chandler image1 BLOODED

Because my father had tuberculosis (and I tested positive), I began third grade at what was called an "open-window" school, a facility across the city that had a healthy program for kids with special problems. I was bussed to school for four years, then dropped into standard junior high.

Since I'd started school at four years old, I was younger and smaller than my peers, and coming from the cross-town facility, was a stranger to most of my classmates. Quiet, introverted, lacking certain social skills, I did not fit into the traditional seventh-grade mold. Additionally, my hair was long in a time when it was very unfashionable; crew cuts were the accepted style. My hand-me-down clothes and artistic preferences further set me apart. My manner was perceived as somber and brooding.

Whether it was those attributes or something else, I became a target for older cliques, particularly one gang who went out of their way to ransack my locker, grab my textbooks and throw them down a stairwell making me late for class, or simply crack me across the back of the head as they walked by in the crowded halls.

Eventually I recognized them as a gang called the Baer Park Razors; their turf, the opposite end of a long bridge that began in Spartan territory. They all wore bright, yellow jackets and muscled their way through school, intimidating and attacking anyone who stood in their way. They always traveled in a pack, never alone, and even the jocks gave them room.

I gradually became a focus for three of them. The Pope, short for a lengthy Italian name, was as handsome and well-groomed as a movie star. He boasted he could "lay any girl on the first date" and never missed an opportunity to throw a punch at me.

Freddie the Fireman aka Freddie Flames (his real name was Fernando) was half covered with puckered, red scar tissue, earned when he attempted to set his father ablaze with gasoline while he was sleeping. Instead, the old man awoke and turned the tables, giving him--and anyone who could bear to look at him--something to remember for the rest of his life. He added to his rep by pouring gas on neighborhood cats and torching them.

Metz was the third. A head and a half taller than me, he had dirty blonde hair, crooked teeth, and arms like tree trunks. A pachuco cross was tattooed (probably with ball-point pen ink and three sewing needles taped together) in the pad of flesh at the base of his left thumb. He had skin like a pizza, heavy on the olives. He was their leader.

I tried to stay out of their way, but the following year, it was impossible. We shared numerous classes and they began waiting after school to rough me up. I used every ploy to outwit the Razors: leaving from different exits every day and zigzagging out of my way through streets and alleys to throw them off.

It worked until one day they realized there was one point I could not elude them: the bridge. I didn't see them until it was too late. Coming from behind, the Pope kicked my books like a football player, scattering them twenty feet or more in the air. Freddy Flames and the Pope moved behind me; Metz stood front and center, narrowed his eyes, grinned.

"Waddaya gonna do about it, faggot?"

I did exactly what he wanted and threw a punch, but Metz was faster. He shifted slightly to the right so my fist grazed harmlessly by. I threw another. Metz tapped it away with the back of one hand, stepped aside in a peculiar way, almost like a dancer anticipating what would happen next. He did not raise his hands to defend himself and I realized he was toying with me like a kid torturing a trapped bug.

A circle of highschoolers surrounded us. Metz waited for the next move, playing to the crowd. "You wanna start a fight with me? Guess I'm gonna have to protect myself!" Freddie and the Pope laughed behind us.

I threw another punch, but before it could land, I realized that Metz had positioned me at a particular angle, one that provided a perfect opening. He threw a pile driver into my midsection, knocking all the air from my lungs. I'd been in numerous street-corner fights, but had never felt a punch this hard. The blow doubled me over, dropped me to my knees. I was paralyzed, gasping for air, unable to breathe or talk. Metz backhanded me with a savage left across my face, then snapped it back again with a fist to my right ear. I fell over, wretched, spewed my lunch.

"Now beg and maybe I'll let you get up!" I couldn't speak. Metz, maybe one of the others, wiped his shoe on my face and strolled away. "OK, have it your own way. We'll see you tomorrow, punk. Don't be late!"

Someone collected what could be found of my books and papers and piled them nearby. I lay there, unable to move, unsure of what hurt more: the beating, the humiliation, or the anger that emerged from a place too deep to assault physically. Five or ten minutes went by, then my breathing became almost normal again. It took another five minutes before I could walk upright, but I felt the blow for the next three days. I knew I had just entered a new kind of hell, one that would change my life forever.

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