1971 was a great year for martial arts aficionados. It was the year Bruce Lee appeared in four episodes of Longstreet as a blind detective’s kung-fu teacher. It was also the year of The Big Boss, Bruce’s first real step toward international stardom. Billy Jack was a hit at the movies, and the Shaw Brothers’ The New One-Armed Swordsman was showing in Chinatown.
It was also the year that I got sweet revenge.
Life is Unfair
After my sister and father passed away the previous year our family was adrift. We didn’t have that wholeness that we previously enjoyed – life was unfair, and I missed my father’s strong presence. By September of 1970 I also finished my classes at PS 24 and had to move on to middle school or, as it was then called, “junior high”. It was two years worth of schooling, 7th and 8th grades, and I had the misfortune to reside in the area that was assigned to Gorton High School.
Now Gorton had been fine for my sister; she was able to get along with anybody and everybody, never got into trouble, was a gifted artist and flautist and was studying to become a nurse before her life was ended by a drunk driver. She had enjoyed only positive experiences at Gorton. Likewise, my two brothers Mickey and David had attended Gorton for two years of junior high, and although their stay was a bit more rocky it didn’t come close to the problems I would encounter there.
The Big Change
First off, the school’s demographics had changed quite a bit by the time I got there. Whereas the student body had previously been composed exclusively of local students, now there was thrown into the mix a large number of students that were bussed in from out of the area, students that might have been more welcome at Juvie Hall than in the confines of Gorton’s vast hallways. This forced melting pot resulted in fights, muggings and, in 1972, a race riot on the athletic field involving most of the school’s 400 students and which required the combined police of several adjacent cities to quell.
Now I had never had a problem with different races before this time. My grade school had only a sprinkling of blacks, Hispanics and Orientals and we all hung out together with never a problem. For whatever reason, the beginning of the ’70’s saw a massive change in societal mores in the city of Yonkers; we had a large influx of people from New York City’s five boroughs, who found our cost of living and proximity to NYC appealing, and they brought with them their big-city bad habits and ideas.
On the very first day of classes at my new school, even before I entered the building, I was accosted by a group of several kids hanging out in front of the entrance we had to use. One, about 16 years old, shoved me face-first against the concrete wall and went through my pockets, grabbing the few coins I had brought for lunch, rabbit-punching my neck and warning me to bring more money tomorrow.
Welcome to junior high school.
Welcome to Junior High School
Every day after that became a matter of running that gauntlet, trying to evade the muggers, trying not to let them catch your eye and, failing that, trying not to cry from the resulting mugging. And the fun didn’t end once I made it inside, either. There were several fights a day in the hallways, and even the classrooms weren’t safe from the trouble-makers.
The only thing I had going for me back then was that I had started studying martial arts the previous year. Shortly after Dad passed I went looking for some wisdom, some philosophy of life that I could grab and consider my own. I had found it in NYC’s Chinatown, in the guise of the stereotypical little old Chinese man. The first meeting was itself worthy of a chop-socky movie: my brother Mickey was in the habit of taking me along on his jaunts to NYC, and one of his favorite areas to mosey around in was Chinatown, on the southern end of Manhattan.
We’d take the train down to Times Square and walk the rest of the way until we hit Canal Street, where we’d spend a few hours looking through the discount electronic supply stores. When that grew tiresome we broke for lunch at one of the wonderful dim sum parlors in the heart of Chinatown, usually a cramped little basement affair but with a massive choice of those little wrapped pieces of heaven. Lunch being finished we’d move on to the bookstores and martial arts supply stores, spending several more hours in those.
Bookstores and Masters
It was in one of the bookstores that I met my Master-to-Be. Mickey was off looking at something in one of the tiny aisles as I was pawing through such volumes as Bruce Tegner’s Complete Guide to Self-Defense for Boys and Deadly Secrets of the Ninja, books that, while they might not be the best technical guides available, were certainly food for a 12-year-old’s fantasies. As I was drooling over a black-and-white photograph illustrating the triangle choke, a small hand holding a dusty, dirty old brown book reached in front of me, and I heard a voice:
“Here – this is the one you want.”
I turned to see who was sticking this filthy book in my face and found a middle-aged Chinese man, plain-looking and smiling, dressed in nondescript, baggy clothing. He was the kind of person you’d instantly forget if you passed him on the street.
“Does it show any cool moves?” was my only question.
“All of the best ones” he assured me, and saying this turned and walked away. I checked to see where Mickey was, in case this was some kind of weird kidnapping attempt, but he was on the far end of the store with his nose buried in a book. I went over to him and told him what happened, and he shrugged and said, “Well, maybe you should listen to him”.
I bought the book, with the ludicrous title Tao Te Ching and with no pictures in it, and on the train ride home started reading it, but it was evidently written in some alien language because it made no sense to me – it was like it was a book of poetry, talking about the “Tao” this and “Tao” that – where were the guys in the white pajamas, jumping around and smacking each other? Mickey handed me a business card with both Chinese and English characters on it and informed me that the little old man who had given me the book was to be my new martial arts teacher.
I Got A Teacher!
I was both thrilled and dismayed – thrilled that I now HAD a teacher, but dismayed that he was a small, middle-aged man who seemed to prefer poetry over fighting. I would attend his classes for the next 12 years and discover that he did indeed know how to fight – so well, in fact, that none of us could ever lay a hand on him. We would instead end up half-way across the wooden-floored studio on our butts, wondering what had happened. Sifu (Chinese for “teacher”) was a skilled Taijiquan instructor, had been practicing since he was four years old and could both hurt and heal – he also was an accomplished Chinese medicine practitioner, so whatever bruises we collected in the course of a session would be taken care of in a way such that they never even showed by the time we got home.
But most importantly, I learned how to defend myself. Sifu had disposed of my first pleas for learning how to kick ass, telling me that it was far better to just return whatever aggression was thrown my way with a like amount of pain. If I were punched, he taught me to avoid the punch, grab the puncher’s hand and put him into a painful joint lock. If they tried to push me I would neutralize their push and either return it two-fold or step back and allow their momentum to carry them to the ground. Sure, I learned kicks and hand strikes as well, but I discovered that properly executed, Taijiquan appears to the casual spectator to NOT be fighting at all – it looks more like gentle twisting motions with the entire body – but it is quite efficient as a means of self-defense. This may seem to be at odds with the common perception that “Tai Chi” is just for old farts who move in a kind of slow-motion dance, but taken in its totality it is both a health- and pain-inducing martial art.
No More Muggings
Enough so, in fact, that by the beginning of 1971 I had learned enough after a year of classes that I was able to start defending myself at school. The muggings in the entryway stopped after a few more “incidents” when the muggers discovered that their injuries weren’t worth the change in my pockets. The random hallways head-smacks ceased after the perps found themselves thrown into lockers.
But the best, the absolute best reputation-building beat-down happened in Mr. Osowski’s art class.
Mr. Osowski was an aging hippie with a big blonde Afro and matching blonde beard, tall, skinny and super liberal. So liberal, in fact, that he used to bring his St. Bernard to class for us to sketch, but very few of us actually produced any artwork in Mr. O’s class – we were too busy defending ourselves.
See, Mr. O had a blind eye to any shenanigans that went on his class. I guess he figured that if he made believe he didn’t see it then it never really happened. As a result, his 4th-period art class became known as “Sketch or Die”, a place and time where the troublemakers knew they would have free reign to do whatever their evil little hearts desired.
I had the honor of sitting at the desk directly in front of Todd Jenkins, one of the more gruesome bad guys of the bunch. He was an egotistical, pompous ass, but with his long record of successful extortions, beat-downs and muggings he was a force to be recognized and, in some way, dealt with.
On this particular Thursday, we were in class trying to sketch Mr. O’s dog, which was stretched out on his desk and slobbering all over our finished artwork. There was rock music playing on Mr. O’s portable radio and he was busy regaling us with tales of his days in San Francisco during the great love-ins, and he was totally ignoring the fact that Todd Jenkins was poking me in the back with his sharpened #2 pencil. Several times I had turned and told him to cut it out, but that just made things worse – he started slapping the back of my head, laughing all the while, as Mr. O peered at him and promptly ignored him.
Finally, Todd went too far. He grabbed me in a chokehold from behind, a very tight choke hold, and when I finally caught Mr. O’s eye and he mumbled in that laconic drawl of his, “Todd, what are you doing to Bonifonte?”, Todd smugly replied, “He called my mother a dirty name!”
Mr. O’s response? “Bonifonte, don’t call Todd’s mother a dirty name” and went back to his dog and his radio and his stupid stories about free love.
I’d had enough.
I grabbed Todd by the back of his neck with my right hand, grabbed his choking arm with my left and, slipping out of my seat and lowering my body in a “horse” stance with my legs spread wide, flipped Todd Jenkins over my head and onto the hard floor. He landed on his back with a “WHOOOF!” that made everyone, even the St. Bernard, stop what they were doing and look up. The breath had been knocked out of him, but that wasn’t enough for my now-released pent-up anger. I got his hand in a wrist lock and started applying pressure, causing him to scream out in pain.
I heard through my blind rage “Bonifonte, don’t do that to Todd” but I ignored him, keeping the pressure on the wrist until it was close to breaking. Todd screamed and screamed and finally yelled out “I GIVE UP!!!”. I slowly backed away, brushed myself off and walked out of Mr. O’s art class.
Thus did the Great Kung-Fu Debut of 1971 strike both terror and relief into the hearts of the students of Gorton High School. For the rest of my two years there I was left alone, and even became friends of a sort with Todd Jenkins, I think more at his urging than mine.