(This is part of a series of essays on the subject of manhood commissioned by Jason Brown at Men’s Health.)
Last month I was in the queue at Home Affairs, and it wasn’t going well. I like to think of myself as good in a queue: I’m patient and Zen-like and I make small jokes with the people around me to brighten their day. I often stand there, thinking, “Man, I wish I was in this queue with someone like me.” When others around me moan and complain I look at them silently and try to offer an example of how life could be if only they were more stoic and tranquil and good-natured.
But this was the queue for an unabridged marriage certificate, which is the same queue as the one for unabridged birth certificates, so I had been there for three hours already and my back was sore and my legs were sore and I was worried about the organizational infrastructure of the state bureaucracy and I had a dentist’s appointment in half an hour. I was travelling the next day and if I missed that appointment I’d have to be abroad with an unfixed tooth so I was getting antsy as time ticked by. Just as I neared the front, I noticed the back of the head of the guy in front of me. After three hours, you get pretty familiar with the back of the head of the person in front of you, and suddenly this wasn’t it. This was a new head.
I said, “Hey, man.”
He turned. His eyes were wide but I had the sense he wasn’t really seeing me.
I said, quite politely, “Do you think you’re in the queue ahead of me?” I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.
He didn’t reply.
“Because you’re not,” I said.
“I was here,” he said.
“No, you weren’t.”
He turned away from me and I tapped his shoulder and said, “Hey, pal.”
The guy kept insisting that he’d been there the whole time, and I kept insisting that he hadn’t. I said he should step aside and he turned his back on me again, so I reached out and physically moved him. He didn’t like that. He shouted at me not to touch him, and I replied that if he didn’t want to get touched some more he should stay out of my queue. Then he stepped back again.
The first time my father threw a punch at me, I was about eight years old. He was a big man so he had to go down on his knees to do it. He had thrown many punches in his life, and his fists were hard and each one was the size of my head, and he threw the punch in cartoonish slow motion so that I could duck underneath it.
He told me that it’s acceptable to duck beneath a punch, but that in real life it probably won’t happen. Ducking takes too long and uses too many muscles and neural pathways and energy and it’s too easy to get it wrong and anyway it leaves you too vulnerable to a knee or the other fist. A punch only needs to miss by a very small amount so he taught me to sway just a little at the waist or to lean to the side, so that I could stay upright and balanced and be in a position to hit whoever was trying to hit me.
It was very clear to my dad that if someone tried to hit me, I had to hit him back. In fact, his top tip for avoiding being hit was to hit first. Most fights last only a few seconds and whoever lands the first blow usually wins, so make sure yours is first and that it lands, although it needn’t necessarily be a punch. The fist is the wrong instrument for hard impact: the knuckles and the metacarpals break easily, especially on the hard bones of someone’s head. If you do punch, make sure it’s his nose or throat, although if you do that there’s a real danger that you might crush his windpipe and he might die.
This was a real concern to my dad. He had once put a man in a coma by holding him upside down and driving his head into the sidewalk like a shovel; there would have been murder charges if the man hadn’t woken up. “The throat’s a good place,” he told me. “But just be careful.”
My father had been a railway worker and a boxer and a bouncer, and when I was a kid and the family needed extra money he worked security in a nightclub on the Durban beachfront. He was a tough guy, although not with me. He was raised in the Great Depression, an English kid in a hardscrabble Afrikaans working-class neighbourhood in Pretoria, and he had learnt very young to fight for everything. He dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and taught himself a trade; everything he had gained since, and everything he’d prevented people taking away, had been through his hands. He didn’t have much but it was more than he started with, and life had taught him that a man must fight, and he taught me that too.
As for me, I wasn’t a tough kid. I preferred reading. My dad was pleased with that, because he loved me and if his life meant anything it was that I wouldn’t leave school early and make a living with my hands, but he was still a product of his own life so it also troubled him. When a dispute arose between me and a big Afrikaans kid called Sean van der Merwe, my dad coached me how to fight him. He taught me to pull him by the shirt and break his nose with my forehead, but when we fought, Sean de Villiers was too strong and it didn’t work. It didn’t matter, my dad assured me. I’d made a good start. I was his son and no one was going to push me around.
He died when I was nine and left me incomplete: he hadn’t finished teaching me to fight. I was alone in a frightening world that I wasn’t equipped to handle. I never grew to be as big as my dad but when I was older I started getting into fights too. I didn’t think I went looking for them but I was the only one of my friends who ever found them, which should probably tell me something.
I haven’t been in a fight for many years, which is good but sometimes I feel guilty. When I lose out at something and don’t kick up a fuss, when I choose to compromise or talk, when I’m insulted and don’t rise to it, I sometimes feel as though I’m letting down my dad. I wonder if I’m soft and passive, if he’d think I’m less than a man. And it must bother me more than I think because when the man at Home Affairs stepped back into the queue ahead of me I felt a very old, very familiar sensation, a heat flowing down my spine, a darkening behind my eyeballs.
Here I am, a good citizen, and this man is trying to take something from me. I have tried to be reasonable and civilized and use language, but he has left me no choice. I’m a good man, so he’s bad, and what is about to happen is a justifiable clash between good and evil. I’m about to use force to impose my will on him, and I’m in the right.
Already the people around us were drawing back in alarm as I took him by the shirt and spun him around and as he turned I saw again that he wasn’t fully seeing me, he was lost in some intensity of emotion that I didn’t understand, and in the miniscule part of my brain that was still thinking I thought, “Is he on drugs?”, but then my eyes dropped to the form in his hand and I read “Application for death certificate” and suddenly the heat drained from me and I felt terribly, terribly ashamed.
I didn’t know who he loved that had died but he was in a hell of his own, and I was ashamed that I’d allowed my fears and fuck-ups to let me forget that other people are people and their lives are as full of fears and fuck-ups as my own. I was ashamed that I’d laid my hands in anger on another human being, and I was ashamed because the man in the queue was black, and poorer than me, and physically weaker than me, and while I hope to god that that didn’t make a difference to how I behaved, it does make it even more shameful. And I’m ashamed that I’m a grown man who somewhere still lives his life trying like a child to impress his father who, I think, I hope, if he could see it, would be ashamed too.