Cartwheels intimidate adults. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe it’s the lack of manliness. Maybe it’s the dizzying reality of just how stupid violence looks when you’re being confronted by someone standing on their hands. But if you ever want to end a fight when there’s a drunken white gorilla swinging for your teeth, I suggest flipping a cartwheel.
I should correct myself. Until last week, I was 9 out of 9 when it came to ending a fight with a cartwheel. In those cases, when I flipped a cartwheel, the fight ended with me being called a faggot or a pussy or clown. I should also let you know I didn’t mind being called a faggot or a pussy or a clown, since all of those types of people have saved my life at one time or another, as opposed to drunken white gorillas which have never done anything in my life besides come at me violently when they can’t have their exact way.
I should back up and let you know how I got into such a mess. I went to see Against Me! They’re punk band out of Gainesville. Their lead singer is Laura Jane Grace. I’m lucky, not only did I fall in love with her at the show last week when I saw her in Chicago at Subterranean, but I’ve never known her to be anything besides Laura Jane Grace. So I don’t have to adjust the pronouns in my head. It’s not the same thing with Lex.
Lex got us tickets for Against Me! I first met Lex in The Glam Rock Ensemble at The Old Town School of Folk Music. Back then, Lex was Lisa. Back then, he was she. When we met, I developed a friendship with Lisa. But Lisa wasn’t Lisa. There was a transition underfoot where the tectonic plates of identity were shifting to make room for the truth to be known. Lisa became Lex and I had to wonder if the friendship would hold.
You never know. You think you know but you don’t.
On a level you can’t entirely explain, we are all auditioning for the affection of our friends. Sometimes you don’t make the cut. One of the defining characteristics of this moment in time is how we’re being encouraged to step back and graciously ask people about their preferred pronouns. This is uncomfortable and I think it’s the reason I got cast in the role of friend in the transition from Lisa to Lex, I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t particularly like being uncomfortable, since you’d think by now I’d have it all together. But I don’t have it all together and I’ve noticed when things don’t go my way, when I own it, there’s something so much better on the other side of the uncomfortableness than whatever it is those who are hooked on winning seem to be hooked on.
Laura Jane Grace hit the stage. As the band pounded through the room, she smiled her way through a set of songs you could easily mistake as angry songs but they weren’t angry songs since the release of emotion was liberating, both to the artist setting herself free and the room dancing themselves into a moshing frenzy.
We left Subterranean high. It had nothing to do with alcohol or cannabis or ecstasy or mushrooms or acid or cocaine or any viable way to cut loose. We left Subterranean high on the connection the music created between the shifting tectonic plates of emotion and turning off your fucking phone.
We started marching up Damen. We didn’t even talk about it. We just started marching, our steps synched to a feeling the night couldn’t have gone any better. We didn’t know it yet but we were wrong.
As we approached the underpass where The 606 crosses over Damen, there was a guy trying to get his feet back in flip-flops. He was moving quickly. I really wasn’t paying too much attention, it looked like he came out of his flip-flops by accident, like he was goofing off. He got them on and raced ahead. This is more thought than I gave the moment at the time, truth be told. On the other side of the underpass, we saw him again. Only now the perspective shifted from high on the night to sobering reality.
We saw a drunken white gorilla holding a crying woman by the neck.
“Uh-Oh,” Lex said.
He was big. I’d say he was roughly 6 feet tall. He was white. He had a bald white head, which was shaved. He had broad shoulders. He was wearing a grey t-shirt with blue shorts and flip-flops. He had a white woman by the neck. I’d say she was roughly 5 foot 4. She had long brown hair and the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.
“Are you okay?” Lex asked. “We’re fine,” he said. “We’re not asking you,” I said. “We’re asking her.” This infuriated the drunken white gorilla. He came at me and took a lunging swing. I leaned under the punch to my left. I stepped back to get a better look.
He was drunk. He was angry. He was white. A triple threat of stupid.
She was crying. But I had his full attention and somewhere in the space where you’re too connected to the moment to know what’s happening and too curious to see what happens next to think before you act, I decided to keep his full attention on me so I could give her a head start.
Before I go any further, since it’s starting to sound like I had perspective in the moment, when clearly I didn’t, since it’s impossible to have perspective in the moment, particularly when it’s underscored by violence, I should let you know I didn’t know anything about anything at all. Instead of telling this story from pieces of memory stitched together to make myself look good, or to make myself into the hero of the story, I decided to invite Lex over to my house so we could talk about what happened and he could tell the story from the benefit of being there but not standing on his hands. From this point on, anything you hear from Lex is coming directly from a conversation I taped while I grilled both of us chicken thighs, pork chops and corn on the cob. Needless to say, I came out of the fight with all of my teeth.
Gregor: So we’re walking under the viaduct. We see a guy grab a woman by the neck. We see him throw her up against the wall. You say, “Uh-Oh.”
Lex: Right. And it’s not just uh-oh. I knew we could have just casually walked by and if we were gonna walk by, we’d have to be careful. But we actually slowed down instead of walking by and I said, “Are you okay ma’am?” And he started to answer. And you said, “No! We’re not talking to you. We’re talking to her.” We started talking at the same time like we do when we’re singing together.
We do sing together. After a few terms in The Glam Rock Ensemble, we moved on and began writing songs together. Now we get together to rehearse, talk about what’s going on in our lives and take turns playing grill master. We haven’t played out. Not yet. It’s a dream in the making and in this dream we’re calling ourselves Friends Without Benefits. We plan on selling out The Chicago Theater and venues just like it across the country so we can tour with personal heroes like Hannah Gadsby, Cameron Esposito, Courtney Barnett and Against Me! It’s a beautiful dream. In the meantime, Lex teaches the 5th grade and I’m a disgraced pastrami pusher. But as you can tell, the tectonic plates are shifting.
Lex: I said, “Ma’am are you okay?” This is what I remember. She said, “No.” And started crying. Then it was clear. I don’t think she was crying right off the bat. I don’t remember. She was trying to fight him off. Or something. It wasn’t clear yet. But when she started to answer and was sobbing, we both knew. We both knew.
Sometimes you have to say something twice to make sure you take it in. We both knew. We both knew. On this particular night, everything was moving so fast it was hard to take it in. Luckily we were high on the intrinsic decency of Against Me!
Lex: Then he started complaining, “She’s a crazy bitch!” That’s when you started calling him out. You’re like, “What! Don’t call her a bitch!” And I’m like, “Greg you need to calm down.” And you’re like, “I’m not gonna calm down.” You turned to him and said, “What’s the matter with you? Why are you picking on her?” And um…that’s when he started coming after you.
And um…yes he did.
I’m very lucky in my life right now. I’m in love with Emily Anne. When I told her the story, when I got to this exact point in the story, this is what she asked me: Were you scared?
Yes. I was terrified. You know why? I’ll tell you why…
Because only a crazy person is fearless. If you try to control fear by avoiding it at all costs, you’re neurotic. If you go seeking fear to get off on the thrill, you’re an adrenaline junkie. But if you’re intrinsically decent, if you accidentally step into a moment where you recognize someone else needs your help, what choice do you have? There was a woman being choked out by a drunken white gorilla. I had to step in the direction of fear. I didn’t want to but I had to. I asked Emily Anne if she wanted me to be the kind of guy who walks away from another person who needs my help. This is what she said: No.
Good answer. This is one of the many reasons I’m in love with Emily Anne.
Lex: When he finally came after you, the interesting thing is when he finally came after you, that’s when I stopped being scared. Because as soon as he went for you, you were like The Flash. It occurred to me at that point there is no way he can reach you unless you want him to. So that’s when I stopped being terrified. I’m not saying like, “Hey this is a piece of cake.” What I’m saying is that’s when I stopped being terrified. I called 911.
The police didn’t come. Not to steal the suspense from the story. But the police aren’t the hero of this story. Neither am I. Neither is Lex. We’ll get there. In the meantime, it begs the question: have you heard the expression it’s better to have a gun and not need one than need a gun and not have one? If I’d had a gun, I’d have have shot him. Right then and there. I was terrified. Lex was terrified. There was a sobbing woman. She was terrified. I was grossly outsized. I didn’t know if my speed was going to be enough to stop the madness. If I’d had a gun, I’d have used the gun. He’d be dead, which proves once and for all the expression is for cowards and Clint Eastwood.
Incidentally, Clint Eastwood knows everything you need to know about how to make a movie but he knows nothing whatsoever about how to be a man. Or a woman. Or a woman who’s a man. Or a man who’s a woman. If Clint Eastwood had been there and had asked me, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” I’d have said, “No. I don’t feel lucky. But I’m glad I don’t have a gun. You asshole!”
Lex: You kept him busy and I kept walking with her. No cops came. I called again. No cops came. But there was just no way he could catch you, and in my head, I had Benny Hill music playing. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Gregor: Do you remember when she ran at him? She began beating on his chest while crying out, “They’re trying to help me. They’re trying to help me.” I said to her something like, “We don’t need your help in defining this moment. We need your help in getting out of here. We’re trying to give you some room to get out of here. He’s coming after me and there’s nothing you can do to help me. So please leave. Please be safe.”
Gregor: He must have loved that.
Lex: I loved it.
Gregor: What happened at Fullerton? It blurs. Did I do cartwheels in the traffic on Fullerton? Was I yelling out to him, “Come on in. The traffic is nice.”
Lex: Like we were in a swimming pool, “The water’s fine!” Oh man, that infuriated him. He started yelling, “You faggot! You pussy! You clown!” I was scared for her. I began wondering if they live together. If it was it a date. If when he came home…she’d have Hell to pay.
I couldn’t save her. The best thing I could do was give her a head start on on Damen. As we crossed Fullerton, we got to the bridge over the train tracks. I hesitated to go any further. I had visions of him charging at me and pushing me over the guardrails. He was that unhinged and the bridge made me feel like I was pulling away from the world I’d been using as a buffer and making myself too vulnerable. But I was hooked on adrenaline and self-righteousness, a toxic combination. I was no longer doing anyone any good, least of all myself. I was the cartwheeling monkey chasing down the drunken white gorilla, flinging shit at an out of control monster who was peaking on murderous rage and white privilege, the mass shooter’s cocktail of choice.
We were on opposite sides of the bridge, marching north. He charged me. I waited until he got all the way to where I was standing and then began running to the side where he started. He could barely catch his breath.
Then I called 911.
I told the operator I saw a woman being assaulted. I described the woman. I told the operator about the assailant. I described the assailant. I told the operator we were on the Damen bridge just north of Fullerton, still following the assailant who was northbound on the west side of Damen. The operator asked about the location of the woman who’d been assaulted. I told the operator she was long gone. The operator paused and then said this to me, “We don’t know the mindset of the assailant. We don’t know if he’s armed. We don’t know if he’s high on something. We know he’s dangerous. You’ve done enough. Stop chasing after him! Walk in the other direction. Please be safe.” I hung up the phone and stopped to think. I decided the advice made sense. I began walking in the other direction, which makes the operator the hero of the story.
Lex: And then we went to a bar called Remedy.
This is the perfect place to leave the story, at a bar called Remedy where the bouncer welcomed us by saying, “Come on in guys.” The pronouns were perfect. The bartender knew his whiskeys and when Lex asked him to pour a glass of whiskey over a couple of ice cubes, the bartender was discerning with the ice cubes. There was a tall woman dancing in the middle of the bar all by herself, not trying to please anyone but herself. She lifted the room. I’m telling you this because all of this is true besides the name. I did a little research and it turns out Remedy is on Milwaukee and we ended the night on Damen. I’m telling you this because I like how Lex got the name wrong but the intention right. I don’t know the remedy for violence. I don’t have the cure for the unrelenting desire to win. More often than not, I get the pronouns wrong. More often than not, I get most things wrong. But I’m trying and in all honesty, I’m not even trying to do the right thing. I don’t know how to define the right thing. I can barely make my way down the street without getting into trouble and when I’m scared I turn cartwheels in traffic instead of throwing a knockout punch. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s time to learn how to throw a knockout punch instead of using cars to put myself in harms way. I’m glad no one got hurt. Or should I say that I’m glad no one got hurt even worse from how it started. We’re all hurt, in one way or another and it’s not always as obvious as someone bigger than you having you by the throat. We need each other to care but caring comes with a risk. The more you care the more you have to lose and no one likes to lose since we’ve never been taught how to lose with grace.
If I’d been born a girl, my mom was going to name me Grace. She likes the name. I like it too. Grace almost comes across like a nickname since it calls out intention. Speaking of which, I never did thank Lex for the tickets to Against Me! Or Lisa for befriending me in The Glam Rock Ensemble.
Thank you, Lisa. Thank you, Lex. Let’s get together soon. We need to rehearse and I’m craving pork chops.