brooklin, shaolin, queensbridge down to long island

I’ve had this anecdote in my back pocket for a bit, wondering what it meant. I’ll tell it anyway.

About a month ago I was working the heavy bag in the fitness center near my office. I try to go at a reasonable clip for the first set. Then I get some water and work elbows and knees for my second set. Third set I just pummel the bag until I can’t keep my arms up. I vary this routine pretty regularly, depending on energy level and my cardio needs for the day.

I do my first set and get some water. Coming back, I see a big guy who’d been jumping rope a few yards away at the bag. He’s throwing a few practice punches at the bag without gloves on, in that way that people do. I think nothing of it.

“When you throw a punch,” he says, as I step back up to the bag, “you want to make sure you step into it.”

Realizing he’s talking to me, I nod. I’m still catching my breath after the first set, so I couldn’t say anything yet even if I wanted to.

“Think of it like turning a corner,” he says, pantomiming the motion slowly.

“You mean like this?” I ask, and snap off a jab without really looking at.

“Yeah!” he says. Then: “So you’ve seen this before?”

“You know that jiu-jitsu school around the corner on Arlington Street?”

“Yeah.”

“I teach there.”

His eyes widen; his hands go up; he stumbles backwards. “Whoa, hey.”

“No, no, it’s cool!” I smile the most disarming smile I have. But the conversation has passed us by.

# # #

Any gym – any collection of guys being athletic – has a certain amount of implied status involved. Large corporate fitness centers avoid outright posturing: nobody calling anybody “shrimp” or “peewee” or any other 1950s-era insults. But you remain conscious of who’s doing your workout better than you.

I have never been the alpha male, except perhaps in the smallest and most trivial of social circles. I accept that. Running at the head of the pack eats up a lot of energy. When someone confronts me for purposes of status – crazy homeless people snarling obscenities in my face, aggressive drivers veering into my lane – I get baffled before I get defensive. What are you doing?, I wonder. Why waste your time on me? I’m no threat to you. I’m no threat to anybody.

Maybe I should change that, though.

When I told some stranger in the gym thanks, I actually do know how to throw a punch, I didn’t mean to step up in defense of my status. But clearly that’s what was going on. I’ve thought about this over in the months since it happened and concluded the following: if he’d meant it as purely charitable advice, mentioning my prior experience would have opened up the conversation (“oh, really? how long have you been studying there?”, etc). Instead, the word “jiu-jitsu” shut it down.

And I’m positive the guy didn’t even mean it as a threat – the proverbial sand kicked at the beach, the elbow in the ribs while shouldering through a crowd. He just thought he knew something I didn’t and that I’d be grateful for the lesson. That’s the insidious nature of evolution, of course: we operate on instincts that carried us through the hunter-gatherer environment, but just make us assholes in civilized society. He didn’t mean to be a jerk. I didn’t interpret him as a jerk. But the defensive posture gave it away.

So I guess I do have a limit that I will bounce back on when pressed. I don’t consciously go out and troll the streets for status. But I will actively defend what little I have.

# # #

Plus, for all I know I might have been throwing shitty jabs that day.

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