This is the story I was planning to tell before I learned that John had died. It's a little more hopeful.
Back when I was living in Chicago, working with the union, there was a small shop just down the block from the IWW office that we liked to visit during the day. (There was a tough bar up toward Halsted street where we went after hours, but that's another story.) It was, so help me, a tea-shop. It sold hot tea and homemade sandwiches which the customers could eat and drink at a handful of little folding tables and chairs, that were artfully covered with cloth throws, and it sold boxed teas of all kinds and flavors, as well as exotic incenses, incense-holders, and little brass statuettes. It was the kind of elegant little shop that would have done well among the artsy crowd near the university campus or in an uppah-clahss neighborhood, but alas, the lady who ran it hadn't had the funds to pay several months' rent in one of those neighborhoods. She had settled for what she could afford, a small storefront -- facing the park, at least -- in a poor-but-honest working-class neighborhood. We loved the place, and patronized it as much as we could afford, but it never drew the crowds it needed.
There was no husband in evidence, but the lady who ran the place had a cute little boy named Charlie -- no more than seven years old -- who was clearly half-Asian. We saw him often, because he'd come straight to the shop after school, sit in the back and do his homework until the store closed, and then go home with his mom. On weekdays that was understandable, but when I saw him there one Saturday, looking miserable, I knew there was more going on than just schoolwork. As a regular customer I'd become something of a friend, so I ventured to ask the lady why Charlie wasn't outside on such a nice sunny day. She was almost desperately willing to tell me. It seems that a bunch of the local kids had formed a small gang devoted to picking on Charlie, and they'd ambush or chase him and beat him up anywhere outside school or the shop or home. She had no idea what to do about it, and was frantic for suggestions.
Ah, this was a situation I knew all too well from my own childhood, and I knew what to do about it. So I finished the last of my tea, zipped up my black leather jacket, and said to the kid: "Hey Charlie, let's take a walk."
He was willing enough to get out of the shop under the protection of an adult -- and I must admit that in my leather boots and jacket, I must have looked pretty fierce to a little kid -- so out we went. The first question I asked him once we got out the door was: "Where does this gang usually hang out?"
He pointed to the parking-lot just another storefront (closed) down the block, so I said: "Then let's go this way," and led him up the block toward Halsted Street and the drugstore on the corner. There I bought him a chocolate ice-cream sandwich, and led him back out to the bus-stop where he could eat it in peace.
While he ate, I told him: "Charlie, you've got to settle with these bullies. You're going to have to fight them, and fight them to a standstill, or else they'll just have fun keeping at you and making your life hell." He looked grim, and nodded. I went on: "You'll have to fight them, but I can set up the fight so that they have to come at you one at a time. I can also give you some tips on how to beat them. You willing to do that?" He finished off his ice-cream, and nodded again. "Okay. You ready to do it now?" He thought for a moment, stood up and said: "Yeah."
So we marched back down the side-street, and I told him to walk a good ten yards ahead of me so that the other kids wouldn't know we were together. And sure enough, as Charlie walked past the edge of the parking-lot, out pounced half-a-dozen kids, aged seven to ten, one of them holding a bamboo stick taller than he was. Charlie dropped into a defensive crouch, and the kids started to surround him just as I came marching up.
"What a fine gang of cowards!" I bellowed. "What a great gang of chickenshits!"
That got their attention, and they all turned to look at me. Apparently the sight impressed them.
"Six against one!" I went on, "And most of you bigger than him, and some of you have sticks. Gee, what is he, Superman? Or are you just a bunch of bullying cowards?"
At that they began to squirm and look sheepishly at each other.
"You want to fight him?" I continued, "Fine! But you can at least have the guts to fight fair. Let's go into that parking-lot and do it right."
I herded them, with Charlie tagging along, deep into the empty lot where I picked a good clear parking-space. "You guys," I pointed, "You all stand on that side of the line, and you, kid--" pointing to Charlie, "Stand on this side." They did, and he did, leaving the empty parking-space between them. I marched into the empty mini-arena and asked: "All right, which of you wants to fight him first?" Of course the leader of the pack -- also the biggest -- volunteered. "So you stand here," I said, waving him into the parking-space.
Then I went to Charlie and whispered instructions. "Run in fast, duck under his swing, and grab him hard around the body. Press your face against his belly, so he can't punch it. Use your arms to hang on tight, and pummel him with your legs, your knees and feet. Got that?" He nodded once, grim-faced and eyes narrowed.
"Okay," I said, stepping back to the head of the parking-space. "Go at it!"
Charlie dashed into the arena, ducked low, and rammed hard into the bigger kid, hard enough to knock him down, but he managed to wrap his arms around the bigger kid's ribs. Sure enough, he buried his face against the bigger kid's belly and hung on like a leech. The bigger kid rolled over, trying to pry him off, but Charlie held on and used the opportunity to pummel with his knees. The bigger kid rolled completely on top of Charlie, who now had clear space to kick high and hard with his feet. The bigger kid punched futilely at Charlie's back, and rolled again. Pretty soon they were rolling up and down the parking-space while the other kids yelled and cheered wildly, and I just stood like a statue, silently refereeing.
Finally the bigger kid pried Charlie's arms from around him -- and dashed out of the arena to the safety of his "side". The other kids fell silent, amazed. Charlie stood up, rumpled and panting, but triumphant.
"Okay," I said, striding to the middle of the makeshift arena, "Who's next?"
Instant silence. The kids darted glances at each other, but nobody volunteered. Slightly surprised, I strolled down the line of them, trying to make them meet my gaze. "Nobody else?" I asked, then pointed to another kid. "You're the next biggest; how about you?"
"Nah," the kid mumbled, shuffling backward and looking at his feet. "I don't wanna fight him."
I sneered and moved on to the kid with the bamboo stick. "How about you?" I challenged. "You've got a stick." I tossed a look back at Charlie and said to him: "You know how to fight a stick, don't you? Same method." Charlie thought for a second, then nodded. But the other kid also backed away, muttering: "I don't wanna fight him."
"Nobody?" I snapped at them. "None of you? ...Yeah, just as I thought: a bunch of cowards, too chicken to fight one-on-one. What punks!" I turned my back on them and went to Charlie. "Come on, kid," I said, "I'll walk you home. Where do you live?" --as if I didn't know.
As we walked away, I heard the big kid muttering behind me, trying to salvage his pride: "He must know Karate," to which the other kids hastily agreed. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud as I took Charlie home.
When we got back inside the store, Charlie ran to his mother and hugged her jubilantly. "I don't think he'll have anymore trouble," I reported, "At least for awhile. If Charlie needs somebody to walk him home from school, just let us know." Then I went back to the union hall.
Next time I dropped into the shop, a few days later, the lady couldn't thank me enough for what I'd done for Charlie. Apparently the bullies had chosen to keep away from the very site of their humiliation, and had vanished from the block. Charlie had no more trouble on the way home from school or anywhere else on the street.
Alas, the tea-shop succumbed to economic realities, and closed a few months later. I never learned where Charlie and his mother went, never saw them again, but I daresay the kid did pretty well wherever they moved to. I just hope he found another "referee".
To this day, when I look back on all that, what amazes me most was how fast the little bully-gang gave up once their leader got thrashed. Was it just the presence of an impressive "referee" making them stick to the rules, or was it the upset of having their pet victim beat their best? All I know for certain is what I learned as a little kid myself: when attacked by bullies, fight back; at worst, you'll hurt them enough to spoil their fun, and at best, you can send them running.