Friday, October 24, 2014

Chasing Dignity

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 2006

“…Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.”
    – from “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In the summer of 1978, with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” playing to the delight of a midnight show packed house, a fight broke out in the middle of Grace Street. Insults, rocks and bottles flew back and forth between the two factions of four or five each. It appeared to be VCU frat boys vs. an Oregon Hill crew.

The battle was unfolding a perilous 30 to 40 yards from the Cinemascopic all-glass front of the Biograph Theatre, a Fan District cinema I then managed. The box office had just closed and the cashier had started her count-up. At the same time a group of my Biograph Swordfish softball teammates was in the lobby, playing a pinball machine. It’s likely we were drinking beer out of soft drink cups.

As the theater’s manager, I felt obliged to protect the Biograph by driving the danger away. So I opened one of the lobby’s two glass exit doors and yelled that the cops were already on the way. Then I probably asked a cashier to call the cops.

That announcement was good enough for the frat boys, who scampered off. Their opposites simply switched over to bombing me. As they advanced, rocks bounced closer. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk. I retreated and closed the door. Then a piece of brick smashed through the door’s bottom panel. It rudely collided with my right shin.

Well, that was that! When we lit out after them, our impromptu posse of pinball players and film buffs consisted of six, maybe seven guys. The hooligans scattered, but my focus was solely on the one who’d plunked me. Hemmed in by three of us in a parking lot, he faked one way, then cut to the other. When his traction gave way slightly in the gravel paving, he stumbled to regain his balance. A second later I tackled him by the legs.

With some help from my friends, we marched the captured 19-year-old along the sidewalk toward the theater. The feeling of the adrenaline coursing through my limbs is still a vivid memory. It sure felt good to have caught the guy who attacked the Biograph.

During the trek east on Grace Street -- which, in 1978, was still a one-way street, heading west -- the culprit said something that provoked one of the guys in the group to suddenly turn and punch him in the face. That, while the punchee’s arms were being held. It happened in front of Grace Place.  

One of the policemen assembled on the sidewalk around the entrance to the theater saw it. He sarcastically complimented the puncher for his inspired “technique.” Shortly afterward, the brick-throwing street-fighting man was put into the paddy wagon and taken to jail.

A few minutes later I told the vigilante puncher that I thought he had overreached in hitting the kid, especially while he was helpless. I probably said it was totally unnecessary. Surprised by my reaction, the puncher, who was a softball teammate, laughed and shrugged. He disagreed, saying that his summary punishment would likely be the only price the little thug would ever pay for his crime. He pointed at my bleeding shin.

Which prompted me to say something like, “Hey, if we resort to their tactics, we’re no better than the damn fascist bullies we’ve claimed to deplore.” I suppose by saying “we’ve,” I meant something like -- us peacenik hippies.

As we went inside the theater to resume our pinball game another teammate voiced his agreement with the puncher. From the discussion that followed, it seemed the group was evenly split on the propriety of the punch.


It wasn’t long after that night I found myself poring over an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” The excerpt above is the evocative piece’s last paragraph. During that rereading, it occurred to me the shattering glass door had been the sound of the hippie era ending. It was over. That street fight was a glance into the future for that neighborhood. Just like hippies didn’t prove to be the new beatniks, punks weren’t going to be the new hippies. 

As the '70s fizzled down my baby boomer generation was about to discover that our sweetest day in the sun -- with its righteous causes and rock ’n’ roll anthems -- had been another dollop of time. It had been a period with its fashionable looks and sounds, its way of walking, like eras. In some ways, Gatsby’s Roaring ’20s, redux.

A month or so later I agreed to the court’s proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor for breaking the glass and paid for the damage. A payment schedule was set up. As we spoke several times after that, I came to see the “hooligan” wasn’t really such a bad guy. Payment was made on time. Eventually, he asked me for the name of the man who’d punched him.

While withholding the name, I agreed with him that the blow had been a cheap shot. He seemed to take some satisfaction from that bit of validation.


About a year later, on a late summer afternoon, a thief snatched a handful of dollar bills from a Biograph cashier -- Augusta “Gussie” Armeniox -- then bolted out the front door. The cashier’s wide-eyed look of fright triggered an alarm in your narrator’s sense of duty/propriety. Gussie’s face was quite expressive.

As this happened half of my lifetime ago, I was still young enough to think chasing criminals down the street was normal. Quaint as it may sound now, at the moment it seemed then that some collective sense of dignity was at stake. So I chased the thief.

He ran between buildings and then back out to the street. Then he disappeared around a corner. In short, it took less than 10 minutes to discover the thief’s hiding place. I had flagged down a cop during the chase, so I pointed out where the robber was and the cops hauled him off.

However, during the search I received some unexpected help in cornering the thief. As I had run west on Grace Street behind the 20-year-old grab-and-run artist, another young man — a total stranger — had jumped out of his pickup truck to join in the chase.

Later, when the dust settled, I thanked the volunteer and asked him why he’d stopped. He answered that because a buddy of his had once pointed me out, he knew I was the Biograph’s manager. His friend?

It was the same Oregon Hill street-fighter I’d tackled a year before. My assistant thief-chaser then told me his friend had assured him that I’d dealt fairly with him. Consequently, he owed a favor was to me. Before he left, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood the guys stick together. Thus, he’d supported me in my time of need, to help pay off his friend’s debt.

We shook hands.


Over the years what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying to me. No doubt that’s because so many times over the years, in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, I’ve done nothing to write home about — even the wrong thing.

At least in this story, maybe, I got it right. Still, I know times have changed. My guess is that today more people would agree with the guy who punched the kid.

So, in a way this story is nostalgic. It looks back through the mists of “ghostly rumbles” and “asthmatic whispers,” to a dollop of time when cheap shots were still frowned upon. It was when returning favors was part of what held things together.

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