• Garth Wolkoff

The Man Who Hit Me

He punched me in the face. Twice. It hurt. The second time he punched me, he knocked off my glasses. Lucy and I had just exited subway station. Sunday afternoon in June, overcast but warm enough. We were walking home the two long blocks to our basement apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

The man, a tall man, had been walking in our direction and passed me. He yelled, as he got to my left shoulder, you bumped me. I apologized, and then he hit me, square in the cheek. I hadn’t been hit by anyone like that since 1990, in San Francisco. The impact shook me and I babbled some words. What are you doing? When did I bump you? I’m sorry if I did. Then he struck a boxer’s pose. A tall man, like I said, very dark skin, and I don’t remember other details. Then he punched me in the same cheek, closer to the ear. I probably yelped. I felt like I emitted a sound. Lucy started crying and ran away a few houses up the block. I kind of knew, despite being so flummoxed, that he wouldn’t hurt her. He was angry at me. Or crazy. I ran after Lucy, sans glasses, after her shape. I hugged her. Her crying stopped and we asked each other, Are you okay? I hugged her close. Shock, shook, shaken.

We looked backward. A white woman was coming toward us. She had my glasses. She was flipped out too, it was obvious by her large eyes when I put my glasses back on. I looked toward where I imagined the man still stood, but he had gone. He had run back toward Nostrand Avenue, the woman said, and disappeared. She said he said something about crackers moving into the neighborhood. She kept asking me if I was alright, and I wasn’t sure.

What should I have done at the moment? Fight back? I can’t fight. His fists came out of nowhere, is how it seemed. The truth is, I don’t live in a world, either in my mind or my experience, where people throw punches at me. I should have gotten the woman’s name and contact information, that’s what I should have done. I should have asked some teenagers playing basketball at the Banneker Playground across the street if they had seen anything, knowing full well, from their stares and catcalls, that they had. I should have taken a picture of the man with my phone. I should have called the police then and there. No, it wasn’t the worst incident that could have happened, that had ever happened. But it felt violent. It was violent.

But I didn’t do any of that. I walked Lucy home, a growing fear that she might suffer some trauma, sharing surprise with her, asking her, like the woman who had seen it all happen, if she was okay. She is only eight. I can’t know what seeing your dad punched in the face means. It had never happened to me.

Later, I filed a police report. I even went the police station, around the corner from my house, practically, and tried to ID some electronic mugshots. But really, my glasses had been knocked off. I couldn’t identify anybody. When the cop asked me to describe him, and I told him he had dark skin, the two other cops in the room asked what I meant by dark, and pointed to their own skin tone. When I said more like one than the other, the lighter skinned cop started laughing at the darker skinned cop, and the darker skinned cop starting talking about what women liked about him.

And in this way, it became a joke, and I laughed right along with them, because in truth, I didn’t want to catch the man who hit me. If he posed a threat to others, fine, I’d help. But I didn’t know that, and I couldn’t escape my own blame.

So I walked home from the police station and slept walked through a wave of guilt. Surreal. That guilt propelled me upwards, outside of my body, into the air, and I looked down at the lush green city park to my left, the barbershop and bodega on my right, the men hanging out on the stoop--I looked west down Tompkins Avenue and for several blocks there were evenly spaced white bicyclists in helmets riding in my direction, passing through Bed-Stuy from Williamsburg to someplace else. White people passing through to some place else. Is that me? A white person passing through? Another “cracker moving in?” Or a white man trying to find his place in a historically Black neighborhood?

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