Winter can be pretty brutal in Illinois. Aside from the snow and ice that completely fuck up the landscape, there's the ridiculous cold air that
Winter can be pretty brutal in Illinois. Aside from the snow and ice that completely fuck up the landscape, there's the ridiculous cold air that freezes your snot the minute it enters your nose. Just last week, as I walked down a Chicago street on my way to visit a restaurant that serves french fries cooked in duck fat*, I could feel tissue on my legs actually dying in the zero degree weather. Just giving up and sinking into oblivion as yet another length of freezing wind swatted me across the thighs. And I was only visiting for the weekend — when you live in Illinois, you have to deal with that shit for six months or so.
I have this very specific winter memory from my youth in the Prairie State. My dad and I were running errands, cruising through the slushy-wet streets in our '81 Buick Regal. The temperature had shot up unexpectedly that day — it was about 45 degrees, and people were running around outside like my hometown had just morphed into one of the Virgin Islands. The temperature had been south of zero for weeks, and even though 45 is only 13 degrees over freezing, to us it felt positively tropical.
So my dad had the window rolled down and his elbow hanging out, driving that big boat of a car with one steady hand. Suddenly, this ridiculously loud motorcycle engine noise blasted up from somewhere — the kind of noise that makes veterans grab at their shirts and check for holes. We hit a red light, and while we were waiting, this hog pulled out of a driveway, a low-rider Harley that looked like it was about 15-feet long. The driver had a triumphant mullet — the top of his hair spiky, square, and short — the back winding in waves all the way down to his ass. He was wearing no shirt and a pair of black biker shorts with pink stripes on the sides, a pair of mirrored sunglasses making the color of his eyes a mystery.
This guy pulled out of his driveway and into the street, right up alongside of us. He took a long drink from a can of beer, crushed it and tossed it onto the pavement, then looked over at my dad with a smile. The light turned green, and, for reasons I don't think I'll ever understand, he gave us the finger and shouted, "surf's up!" Then he gunned the engine, blasted down the road, and left us behind in a cloud of exhaust.
My dad smirked to himself, drove through the intersection, then turned to me and said something that I can only classify as a classic bit of folk wisdom:
"That guy there needs to get his ass kicked."
I understood exactly what my dad meant. Even though we were all feeling a bit of Spring madness, wandering around outside without jackets and so on — that guy's decision to ride his motorcycle around shirtless like some kind of trailer trash Lady Godiva screamed out that he'd never been seriously humbled by the fists of another man. And although I don't believe violence is a good solution to anything, I knew in my heart that my father was onto something.
Sometimes it's more obvious. I remember going to some frat party in college, tagging along with somebody that knew somebody in hopes of finding cheap beer. There was this short guy outside on the patio telling loud stories about different guys he'd faced down: "And I told him he'd better sit his ass down or he'd have another thing comin', and everybody in the restaurant was lookin' at me like I was crazy, but I was like, bring it on!" Later in the night, this loudmouth kicked a freshman out of the party for some stupid reason, calling as much attention as he could to the fact that if the kid didn't leave he was going to "shit on his neck," whatever that means. He stood there in the doorway shouting as the freshman kid sulked away, his face red with anger and secret fear, all of his frat buddies flanking him, and I thought to myself:
That guy there needs to get his ass kicked.
Maybe it's just that I myself have had my ass kicked. A few times. Usually for no good reason. I understand that even when you win a fight, it still sucks. It's not like the movies — it's dirty and sweaty and fumbling. Your body freaks out in rushes of adrenaline and bile. No matter how many unspoken "rules" there are, the combatants are in essence trying to kill each other, and occasionally somebody succeeds. That's fighting, my friends.
Once, when I was walking home from high school with a buddy, an older guy drove by me in his little Ford Escort and stuck his tongue out at me. I made a confused face, because I didn't even recognize the guy. Suddenly, the car squealed to a halt, the guy jumped out and proceeded to beat the living shit out of me, screaming "don't ever look at me like that again!" The only real distinct memory I have of the fight is of the bottom of my friend's shoes. I was on the ground, the older guy was raining punches down on my head, and as I looked up I could see my friend running away, running home, leaving me to be pulverized. The bottoms of his shoes were bright orange, and there was a cigarette butt stuck to one of them.
As rough as that experience was, I'm very glad that it happened. It changed me in a basic way — took away my need to pose, to look tough, to act like something that I'm not. Not because of fear, but because I had learned humility in a very physical and real way. That experience taught me that violence wasn't cool at all, and that the only thing worth fighting for is your life and the lives of those you love. I had had my ass kicked, and, truth to tell, it was good.
Recently, New York Representative Charles Rangel has been asserting that the draft should be reinstated in our country — that the members of our government might be a little more hesitant about going off to war when their brothers and sons are being conscripted into the army instead of a bunch of faceless volunteers. I agree with Mr. Rangel; if our country is really serious about war, then we should all be serious about war. If the risk to our personal well-being is so imminent, than we should all mobilize to defend ourselves and the ones we love.
Somehow, I don't think Mr. Rangel's proposal will get very far.
However, there is something a little less demanding that we could ask of our leaders, something that might help them think through this war they're planning. I would like for all politicians who are pro-war to certify, in writing, that they have had their asses kicked at some point in the past. Anybody who would mobilize our troops to intimidate and physically punish another group of people should be able to prove to me that they themselves have at one time been tripped, smacked around, and made to eat grass while their peers kicked them in the ribs.
Because believe me — I love this country, I love every bit of it, and I never want to live anywhere else. Which is exactly why I couldn't stand it last week as our President. blabbed away on television about Iraq's failure to do this and Iraq's failure to do that, somehow managing to form words through that self-adoring smirk of his. I couldn't stand it, because all over the world, in bars, cafes, homes and in the streets, people were watching George W. swagger and generalize and carry on like the frat guy that he is, and I know they were all thinking one thing:
That guy there needs to get his ass kicked.
*Duck-fat fries are available at Hot Doug's, 2314 West Roscoe, Chicago, IL. Both the fries and corndogs at this location are delicious.