Earning Respect

People make a big to-do about step-parents and how they affect the kids, but no one ever thinks about the collateral damage to everyone else; specifically, say, the original kid’s friends.  One New Years Eve, almost unexpectedly, the friend who I was closest with growing up in high school got a new step-dad.  His mom had married Phil, this big, New Jersey I-Talian type, and he swaggered about everywhere he went.  It wasn’t that he had to flex around or anything.  He just put out the energy that says “I’m damn well in charge and you’re all gonna fall in line.”  I respected the man before I ever entered the house he came to live in, thereby losing the title of “friend’s house” and turning into “Phil’s New House That I Best Respect.”

It was a tough transition, if only because of the amount of stupid shit we used to do there.  We took over the basement and turned it into our personal wrestling arena throughout middle school.  It housed of one of the most epic parties of my High School career (which we all know carries some sad, odd, meaningful weight all these years later – go ahead an recount your own top two right now).  This was the house of reckless golfing in the front yard that leads to the inevitable near-misses of bay windows.  And then this enforcer was going to make his way in?  I thought twice about pissing in the man’s house now, let alone participating in the goofy shenanigans we would pull.

This respect crippling fear kept me at a distance from Phil for quite some time.  And I was there all the time.  Let’s not act like this was a “oh I just missed him that one weekend” type thing.  I practically grew up in that house and still avoided the man like the plague.  I didn’t feel intimidated, just sure I did not want to be on the man’s bad side.  Not in an intimidating way, either.  …Well, we did suspect he might have been in the mob (stereotypes are sometimes real:  golfed all day, Italian, worked in waste management, had money…) so that did have some sway.  Deep down, I knew he would gain the power over all eight of us to wash his cars for him and none of us would peep.  And I’m not in to being an indentured servant.  So I resisted.

But I could not fight it for long.  Eventually, I got thrown in front of him by the mother/wife, and I said hello.  “Anton,” he said, the name bellowing through the kitchen, leaking into the living room areas, flying up the cathedral ceilings.  Shit, I thought, it’s all over.  At that point, I pulled the exact reverse of my plans up until that point.  Now that I couldn’t hide under “the weird, quiet kid” banner, I’d have to put in my time: saying hello by name, always saying goodbye (by name), actively willing to go elsewhere at the drop of the hat.

If there was a blizzard, and we were snowed in three feet deep, and he came downstairs and went, “Hey,” I’d immediately throw my coat on and tell him to have a great night.  For you see, with all the angst in myself that Phil brought upon moving in, he also came with him a gigundo 56″ or so giant square box TV.  It was like a Yokozuna casket:  double wide, double deep.  The thing was deep as it was big, and man, was it ever big.  It was the single greatest upgrade of all time, and throwing in NFL Sunday Ticket made the house a guaranteed 8-hour commitment on Sundays.  But it was his.  Or, it was, until the damned teenagers got their grubby mitts on it.  There were a few friends of mine who shared the same philosophy with Phil, and we always remembered who owned that TV.  I always stated my desire to leave him with “HIS OWN TV GUYS I MEAN C’MON!” if I heard his voice coming down the basement steps, the lumbering feet bashing against the carpeted wood.  Yeah, I was always kind of a bitch, but now I had the fear of god in me.

*          *          *

One weekend I got the call-up from the friend bullpen to take a trip to Phil’s super awesome beach house down the shore.  Stories of it were passed around like fables about El Dorado.  There’s a pool in the deck!  And then there’s a bay!  You can jump off a dock!  He has a POWER BOAT, BRO. It just went on and on.  After a few weeks of hearing stories, I not only got the invite, but a solo one.  Just me, my friend, his mom, and Phil.

Holy fuck.

As I was being shown around the compound (wave to the neighbors!) I’m told about crabbing and what that entails.  I had no idea that people crabbed in New Jersey (let alone that “crab” could be a verb) and this apparently is enough to warrants look of shock and pity.  Already losing points with Phil.  Jesus.  For whatever reason, I’m suddenly looking out to the dock thinking about fishes…how they sleep….  We took some raw chicken breast, put it on on a metal hook, dropped the hook, attached to a string, in the bay, then we’d pull it up later and hey look maybe you have a crab, cool, high five.

I’m ushered back on the tour.  Oohh that is a mighty big CD player!  Speakers throughout the house!  A room I’m not supposed to ever step foot in with objects I can’t touch (the living room, naturally).  After the tour is completed (thank your tour guides!) we go back to get the crabs.  Phil highly doubts there are going to be any.  My friend and I both nod, knowing completely that there will be nothing there; it has been stated as such and mutually agreed upon as fact.  Then, a miracle occurs.  Phil pulls one rope up to reveal a tiny li’l crab.  He hits the deck and immediately starts his horizontal run toward freedom.  As soon as its little claw legs start motoring, click-click-clicking on the wood, Phil commands, “get it!”

This is my opportunity.  This is what I’ve been biding my time for.  He made a command and I’ll be damned if I don’t execute it as best I can.  Without a second to think, I dive directly on the ground–my entire body–to pick up the 3″ crab and give it back to Phil.  The thought did run through my head that maybe I could be the Tom Hagen of my friends, give Phil someone he can trust amongst the stupid, pimply-faced teens (I do come from a Kraut/Mick/Pole background, after all – it’s a natural fit).  Down I went, having no idea how to pick up a crab, and just got it for him, presenting it like a dog giving a stick to his master.

He laughed.  He then told me how to hold a crab properly so it doesn’t clamp down on your fingers.  It’s at that point I realized that my left finger is throbbing with pain as it’s currently being crushed by the very piece of crab I enjoy eating the most.  Sweet, sweet karmic justice for those little claws.  I shake the thing off, put it in the bucket, and smile through the searing fucking pain, jesus christ it’s just a tiny crab, fuuuck!

Phil looks at it, and goes, “eh, he’s tiny, it’s not worth it anyway” and tosses the crab into the bay.  My finger still pulsating, but my view of Phil changing.  This is a man with compassion, a man with emotion and the capability to care.  I had nothing to fear this whole time.  He’s merely a gruff man of Italian descent who doesn’t take shit from anyone and who is probably a racist.  But doesn’t that just come with the territory?  Sure, he has some really powerful guns with really good scopes on them, but who says a man can’t hunt, right?  And man, my finger fucking HURTS JESUS WHY DID I DO THIS?!

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