I grew up in the South Bronx during the mid 80s and early 90s. My mindset and experiences were forged on the streets during that very turbulent era. Those experiences, for better or worse, made me into the person that I am today.
Some years ago, I saw an interview where Mike Tyson was speaking about his personality. For those of you who may not be familiar with the former heavyweight champ, he can have a short temper, and does not take kindly to any form of abuse. He also has the one-two punch to back it up! During this particular interview, Tyson stated something along the lines of, “I was afraid of looking weak. I was afraid of being humiliated in the streets. So I became strong and really tough.”
Tyson’s words during that interview resonated with me. Anyone who has met me in person would tell you that I have a very powerful personality. They would tell you that I am confident, sometimes arrogant, and borderline frightening when I speak. They have said that I am extremely intense, and totally in your face. They know me as a mixed martial artist, a weapon’s enthusiast- and though very peaceful, I present a rough exterior.
Unless they are one of those older friends who go back to my childhood, most of them would never tell you that I am a frightened, timid, and painfully shy guy. When I have said this to newer friends, or even demonstrated it in any form, I am met with shock and confusion. Anyone who has met me later in life would only see the other guy- that hard exterior, which I present today.
A few days ago, I was taking my wife’s Pomeranian, Calbee, to get groomed. Calbee is not a very friendly dog, and does not walk well on a leash. As such I put her in the bag that was provided to me: a small, pink shoulder carry bag. As I took the walk to the groomers, with Calbee in her pink bag, a few gentlemen pulled up beside me in a vehicle and proceeded to scream homosexual slurs at me.
My immediate reaction was to go on the defensive, and I glared towards the gentlemen. I considered setting Calbee down and going over and giving them the nice butt-whooping that they deserved. However, cooler heads prevailed and I realized that I was not defined by what these idiots said. Furthermore, I considered my friends who are gay, and how they are really great people, so why would it offend me that they chose to call me homosexual slurs?
Perhaps my reaction is because in the neighborhoods where I grew up, this term was used to remove your manhood. It was one of the most offensive things that you could say about a man who grew up in the streets. As such, my instincts for self-preservation kicked in; back in those days you had to meet this type of aggression with equal or greater aggression, otherwise they would smell the weakness and devour you alive, while relegating your status to that of being a permanent victim. This happened to me many times, just as Mike Tyson experienced it too, and because of these experiences, I am the person that I am today.
I considered my options: there I was, 38 years old, carrying a four-pound dog in a pink handbag, and I was worried about some young punks offending my masculinity? Just like Mike Tyson, the streets made me this way. Being humiliated in the streets is one of the greatest fears that a man who comes from that environment could ever have! Respect was one of the few things we had when growing up poor and in the streets! You had to fight for it, otherwise you would be condemned to a life of abuse.
Yet, I’m not in that life anymore, am I?
I shook my head at the young punks, and I continued walking towards the groomers. I knew that there was far too much at stake to let some fools provoke me into such a negative, lose-lose situation.
This is a message that I try to pass on to the youth today who may be in a similar situation to which I was back then. I try to teach them that aggressive reactions to such situations are all about ego, and pride- and even old guys like me have to be reminded of it on occasion.
I cannot speak for individuals who grew up under better circumstances, nor the female experience. However, for us young men who grew up in what is colloquially called “The Ghetto,” being seen as weak is one of the greatest fears that we have. Walking with Calbee to the groomers showed me, that though I have come a long way in how I deal with the world, I still have plenty of room for growth in my development.
What are your thoughts about this topic?
Featured photo credit: Vazquez/FamilyMWR US Army via flickr.com