The author when he was smaller than he is now.
Northern New Jersey looks like a cluster of idyllic suburbs, but each of those seemingly normal towns has a dark side that’s constantly gossiped about, but never publicly acknowledged. They seem to thrive on their strangenesses. West Orange, where I grew up, is the hometown of Ian Ziering from Beverly Hills, 90210, Scott Wolf from Party of Five, David Cassidy from the Partridge Family, and Mike Pitt of Boardwalk Empire and Dawson’s Creek. It’s also the childhood stomping ground of Charles Cullen, who might be the most prolific serial killer in American history. The salutatorian of my high school class lit herself on fire in college. Thomas Edison’s labs were in my town, and he paid local kids to kidnap cats and dogs so he could electrocute them to death as part of his efforts to convince the world to adopt direct current instead of alternating current. The town’s history is all teen idols and strange deaths, and that’s a really unnerving foundation to stand on as a youth.
The street I lived on for the first handful of years of my life was lined with modest, lower-middle-class houses with small front yards and cracked driveways—your typical North Jersey neighborhood, with all the odd hidden darkness that that implies. The neighbors at the end of our block had a kid my exact age, Steve, and the two of us naturally wound up playing together a lot. That friendship ended after Steve killed his pet rabbit by tossing it into a ceiling fan. His father buried it in their backyard, and Steve decided he wanted to dig it back up to see what it looked like. I was over at his house that day, and when I returned home with reports that I had exhumed a dead rabbit, the lack of parental supervision at Steve’s house was made evident, and I was prohibited from playing there.
There were kids who lived across the street, but they were slightly older and very into break-dancing on cardboard boxes. People who grew up in the 80s will remember that if you liked break-dancing or punk rock, you were considered a dangerous person, and my parents refused to let the break-dancing miscreants corrupt their young sons. The neighbors on one side of us used to sic Dobermans at my brother and me for fun and also ate food off the hood of their car in events they referred to as “carbeques.”
This meant my only childhood playmate was the dwarf who lived in the house next door to me. And that dwarf came to physically torment me.
The first thing I’ll say is this: I don’t blame the dwarf for anything. Our parents fucked up. I was three years old, still weaning myself off diapers. The dwarf was seven. Our parents decided that since only a rusty chain-link fence separated us, we should be playmates. The dwarf was really mad about it.
I get it! If I was the dwarf, I would have tortured me, too. No seven-year-old wants to play with a three-year-old, especially not when that older kid is the same size as the younger. I was a small child with a big head who was just learning to master things like walking upright and syntax. The dwarf must have looked at me as a mirror image of sorts, but one that was mentally and physically far behind him. I’m sure on some level the fact that we were the same size was a rage-inducing indication to my dwarf neighbor that he was not the same as everyone else.
The upshot was that he lashed out at me physically a lot. I have vague memories of sitting in a child-sized pool on the lawn in my backyard, while the dwarf climbed halfway up the fence that divided our properties and chucked rocks at me. I fell while trying to leap out of the pool, and the dwarf pointed and laughed.
I didn’t understand his aggression. On most days, the dwarf and I were good friends. I had an impeccable collection of He-Man action figures, and I remember that he was the first kid I knew to move onto the far more sophisticated world of Transformers. Later, he would be the first kid I knew to have items from the wildly underrated M.A.S.K. toy line. We were action-figure connoisseurs together. We got along.
But when darkness crept into that dwarf’s eyes, my toddler’s instincts told me to flee. The dwarf moved on from rock tossing to more up-close-and-personal attacks, like pushing me to the ground when I was trying to figure out how running worked. He’d pinch me and pull my hair. That friendship is the closest I’ve ever had to being in an abusive relationship—things were generally fine, and on our best days there were few people I was closer with than the dwarf. But things would get violent quickly, with no provocation or explanation. I had to be on guard around him.
And the dwarf was devious! He was extraordinarily good at only letting his violent tendencies come out when there were no adults around to see. As my parents tell it, I would often run into the house crying, making wild accusations that a dwarf had been physically abusing me. My parents knew the dwarf. They knew his family. He was of good stock. They had no reason to believe he would abuse me. But my complaints were becoming more consistent, so they knew something was wrong. And soon, physical evidence began to show up. Bruises, scratches, and most tellingly, sand.
My father had recently installed a sandbox in my backyard. It was nothing special—your average four wooden walls around a bunch of sand. Still, in our modest neighborhood, a private sandbox wasn’t common and was therefore seen as something of a luxury item. The other kids in the neighborhood often stopped by to take a turn in our sandbox, and the dwarf was a frequent visitor.
Shortly after the sandbox’s installation, I started running into my house very irritated and itchy, with piles of sand in my diaper. As I told my parents, the dwarf had launched a new campaign on me—he’d wait until my guard was down, then he’d pull on my diaper and throw sand into it. Nobody wants sand in his butthole and on his pee-pee. No wonder I was crying and moody.
As the months went on and my human personality developed, my parents noticed a shift in my behavior: I was no longer a hapless victim, I was becoming angrier about all of this bullying. It was the earliest sprouting of my rage issues.
Part of North Jersey life is that everyone is obsessed with being tough all the time. This wouldn’t be a story if my parents had simply picked up the phone, called their neighbors, and said, “Hey, we think your kid might be throwing rocks and sand at our kid. Maybe you could talk to him.” Or they could have come outside with me and the dwarf and said, “It seems like you guys are fighting a lot, if you do things like that you’re going to get into a lot of trouble.” But my parents saw this as my first steps into a world where you have to look out for yourself and be ready to stand up for what’s right. They let it happen. They weren’t witnessing it directly, so it wasn’t their place to step in. They felt like it was my problem to solve.
The moment of truth came one sunny morning when I was sitting in my sandbox and the dwarf sauntered down my driveway. With a smile on his face, he asked, “Can I play?” I smiled back and nodded, but in my heart I was ready for the sunshine and smiles to go away. I was expecting shenanigans, and I was ready for them.
True to form, the dwarf struck. When my back was turned, I felt a tug at my underpants, and then the by-then-familiar feeling of gritty sand invading my private area. I spun around, then fell onto my butt. The dwarf laughed.
This time instead of crying, I laughed back.
The dwarf looked confused. I reached over the edge of the sandbox, where I had craftily hidden a bright yellow plastic wiffle-ball bat. I raised the bat and brought it down upon the dwarf’s sizable head. He looked shocked. After the initial moment of defiance, I went all in, thrashing the dwarf with the bat all about his head and neck.
He screamed. My parents heard this and ran to the windows that looked out over the back yard. They saw me, their infant son, beating an older child with a weapon. They chose to do nothing, satisfied that vigilante schoolyard justice was being meted out to my pint-sized tormenter.
This is a pretty grim, fucked-up story, but in the end I turned out fine, and I hear the dwarf did as well. I work in entertainment, where rejections are swift and cruel and paychecks are never guaranteed, so despite how strange the particular methodology was, I’m glad my parents let the dwarf teach me toughness.
And while I haven’t spoken to my former neighbor for decades, word did reach me a few years back that he had achieved greatness—apparently, after graduating high school he got very into weightlifting, then powerlifting in particular. One year he got on a hot streak and won a state championship, meaning that of all the dwarves in New Jersey, he lifted the most weight.
I have no idea if his strength was related to our war all that time ago. But if I had anything to do with his ascent to such great heights, I am both happy and humbled.
Previously by Chris: Why I Love My Meds