A few days ago, a crazy homeless person spit in my face, and I immediately thought of my friend Matt.
"What were you doing?" or some variation of that was the first question from several people after I announced this to the office as a prelude to my going home for a scalding shower and a change of clothes. It smacked of victim-shaming, but was a fair inquiry: for all the crazy homeless people in Manhattan, very few people get spit on without provocation.
I was crossing the street. The spitter was leaning against the pole for the pedestrian traffic signals, thus he didn't even register as a distinct navigational hazard, since I learned not to walk into poles several years ago. I dimly registered an uptick in muttering as I passed him, then heard "ptOOi" and caught several gobs of white matter in my peripheral vision before I felt the juicy impact on the side of my face.
It took me a second to realize what had happened, by which point the mumbling spitter had turned his head to mumble at some other invisible thing. It wasn't clear he even know I was there.
"WHAT THE FUCK?" I asked, but got no response. I gaped at him, then was distracted by a smiling man in a wheelchair asking for change. Did he not see what had just happened? Did he know this spitting man? A brief burst of thoughts followed: That guy really did just spit in my face. Feels like he was dehydrated. I need to get to a bathroom, stat. For the first time in my life, I have the desire, the opportunity, and a socially defensible reason to grab a man by the collar and smash his nose in with my forehead. What would Matt do?
I went to the Starbucks, and waited in a shambling line to the bathroom while my confusion and rage subsided. It was the shaky kind of rage, where my knees are wobbling and I'm biting myself without realizing it. I've learned this can lead to smashing Playstation controllers or accidentally crushing glasses in my hands, followed by a sometimes spotty recollection of reddish-colored events. Since that's terrible, I do breathing exercises until the rational part of my brain reboots.
Once my superego came back online, it still wanted to break a not small number of human bits, but it also mentioned there was no point in beating up a crazy person. You're not going to beat the crazy out of them, and the argument for learning consequences falls apart when the person you're trying to teach already lacks the basic reasoning ability to equate "spitting in stranger's face" with "bad idea."
Enter Matt. As soon as this essay goes public, Matt will call me and tell me I'm a pussy for not immediately downgrading the structural integrity of this person's ocular cavity. I have to prepare for this call, because I really, really wanted to do exactly that by the time I entered Starbucks.
I scrubbed my face in the bathroom and got my coffee from the manager, who recognized me and asked how my day was going. I gave her one of the most interesting answers I've ever given to that question, second only to "I just broke out of a mental institution."
She stared at me. "For real? What were you doing?"
"Nothing. He just spit at me."
"Is he still there?"
"You need to call the authorities, now."
This had never occurred to me, which I chalk up to my pathological need to reduce friction in my weekday life, and also to not trusting the authorities the way I once did. Still, she was right, so I wandered back to the corner with my coffee. He was gone, but I gave the guy in the wheelchair a dollar and asked if he'd seen where the mad spitter went.
"Because he spit in my face."
The guy's expression fell off a cliff. "Are you serious?"
"Brother, I didn't see that, because if I had, I would have flattened the guy."
Projected Matt commentary: "Pete. Pete. Pete. A guy begging for change in a wheelchair just manned up more than you. Do you even hear yourself?"
"Appreciate it. Thanks anyway."
"You see him again, point him out, and I'm serious. I will flatten him."
It sounded legit, and since, even slouched back in a wheelchair, his head came up to my chest, I believed him capable of delivering.
I walked back to work with the knowledge that if the situation comes up again, a crippled vet will be ready to defend my honor.
I lost my bid at sainthood at age five when I whacked a kid over the head with a toy gun for calling my idea stupid. I eagerly await the day someone will cross the line and I can beat them to death with a bar stool.1
Spitting directly in my face without provocation apparently doesn't cross the line. It's not like fear was stopping me: if the guy wasn't in fact crazy, he was six drinks past blackout drunk, and slow. It takes about two seconds to take a person out of that state and put them in one where they will cease contributing to a fight. Legally, he just assaulted me, and I'd get a talking to if the cops found me kicking his bloody and unconscious body, but he'd be the one in jail.2
Projected Matt commentary: "It's because you're a fucking pussy and don't know what it's like to feel like a man. You gotta fuck shit up."
Maybe? I've hit people before. Didn't feel great about it. I'll punch passersby in the back of the head in GTA because Rockstar Games goes out of its way to make casual violence hilarious, but even then I'll feel a little bad about it.
Academically, I know why violence is so tied up in the notion of Being a Man. I don't have the instincts for it. As culture crawls toward maturity, we frown on it, except in one case: vengeance. Revenge is excused by our conscience, if not our courts. There's an argument for self-defense, but if we really believed we only excused defensive violence, action movies would be studies in Aikido and rehabilitation programs. All violence is vengeance. If vengeance is okay, violence is okay. Evil is only an act on the other side of the fuzzy line that we agree delineates the lower limit of severity for the slight being avenged.
I still want to beat up the spitter. I want to beat him up for every betrayal, every loss, every unfair thing and nasty person that's crossed the path of my life. I want to beat him up for every time there were no clean forks in my kitchen, because rage issues? I got 'em. I definitely want to beat him up for spitting in my face, but in the heat of the moment, I was overcome, yet again, by disbelief that there's enough free-floating anger in the world and enough people who can't control it for something like that to happen. And that act of violence against me was an immeasurably tiny nothing compared to the kind of violence that happened the very same day on the other side of the country.
I like that I can't suspend my disbelief enough to obey my anger. I like that I lack a revenge reflex. I like that I don't need to weave violence into my life to feel like I'm doing my bit as a human being. If violence is demanded of me in order to be an Official Man, well, screw it. I can probably afford the surgery if I cut down on coffee.