In my younger and less settled days, I had some unlikely friends.
Some of these friends enjoyed confrontation. They liked to fight.
And I mean "fight," not argue. It often seemed like they looked for reasons to take offense. And once offended, they had to have satisfaction. If they could not get an apology or some other show of acquiescence, they would hit people with their fists.
The threat of violence hung about them like a bad odor. It was bad enough that I eventually stopped going out with them to clubs and concerts and ball games or anywhere that we might encounter strangers or acquaintances of similar temper and hauteur.
It goes without saying that they were good at fighting; my friends were not masochists. I was not good at fighting, because to be good at fighting you have to be experienced at fighting. I have a certain physical (over)confidence, but I can count on one hand the times I've been in physical confrontations. I fought a mugger once, which was stupid; and scrapped with a guy who undercut me in a pickup basketball game. I got sucker-punched and driven into a chain-link fence by a burly TV cameraman who refused to be tagged out at third base once. It doesn't count as a fight if you can't fight back.
But my friends were genuinely tough guys. One had been a promising junior boxer until he ran into an opponent from a class above his own, the other was 6-foot-5 and looked like the '60s Marvel comic version of Thor. I loved those guys, but never felt safe in their company. They were the sort of boys you'd only mess with if you had a gun.
And plenty of people have guns.
They settled in responsible, remunerative careers. One is a nuclear engineer, the other a scientist. I wonder how they remember those times, at the tail end of the '70s, when we hung out in discos and bars and ran down country roads with Journey and Foreigner surging through the speakers and a bottle of Crown Royal between the shotgun rider's legs.
It wasn't that they liked to fight, it was that they would not brook disrespect. That was their culture, and mine too, I suppose, though my pose was always a bluff.
I sometimes think we have made some progress as a society since those younger and less settled days. Most young men do not seem to have the belligerent gene my unlikely friends possessed. I manage to be consistently surprised by the kindness of most folks, who at least save their vitriol for strangers they encounter on Facebook.
But let's not be naive, I am relatively sheltered in the people I encounter. I used to regularly see trangressive and violent people as part of my job. I haven't knowingly talked to a murderer in years.
Unless the deranged young woman who hectored us the other day was telling the truth.
We were walking our dogs through what we think of as our neighborhood, when she rolled up on a bicycle and engaged. At first it seemed benign, and like most conversations we have on the street, inspired by our terriers.
But after a few minutes of riding along with us she became accusatory and presumptive. What were we doing to improve her world? She didn't know how she was going to pay the rent on her apartment; then she told us she was homeless.
"Which one of these big houses you live in?" she asked.
"That's not your business," I said.
"You afraid of me knowing where you live?"
"No, I'm not afraid of you at all. How can we help you?"
"Y'all can't do nothing for me. I do for that doctor that lives in one of those big houses over there. I don't need nothing from you."
"So why are you following us then? It's obvious you don't have any real use for us. You obviously don't want to be friends."
She looked at a neighbor's open garage.
"They just askin' for people to steal their stuff," she said.
"Oh, there are cameras all over here," I said. "Every one of these houses has a camera pointed at us right now."
She looked up and saw for herself. Then she pedaled away.
And I don't know why I feel bad about that encounter. I don't think I was rude or ugly or condescending.
I wasn't physically afraid, though I worried about her accidentally hitting one of our dogs with her bicycle. She was right, though; I didn't want her to know where we lived. I didn't want her riding by and yelling at our dogs. Or trying to hurt them.
I know that even if we did better with our mental health and social services, there would still be people who end up desperate and alone, muttering complaints in the street. We could do a lot better, but none of us have the right to expect a life completely free of uncomfortable confrontations. In theory, I am in favor of uncomfortable confrontations because they make us consider the perspectives of outliers.
It is easy to become soft when you are fortunate.
And I have, in very many ways, arranged my life to avoid confrontation. I would much rather utter soothing words that mean absolutely nothing to anyone. I would much prefer to be left alone with my books and DVDs and music and wine.
And I have a sense that I will be able to get away with it; that whatever cataclysm awaits our kind has been pushed beyond my timeline. The oceans may yet boil, but I won't see it. Centuries of intolerance and inequality may yet come home to roost, but I am sufficiently insulated by means and age to ignore the coming storm.
But I might be wrong.
And we might, because of our reluctance to fight for things that would have been meaningful and right, find ourselves having to fight battles more visceral and petty. The world might yet belong to our unlikely friends, the ones with a taste for chaos and blood, who don't care how many cameras might be pointed their way.