“Well I look like a farmer but I’m a lover. You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover.”
Ah, the wisdom of Bo Diddley.
I put a twist on the lyric: I look like a fighter but I’m a talker. One step closer and I’ll hit you with my walker.
Talk, don’t fight. Come to blows, sooner or later you lose. It’s better to talk things out.
I learned this lesson from Jimmy.
As an adolescent, I fancied myself a brawler.
Absent any real battles.
I’d been in plenty of “fights” as a hockey player, but kids’ hockey fights usually end without injury, involve scant true brutality. After all, the young ’uns are on skates. They push, they pull, they hit, and all they do is slide. Nothing is anchored. A true blow requires a solid base.
But I, as were most 15-year-old lads, was tough. And, all of a sudden, most of my equally tough friends were getting into fights. We lived prior to these politically correct days where one’s self-esteem is paramount; brawls of one kind or another were common back then. People had the odd idea that adolescent males (most, anyway) were inclined to physical struggle and, as long as the struggle did not occur on school grounds, let the battle begin. The exceptions were guys like my friend, Craig, who was obsessed with Vogue magazine, the latest news about Audrey Hepburn and finding the perfect fabric with which to create a canopy in his bedroom
Turns out, I was the only “tough” guy in our pack who was not bearing wounds incurred in a recent scuffle, the only one not crowing about his testosterone-fueled victory over a lesser male.
I needed to pick a fight. Stat.
The task was to find an opponent.
There were plenty of options, guys always ready for combat, but most were intimidating — genuinely terrifying characters who dominated the schoolyards and alleys of South Denver. There was Richard, who was recovering from a knife wound suffered in a scuffle with Hans. There was Hans who, of course, was armed. There was Allan — 17 years old and still in junior high. He drove to school each day in a car his father bought shortly before daddy went to prison for armed robbery. Nope, not these guys.
There were my friends, but I wanted them to remain so.
I had to enter this fray with a reasonable, if not overwhelming chance of winning, so who would it be?
The sure bets — Dewayne and Mike — were both polio victims and, well …
There was John. He was immense and moved at glacial speed but, if he ever got on top of me, well …
I considered Donald, but his hydrocephaly was a hurdle I couldn’t jump.
Then, there was Jimmy.
Yes, Jimmy. Pear-shaped, social misfit Jimmy. The odd man out. He looked like an ambulatory bowling pin. Not real bright, desperate for any kind of human contact, even if it be aggressive.
Yes, Jimmy it would be. Jimmy would be my ticket to membership in the Tough Club.
I went to work.
I dreamt up an excuse for combat. I forget what it was; I can only say it was ridiculous. But, then, what about an adolescent male is not ridiculous?
I called Jimmy out and his reaction was ideal: He whimpered. He backed off. In front of others!
It was perfect, I had my stooge. I puffed my chest out: an opponent who feared you enough to endure ridicule was almost as good as an actual victory in a fight! I was a well-respected figure at the lunchroom table, gnawing at my grilled cheese sandwich, shooting the occasional menacing glance at Jimmy as he sat, alone, a mound of chicken ala king cooling on his tray.
It felt so good. I reveled in my dominance, a fearsome rooster (albeit a somewhat chubby rooster) strutting around the pit, foe aflutter in an attempt to escape certain doom.
Wow, I was tough.
I should have left it at talk. I didn’t, and here’s where the lesson unfolds.
I was not content with mere verbal intimidation. No, Jimmy’s submission in the face of a single threat was not sufficient. He had to do it again, and again.
The lesson took place near the Washington Park ice skating area. I was with friends, at the boathouse next to the north lake. The ever-enticing Judy Brandsmaa and her comely cohorts were seated on a bench across from us.
In lumbers Jimmy. He sits down at the end of the room with its sawdust-covered floor and averts his gaze.
Perfect! Not only do I have the chance to take my triumph to a higher level but, in doing so, I can finally make Judy see what a desirable mate I would be: a studly champion, worthy of unrestrained physical attention.
I would make a show of it, push Jimmy’s fear button, shame him from the area, wrap myself in the victor’s mantle as, once again, my adversary leaves the field.
Only, this time, Jimmy doesn’t crack. He looks up at me as I challenge him, a hangdog look on his face, and says: “Okay, I guess I have to do it.”
We waddled out of the boathouse and into the dark.
It was a walk I should not have taken. I should have talked, not walked.
Jimmy looked a lot bigger than he did a few days before. We put our fists up in quasi-Marquis fashion, closed the distance between us … and the fight was over.
Jimmy clocked me — nailed me in the nose with a hefty blow, sending my glasses flying into a snowbank, releasing a flood of blood from the schnoz.
“I’m sorry,” said Jimmy, his hands down at his sides, tears in his eyes.
Not as sorry as I was. I was bleeding. I was blind. There were teensy particles of light racing crazily across my visual field. Yep, to really hit someone, and be hit, you and they must be solidly anchored.
I was nothing if not solidly anchored.
Jimmy shuffled back to the boathouse leaving me to bleed and feel around in the snow for my glasses.
I tried to excuse the blood on the shirt, the swollen nose, the broken glasses by telling my friends I slipped on the ice after mercilessly thrashing Jimmy.
It didn’t work. In an instant I went from gladiator to schnook.
The lesson: only a few are truly tough. It’s best to leave the nasty stuff to them and to make sure you do not attract their attention. After all, you are solidly grounded.
When I returned home for dinner, bowed and broken, there was a measure of solace waiting on the table: meatballs in a simple gravy, and a pile of buttered egg noodles. It hurt to chew, but my despair pushed me to a third helping.
When I remember the incident with Jimmy (who is probably CEO of his own Silicon Valley startup, vacationing with his 24-year-old girlfriend on his yacht in the Greek isles) the occasion demands meatballs.
I make them with ground chicken. If you have time, grind your own. Use trimmed thigh meat rather than breast meat.
I spice the chicken with ground cumin, chopped parsley and oregano. I add a mess of finely minced shallot and garlic. In goes salt and pepper. To bind the mix I plop in an egg and, after thoroughly blending the mess, I add panko breadcrumbs, just enough to bring everything together.
I shape the meatballs then brown them in a frying pan, in olive oil, over medium high heat. I let them sit after each turn; I want a nice, toasty crust on the meat.
In goes some sliced white onion and a mess of smushed garlic. They cook for a few moments and I make sure the garlic doesn’t burn.
I throw in a cup or so of crushed fire-roasted tomato and cook it until it sweetens up a bit and picks up some of the crusty goodness from the bottom of the pan. Next: ground cumin, some oregano and a bit of garam masala. When the mix gets fragrant, I pop in a tablespoon of Espanola red, incorporate the powder then add a couple cups of chicken stock and a teaspoon of chicken base. I reduce the mix by half over medium heat. A check of the sauce, some re-seasoning and all’s ready to go, served on a bed of egg noodles, buttered and garnished with chopped parsley. A green salad with an ordinary vinaigrette and it’s a winning meal.
For a loser.
Savoring the meal, I remember: I need to look for some fabric. I think I’ll create a canopy in the bedroom.