I was pushing my bike up the hill and out of the park at 83rd Street and Riverside Drive. It was a bright autumn morning on the Upper West Side. I had just passed the playground I played in as a kid, and where my children now played. I was moving through the landscape of my childhood but I was not a child. My mother’s apartment building was up ahead. My family and I were living there for the fall before returning to New Orleans. The building emitted family history with a force sufficient to be nearly visible, like heat waves. I had just dropped my daughter at school and was on the phone with my mother, even though I was on my way over to her apartment.
And then I had another in the long line of intermittent encounters with slightly crazy guys who get my attention by calling me, passing by in all my innocence, a faggot.
Maybe it was because I was wearing a purple Krama wrapped around my neck. A Krama is a beautiful piece of all-purpose cloth used mostly as a scarf but also as a sarong, a hammock for children, a whole variety of things by every strata of Khmer society. I got it on a trip to Cambodia from which I had recently returned. Cambodia, where the men sometimes hold hands. My previous visits to Cambodia, in the mid-nineties, had been unsettling, literally unbalancing. We are not such limber moral beings that once our sense of reality gets stretched out of shape it immediately bounces back to its previous form. But the Cambodia I had just returned from had been, relative to the one I had known, a stable place. I too was in a more stable place.
It had been parent’s night the previous evening, and she showed me to all the projects her class had been working on and I enjoyed pantomiming being surprised. She showed me the way she could spell her name. She took me to the numbers caterpillar and counted all twenty-four little green circles, and then put her finger where the 25th circle will be later that day and looked up at me with mischievous pride. I kissed her goodbye and left her holding hands with a friend she had made.
The next morning I biked my daughter up to school and then walked home. I had dressed casually, in the black cloth shorts favored by rice farmers in Southeast Asia, high top sneakers, a black waffle shirt, and over that a light blue button down shirt made in Germany that I had bought many years ago on Bleeker street. The ripped, unbuttoned sleeves flapped around my forearms. Also aviator shades, and the purple Krama, wrapped scrofulously around my neck.
[B]efore I got a word out he said it again, right to my face. “Faggot.”
The guy was sitting on a park bench. He seemed to be in a state of repose, taking in the nice weather. He was very big, brown, heavier than me but not taller, middle aged. He wore grey sweatpants, patent leather high tops, worn but still shiny, a green trench coat, and a cap.
I still had one foot in the parent bubble. Within this bubble one simultaneously roots for the world to be friendly and kind, and is therefore more likely to nod hello to strangers, and also keeps a vigilant eye out of any sign of threat. You become wildly garrulous or very paranoid. I lean, as a rule, to the former. When our eyes met I nodded hello.
He responded with a deadpan glower. After a couple of beats he replied, “Faggot.”
On the phone, my mother was in the middle of telling me about her trip to the doctor. I felt a shiver of pleasure and adrenalin. I told her I would be upstairs in a minute, and got off the phone. I thought of how unaware she was of what these next seconds held for me. Phone in my pocket, I turned around and pushed the bike back towards the guy on the bench. But before I got a word out he said it again, right to my face. “Faggot.”
I received it like a slap. The contempt was shocking. I leaned on my bike in front of him and said, “Hey,” like I had an idea I wanted to share. “Fuck you.” Then I stared at him. He stared at me. It was an oddly decorous interval, like we were two gentleman who had just slapped each other with white gloves.
Then he reached down into the pocket of his sweatpants. I wondered if he would remove a gun. He had a brown paper bag beside him, and a bottle of Mountain Dew. Out of his sweat-pants pocket came a beat up black phone.
“Yeah?” he said. He was taking a call.
I started walking back up the block. But I had only gone about ten steps when he called after me again. “Faggot.”
I stopped. The wind was whipping, the clouds raced across a gorgeous blue sky. Dry leaves rustled in a whirlwind on the ground, a counterpoint to the rustling trees above. These moments of rushing brilliance are exalting but also provocative. I turned and walked back toward him.
Was I standing up for faggots against this rudeness and presumption, or did my reaction mean I shared his assumption that the word “faggot” was the ultimate insult? The complexity of the situation reminded me of an incident involving Joakim Noah, a star NBA player for the Chicago Bulls.
Joakim Noah has a ridiculously sophisticated background for an NBA player. For anyone, really. He grew up in downtown Manhattan. His father a French pop-star and ex-tennis star, his mother a former Swedish model with Bohemian leanings. His mother’s best friend, the dancer Robert Tracy, was Nureyev’s lover. Such was Tracy’s presence in his life that Noah has been quoted as saying, “We used to call him ‘Mom.'”
Noah offered the quote in response to an incident where he was caught on camera emphatically saying “faggot” to a heckling fan . His mother, he said, was shocked. The NBA fined him a fifty-thousand dollars.
The word faggot can be generically hostile, or it can be a personal attack against someone’s sexuality. I was not angry at being confused for a gay man, but I was angry at the presumption in the word that I would do nothing in response. If he had called out, “Asshole,” (let’s not get too interpretive here) it would have been laughable. “Asshole,” “Bitch,” and “Loser,” (this last would have been hilarious coming from the guy on the bench) are benignly hostile, whereas “faggot” is also a directive. It says, I know how you are going to react, you are going to do nothing. To which my response was: you don’t know shit.
So I stood in front of the man on the bench while he chatted pleasantly on the phone. Was I engaging with an insane person? I waved my hand hello a few times. He gave me a “just give me a second,” sort of look while I turned my hand around and slowly gave him the finger. He looked elsewhere and saw none of it.
I walked away. He called after me, ”faggot.” I walked back again.
“I can say whatever I want,” he said.
“You say whatever you want. I’m not going to stop you,” I said. “And I can sit wherever I want.” I sat on his bench, not right next to him but on the other half of it, a metal divider between us.
To my utter delight he stood up and started walking away.
I followed him and now, at last, found the courage to perform the aria of invective I had learned thirty years earlier from a scalper outside of Madison Square Garden. I had been in the midst of trying to scalp Knicks tickets when I heard a little man in the nearby scrum bellow the words, “I’m going to reach down your mother-fucking throat and rip your fucking lungs out!”
My harasser walked down the street while I followed him, swearing clumsily. The wind swept my words off towards the river but they felt very good as they left me. Then, in a bit of a non-sequitor, I said “There are kids around here!”
What in the world did I mean by that?
Was I saying he shouldn’t call people a faggot because there are kids around? Maybe I meant, I know this is the edge of a park, but it’s a kid zone, and you can’t be a surly fuck in a kid zone because you will set a bad example. Or maybe I meant that if you transgress against the kid zone you will be met by screaming banshees and club wielding barbarians springing forth from within the seemingly mild mannered adults pushing strollers, all of whom contain these outrageous libidinal monsters which they are obliged, being parents, to keep in check for the sake of setting an example.
If you fight under the righteous banner of protecting the children you can be as barbaric and murderous as you want.
I think, as I do often, do not get yourself killed. Do not be stupid. This kid needs you. They all need you.
We kept barking at each other, from fifteen feet away. I glimpsed the doorman in the building across the street from mine talking to someone behind his glass door. I thought, “If I can see him, he can see me.” This doorman, who greets me warmly on the street, is in close contact, via a kind of doorman Morse code, with the doormen of my building. Word could get around. “Beller, with the little children, living with his mother, is getting into it with huge crazy guys in the park. He’s out of his mind and going to get shot.”
Nevertheless, I trash talked while the guy back-peddled to another bench. “You didn’t see the size?” I called after him. “What? If I was five feet tall you’d be in my face?” A ridiculous comment. I am very tall, but not really that imposing. What I was really alluding to was the size of my craziness. Why was I acting crazy? I had thought I was in a good mood.
For a second I made as if to sit beside him again. But I walked past. He said “faggot” again.
I walked past him. I entered the zone of my life. It was like walking through a membrane. The same clear, bracing wind on my face. The same purple Krama around my neck, acquired in the town of Kep, on the coast, where the big Villas were built on a hill overlooking the sea and then blown up by the Khmer Rouge.
I crossed the street without looking back. Beneath my feet, a rough grey stubble of asphalt. Up ahead, at the intersection, the stoplight swayed high above Riverside Drive like some lantern on a ship. And rising above the opposite sidewalk, a giant slab of brick whose color is a melody I have known my whole life.
The lobby, the doorman, then the elevator, which, as it rises, makes the sound of an album before the song starts. I enter the apartment and its familiar smell and see that my wife is about to commence with the peas for the baby. He has just started what are euphemistically called “solids.” He has a diaper on and nothing else. He is big for five months. The morning light falls on his pale skin. When he sees me, his whole body jerks in recognition–arms shoot straight out, legs jerk, eyes widen. A body-wide twitch of pleasure. The smile registers pure delight.
I think, as I do often, do not get yourself killed. Do not be stupid. This kid needs you. They all need you. As I needed my father, who escaped Vienna in 1938, surviving on a bag of apples on the train, then running through woods at night until he fell in a freezing river and was pulled out by the Swiss. He was cautious in life, and died early of cancer anyway.