It’s 2am and I’m driving home after work feeling like I’m a decrepit 91 year old. It was a long challenging night at work, and I’m going over things that happened in my head like I usually do on the way home. I’m driving East on Burnside just going through the motions of driving the familiar route. I’m on exhausted autopilot.
My eyes are half closed and my gas gauge is actually below the word EMPTY on my dashboard. Which perfectly summarizes how I feel right now. Drained and running on fumes, wondering where I can get the fuel I need to keep going.
I notice all the people on bikes and scooters going about their business, but I’m more focused on the domestic minutiae of what’s happening inside my truck right now. I’m in that bizarre land where my body is tired beyond measure, while my excessive caffeine intake is keeping my brain wide awake and full of questions. Here is the state of my ADHD brain on the drive home:
My back hurts. How many crowd surfers did I catch tonight? Should I take a shower or a bath when I get home? Both, I think. Where is the CD case so I can put this CD away? Did I bring my car charger for my phone, and where is it? Oh I forgot that I have these bolts and pliers still in my pockets from breaking down the stage barricades. Did I forget to clock out? Holy gods that moon is huge tonight! Pretty sure it is a gibbous moon, which I learned from reading H.P. Lovecraft stories. Shouldn’t we have cars that can drive me home while I take a nap? Or Star Trek teleporters? I forgot to give my boss back the flashlight I borrowed. How many times did I say the phrase, “For fuck’s sake” in my head tonight?
Then, while stopped at a red light on Burnside and Broadway, I am yanked out of my mental whirlpool of nonsense. In my peripheral vision I see a full energy drink can fly out into the crosswalk, spattering the asphalt with sugary green liquid. Then four human bodies also fly out into the crosswalk directly in front of the car next to me. Three of them begin beating the hell out of the other one. I couldn’t ascertain the race or nationality of any of them, but I could tell that they were all male. The three attackers were each using both fists to pummel the victim, who was crouched down in the crosswalk with his hands raised trying to deflect the blows. He was getting hit by a 6-fisted blur of male anger. Relentless and rhythmic, like a propeller of pain.
When you see a fight in reality, it isn’t anything like what you expect. Most of us only see fights on TV shows and movies. There are a lot of acrobatics, big dramatic swings, and punches that land with a certain satisfying dubbed sound effect. People can take a beating in a choreographed fight scene like they are superhuman and impervious to pain. In reality, fights are scrappy, sloppy, and soundless. And they are usually over very quickly.
This guy was taking an epic beating and just didn’t go down. He kept sitting up as the punches landed, and he wasn’t covering his head at all. In a second, I recalled some of the most brutal cinematic scenes I’d ever watched. Robert De Niro boxing in Raging Bull. Jared Leto getting destroyed in Fight Club. Edward Norton curb stomping the thief in American History X. Watching this real-life violence happening mere feet away from me made me very angry.
So here’s what I did.
Nothing at first. But I’ll tell you why.
As much as I’d like to tell you that I flew out of my truck and beat the crap out of those guys, I didn’t. I’m not a superhero. I’m just one man. One exhausted and worn out man that needs to get home to his family. I don’t have body armor like Batman. I don’t carry knives or guns like some do. Hell, I don’t even have a baseball bat in my truck. My life is not Walking Tall, Death Wish, or John Wick. You have to choose your battles, and I’m not choosing this one.
I don’t have a radio on me to call for backup. I don’t have the support team of 5-6 other people who will have my back if I jump into a fight. I don’t have any clothing on that would at least signify some level of authority like I do on shift. I’m alone out here with no advantage. I’m just some random driver in his 40’s daydreaming about his bath at home. If I were to get out of my truck and try to scare them off, I could then become their target. They already have no problem beating the shit out of somebody with witnesses just feet away. Why would they hesitate to attack another person who, in their view, attacked them?
Even if I did have a gun, do I want this scenario? I hypothetically pull a gun and yell at them to stop. They don’t, so I fire a warning shot. They all pull their own guns and start a firefight with me in the street. We then recreate the LA shootout in the movie HEAT except that it’s 2am and I’m outgunned. I might get one of them, but the reality is that I would get shot up and die and some of them would get away. I am not interested in starting a gunfight on Burnside tonight, or any night.
I don’t even know this person, their relationship, or the situation. At least at work I have the noble cause to protect patrons from harassment or physical harm. Who are these men to each other? In fact, there are a few scenarios where the guy getting beaten might actually be the bad guy and deserve it. Maybe he sold them a bad batch of dope and somebody overdosed. Drug deals, stolen goods trafficking, anything involving the potential of ripping someone off. Maybe he raped one of their sisters and this is revenge. Maybe he was trying to masturbate on a stripper at the strip club nearby and was kicked out. He could have sexually harassed one of their girlfriends in the club. I just don’t have any background. There’s no way I am going to risk my health and life over a stranger that I can’t ascertain motives.
Another thought I had later was this. It could also be a gang initiation, with more senior gang members back in the bushes watching to see if their initiates can successfully beat up someone on the street. If I were to involve myself I might then have 3 more people backing up the first 3 and all turning their attention on me. They might be using their fists now, but could easily escalate to pulling knives and pistols.
It didn’t look like a hate crime to me, nor did it look like gay-bashing. I also don’t think that the victim was a homeless person or mentally ill (easy targets). I have no idea what motivated this and never will. I do feel like I have the responsibility to keep everyone as safe as I can and prevent bodily damage, but this situation didn’t feel right to me at all. It’s just a shit-show that I don’t want any part of.
In my 20’s maybe I would have jumped in there, in my naivety and dumb youth. In your 20’s you think you will live forever and are impervious to being hurt. In my 40’s I know better. I’ve lost too many friends to death in the last decade, and I’ve had my share of medical problems. We are mortal and something will eventually kill us. I know I’m not going to live forever, and I’m not Superman, The Crow, or Clint Eastwood. I’m married with kids now. I have a responsibility to get home at night. People rely on me and need me. I don’t want to spend the night in the ER. I don’t want to die tonight. I want to grow old with my wife and send my kids to college. To do that I’ve got to get home. Every night.
I can see how people freeze up and don’t act. It’s surprising and surreal when you see violence right in front of you. People always say, “It just happened so fast!” And it’s true. And time does kind of slow down due to your hyper-focus on the situation. It would be easy to just sit in my truck and watch this unfold through the movie screen-shaped windshield. Just like watching a movie at home. That’s what everybody else did. The other drivers just watched dumbfounded as the beatdown happened.
I recall studying the Kitty Genovese case in Sociology classes in college. A woman was attacked and stabbed in an apartment complex courtyard. She called for help and numerous people looked out their windows and saw her or heard her. But they turned back to their TVs and went about their night, not even calling the police or coming to her aid. The attacker returned and she was raped and stabbed additional times. The police were finally called, but she died of her wounds on the way to the hospital. Her case has been studied in Sociology classes ever since. This lack of action has been called the Bystander Effect. It’s the “I just don’t want to get involved” idea, or the “I might get hurt also” theme which prevents people from intervening in a clear situation which requires it. I certainly had these same thoughts tonight. One takeaway is that people’s cowardice in the face of violence resulted in this woman’s preventable death.
So, after a moment of hesitation and shock seeing this beating right in front of me, I did something. I laid into my vehicle’s horn and didn’t let up. I also put my truck in park and revved the engine as loud as possible. I knew that the door guys in Mary’s Club were just feet away, and I suspected that one or all of these men probably just exited from there. The sound of a horn for longer than a second gets everybody’s attention. When somebody hasn’t noticed that the light turned green, the quick pip-pip is how you honk to alert them. The longer honk is for the asshole that just cut you off in traffic or threw some garbage out the window. But when you hold down you horn without any break at all? That’s you announcing that something egregious is happening. Try it sometime. A horn honking longer than 10 seconds is impossible to ignore. You’re going to go look. Same with a revving truck engine. Both of those together might make you think that there was a car crash and that people might need to be pulled out of their car, or ambulances called. That was my hope.
I also wanted the three assailants to think that maybe I was crazy and about to drive straight into them to stop them from beating this man to death. The sound of a revving engine from a nearby truck aimed at you typically makes you rethink the activity that you’re doing. It had to sound like an airplane was about to take off on Burnside Street. Gripping the steering wheel grimacing in shock and anger, I probably looked like a mad driver in a Road Warrior movie.
Like I had hoped, my honking and engine revving got the attention of the door guys at Mary’s strip club and they came right out. The three attackers ran off in three different directions, of course. The two bouncers assisted the victim in getting up and getting to the sidewalk. Seeing him walk on his own with minimal help made me happy. Although I would hope that he gets to a doctor soon in case he needs stitches or has a concussion. But with him safely in the hands of two other guys in my profession, I felt like he was going to be ok. They can call for any additional services he might need.
The whole incident felt like it took 10 minutes but honestly it probably was just seconds. I bet it felt like a lifetime to the guy getting his ass beat. I feel bad for that guy and I’m not honestly sure that I did the right thing in this situation or acted quickly enough. Maybe I should have started filming the incident on my phone instead. Not all of these work stories involve me making a perfect call all the time. Because you just can’t. You just do the best you can in each situation and hope for an 80% success rate. I feel guilty I couldn’t immediately stop the beating or catch those guys and make a citizen’s arrest. They got away with it scot-free. I worried about that guy and wondered why they beat him so mercilessly. I thought about him for a long time afterwards, and had dreams about that random crosswalk beatdown for weeks. Walking around downtown in any major city after hours is fucking dangerous. He probably didn’t do anything to those bastards to deserve what he got. And three against one is chickenshit in my book.
Heal well, stranger.
I got home safe tonight. And it ended up being both a shower and a bath night.