Yolked In Gowanus
In each of the three decades of my more-or-less adult life I’ve moved away from the neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn, where I was raised and where I kept returning. At eighteen I embarked for college in Vermont; at twenty-two I ran away to California; just now, at thirty-six, I’ve emigrated to Toronto. Here the question has surfaced again, as it did twice before. It’s a question which comes at nervous moments, a nervous question, though often tossed-off, jocular: ever been mugged? The question’s asker is usually a little breathless, despite himself, wanting that confirmation or consolation for his fantasies and prejudices.
Now, New Yorkers away from New York slowly grasp how pervasive, how penetrating, a certain image of New York City life has become, one derived from television and film and a half-decade of New Yorker cartoons. Recall Jack Benny’s famous reply to “You money or your life?”: fifteen seconds of thoughtful silence. Picture a man with a gun emerging from an alley (never mind that New York mostly hasn’t alleys) to interrupt a single man or a couple on their way home from a night’s entertainment, and you’ve pictured New York City. That’s how Batman’s parents lost their lives, for crying out loud, and we all know that Gotham City is actually New York. Add the name “Brooklyn” – which like “Harlem” or “Hell’s Kitchen” evokes a Jimmy Cagney-Barbara Stanwyk blue-collar or ethnic underside – and you’ve begged the question that much harder.
My old neighborhood is now fashionable, mostly white, and renamed: Boerum Hill. In the early seventies, though, it was a weird patchwork, middle class and welfare class, black, hispanic, and an early wave of gentrifying whites, housing projects and historically-landmarked brownstones side by side. In the public schools I attended I was part of a tiny minority, and, well, stuff happened to me, stuff I wouldn’t wish on those asking me that curious question, or anyone.
But as to that question I lacked an answer, a clear yes or no. Like my questioners, I was slave to the archetype – the grown-up, gun-brandishing bandit who’d stand toe-to-toe and ask his victims to raise their hands. I knew that that unnamed script was what they had in mind, and that it hadn’t happened to me. But I couldn’t say no either. My real experiences drifted in a hinterland of childhood and were troubled on every side by racial guilt and apprehension. The fact that these moments, the ones which I might be tempted to calling mugging, had instead no clear name – or that the name they had would be meaningless to my questioner – wasn’t incidental. The odd unnameability which gave these experiences such a transitory quality was an essential part of their nature.
In a recent manuscript I’ve been reaching for this material, from the point of view of a kid like myself:
Sixth grade. The year of the headlock, the year of the yoke, Dylan’s heat-flushed cheeks wedged into one or another black kid’s elbow, bookbag skidding to the gutter, pockets rapidly, easily frisked for lunch money or a bus pass. “Yoke him, man,” they’d say, exhorting. He was the object, the occasion, it was irrelevant what he overheard. “Yoke the white boy. Do it, nigger.”
He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by who once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. Yoking erupted spontaneously, a joke of fear, a piece of kidding.
He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theater. “Nobody hurt you, man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?” They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than anything else. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny secret.
You regularly promised your enemies that what you did together had no name.
And so on.
Now, I suppose my answer to the question could have been, “No, not mugged. Only yoked, but that a few dozen times at least.” It’s odd to think where that conversation might have led, but shame and confusion along with ordinary reticence made it impossible. The shame was at being such a routine victim of racial hazing, as though it would be a racist act to ever mention it – perhaps even retroactive confirmation that the difference between me and my tormentors did matter, a possibility I struggled against and still do. These questions are too big to take up here, as they would have been and continue to be in the circumstances when I’ve found myself asked the question. I’m writing a novel now in an attempt to contend with this material, and I only hope I get it right enough in the hundreds of pages the attempt demands.
Something I learned recently, though, casts a funny side-light on the question which had always stymied me. Strangely, the clue came by way of Humphrey Bogart. In Nicholas Ray’s “In A Lonely Place” Bogart is suspected of a murder by a chief of police. Bogart plays a WWII veteran who’s something of a connoisseur of violence, and he takes an unseemly pleasure in taunting the police with the possibility he may be the killer. During an interrogation the cop asks Bogart if he’s heard how the girl was killed – in fact she was choked, then thrown into a ravine. Bogart grins, then makes a fist and curls his arm so that his elbow is thrust forward in emphasis. “Sure,” he says, “mugged.”
Unmistakably, Bogart has mimed a yoking – the grasping of a neck in a vise of forearm and bicep. And equally unmistakably, the urban lingo of the time – 1953 – regards this act as synonymous with the word mugging.
I wasn’t surprised, though, that Bogart hadn’t said the word yoked. I’d always thought, wrongly it turned out, that yoking was a term both local to Gowanus and pretty new. It seemed specifically black because I associated it with the word “Yo” (I also associated it, weirdly, with the raw eggs which were thrown with tremendous force on Halloween, as though everything wrong with my life at that point could be summed up as various ‘yo’s’ yoking and yolking me). But Bogart’s pantomime sent me scurrying to a reference shelf.
From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, 1997):
Mugging seems first to have been New York City slang for what was called “yoking” in other parts of the country, that is, robbery committed by two holdup men, one clasping the victim around the neck from behind while the other ransacks his pockets. The term either derives from the “mugs” who commit such crimes or the expression on the victim’s face as he is brutally yoked, which can appear as if he is mugging, grimacing, or making a funny face. The term is now well-known throughout the country. As often as not the mugger acts alone today, and mugging has become a synoym for holding someone up. The spelling “mugg” seems to be yielding to mug. The word “mug,” for “a grimace” was introduced to England by gypsies and may derive from the Sanskrit word “mukka,” a face.
From the Dictionary of American Slang, by Robert Chapman (HarperCollins, 1995):
To assault and injure someone in the course of a robbery (probably from drinking mugs made to resemble grotesque human faces); the sense of the violent assault comes from mid-1800s British specialization of the term “to rob with strangulation,” probably from “mug-hunter,” “a thief who seeks out victims who are mugs” (easy targets).
And from The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech, by Irving Lewis Allen (Oxford University Press, 1993):
An early pugilistic sense of the verb to mug was “to strike in the face. Mug, in the nounal sense of a person’s face but more proximately in the verbal sense of hitting someone in the face, is the source for the 1840s term mugging — the act of criminal assault and robbery in city streets. Mugging then originally meant the act of striking a victim in the face or mug. Thus, street criminals, sometimes working in small gangs and who robbed people with violence or with the threat of violence, came to be called muggers, regardless of exactly how they did it. An alternative technique of mugging, grasping the victim from behind and around the neck in an armlock, or sometimes using a rope or a stick, and choking him into submission, was in other cities called yoking.
You see the irony: my hesitation to call my experience mugging concealed a divorce of the word from its origins, and a crucial one, I think. Mugging was something that happened to adults and involved a gun and was incontrovertibly crime; I’d only been yoked and had nothing to complain about or even confidently describe. A mugging you reported to Kojack or Batman; a yoking you didn’t even mention to your parents. One was the city on television and in the New Yorker cartoons, the other the dystopian racial miasma of real experience. But, go figure, that question had an answer all along: I’ve never been robbed at gunpoint or punched in the face, but mugged? You bet, a few dozen times at least. It’s easier than it looks.
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Postscript, two years later: When Greg Tate asked if I might write an essay for EVERYTHING BUT THE BURDEN, I feared I’d be forced to beg off, because of my deep immersion in the novel project mentioned above. Then I thought to offer this, a slightly flippant riff I’d written as a kind of momentary antidote to the long, emotional voyage of the novel itself. The book’s main character, Dylan Ebdus, is more obsessed with yoking than I purport to be in YOKED IN GOWANUS – in fact for him that experience, of being thrown in a headlock and frisked for pocket change, is a kind of Proust’s Madeleine, that cookie whose perfume triggered the whole Flashback of Things Past. Nevertheless, the question this piece frames is the same for Dylan as it was for me: why did the experience of ‘racial hazing’, as I called it here, trigger a welter of guilt and yearning in my adult self, rather than the reactionary swerve proposed in the formulation ‘a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged?’
Apart from the fact that I was to young to be ‘liberal’, or anything else, the answer is difficult – hence a 700-page novel. One part is political: my parents were basically hippies, with an avowed Bohemian-Egalitarian take on race. I was always sent to public school, and I was taught to assertively ignore difference. When my grandmother pointed out that my best friend was black – she meant to congratulate me on it – I was embarrassed for her at her self-consciousness in even thinking it was a thing to congratulate. Because I was a child, I bought my parents’ utopian assertions wholesale. They were the last generation that would even notice race, and I was part of the first that would sail past it. So when I was old enough to begin to be bullied, in fifth or sixth grade, being un-tarred (as it were) with the epithet ‘whiteboy’ was awfully confusing for me: hadn’t we struck a great deal not to mention that kind thing?
See, I had also absorbed enough of my parents’ deep liberalism to be guilty. I might be a minority here, but my ‘oppressors’ were working out their own rage, so I figured out how to feel better about being bullied by feeling sorry for them. Does this ‘identifying with the oppressor’ remind you of anything? It does me, now. Did all this lead, in turn, to a kind of buried rage at my parents for putting me in this position, and for having ideals I so wished to protect that I couldn’t bring myself to describe the problem to them? Yup. Hence, as I say, a 700-page novel.
But it’s worth saying that along with this level of pretentious, patronizing guilt and pity, another, more tender factor modulated the experience of being yoked/mugged. That was a kind of closeness in the act, its weird intimacy, its dailiness. We were in it together, like every bunch of miserable kids anywhere. We were making community and conversation, even if it cost me my bus pass every 30 days. Yeah, it was a difficult conversation – shouldn’t it have been? The lives of the black kids around me meant something to me, and I didn’t only identify in a baroque and self-loathing way, but in a fine one as well.
These were the birth days of hip hop, after all. Some of the other whiteboys being yoked in my neighborhood went on to become The Beastie Boys – one didn’t preclude the other. My own brother was in an early version of what became 3rd Base, and if you find the back-issue of Rolling Stone which includes a “Timeline of White Rap” (culminating you-know-where), he’s there, the very first entry: Lord Scotch, named for my father’s midwestern Scotch-English roots.
So I say to you now: Yo, you got a dollar you could lend me?
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