The second year of grad school began in September 1970. I settled down to study—no more knocking on doors to protest the Vietnam War, no more marching to the Capitol, no more criticizing professors’ teaching methods. I still felt incompetent.
The teacher who’d laughed at our classroom answers had returned my final essay on the symbolism in Melville’s novel Billy Budd. On the back page, he’d written, “I find this paper totally laughable.”
Then he proceeded to tell me all the good things about the composition: the writing, the interpretation of the symbols, the research. After that paragraph of praise, he scrawled, “For these and many other reasons, I can give you only a D.” His reasoning eluded me. I felt as if I’d entered an alternate universe in which words no longer meant what they had before.
That feeling continued throughout the rest of grad school. My grades slipped lower. I wasn’t doing well on exams. Moreover, I’d never really learned to come up with a premise and prove or disprove it through research.
I sunk deeper into despair. The three voices continued to hound me. A violent happening one winter night of that second year exacerbated all this.
On that night I lugged a bag of dirty clothes to the corner Laundromat. Two young women stood folding their first load of laundry, discussing the latest episode of a popular television soap opera.
Sitting before the washer with the round, glass door set in front, I watched my load of whites swish. The sound mesmerized me. Sleep came hard that year.
Then—Shouting. Cursing. The thudding of feet against a body.
The three of us rushed to the glass door. On the sidewalk in front of the Laundromat, five men, looming large in their polyester-filled parkas, were kicking a sixth young man who writhed on the sidewalk, trying to elude the flailing of their footed winter boots.
He held his arms tightly around his head. His prone body, folded in a fetal position, jerked wildly on the ice as the five assailants moved around him, their feet lashing out. They stood above him, shouting—their words so maniacal I couldn’t make sense of them.
Without considering the consequences, I flung open the Laundromat door, yelling “Call the police!” at the two young women. Grabbing hold of one assailant, who was intent only on his boot connecting with the body on the sidewalk, I shoved him roughly aside. He stumbled backward, cursing.
I fell to my knees and bent over the young man’s face, trying to protect his head. My hair was short and I wore slacks and a loose sweatshirt. Because of this, the five didn’t immediately recognize me as a woman. They began pummeling me with their fists. I shouted, “Stop! Stop this! You’ll kill him.”
My voice did stop them—momentarily. Then I heard one, clearly the leader, say, “Knock her off 'em. Then I'll bush his head in.”
Someone grabbed my shoulders and pulled me backward. Resisting, I lunged forward, my body now pressed against the young man’s face. I enfolded his head in my arms.
“Get her off 'em!” the leader shouted.
Two tried pulling me away. I hold on so tightly that they dragged the two of us in a circle on the ice. The young man beneath me shuddered as the other three assailants kicked his torso and legs repeatedly. He moaned as thuds battered his body.
As if concluding a ritual, each of the young men gave the victim one last, swift kick before running into the darkness.
Aftermath: The police called an ambulance and questioned both the young man and me. He was mumbling so I couldn’t really hear what he said. I was able to describe only what I’d seen. I had no idea about what had occurred before the scene in front of the Laundromat.
I heard the police put out an alert for five fleeing men. The ambulance came and the young man climbed in its back door. The police encouraged me to go with him, but I refused. I had no insurance.
When they left, I entered the warmth of the Laundromat. I’d rushed out into the night without my coat and was shivering from cold and shock.
I removed my clothes from the washer, put them in the drier, and sat down to consider what had happened. In that melee who was innocent? Who was guilty? I didn’t know.
Nor do I know what happened to that young man or to the five who assailed him so rigorously. What I do know is that the next morning I woke with a knot on the back of my head and a black eye. That and one other thing: nothing is truly settled with fists and boots and violence.
(Continued on Tuesday . . . )
Photo of Laundromat from Wikipedia.
Photo of winter scene by Maggie Smith from freedigitalphotos