw red and blue lights swirling under the el tracks and coloring all the buildings they touched. Two officers got out of the police cruiser. The tall one, my mom told me later, was one of those we could count on. He’d grown up on Braddock Street, five blocks away, kept his nose clean, and served four years in the Air Force before moving back home. He’d gone to school with Jimmy’s brother, and I’m sure he knew all about Jimmy. He asked my mom about the chair still stuck in the window while the other cop took notes. They were right below me, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I lay on my bed in the dark, breathing as quietly as I could, hoping my mom wouldn’t call for me.
Eventually the blue-and-white cruiser made a wide U-turn across all four lanes of our avenue, accelerated quickly, and disappeared around the B Street curve, the red and blue lights illuminating the buildings for a second before their faces turned back to blank bricks.
Even now a part of me is still that kid, lying in bed in the hours after a fight, unable to sleep, wondering what was going to happen to him, how things were ever going to get any better.
My younger daughter comes home exhausted from ninth grade and takes a nap. My older is off in a few minutes to see if the doctor can do anything to help her get through pollen season. Later she’ll make a TikTok video of her tiny kitten, Goose, comparing him to household items. In an hour my wife will come home from work. We’ll grill and eat outside on this cloudless spring day moving toward summer.
There’s too much for me to be grateful for in my life to let postindustrial Philadelphia have a say in what’s possible. It’s still there, though. Memory is going to have its way. I used to fight it, believing I could block it out. When it speaks now, though, I listen. Sometimes the swirling ghosts of friends who died young want to come back to remind me where they fell and crashed and hung and bled and slumped inside the arms of other friends. I let the ghosts come because I know they will soon be gone again. Even when the full weight of those hard days returns, there’s something oddly comforting about it for precisely that reason: the memories won’t stay. So I welcome the pieces of that past life, and I acknowledge their weight. I can breathe through them now and know that I will remain breathing at the end, which was no sure thing when they were happening. I let them bring me back to my family’s tiny kitchen, where my dad’s voice rises, and my mom shouts his name, which is also my name, and I run across all these years to pull his hands from her neck. I let that memory run its course because turning from it feels like abandoning that little kid who didn’t know what would happen next. Who didn’t know he wouldn’t always feel so sick and scared. Who didn’t know he’d one day have a wife and two daughters who will never see a hint in their house of what he saw in his.