The trombone is a miserable instrument. It’s roughly 85 percent croaking noise and 15 percent spit valve in my experience. Although, sometimes those proportions can be reversed. I sat next to Chris Williams in 7th and 8th grade band in junior high school in Ms. Shore’s band class. This class could have been full of musical geniuses. If so, I wasn’t among them. I remember playing scales and pretending to play my trombone during an endless series of band concerts and performances. I was like a musical mime during these events. I pursed my lips and blew as softly as possible so as not to be heard. If the band was playing something like music, who was I to desecrate that joyful noise with the croaking awfulness that issued on a regular basis from the end of my horn.
Sitting next to Chris Williams was not the most fun place to be in the band. Every morning I was greeted with a hard punch on the shoulder from Chris. His way of saying hello. And also his way of saying, I am about three feet taller than you and 30 pounds heavier. And what are you going to do about that? It was a question without a good answer.
Taught in Sunday school and church and by my parents that I was supposed to turn the other cheek, that fighting was wrong in every way; I could take his punch and go on about my day. Or I could cause an out and out melee in the brass section. Get kicked out of school. Have it go down on my permanent record. Never get a good job. It was one punch that hurt for only about 20 minutes. A future that stretched on forever. I pondered the options. My odd kid-logic brain churning madly.
One problem with not getting along with Chris Williams was that he actually knew how to play the trombone. Whatever the gene was that enabled you to have some connection to the miserable instrument resided in his lanky yet powerful body. I watched his slide positions carefully to know where I was to put my own slide. Whatever he was doing, I was doing. Only about a quarter of a second later than I was supposed to be doing it. Most of the time, I didn’t bother to blow at all. I was just keeping up appearances. The Marcel Marceau of the trombone. It seemed horribly unfair. My mind was deep and complicated, conflicted and byzantine. He woke up in the morning without a care in the world, happy to think about punching me and producing music on his trombone. He also had some kind of position on the football team. Goalpost maybe. I dunno.
I’d been hazed. Hazing was popular in those days and in junior high and high school. You get thrown in the bushes for not being old enough to stop yourself from being thrown in the bushes. I’d been picked on a bit. Eric Bonds got in the bad habit of flicking his finger against the back of my head back in Hurley Elementary school in the sixth grade. This went on for a few days. I thought he’d tire of it. But he was a little slow. One day, when the teacher was out of the room, he picked a bad time to flick his finger against the back of my head. I picked up my desk, and we were about to have a full-on Royal Rumble in the classroom when the lovely Ms. Johnson happened to appear in the doorway. I can’t remember getting into much trouble, and Eric later played on my dad’s United Methodist Church basketball team as an “outsider.” So, I guess we must have worked it out.
Each church basketball league team was allowed one “outsider.” An outsider is a person who is good at basketball, and may or may not be a heathen. But more importantly, they are good at basketball. My dad had the best eye for scouting out and scooping up “outsiders” in the entire YMCA church league. Our outsiders could usually dunk the ball (or close to it). They typically shot from so far outside they couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. One worked regularly during practice on a half court shot that he often hit and was desperate to try in a game despite my father’s objections. I tried to get rebounds and play defense and stay out of the way on offense. If I got the ball, I immediately passed it to an “outsider.”
Anyway, there was a bully in Pine Valley neighborhood, where I lived, a largish kid named Steve Earnhardt – foul and mean in every respect. Steve moved in for a year and moved on to torture some other neighborhood after that year. Maybe his family was attached to the military. I dunno. He tried to bully everyone on the bus and at the bus stop, including me. One day he picked up a younger kid named Chance (charmingly named because his parents took a “chance” on not using birth control, he related). He had Chance roughly over his head in a position to do just about anything he wanted to do with him. I had seen enough. As soon as Chance went flying into the bushes, I barreled into Steve who was about an inch taller and thirty pounds heavier. He went into the bushes right after Chance and came out angry and wanting to fight. I was happy to oblige.
I managed somehow to get up on top of him and was raining down fists of fury I didn’t know I possessed, shouting words I’d never uttered before that would have shocked my Sunday school teacher at First United Methodist Church until Steve’s father picked the absolute worst time in the world to drive up to the Pine Valley circle bus stop and stop his car. Steve’s father asked what was going on. I was breathing hard and beyond words. Steve told his dad nothing was the matter as he wiped some blood off his lip. Steve’s dad got back in the car and drove to work. There was some light applause from the assembled bus riders. That was the end of that.
Chris Williams was another matter. There seemed no good solution. Fighting is wrong. But this situation was intolerable. I tried making jokes with him, entertaining him. Surely, you are not going to beat on someone who is making you laugh. “That’s funny,” he would say. Punch. “Real funny.” Great, I thought to myself. And Ouch.
Things dragged on that way. Time stood still. My trombone playing did not improve. “What’s wrong?” my mom asked one day. “You don’t seem very enthusiastic about school.” Nothing, I said. I was too embarrassed to talk about it. What was wrong with me? On the very last day of junior high when I thought about four upcoming years of high school and getting punched every day for that length of time, I had enough. It was time to go toe-to-toe with him. Not in band class. That would have been an appropriate battleground, but there were too many oboes and flutes and things that would have been damaged. Too many sheets of music that would be torn and littered about in the whirlwind of my fury. I picked history class. Teacher safely out of the room, I’m picking up the desk again. My go-to move. Superfly Jimmy Snuka came off the top rope of the ring for a flying body press. I had a desk. You work with what you’ve got.
We only got to engage in a minor scrap before a teacher separated us. There was some danger of repeating the 8th grade if you misbehaved horribly on that day. That was what the principal had tried to tell us over the speaker that morning, but I wasn’t buying that. And if I had repeated the 8th grade, it would have been worth it. Again, no real trouble came of it. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. Chris congratulated me after the scrap even though I think he spent some quality time in the principal’s office for his participation while the authorities seemed to sense I was hardly to blame. “That’s all I wanted. Just a little fight,” he said, grinning and shaking my hand. I shook my head. We were all good now. Were we? How could we be? I wondered.
We really weren’t all good now for a long time after that, although he had no way of knowing and probably wouldn’t have cared if he did.
Flash forward a few decades. New York is a little bit like a bully with a bad attitude that plays music so well you can’t understand how that could possibly be. I’ve lived here a year. In exile from our apartment for three weeks due to Superstorm Sandy. Snowed in for a few hours by Nemo the blizzard. Tossed around like a loose marble in taxis. Jostled rudely on the sidewalk in the Financial District. Haven’t thrown a chair yet. Not going to. Don’t try to give me a pamphlet to convert me to the Hare Krishna movement or my thousand yard stare will burn a hole in your temple. You should really wait til I get out of the subway car before you start forcing your way in, because I promise you I am getting off at this stop even if it means going through you to do it. I’m tough as nails in a windstorm, still able to bend and not break. I breathe in and out and let go. Walk with peace, New York City and Chris Williams. Forgiveness you never asked for granted.
We’re all good now.