Alejandro Ramirez | Essay
You’d think I’d be used to people dissin’ Lawrence by now. You’d think, by the time I was 22 I would be over the petty insults, over the put-downs based on ethnicities and class. But then one night I’m on the midnight train back home and I see some burly Latino going off on some whiteboy’s ass for talking shit about Lawtown, and deep down I hope the he fucks him up. Looking back, I realize it’s got less to do with hometown pride and more to do with a defensive reaction ingrained in me, maybe some shame and insecurity, built up from years of being told you, your town, your people ain’t shit. Insulting Lawrence is a Merrimack Valley tradition after all—Methuen, Haverhill, Andover, and North Andover all look down on the black sheep of the region. I guess that night was the first time I actually realized I was embarrassed, ashamed, and defensive about where I come from.
Like most great Boston tales, this story takes place with one of our teams in the postseason. In this case, the Celtics were hosting the Miami Heat for Game Three of the 2012 Eastern Finals, and the Heat led the series with two wins. I had to go into Boston that night on assignment, but not to cover the game. Instead, I was covering that other great passion of Bostonians, politics. Our heroes include Larry Bird, Ted Kennedy, Bill Russell, Samuel Adams (both the man and the beer)—Boston passion in a nutshell. Traffic’s bad even when our teams have awful seasons, so I took the train from Lawrence into town, a 50-minute ride on average.
The event that brought me in was pretty inconsequential—a meeting of former Occupy Boston folks, trying to decide if they should rebuild their campsite or seek other options. Spoiler alert: they didn’t do shit, neither that night nor that summer. Still, it was nice to hear discussions about class and diversity and lefty politics. It was a long meeting, from 7 to 10 pm, and I had a train to catch back to Lawrence. The only one left was the midnight train. I took the subway to North Station and checked my phone for the score.
The Celtics had finally won their first game of the series.
Sure enough, North Station, where the TD Garden is located, was a messy, green gauntlet of loud, drunk, celebratory Boston accents. I loved the C’s and despised the Heat, like any decent New Englander (though I’ve grow to appreciate LeBron James after a few rings, an Olympics run, and outspoken political statements). But didn’t quite have the patience for these fans. I only hoped my train back to Lawrence was peaceful.
Luckily, it wasn’t too packed onboard—I even managed to get a row of seats to myself. Thank God, I thought, leaning back and pulling out a book to read—either Brave New World or a book of poems by an obscure Nicaraguan expat named Salomón de la Selva, two books I was balancing at the time. A cute brown-haired girl took a seat one row up and across the aisle from me. Behind her, directly across the aisle from me, sat two drunk guys in Celtics jerseys. I immediately considered moving.
One of them, a pink-white kid, with a shaved head, and a green jersey, wasn’t too bad. But his buddy, curly black hair, brown baseball cap, a white jersey, was everything I hate about the Greater Boston area. Loudest dude on our car, thickest Boston accent I’ve ever heard that didn’t belong to a middle-aged white guy, and easily the drunkest kid on the car. At some point I heard them say they were from Haverhill, a town near Lawrence. The whole car heard them say it, probably. I’ve seen his kind before, the Merrimack Valley makes this kind of “bro” the way the old mills made textiles. Favorite beer is probably Bud Light or, if he went college, Natty Ice, and he probably played lacrosse or volleyball in high school. I should’ve moved. But I’m stubborn. In my mind, the obnoxious win when you make adjustments based on their actions.
White Jersey saw the cute girl sitting in front and decided to spit game. Why not? He was drunk on overpriced beer and Celtics Pride—in his mind he was unstoppable.
“Didja see the game?” he asked her.
She shook her head no, and said, “I’m not from the area. I don’t know the sports here.” She’s from somewhere in Europe—I didn’t hear where and couldn’t place her accent. She’s friendly enough, and chats with him, but it’s a one-sided conversation.
“Do you like Paul Pee-yas?” he asked.
She shook her head, no, she didn’t know who Paul Pierce, the C’s captain, was.
“Do you like the Celtics?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t follow American sports.”
“Oh…” He attempted to absorb this information and recalculate his approach. “Do you like Kobe Bryant?” He failed.
“No, I do not,” she said again, more frustrated. He didn’t understand. He’d try this routine a little later in the night, just in case she downloaded the ESPN app while onboard or something.
“So, where ya headed?”
“Lawrence, to visit a friend.”
“Oh, Lawrence?!” said White Jersey. “That’s a bad place.”
His friend in the green jersey agreed.
“It’s bad! Like, do you know Afriker?”
Now being a Lawrencian, I’m used to hearing my hometown criticized. I went to a private school, located in Lawrence, made up of mostly rich white kids from out of town. I’ve heard it all: how shitty, how ghetto, how dangerous, how Spanish it was. Earlier that year, Boston Magazine ran an article about Lawrence titled “City of the Damned.” Crime was out of control, our mayor was incompetent at best and corrupt at worst, a handful of cops remained but we hadno fire department for almost a full year. Poorest city in the state on top of everything. Yeah, Lawrence has a rep. How could it not? But no one’s ever compared it to Africa before. And I’m sure Africa itself, with all its problems, isn’t a continent-wide double feature of Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda. I wanted to say something, let the self-righteous teenager speak out, but it just didn’t seem worth it.
Just keep reading, Alex, I thought to myself. I was tempted to point out that Haverhill ain’t exactly Newton either. In fact, residents of Bradford, Haverhill’s rich side, often insist they live in a different city from their poorer counterparts. But I was exhausted, and just wanted to get home, get some sleep, and spend the weekend writing up my report.
“So, do you wanna go to back to my house?” asked White Jersey. “We could watch some movies, drink some bee-ahs?”
“No thank you,” she said, smiling but shrinking back slightly. “I have to meet my friend.”
He persisted a little longer with no luck, but he doesn’t get mad, at least. The Haverhill kids started up about Lawrence again and how it’s bad and dangerous. Probably complained about its mostly Latino population, but I managed to zone out and focus on reading by now, either in Huxley’s dystopian future or de la Selva’s poor, beautiful Nicaragua. Bad future, sad past—either option fits for a Lawrence kid.
Someone opened the door at the back of the car. I glanced back to see a stocky, older man in a red polo and with a clear plastic cup half full of beer. He was probably around my height, 5’8”, but twice as wide. He kinda looked like the rapper Fat Joe but in slightly better shape, a light-skinned Latino with a shaved head. He was walking up the car, chatting with people, clearly drunk. He approached my row, a few feet away, and overheard the Haverhill kids talking about Lawrence.
“You talkin’ shit about Lawrence?” he asked, standing between the row of seats behind mine.
“Yes I am,” said White Jersey, staring him in the eyes, cocky smirk formed amongst his wispy facial hair.
“You shouldn’t talk shit about places you’re not from,” said Red Polo, still somewhat calm and friendly, as if offering general advice.
“I’ll say whatever the fuck I want to, nigger,” said White Jersey. I expected Red Polo to light him up after that, but Red Polo just repeated himself.
“Don’t talk shit if you’re not from there.” He closed in.
“I’ll say what I want, nigger.” His neck craned upwards as Red Polo loomed overhead. This back and forth continued for a minute, ‘til someone finally threw down a gauntlet.
“Alright, you such a big man, let’s get off at Lawrence and settle this,” said Red Polo.
“Sounds good to me,” said White Jersey.
Red Polo then walked to the front of the car, Mingle Mode back on, apparently deciding to continue his tour of the train, when White Jersey, still seated, shouted “Yeah that’s right—YOU RUN AWAY, FAGGOT!”
Red Polo turned, dropped his beer, and dashed back to White Jersey in a few great strides, a red blur one second, a mauling beast the next, wailing on White Jersey’s face with left hooks, his right hand keeping the scrawnier man down in his seat, struggling as the bigger man landed blow after blow. Although they were directly across from me, I had no intention of breaking the fight up.
They aren’t worth a black eye, I thought. In fact, deep down, I enjoyed myself a bit, glad White Jersey had gotten what was coming to him. A sense of superiority and touch of admiration. But looking around the scuffle, I noticed the European girl in front of them, her eyes wide, mouth ajar, scrunched into the corner of her row, and I also saw a group of three young teenagers in the row behind the brawl, the oldest of them probably 14, and they looked kinda scared, bodies stiff and eyes wide and unblinking. I kept an eye out for stray punches, just in case.
A man in a blue shirt ran from the back of the car and pulled Red Polo off White Jersey. Fortunately, Red Polo’s friend was just as big as he was. He pulled back Red Polo towards the back of the car and White Jersey stood up, sneering, his face red, blood on his bottom lip and jersey, and a scratch on his temple.
I sighed. Fine. I got up and stood in front of White Jersey, who didn’t seem to notice me, and half-heartedly put a stiffarm in front of him, separating him from Red Polo, who was still being dragged away. The ticket collector showed up from the front of the car and sat White Jersey down. A soldier, dressed completely in fatigues, helped drag Red Polo to the other car. He then stood guard at the door, eyes down the aisle, focused on White Jersey.
“That nigger fuckin’ sucka punched me,” said White Jersey. “Fuckin’ sucka punched me. But I don’t care, I didn’t go down. What a bitch. Nigger couldn’t knock me out and he fuckin’ suck punched me. My mother hits me hahd-ah than that. But I don’t care, I didn’t go down, I’m still standing.”
He said these few phrases on repeat. The whole car could hear it. He tried to play like he was laughing it off—then he stood up and ripped his jersey off, ready to find Red Polo, wherever he was. He barely stepped past his row before the ticket collector, Green Jersey, and the soldier all made him sit back down and put his shirt on.
The three teenagers behind him sat wide-eyed—honestly, I think their eyes had been stuck that way since the fight broke out. The European girl just had this “What the fuck is wrong with these people?” look on her face. I felt embarrassed—not everyone from the area is a total moron, I wanted to tell her.
White Jersey reverted back to his stock phrases, like the worst talking action figure ever, and the soldier had enough.
“You,” he said pointing from his post at the back door, “SHUT THE MOUTH!”
“No I won’t, GI Joe,” said White Jersey, same smug look on his face that already started one fight.
“Do you know what ‘shut up’ means?” asked the soldier, leaving the door and heading towards White Jersey.
“No I don’t, why don’t you explain it, GI Joe?”
“The hole in the middle of your face—SHUT IT.” They were only a couple feet away from each other now, and I hoped White Jersey would take a swing at the soldier and get his ass knocked or choked out. We deserved the quiet at this point.
They continued shouting when a computerized voice said, “The next stop is… Lawrence.”
Red Polo stormed up the aisle but didn’t get too far before Blue Shirt and GI Joe dragged him back to the other car. White Jersey sat, smiling.
“You’re not actually getting off here, are you?” asked the ticket collector, who returned to the car after hearing Red Polo shout.
“Of course not! I’m not a fuckin’ idiot. I don’t wanna get arrested.”
The train slowed down. I walked out in front of the European girl. I didn’t see Red Polo anywhere. I offered to show her where the cab stand was outside the station and offered a lackluster smile. I was embarrassed by the incident. I didn’t want her thinking we’re all rowdy drunks who only care about sports and look for any excuse to throw a punch. I didn’t want her to think that Lawrence was as dangerous as those guys made it sound or as trashy as those guys acted.
I was also embarrassed for the whole region, in general. While the Haverhill guys weren’t from Lawrence, in a weird way, they’re my people, too. The Merrimack Valley is this weird intersection of lives and culture, and while the cities are very different snapshots, they all add up to a bigger picture—like that one Bob Marley poster or something. A bunch of mill cities propped up along the Merrimack River, only to topple over region-wide. Only a few of them cashed out—Andover and North Andover, mainly.
I tell myself I shouldn’t care what some random European I’ll never see again thinks. But the fact is, I grew up caring what everyone thinks. I never wanted to believe it. But it’s in there, simmering, waiting. It’s mostly contained, I think, or maybe I’m just saving it for the right moment. Looking back, I think about Baldwin throwing the bottle at the waitress in Notes of a Native Son. Years of rage and humiliation and oppression just exploding outwards, no real target, just the first person to touch a nerve at the wrong time. Don’t get it twisted, I know whatever I’ve gone through doesn’t compare to Baldwin’s experience, but I can relate to that quick-twitch rage. In the end, though, the joy of seeing a fist hit that Haverhill dude is just me projecting my own feelings onto some drunk dude, throwing the bottle—throwing the punch—vicariously. But I don’t throw anything, not hands, not objects.
The truth is, all through high school, I wish I had the nerve to just hit someone. Four years later, a diploma, a Bachelor’s degree, I still wish I had the nerve to just hit someone. But even then, it wasn’t like that fight was some symbolic victory in any sense. First, they were just two drunks looking for trouble. Second, Lawrence and Haverhill fighting is just two poor kids throwing down on the playground; the rich kids get to sit and watch and laugh. I guess that means I’m still left with that anger. But I also understand how little that anger accomplishes on its own. There’s gotta be some way to use it, to guide it, to understand it. Baldwin often searched for a message of love past the anger. I’m not sure love is what I’m looking for, though.
Embarrassed, tired, I walked up the garage ramp to find my car. Across the way two dudes in Heat jerseys are smoking cigs outside their SUV.
“’Ey!” one of them calls out. “You see that fight?”
All I could do was laugh.