I started noticing gray hairs when I was still in my twenties. It was actually cool at first. I felt older and more distinguished until they started to multiply. Then, it became kind of annoying. Once a barber even mentioned it. I told that story to a group of friends.
Yeah, so the barber goes, “You have lots of gray hairs.”
I’m not sure why I was telling them all this but it probably wasn’t the most interesting evening. As soon as I said it, though, our friend Lamppost Mark stood up. We called him that because he once broke his hand fighting a lamppost. He was a big and volatile club bouncer doused in Long Island attitude.
He shook his head back and forth in an exaggerated motion like the Cheetos cat. His eyes were bugging out of his head.
He said that to you?!
His eyes grew even bigger. The whole reaction was so overdone that I thought he may have misheard how the barber attacked me with a knife.
Bro! I would have punched him right in the face if he said that to me! Are you kidding?! You didn’t hit him?!
And these are the type of people I grew up around. They’d hear someone say something rude to them and lean in with a smile, “Yo. That’s a broken nose, buddy.” Then the rudeness would stop. The more of us that were out together, the quieter those around us seemed to be.
The craziest part of all of this was that I seriously spent a while after that wondering if I should have punched that barber in the face. Mark had been so strong in his conviction that this was an unforgivable offense, it made me wonder if I had gone soft in my early 20s. How could I let this elderly Russian barber get away with that? Should I have punched him?
Well, here I am at 40 and I can definitely answer that with a no. I should not have punched the barber in the face for pointing out that he could see color. That’s nuts to even type out and the fact that I wondered about it is scary. It makes me question my whole mindset back then and realize I came within a hair (pun not intended, but awesome) of negatively affecting my future self on a daily basis. It would have taken one off-day in the wrong place at the wrong time to have lost it all before it even began.
Then again, my life today has more worth losing than it did then. “Losing it all” in 1998 meant my Playstation 1 and a few blacklight posters. The thought of doing a self-destructive act for the sake of “pride” wasn’t all that inconceivable. It is, however, terrifying in hindsight.
That’s just how it was back then. We were angry over-reactors literally headbutting the walls at the bar. Every glance from a stranger or crossed word from an acquaintance was a reason to defend your honor. Paranoia mixed with youthful discontent to make for some bizarre battles. Sometimes our aggression came out for reasons that made no sense at all.
There are countless examples, but my favorite was from the time I was talking to my friend Chris in his living room. Mid-sentence, he stopped speaking and looked over my head through the bay window behind; carefully watching as a man walked down the sidewalk. I looked at him as he looked at the stranger for a moment before asking his reason. His reply still doesn’t make sense to me today.
I’m watching this freakin’ guy walking down my block. People don’t just walk down my block, man. What’s this guy doing?
I openly laughed at him for this – like ha-ha in his face. He didn’t seem to care though. To him, this was a big deal. While I was all for irrational aggression, it felt like a suspicious step too far.
Of course, it only felt that way until our friend Mike who lived down the street came over an hour later. He walked into the house and – I swear to you – this was the first thing he said.
Yo. Did you see that guy walking down the street? What the hell’s up with that?!
Chris shot me a look and turned back to Mike.
I know, right?!
Of course, in all of this, I’m glossing over tales of my own insane behaviors from this time period, but they were there. It doesn’t take a college course in psychology to realize that we all had deep-rooted issues with being disrespected. To me, the thought that someone would treat me in a way less than reverent sent me into a crazy rage. I worried about it possibly happening all the time and was always on the lookout for the next opportunity to fight some epic battle.
I’ve eventually learned to temper my actions with wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that the voice still doesn’t exist in my head. To this day, I will still encounter a situation where I need to stop for a moment to silently ask myself, “Is it appropriate to freak out about this?” The answer is almost always a no.
Still, there are times when the new me goes on autopilot. I’ll find myself standing at the supermarket as the guy in front of me on the express line starts to put more than 12 items on the conveyor belt. That’s when I hear Al Pacino from Scent of a Woman screaming about how if I was the man I was 20 years ago, “I’d take a bloooooow torch to this place!”
But I’m not the man I was 20 years ago and thankfully that supermarket is still standing. I’m the man I am today. I’m actually grateful for that and, while I would still defend my family’s honor with rabid ferocity, I don’t search for opportunities to do so. When someone disrespects me in a way that needs handling, I know it and I handle it. That hasn’t been the case much at all. It’s amazing how little drama you find when you stop looking for it.
I sometimes wonder what the me of 1998 would say about the 40 year old, post-heart surgery, beacon of zen balance I am today. To be honest, I think he’d be relieved. I may let a few more things slide today than I did then, but let’s be honest. A rude stare or impolite action probably won’t kill me, but walking around with that tension and constant worry on my shoulders almost certainly will.