Tough Guys

I have a question.
Where do heroes come from? Or better yet, where do role models come from? Where do we find our idols or the people we idolize and why? What is it about them?  Is it the way they walk or talk? Or is it the way they handle their lives or deal with the crowds?

As for the crowds, the crowds mean different things to different people. Acceptance means different things to different people too. Meanwhile, everyone wants this. Everyone wants to be accepted and feel as if they are fit to be welcome and part of the group.

My best analogy of the crowd and the need to fit is related to the first time I walked into the cafeteria in junior high school. I was little and scared. I went from being a small fish in a small pond to believing I was an even smaller fish in a mid-sized pond. Kids were bigger, taller, faster and stronger. As for me, I was small and looked much younger than anyone else my age.

When I stepped into the cafeteria, I saw the big room as a sea of faces. These were kids of all different ages from the seventh to the ninth grade. They were from different parts of my town that was outside of my safe little bubble which made up a radius of one square block. Some of the older kids had facial hair. And me, I didn’t even have hair beneath my armpits.

There were the jocks and the pretty people that sat on the popular side. There were the tough kids and the crazy kids on the opposite side of the lunchroom. Either way, both sides had status. Both sides had appeal regardless of fame of infamy.

Between the government of cool kids in the middle of the cafeteria was the faceless and unknown. These were the tabled groups of the unpopular and the socially vacant faces of nameless people that seemed to live unremarkable lives. They had no memory appeal; in which, I mean there was nothing about them. No meat to the ribs of their life. The middle of the crowd were the kids that no one knew about and no one ever invited them to parties. They were just plain kids that had no life besides the quiet staleness of unnoticed living. There was no substance to them, no details, no crazy stories that made them stand out in the crowd. There was no reason to regard them in year books or attach them to social memories in class reunions after the decades have passed.

No one idolizes the middle of the crowd. No one regards the nameless or the faceless. There was a feeling that I had when I was younger. There was a way that I saw myself. I wasn’t good looking or bad looking but more accurately, I was simply unnoticeable. I didn’t have a sense of style that made me stand out. I tried to stand out but the harder I tried it seemed the worse I struggled in the social spectrum. Meanwhile, there are people in the world that can walk into a room and everyone takes notice. They don’t have to do or say anything, and yet somehow, all eyes are on them.

There is an argument that people say, which starts off as, “Yeah well, we were just kids then.” And yes, I agree. We were just kids then. We were learning. We were growing and more to the point; we were forming our lives and opinions based upon the byproducts of our experiences.

Ever wonder why people like the “Bad guy? Ever wonder why people idolize the tough guy or the crazy ones? Ever wonder why people behave as they do or bully or push others around? 
Ever wonder why some people prefer to be unnoticed and slip into the silence to remain undetected? There’s a reason for all of this.
Ever been pushed? Ever been hurt or bullied? Or wait, have you ever been taken advantage of and felt so foolish that the only thought in your mind is “Never again!”?

We choose our so-called images and create personalities as a means of protection. Our images are the cover-ups and the layers we wear over our true self. An image is a likeness or a representation of a personality that we choose to claim as our own. The image is the mask we wear or the nonchalant mannerism we try to use to hide the fact that no, everything is not okay. Our image is the disguise we use to hide the fragile details of our personality. So we make up a persona. We create an image to find a sense of safety. More accurately, we play tough to hide the weaknesses.

Ever wonder why kids idolize gangsters? Ever see how they are glorified? Even if we try to horrify their stories, somehow, there is a rebellious and yet romantic taste to the tragedies.

I have seen guest speakers from the jail go to schools to try and sway the students away from crime. They’ll say, “Don’t be like me,” and yet, on the other hand, the kids see this as a badge of honor. Too many kids see this as a shield to fend off the other bullies or at best, to keep them from feeling the fears of being victim to anyone else.

There are questions like how can you hurt a thief the most?
Steal from them.
How can you get back at a conman?
Con him.
How do you hurt the rich?
Make them poor.
See where I’m going with this?
We are afraid of our vulnerabilities; therefore, we act on their behalf to cover them up and feel protected.

I see these kids and I think about their future. I think about their plans which never pan out the same as they’ve fantasized. This happens in fist fights. This happens in verbal arguments. This happens in life. And in the mind of mind’s is the idea that thinks as if to say, “I’m going to say this! And this is how everyone will respond!”

Meanwhile, there is another side to fantasy. I like to call this reality. Reality does not always coexist with fantasy. I know this because of a scar on the back of my head. I know this because I assumed my way would be intimidating enough that the bullies at a table in a diner near 36th Street would understand that I was the wrong one to play with. I wanted them to be afraid of me so I did frightful things. I acted out and showed them, “You can’t talk to me that way!” I responded by crashing a piece of wood atop one of the three bully’s heads. In my mind, this was going to show them. In my mind, I was going to put fear into their hearts and make them regret they ever picked on me. In my head, I was going to inflict pain but in reality, I knew it was going to be a tough night when the bully I struck stood up and turned around to spill me across the floor.

I have a scar on the back of my head that teaches me about the dangers of false perceptions of self and the dangers of inaccurate personal image. This was compliments of the three bullies at the diner. In all honesty, I am embarrassed to admit the truth about my old role models. If someone asked me about my heroes when I was younger, I’d have chosen poorly. 

Today, my heroes are far from tough guys. Some of my heroes are women. Some are men. Some are gay. Some are straight. Some are heroic to me for just being them, without any explanation, without any fancy decoration, and without the promotion that says, “I’m valid”.

To me, being tough is not about being the best fighter or being the tough guy from the block. Hell, I’ve met champion fighters with world titles around their waist. But yet, the toughest I ever met were people that didn’t need the spotlight or the attention. They didn’t need the fancy introductions or the fame. They didn’t care where they were in the room and they didn’t think about things, such as the different levels of popularity. 

I met a man named Father Anthony. He was never in a street fight. He never talked about gangsters or bragged about himself. I remember when he had a case of the shingles and the pain was so bad that he hit his knees and all he said was “Oh, Dear Lord.”

I met a man named Father Mike, He was as humble as they come. He is a Saint now. He died on 9/11 while giving a man his last rites. Falling debris took him out. Father Mike never talked tough. He never carried a gun. He never had to because he never gave in to the threats of being afraid.

I’ve been blessed to meet women that change the world around them. They do this with their heart. I have seen people walk into a room and change the way people act or think, simply because they bring a sense of calm with them.

That’s who I want to be like. I don’t want to be the hero. I don’t want to be the street guy or the tough guy. I just want to be me. All else is just fake. 

I had a conversation with a young man about to face his first charge. He thought there was something funny about this. He laughed this off. Meanwhile, he was about to face several months in a very uncomfortable place with uncomfortable men. He saw himself one way. I’m sure he saw himself differently the first time the gate rolled and slammed shut behind him. Ever hear that sound? Imagine an exclamation point at the end of a tragic sentence. That’s the sound a cell door makes when it slams shut.

Meanwhile, as haunting as this sounds, there’s a kid out there that somehow thinks about this as an ultimate rite of passage. And why? Because no one wants to mess with the tough guy.  That’s why.

I wish there was a way to disprove this theory. I wish kids weren’t so jazzed up about gangster roles or the ideas that come with it. There is a sad attraction to the unsettledness of criminal life. But hey, it’s a statement. It’s what being a tough guy is all about, right?

Have fun in the cell kid.
I’m sure everyone will like you very much.

One thought on “Tough Guys

  1. Sadly in a culture predicated on the herioc egoic overpowering of a more precarious but deeply connected feminine substrata of feeling attunement softness or sensitivity and intuition these kinds of ideals dominate. But they are bound to crumble eventually being not grounded in the truth of what it means to be truly human. Also they are riven with deep fear often masked in all the ways you point out. The use by date is up on this if we don’t want to destroy the planet and all that is good true and truly meaningful in and on it.

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