New York Punch
New York summer could split your skull open. Or it feels that way, some days, the sky so
bright and blue and raw you can hardly look at it. The sun something meaty and heavy, sweat as readily in the air as exhaust, the smell of shawarma, and the mystery steam that billows up from under manhole covers. The city heaves like the buildings have been running. By four o’clock, wet, grimy stains paint the backs of strangers’ shirts. Afternoons like these beg for the sweet, moldy stench of the old A/C units that purr to life across the boroughs. Musty, sweat-slicked crowds ebb and flow. Crime rates skyrocket in the summer. And on a day like this, walking down First Avenue, my father was punched in the face.
Walt was born in 1964 in Cleveland, Ohio, and has not fought another man in his life. He
is the youngest of three, the only one with children of his own. It’s mostly to please him and, I suppose, us, his children, that his side of my family has ever gathered in entirety in the last 25 years. As soon as he could, he packed his things up on a Greyhound and headed west out of Ohio, towards the red mountains of Colorado and low, gray skies in Seattle. He grew his salt and pepper hair out to his shoulders. He attended grunge shows but badly needed earplugs. He studied poli-sci, biked around Lake Washington, learned to work IT. My mother, born the same year, who had grown up only a lake or two away in Detroit, spotted him one afternoon across a sunny, snowy peak in California. She could ski like no one he’d ever seen. They pretended to be Catholic so they could marry in her parents’ church on Lake Michigan, her unwillingly in white and him with his graying red hair tied at the base of his neck. A vintage trolley took them to the beach party where my grandmother danced with an Elvis impersonator.
When my dad was 21 he graduated from Colorado College and moved back in with his
parents. By then they had moved to Phoenix, and he still recalls that summer of ‘86 as the hottest of his life. He cooked an egg on his dad’s car and when, driving down the highway with his brother, they rolled down the windows to let in the breeze, the air that flew in was hotter than the interior of the car, everything baking together on the Arizona freeway. My father was never a large man. In college, he finally grew to six-foot-two, but his posture was better suited for biking and yoga than it ever was for punching. There was one day that year when he and a few friends—maybe his brother—were walking into a bar as a large, scary-looking man was being kicked out. When the man had finally given up, he was not getting back into that bar, he turned around and saw Walt Enterline, young and fresh-faced but about his height. And before my dad knew what had happened, fist connected with cheek and the metallic taste of blood erupted in his mouth. He’s never told me what he did next, but I’ve always imagined he straightened back up, turned around, and went into the bar for a drink.
It was after he moved to Seattle that he really got into biking. Growing up, I remember
staring in awe at the different collections he’d display on our big wrap-around porch. A record player and dozens of LPs. Wooden carvings of Grateful Dead album covers he’d made in high school. Tool boxes full of drill bits lined neatly in descending size. And bikes. Lots and lots of bikes. Road bikes, cruisers, reclined, tandem. One of the first things I remember learning about my father was that he loved biking. He was working at a bank, then, and would take off each morning to run to the bus, my mother, brother, and I watching him from their bedroom window. He worked in a glossy blue tower downtown by the fish market, and the mongers knew him, would greet him when he took us with, winking as they threw massive silver salmon through the air like they weighed nothing. When his knees started hurting, he nearly gave it up—it was then that he briefly tried the reclined bicycle, the little orange flag flapping in the rain to alert cars. He eventually went in for double knee surgery. He came home afterward with pictures of the insides of his legs and neat, shiny scars bisecting each slender knee. The operation has kept him biking another 20 years. It was around this time he had nose surgery as well, probably to fix a deviated septum. My brother would later tell me that his nose issues began when our uncle threw a basketball at his face as a kid, but my father has never confirmed this story.
Biking in a city like Seattle is a dangerous business. Streets hit each other at odd angles,
hills jump up unexpectedly, the air is gray, and it is somehow always raining. But, goddammit, my father was going to do it. A few years back we found some old home videos he took in the first few years of our lives. He’s always towering over us in these videos, the twins in our bouncing chairs and strollers, laughing about how ridiculous we look in matching overalls, holding wooden spoons the size of our arms. Nearly half of the footage, though, is of the city, the different views he found on his bike rides, the ferries and cars he could see from the neighboring street up the hill. We saw, sitting then in a basement in Colorado, the park our parents walked through the day my mother went into labor. We saw their first house, the one we were far too young to remember, and the way the Fremont bridge looked the year we were born. Three separate times my father fell on his bike and broke his collarbone; the delicate bones across his chest still bear the uneven knots.
When my brother and I were nine, we moved to Colorado, into another blue house. My
parents have always had something for blue houses, and we joke that they’re leaving a blazing trail of them across the country; this was the third house they painted blue and it wouldn’t be the last. My dad had dreamed of being an artist and an architect but was forced into poli sci and IT by a depression-era father (born in rural Pennsylvania the day before the 1929 stock market crash) who wouldn’t dream of paying for art school. He installed new wood floors in every room. I walked into what would be my room one afternoon in October—still warm, still sunny, one of the 300 days of sun that and every year in Colorado—to see him hunched over a power saw on the floor. He jumped when he saw me, snapping at me to get out. The saw could send splinters flying, he explained, and if something happened to me, he wasn’t sure what he’d do to himself. That was the first time I remember real fear in his eyes. This man, twice my height, having three times healed his collar bones, could still be afraid of pain. It was one of the only times he’s ever raised his voice at me.
When I was 17 I spent the summer back in Seattle, my last before college. I remember how
happy my dad was to see me go. I got a job canvassing for a city council campaign and spent each hot day that summer marching up and down a different neighborhood, knocking on doors and dropping pamphlets. He came out for a week to visit—the same week, it so happened, that his mother suffered a blood clot and aneurysm, the first in a series of events that would land her in a retirement home; I remember the way my dad cried when he got the call that she’d been found collapsed outside her house, my blind grandfather unaware until my uncle drove over to collect him. She’d gone for a walk at four in the morning, the only time of day she could stand to be out in the Arizona summer. A neighbor found her in the driveway. A few days after her accident my dad and I went whale watching outside the city. My dad loves whales. Growing up I loved that the word “orca” had the same letters as my name. I remember the Seattle Aquarium had big, cartoonish cutouts of orca whales by the entrance. Dad and I spent two days by the sea, out of Puget Sound, where we hiked to see a dam and boarded a little ferry one morning in hopes of seeing a pod of whales. It was freezing, even though it was July, and we ate clam chowder on the boat, wrapped in blankets bluer than the gray sky and dark water. The boat rolled through the choppy summer water, waves licking the hull, white froth coming and going like heavy breathing. We spent the whole day out there, eyes on the horizon, waiting for the smooth, arching back of a whale, certain a forked tail might at any moment breach the surface. We didn’t see any whales on that trip.
It was actually whales that had brought my dad, indirectly, to New York City the summer
he was hit. He and my mother were on their way to Norway to sail and whale watch with a friend from Cleveland. New York was really just the layover; they should’ve been here only a few hours. From Penn Station, we took the ACE to the L to drop their luggage in my studio on ninth street and have dinner before they took off to LaGuardia for a midnight flight. We had just left the subway stop, my mother and I halfway across the street, when I heard a scream. I turned around and saw my father, all six feet and two inches, face down on the hot sidewalk, bright yellow duffel bag on top of him. He was wearing his hiking boots in the New York heat to save space in his luggage. His leather shoulder bag hung off to the side of his body. My mother would tell me later that she thought he’d been shot; she thought he was already dead.
When I pulled him off the sidewalk, his mouth was brimming with blood. I remember
vividly the horrible way it splattered in thick drops on the concrete. Nothing could have prepared me for the raw, biting horror of staring into his mouth, askew and dripping, in the midday heat of the summer. It was just so bright, the air so yellow and his blood so deeply, startlingly red. He kept telling me he’d lost a tooth, and I kept staring into his mouth, his bottom row of teeth loose and sideways, and thinking he’d lost all of them. He could feel a gap where he thought a tooth had been. But what he was worrying with his tongue, we’d find out in the emergency room, was the place where his jaw had come apart. I’ll never forget what it looked like to see his blood-red tongue darting back to that crack in his skull. I was afraid to touch him. I think the cops arrived quickly. I think there were about 10 of them. I think the puncher was arrested on the scene. I think a stranger called an ambulance. I think my mother was the one who first offered him water. I think the man’s mother was the one screaming she was sorry. I think he told the cops that he’d fucked up everybody’s day.
I felt terribly small, face to face with him on that hot sidewalk. I almost wanted to reach
out and touch him, to move his head back and forth and know it was still intact. He likes to tell me about when he first cut his hair short. It was 2003, and I was four years old when he came home one afternoon without his ponytail. I walked up to him and took his face in my tiny hands, tilting it left and right uncertainly. He still laughs when he recalls the curious expression on my face, the grip my little fingers had on his chin. My narrowed eyes examining his head in 360 degrees. Twenty years later, crying on the street, I suddenly had the same instinct. To grab his face in my hands. To examine him, again, as if he were a stranger.
The last big accident my father had before the punch happened on a bike. It was a summer
night, and he had left a party early, a bit buzzed from scotch. He was with my brother and a friend in Northern Michigan, around the corner from my grandparents’ house and less than a mile from where he and my grandmother had danced with Elvis 20 years earlier. They were all biking down a hill, one we’d biked up and down a million times, when a speed bump caught him by surprise. It was late at night, and there were no streetlights. My mother loves how you can navigate those streets by starlight in the summer. No one really saw what happened, but I have this sickening image of him in my head, flying over the handlebars and into the night air, crisp lake breeze in his white hair. Body limp and gliding. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. I don’t let myself imagine what it looked like when he hit the asphalt, but no one touched him until the EMTs arrived. Someone had to stop him from trying to stand. I was out of the country. No one told me until a week later, when he was recovering from the concussion but going to be okay. Only years later, when my mom and I were drinking the day after the New York Punch, did she tell me how close he was to dying.
He survived the punch. The next day, actually, he was walking around to find a bowl of
clam chowder. He was texting me and my brother while in the ER, gruesome X-rays and guesses about whether the doctors had given him the indica or sativa morphine. My mom and I held his arms while we led him around Midtown, waiting patiently as he looked over each shoulder and pulled his hat lower over his head. The EMTs told us they’d never seen someone with a broken jaw talk before. They had to wait three days before they could fly to Michigan to meet the doctor in Ann Arbor. The surgeons didn’t wire his mouth shut, but he had braces all summer and ate nothing but soup and rice for two months. There’s still a piece of metal in his chin to hold his jaw together and he likes to joke that he’s a bionic man. I spent a lot of time in Michigan, sitting in my grandparents’ house on the lake, cooking risotto and playing card games with him when he wasn’t sleeping. The lake in early summer is too cold for swimming, so instead we just sat and watched, drinking wine as sunsets turned the water a deep, glowing red. The hot sand felt good, he said, and I remember watching him wade out towards the swim buoys one day a couple weeks after the hit. He looked so small, so fragile, and I sat up from my book to watch him the whole time, afraid he might collapse. (I was the one who had pulled him off the sidewalk in New York. When he remembers that day, he tells me, he remembers my startled and tear-stained face.) But he just stood there a long time, staring out at the lake’s distant horizon, waist-deep in the cold water. One hand delicately holding his chin, running his fingers over the same spot again and again. I wondered what he was thinking about. Maybe the whales in Norway.
Today, when my father recalls the incident, he wonders how the man remembers it. He
was visibly unwell: maybe drugs, or illness, or mania. It’s hard to say. But does he remember doing it? Does he feel guilt, does he wonder if my father is alright? Will his daughter write a piece of her own, about his passion for motorcycles or baking or maple trees? Was this his first punch? Will it be his last? The judge dismissed the case earlier this year. So we’ll probably, hopefully, never see him again. It’s been hard to swallow that this is how it ends: with the quiet filing of some paperwork in the backrooms of a courthouse. I don’t think my dad will ever come back to New York City. I don’t know how I could blame him.
He worries, now, though already healed, that these accidents will be how he is
remembered. That he will forever only be the guy who was punched by a stranger on a New York street. We’re making t-shirts of the x-ray of his skull, laughing and remarking together about the sharp, distinctive slice of that crack. But this is not who my father is. He is an artist, a skier, a kind and honest guy. Several people, upon hearing about the accident, remarked that he was just about the least punchable guy they knew. He moved us out to Colorado so he could leave his job at the bank and become a woodworker. He finally went to art school and now he sells his work in local art shows. He recently made his first rocking chair, and when I called him in the middle of a panic attack last winter, he sat on the phone with me for hours. He made himself a mug of tea and didn’t hang up until almost three in the morning, when I assured him I would be able to sleep. He wanted to make sure I put some of this in here so people would know. But I know it already. I know it, Dad.