Nick Alexander wonders if his consideration of violence as an option—when it clearly was not the best option—was a method of reinforcing his masculinity to himself?
A man pushed me today for no apparent reason.
I was on Nostrand Ave between Herkimer and Fulton, at about ten minutes after eight on a Tuesday morning. I noticed a man who I’ve seen several times before in that same spot. He is tall, maybe 6’1″, and skinny but not gaunt. He probably weighs in around 185. He has somewhat of a six pack and a lean torso. I know this because he is always shirtless. His brownish green pants hang a couple of inches below his waist and it is unclear whether or not he wears any kind of underwear. I would venture to say no. His pants have at least one significant tear that runs horizontally across his right hamstring. He has short hair and a stern face although I have never really looked him in the eye—it’s New York, you just don’t do that.
He was particularly agitated this morning. He always seems rather unhappy but this day he was more animated. With his chest heaving, he paced in small circles until finally ending one trip with a swift kick from his right foot to a trash can. The trash can fell over with some contents spilling out. Thanks to the sanitation department, it was rather empty. He puffed away triumphantly.
I was about 10 feet away from the trash can incident. I considered picking up the fallen victim; I hate it when people deface the neighborhood. I opted not to pick it up because I did not want to stir any further hostility with a man who obviously felt strongly that the trash can should be laying on its side.
He then circled the fruit cart, still heaving and puffing but also pumping his arms as if trying to excite a crowd. I didn’t look at him directly. Even if I had, my sunglasses should have blocked the fact that I was looking at anything.
I passed him. Then I felt two palms, one on my right shoulder and the other on my right shoulder blade. They were followed by an angry shove. I took two or three quick lunges forward and slightly left to compensate for the extra momentum. I found myself saying “stop it, man” in a rather conversational tone. With less than a second to react, I had to decide whether I should fight or leave. I figured that since it was one shove and there was no striking, there was not likely going to be any follow through. Plus, unlike him, I did not have a good reason to fight anybody.
I continued to cross the street, careful not to look back at him but diligently watching my shadow to make sure it was not about to be attacked by another shadow. I was also listening for footsteps. During one glance at my shadow I saw him from the corner of my eye turning away to return to his circling of fruit carts and kicking of trash cans. I guess in this situation, ignoring his shove made him pursue something else.
There were two traffic cops standing on the other side of the street so I crossed to speak with them. While crossing, I continued to think about what I would do if he attacked me. Would I punch him? He was much taller and had greater reach than I so that may not be the best option. Would I try to take him down and then choke him out? That seemed more feasible. Or would I continue to dodge him until help arrived? I think I would have gone with the latter. There was no good reason for me to put myself or him in danger if it could be avoided. Also, as a minority in the neighborhood, I had to be careful about how my actions could be perceived. Isn’t that a strange thought? Talk about turning the tables.
One traffic cop was directing traffic and the other was on her phone talking about a ConEd bill. I interrupted the one on the phone assuming that what she was doing was less important.I told her “there is a shirtless man over there kicking trash cans and pushing people. Can you watch out for him?”
“He’s pushing people?” I answered yes. Technically he only pushed me. But I am people, right? Also, I don’t know if he pushed someone else earlier and they walked away. And what if he pushed someone else later that morning? And what if that person fell? Or didn’t ignore him and chose to fight? She said she would call the police, a response that I found slightly reassuring and slightly ironic.
Later, as I recorded this incident in my journal, I began to analyze the situation. I questioned why I even thought about fighting the man. I questioned why I needed to include in my journal entry that I could probably take the man down and put him in a choke hold. I couldn’t answer either of those questions until I listened to an HBR podcast a week later about working fathers needing a balance in their life. The speakers reference a psychology study that draws this conclusion: Unlike womanhood, manhood is widely viewed as a status that is elusive (it must be earned) and tenuous (it must be demonstrated repeatedly through actions). Was my consideration of violence as an option, when it clearly was not the best option, a method of me reinforcing my masculinity to myself? Were the man’s violent actions against me and the trashcan his way of asserting his masculinity—possibly because they had been threatened by mental illness, homelessness or food insecurity?
In my life I have encountered firsthand the violent capabilities of males through an abusive father, friends who drink too much, and living in a densely populated city. If violence and aggression are methods to demonstrate manhood which is constantly being threatened, as the research above suggests, then we are in serious trouble. Even the possibility of this being true begs our society to have a conversation that many are ignoring. We need to talk about why violence and aggression are common, go-to “credentials” for manhood. We need to talk about why we constantly feel the need to demonstrate our masculinity. We need to define masculinity and live it so we can be role models for other men and help them understand the implications of pushing back.
photo: faceme / flickr