Breakfast With Infidels
A SIMPLE LESSON IN STREET FIGHTING BEFORE THE GENRE GOES EXTINT AND VANISHES FROM COMMON MEMORY
I spent the first seven years of my life in the outskirts of Zemun, a town across the river from Belgrade. The street itself started with the Yugoslav largest liquor factory, Navip, downsloped as a row of village houses, their large yards packed with chicken and pigs, then gradually turned into gypsy shacks, ending up with a waste site, Jelovac, one immensely huge and deep hole. During snowy winters we used to sleigh ride there, an equivalent of going down the drain.
My grandma used to send me to buy bread or some light groceries at the store across the main street as early as I was five or six. Still remember the mixed fruit marmalade that they sold by pound, slapping it hard on thick brown paper. The guy in charge of bread had a good heart, and I’d usually end up with a half loaf and an extra half slice, the latter to be consumed on my way back. I’ve never complained about the second lag of my roundtrip, but going to the store was a challenge. There were always some kids playing soccer in the middle of the street, and no matter what, they’d laugh at me and call me names. The fact that I was a large cross-eyed kid wearing glasses seemed to add an additional kick to their fun. I didn’t have time to be afraid of them, nor the age to get seriously pissed – I was on a mission for my half slice of bread! But a part of me couldn’t ignore the pressure and the tension those moments carried.
When I was eight we moved to Belgrade, into a freshly built three bedroom apartment within a large living community, which at the time produced some thirty plus kids. That’s when my real schooling began. From the get go I was the target of their muscle, a barbarian who dared cross the water, as if I had a cornstalk waving from my ass. The problem was that those bastards were one or two years older than me, which at my age seemed like bringing a machine gun to a fair pocket knife fight. They were shocked that I even tried to defend myself, as opposed to running away or crying for mercy. I swallowed tons of fear before each fight, less and less as the number skyrocketed, until they left me alone.
I exhaled too soon, since without even noticing, I changed: at school or in the neighborhood, I couldn’t watch a bully muscle a weak without interfering, which opened a bigger can of worms, and scheduled me for daily fights. Now I was consuming the same amount fear on daily basis, just in much smaller and more frequent portions. And fear itself changed too; it morphed from not to be beaten to not to send the other kid to ER, or not to be backstabbed in broad daylight. The stakes just naturally got higher. It was darkness at noon.
Eventually I ran out of territory and needed something to do, so I joined a rock band as a drummer, when at the end of fifth grade they decided to close our elementary school. The new school brought a local gang along, and those guys were well-organized: you mess with one of them, you mess with all of them. They had heavy presence, but to my delight they wouldn’t bully anyone, just muscle their taxes: lunch money, running errands, etc. Until one day they decided to throw fresh soil inside our classroom. Our teacher came and screamed, it was her, and ran straight to principal’s office. Then questioning began. Of course, nobody saw anything, as if young Gods had a heavenly field trip and couldn’t resist the temptation, and all that soil just sailed from the skies. Seeing all these smart cowards silent threw me off the base, and I named every single bastard involved. As it never fails, teachers didn’t like me since I placed further responsibility in their hands, classmates considered me a snitch - at least they were afraid to say a word - and the gang got my number; a trifecta of bad, worse, and so help you God. I used to count my teeth every single day before leaving the school. And nothing ever happened. Just like that.
Highschool years had me semi retired: fights became irregular and less exciting, at least from my stance. In those days very few guys carried any weapons, a knife the most, a ‘boxer’ maybe, but it was all theory since they didn’t know how to properly use those. And for the rising popularity of karate and its ‘masters’, they never learned the free flow of a versatile street fight, and were cornered inside their dogma. Then out of the blue, during my senior year, a good friend of mine got beaten up badly by some new student; a gang member just transferred from the rough part of the city, Resnik. Those guys had good reputation, or bad, depends how you look at it. Well, that left me no choice but in return to extend to him my warmest welcome. ‘We’re not done yet’, he said, his tears mixed with nose bleed, ‘wait until Strong hears about this!’
Strong was a brand name, I give him that, everybody heard of him; like a legend of sort, to the point that you start asking yourself if he realy existed. He sure did exist, and two days later he was casually sitting next to a liquor store across the street from my highschool. A dangerous looking fella of the type I liked the least: medium height, lean muscles and tattoos all around, very focused , penetrating look. Came by himself. Scary. The only mistake he made was bringing along a vinyl briefcase bulging with a steel bar inside. ‘So you are the one who said he’d beat the living delight out of me’. If there was one thing I hated the most, he sure nailed it. He distorted my words to his protegé – I actually said I’d beat both him and Strong if he ever touches anybody in this school – and if I confirmed that, I’d be bypassing the truth. If, however, I denied it, that would be a clear sign of scare, give me three steps, mister. I presented the facts, and by the way, I wasn’t seeking to fight each guy who came across. But I didn’t have his attention: ‘You know what I have here’, and he barely touched the briefcase, ‘ and you know what’s gonna happen to you when I pull it out’.
At this point I had enough of him, enough of all the idiots I’d fought for all those years, and in first place, enough of all the fear I had to stomach. I spit its last traces in his face, and almost whispered: ‘My friend, you won’t be able to pull it out’.