Copyright © 2009


I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I’d been working late in the darkroom at the observatory, and was walking the two-and-a-half miles along Garden Street to Harvard Square, along Mass Ave., down Putnam Ave. to Magazine, jog right then left onto Tufts Street, to my home on the ground floor of a triple-decker in Cambridgeport. It was eleven o’clock at night. When it’s dark, I usually make a point of skirting Cambridge Common, that island of greenery in an ocean of traffic, but was tired so, carrying my yellow Kodak box of 11×14 prints, took the path straight through the trees. There were no lights. I was surprised how dark it was. By the glow from the Square, I could see the silhouette of the Abraham Lincoln memorial up ahead. And two shadows walking toward me. Two guys heading my way. I immediately thought of humming or whistling to signal I was no threat to them. The shadow on the right started running—a light, athletic burst toward me along the edge of the path. The other kept coming straight ahead. The runner stuck out his right arm as he passed, grabbed me by the neck and pulled me back, his left arm pinning my arms to my chest. The other guy walked up and started punching me in the face. As if still in the Army, I yelled “Mother fucker” as loud as I could. He struck again; I yelled again. Which is how it went for maybe ten seconds. Other people on the cross-path started making noise. Thinking about it later, I figured my shouting obscenities kept them at a distance. Having made their point (whatever it was), my assailants ran off across the grass, leaving me breathing hard but still standing at Abe’s feet, yellow box and prints spread along the path. I was furious, but had no object to vent my fury on. Faster than before, I headed for home. In front of the camera store in Harvard Square, I realized blood was clouding my left eye and spilling onto my jacket. At the police station in Central Square, I told a cop what had happened. He said there was nothing he could do. Walking down Putnam, I schemed to clutch a monkey wrench up my left sleeve from now on. I got home, cleaned myself up, and went to bed. I had a classic shiner for a couple of weeks. And carried the wrench for a month or so, until I forgot about it.


What interests me about this episode forty-three years later is that I felt anger when attacked but not fear—even as the situation became obviously threatening. Instead, I thought of signaling the two guys that I was no threat to them when—at the time—I had more reason to believe they were a threat to me. All I can say is my head must have stayed behind in the darkroom. Perhaps I had walked that route so many times that I had switched to automatic pilot as Thoreau did when navigating the woods between Concord and Walden at night. But that feels like a rhetorical cop-out.


Looking back, I see now that my consciousness was in submissive mode. As it used to be when I jogged past a barking dog and looked everywhere except into those angry eyes. When it comes to confrontations, one tactic is to back down and become nonthreatening by blending into the background. That’s the Casper Milquetoast ploy. Become a nonentity and danger will pass you by.


But once the first guy held me from behind—lake a cornered rat—and fear was beside the point, I became angry. Not being able to physically defend myself, I shouted obscenities into the air. I became the cat standing sideways, hair standing on end. The mother sandpiper spreading her wings against the blue jay lusting after her brood. Yes, I tried to make myself larger than life.


I’ve done that a lot. Maybe that’s where road rage comes from. Being meek until somebody cuts in front of you, then you explode. I’ve exploded at cops a number of times, like when I’ve edged out to get a view of traffic coming both ways, and one says I didn’t stop at the stop sign. Me, the almost perfect driver. Who does he think he is!? Nothing is more satisfying than righteous indignation. From zero emotion to full fury in sixty milliseconds, bypassing fear altogether.


Come to think of it, I’ve often been a risk-taker while, at the same time, telling others to be careful. What’s going on? At an NTL training session in the 1970s, the trainers arranged chairs in a spiral for a particular session, then let us students into the room to sit where we wanted. I sat in the lap of the big black trainer who was anchoring the spiral from chair No. 1. How obnoxious could I get? He was sitting where I wanted to be, in the center of things. We locked eyes and neither backed down. Talk about consciousness emerging full-blown from particular situations, here was Exhibit A for the two of us.


As a hiker, I’ve always pushed beyond terrain that was familiar to me. What’s up ahead, around that boulder, over that hill? I have always pushed beyond where I went last time. Often transgressing where I didn’t belong. I remember a Bird Colonel telling me I was the only enlisted man he’d let tell him where to stand (I was taking a picture of the regimental baseball team).


Fear, risk, anger, aggression—in consciousness they all fit together somehow. My autonomic nervous system is telling me that I’m venturing into the emotional mother lode here, a hint of the wealth that’s sure to lie ahead. I’ll turn back now, and leave those discoveries for another day when I’ve more time to spend.