Saturday, August 30, 2014

Playing While Black

People were shouting. I was laying flat on my stomach in the shopping plaza parking lot. My glasses had been ripped off and all I could see was a blur moving toward me. It was either a cop or a security guard. His hands griped the belt holster. I couldn't tell whether it was a gun, a taser, or pepper spray he was about to bring out. I spun around and rolled onto my back with my hands in the air. I wanted him to see my eyes. It was amazing how quickly something could be misinterpreted in public. As I lay on the ground thinking about this, I felt a strange rush overtake me and a smirk of fear and excitement spread across my lips. Over the chaos, I shouted "no no no!"

In high school I was on the wrestling team. It was like having 12 little brothers. We would slap, smack, flick, kick, punch, and trip each other for entertainment. Our aggressive affection would come out in practice and flow out into our daily interactions. Our coaches were like our parents trying to calm down their hyper-active kids. Road trips were great opportunities for our teenage selves to get outside of North Miami Beach, staying in hotel room like adults, while competing with other schools from around the state.

When traveling, the roughhousing would start in the van. It was minor stuff, flicking the ear of the passenger in front of us, shoving each other for the best seat. At the rest stops the action would turn into tripping each other on the way to the bathroom, slap fights, chasing each other. On more than more occasion the chasing would flow out of the rest stop parking lots and on to the interstate highway while our coaches faces flushed with anger and fear at our demise at the hands of a 18-wheeler. When we arrived at the hotel, we would get put in our respective rooms and then the real fighting would start. Body slamming, hurling each other on to beds, rolling around on the floor while choking each other into submission. The coaches would bang on the walls from their room while drinking Coronas and smoking cigars.
Our wrestling team was North Miami Beach diverse: Haitian, Caribbean, Latin American, Jewish, and even the occasional WASP. When we would venture into Central and Northern Florida -which is the equivalent of the deep south, our crew would definitely draw attention. When strolling into one tournament in Central Florida, the rural coaches shouted 'uh-oh, here come the thugs! They're gonna rob us!' There was laughter as the insults went back and forth with us hurling claims of them screwing their cousins and tipping cows as they wanted to know how much crack-cocaine we had shoved up our ass. The wrestling locker room humor was drenched in competitive hatred, bigotry, prejudice, and tribalism as teenagers stripped down for weigh-ins and were placed in their respective tournament brackets.

We were in rural Florida on another wrestling trip, when our coaches decided to go shopping. They pulled the van into one of those non-descript Florida shopping plazas that litter I-95 corridor. We got out of the van and started tripping and slapping each other as we walked from store to store. A clerk in one stores suggested we leave and we sulked out into the plaza sidewalk, where the roughhousing continued.

In this particular we had a new member on the NMB traveling team: a Haitian teenager who was muscular, dark-skinned, and short. Now in many of these group rumbles it was me vs. everyone else. I enjoyed the battle of me against the world. The challenge made me feel like Bruce Lee dispatching of a fleet of adversaries. I would grab one of the smaller wrestlers and use him as a bludgeoning tool, swinging them around by their legs to take out a new wave of challengers in one blow (yes, we had no regard for concussions back then). We would never try to intentionally hurt or injure each other, as we would burst into delirious fits of laughter during the rumbling.

Usually I had no problem holding my own in these friendly battles. The new member of these games threw off the power dynamic. Muscular and squat in stature, the other guys decided to try a new tactic and use the Haitian teenager's strength in the first wave of attack while laying back. He lunged at me first and wrapped himself around one of my legs. Planted into the ground, the second wave of wrestlers came and attacked my free leg and took control. And then the final wrestler jumped on my back and wrapped himself around my shoulders trying to take me down. I did my best Terminator impersonation as I roared and swung my legs around while people grappled on.

My glasses were smacked off and I heard someone apologize while my glasses were pocketed for safekeeping. They took me down and we rolled around on the asphalt. My face was pushed down into the ground and all of sudden I heard shouting. Suddenly my legs and arms were free. All my friends had scattered. I looked up and saw a blurry figure running toward me as my savior. A stranger, a concerned store clerk? It was some kind of law enforcement officer or security guard. But when the officer started to reach for his holster, I realized that maybe he wasn't there to save me.

I wondered whether he had a gun, taser, or pepper spray on his belt. Whatever it was, I didn't want to get hit with 10,000 volts of electricity, chemical spray, or a warning shot, while lying on my stomach with the top part of my head exposed. Using my wrestling dexterity, I spun and flipped myself on to my back in one smooth motion while throwing my hands up near my ears. A bizarre smile appeared on my face as the officer realized that he wasn't breaking up a fight but teenage boy roughhousing.

I became aware of the picture we just created in that public space. This horde of black, brown, and yellow masculine bodies tossing each other around in a Central Florida parking lot. Unfortunately the victim in question (me) wasn't a blonde damsel in distress. As he got closer, I identified the blur as a the security guard, who was now extremely disappointed that he wouldn't be able to unsheathe his holster.

We all ended up laughing about the misunderstanding. My glasses were handed back to me and we spent the rest of our shopping time walking around the parking lot, trying to look as non-threatening and peaceful as possible.

Back in the van, we told our coaches about what had just happened while laughing. They didn't find it funny. In fact, they were horrified and reminded us that someone could have been shot by some 'redneck' cop. One of the wrestlers reminded the coach that the cop would have only shot the Haitian guy or me. The laughter faded away and into an uncomfortable silence on the ride back to the hotel.

From that day forward, I didn't participate in any roughhousing in public. My coaches praised me for this change, seeing it as a sign of maturity. When my other teammates would try to goad me into a fight at a convenience store or on the street, I reminded them that I was the one who could get in trouble. They usually backed off with a quiet understanding. 

No comments: