Take a Walk on the Wild Side


Just back from our (almost) daily trek on the high school’s Cross-Country course through the local woods, to teach Lili who’s pack leader. A rough start, as we passed by the fenced-in Girls’ Lacrosse field, and someone’s bored little brother rattled his sabre (well, Lacrosse stick) at Lili, dragging it along the chain-link like a film noir rabble-rouser, and roused her. A 2-second burst of Japanese “redirection” on my part brought her to heel, and we were off into the forest. On the path back out we encountered a couple with two barking Dachshunds and a Lab, so I leashed Lili up and we passed by without any display of aggression (not one raised hackle) on Lili’s part, while the guy shouted to the yapping dog in his arms, “Oh, just shut up, Lily!” (What are the odds?)

During my 6 enchanted years living in Manhattan–one in the Village, 5 on the Upper West Side–similar power negotiations played out several times a day, mostly involving two-legged parties (although a very cool Sociology prof at Columbia sometimes walked his two pet wolves, Romulus & Remus, down Broadway). I loved Lou Reed’s ode to the more colorful performance artists among us. The Sugarplum Fairy was sometimes spotted roller-skating in and out of the deli on 72nd Street (before [s]he made it big at the Apollo). Countless trips on the not-so-velvet-underground from grad school Uptown, to the VA hospital on East 23rd Street, to acting school in Midtown, and back home after midnight, gave me The Knowledge (a cognitive map) of the city, as well as priceless insights into how to avoid (or lessen the odds of) becoming the target of aggressive assault by strangers. My acting school girlfriends & I would swap stories and tips for how to project the most useful power subtext in confrontations with dodgy dudes in tight places: “I am not your enemy, but I am not your victim.”

Common street hassle of the day: “Gimme a cigarette!” [His power subtext: “Are you my victim?”] Savvy response: “You know, I don’t smoke, and neither should you. I can give you the name of a great stop-smoking clinic. Would you be interested in that?” [Your power subtext: “Not your victim, not your enemy. My amygdala is not aroused by your sabre rattling, so my hippocampus can make up as much of this do-gooder spiel as it takes to bore you, until you lose interest in me as a mark, and move on.”] The preparation my friends & I did for such verbal skirmishes included telling each other what “got up our nose(s)” about street hasslers: intrusion and/or fear. After awhile, we reckoned that our power subtext was so “I am not threatened by you,” that even to be auditioned for the victim role was a source of humiliation.

In the playing field, Lili let the little boy “drive her wild.” So I reined her in (verbally) and we did an hour of close-order drill on our walk through the woods. [My subtext: “I am your master. I trump your amygdala. Unless I give you the attack word, stay cool.” The payoff came when we encountered the three canine street hasslers on the path, and Lili, following my lead, just walked on by.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, leading a pack, limbic system, secret code, semiotics

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