Back to Billy Lieberman and his beating. I’m still glad I didn’t intervene, nice or not and I’m sorry Billy took the beating but it wasn’t my fault and in Brooklyn sometimes you had to take a beating to avoid something worse.
Brooklyn could be a very difficult and callous place where kindness was often in short supply.
I got into it once with my homeroom teacher senior year in high school
His name was Mr. Towel, not a precise spell but pretty close. Mr. Towel was a tall thin good-looking guy, 30ish and a bit like a tall Burt Reynolds; and from what I found out later but didn’t know at the time…he was a gym teacher.
I never had words with him; I sat quietly and waited for first class to start. One of the girls in the class used to hang with him off to the side of his desk on some large cabinet and talk every morning. This girl was tall as well, 17 or 18, also thin and…absolutely gorgeous. I never focused on her or him much, they were engaged in some kind of relationship and in a way were kind of perfect for each other, beautiful together. They had feelings for each other. She would have been out of my league if I got even that far to consider which I never did. I was a senior in high school and all of 15 or 16.
One homeroom they were hanging out as usual. I was sitting in my seat doing absolutely nothing when Mr. Towel, for no apparent reason turned to me, in front of this girl and the class and yelled… “Hey Baruch…you fat Jew boy!!!” He let loose a long smile. The girl looked aghast when he said that to me. She looked me in the eye for a moment with panic, fear and dread…not what I expected from her. She didn’t laugh, she didn’t smile, she didn’t smirk. Again, I had never had words of any sort with this guy and this was about to turn into one of the largest mistakes of his life (by the way I get soundly assaulted in this story despite that).
I looked at him and said, “You’re an anti-Semite!”
He responded, “How can I be an anti-Semite? I’m Jewish myself!” Another big smile rolled across his face with a laugh.
I had just finished a short story by either Vonnegut or Ellison where the protagonist attends a neo-Nazi rally and turns out to be Jewish.
“That’s even worse!” I said, “There are Jewish anti-Semites,” essentially putting a cigarette out in his nose and I looked down at my desk. The bell rang and the girl left in a panic. He was none too happy with me.
I got up to leave and found myself face to face with him at my desk. He towered over me.
He said, “Why did you have to say that?” I must have ruined whatever was going on with the girl.
I exclaimed to him, “You called me an anti-Semite.”
“You know I was only joking,” he said. Then he kicked me in the shins and delivered an evil smile. He was wearing a pair of wooden clogs which was popular in those days. It hurt when he kicked me but I was not one to back down and this was Brooklyn.
I said something back to him and kicked him back in the shins. He kicked me again. I kicked him back. He did it again. At that point I decided this was futile, going nowhere, and it was starting to really hurt and I knew I’d be bruised for days. I turned to leave, had my books and things in my hands and he grabbed me around my neck from behind and picked me up off the floor by my neck.
I simply could not breathe and he held me up in the air like that. I dropped all my books but I kept my paddle pall racket in my hand. I was really good at the game. My brother gave me the racket for my birthday and it had a heavy band of aluminum around the circumference for added weight and stability. I weighed whether I should smash him in the head with it. That would have made him let me go but I didn’t believe this would go well with my parents, or the police or the school at least initially and I decided to wait it out, he had to drop me sooner or later. I’m guessing I was up there for 15-30 seconds when he finally let go. I fell to the floor and caught up on my breathing while he looked at me with fury and a look that said, “That will teach you.” He dodged out of the room.
I was a mess, in tears going to my next class which fortunately was American History/Economics taught by the assistant dean of students who liked me and I got along with him really well. I waited for him outside of class. Kindness was not in short supply with this man. He saw me in tears, asked me what was wrong and I told him the story. He told me the gym teachers could get rough and that he would handle it. His name was Mr. Hymen, correct spelling, and he was Jewish too and he was a gem! The students really liked him and the girls in the class chipped in and bought him jigsaw puzzle called, “Bridget in the Buff,” which featured a smiling, overweight young lady wearing nothing but a couple rolls of fat! It was a huge chutzpah move by the girls and he was really pleased with the gift and promised to do that puzzle when he got home. It was a really warming moment.
We finished talking. He told me to get myself together and come back to class when I was ready and he would take care of it.
The next day when I went back to homeroom. Mr. Towel was sullenly sitting at his desk. He didn’t look at me at all. The girl was nowhere to be found, probably on the other side of the room. He never bothered me again and he never taught at that high school again. His contract was not renewed. He apparently had run into some other issues as well.
Moral of the story…sometimes it’s better to take the beating.
Thoughts about the event: I’ve had a lot of time to think through these events. I think I handled it well. I never touched the guy except for returning shin kicks. In Brooklyn you just cant let yourself get abused without some fighting back.
Towel spent day after day with that girl. She was young but was probably 18. He was probably grooming her for an affair, maybe smart enough to wait for graduation to get together. I guess I couldn’t blame him for that but he used my back to climb on to get to the girl.
They must have been at the part of the relationship where they were discussing religion. He was Jewish and I suspect she was Italian so Roman Catholic. She must have asked if that was a problem. I believe he was trying to prove to her that it didn’t matter and to prove it decided to show how funny it was when he called me a fat Jew boy and he laughed along gaily. I didn’t find it funny at all. My family was in the Holocaust and it was worse hearing an anti-Semitic comment from another Jew.
In all fairness it probably wasn’t entirely Towel’s fault this happened since it turned out he was born on, “I’m A Big Fucking Douche Bag Day.” So there is that.
Some of the kids from the class watched what happened including two Italian guys I would hang with. They asked me the next day why I didn’t hit him, they saw the paddle ball racket in my hand. I explained my fears and they said they would have stood up for me…they were outraged by the whole thing. This really made me feel good about things. I felt supported.
About the girl…I misread her as a Brooklyn “Hitter” (someone out of Saturday Night Fever which was filmed in my neighborhood) and only recently, reviewing the situation and “watching the tapes” I realized what a truly sweet and delicate girl she really was. He was coarse and grotesque but showed her attention. They looked beautiful together but she was too good for him, young and fresh and a bit naïve at the time. I’m really sorry she was put through that but I did her a favor and I took a beating for it. The man had real issues, she was wonderful and he was lacking.