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Chasing Dignity

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In the summer of 1978, with the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" playing to the delight of a packed house, a fight broke out in the middle of Grace Street. Insults, rocks and bottles flew back and forth between the two factions of four each: Virginia Commonwealth University frat boys vs. an Oregon Hill crew. Their battle was unfolding a perilous 25 to 30 yards from the Cinemascopic all-glass front of the Biograph Theatre, a Fan District cinema I then managed.

At the same time a group of my softball friends were in the lobby playing a pinball machine. As manager, I felt obliged to drive the danger away, so I opened an exit door and yelled that the cops were already on the way, which they were.

The frat boys scampered off. Their opposites simply switched over to bombing me. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk. Rocks bounced closer as I closed the door. A piece of brick smashed through it to strike my right shin.

When we lit out after them, there were at least a half dozen men running in my impromptu posse of employees and pinball players. The hooligans scattered, but my focus was solely on the one who'd plunked me. Hemmed in by three of us in a parking lot, he faked one way, then cut to the other. His traction gave way slightly in the gravel paving, and I tackled him by the legs.

The others got away. With some help from my friends, we marched the captured 19-year-old back toward the theater. During the trek east on Grace, the culprit said something that provoked one in my group to suddenly punch him. That, while the punchee's arms were being held.

A policeman, who had just arrived, saw it. He sarcastically complimented the puncher for his aggressive "technique" before the street-fighting man was hauled off in the paddy wagon. In contrast, I told the vigilante puncher he had overreached in hitting the kid unnecessarily, especially while he was helpless.

Surprised by my reaction, my softball teammate laughed. So I said something like, Hey, we're no better than the fascists we've claimed to deplore if we resort to their tactics. He disagreed, saying his summary punishment would likely be the only price the little thug would pay for his crime. Another in the group agreed with him.

It wasn't long after that night I found myself poring over an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Echoes of the Jazz Age." The excerpt above is the evocative piece's last paragraph. During that rereading, it occurred to me the shattering glass door had been the sound of the hippie era ending for me.

Yes, we baby boomers were about to see that our sweetest day in the sun, with its causes and rock 'n' roll anthems, had been another dollop of time, a period with its look and sound, not unlike others. In some ways, the Roaring '20s redux.

A month later I agreed to the court's proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor and paid for the damage. A payment schedule was set up. As we spoke several times after that, I came to see the young man wasn't such a bad guy. Payment was made on time. He asked for the name of the man who'd punched him. While withholding the name, I agreed with him that the blow had been a cheap shot.

About a year later a thief snatched a handful of dollar bills from a Biograph cashier, then bolted. The cashier's frightened look triggered an alarm in your narrator's sense of duty/propriety. Her face was quite expressive, and I was still young enough to think chasing criminals down the street was normal. Quaint as it may sound now, it seemed then that some collective sense of dignity was at stake.

In short, it took about 10 minutes to discover the thief's hiding place, then turn him over to the policemen who'd shown up. I received some unexpected help in cornering him. As I ran west on Grace behind the 20-year-old grab-and-run artist, another young man — a total stranger — jumped out of his truck to join in the chase.

Later, when the dust settled, I asked the volunteer why he'd stopped. He answered that he knew I was the Biograph's manager because a buddy of his had once pointed me out. His friend? It was the same street-fighter I'd tackled a year before.

The willing assistant chaser told me his friend assured him I'd dealt fairly with him; consequently he felt he owed me a favor. Before he left, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood they stick together. Thus, he'd supported me to help pay his friend's debt. We shook hands.

Over the years what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying. No doubt that's because so many times over the years, in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, I've done nothing to write home about — even the wrong thing. At least in this story maybe I got it right.

The point?

Dear reader, in spite of the wall-to-wall cynicism of our current age, there really was a time when cheap shots — delivered mostly because you can get away with them, so why not? — were seen in a bad light.

Through the mist of "ghostly rumbles" and "asthmatic whispers," to some graying hippies, that hasn't changed. S



F.T. Rea is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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