The Gentle Combat of Mapes Avenue

At a jujitsu program in the Bronx, soft is hard and surviving is victory.

Not that it's always that simple. Last Thursday, asked if he'd ever had to use his jujitsu in the street, Quiles answered, "Today." He explained: "I fought a boy. He jumped me because I had fought this other boy in school." His grades are better now. Maybe there are fewer fights. But, he says, the main difference is, "now you can hit me, it don't hurt. It's nothing."

Most of the older students, however, say they've been able to avoid confrontations. What's interesting is why. "I'd rather walk away," says Higgins, a liberal-arts major at LaGuardia Community College, "because I know what I can do, and it's frightening."

The lesson here is not that knowing jujitsu means you won't have to fight. It's that knowing jujitsu means you will really, deeply not want to�because you're so damn good at it. It's a bit of a paradox: attaining peace through the practice of expertly executed violence, being nicer to people because you know you can wreck them. It's about being more scared of yourself than of others. "The more you learn, the less and less you're going to fight because it's horrible what you can do to someone," Flowers says.

photo: Greg Miller

Magdalena Sosa, a 16-year-old second- degree black belt, joined the program because she wanted to lose weight, but she credits it with saving her from the street. She says she hasn't had to fight yet. "If somebody comes up to me, I don't pay no mind. I walk away," she says. But she adds, "Sometimes that doesn't work. If you walk away, people get upset and attack you." Indeed, there are things one can't walk away from.

One night after class ends and the students file out, Lawton suggests that his visitor wait for a ride to the bus stop, it being dark and all. Outside, Gonzalez warms up his SUV, in which the three instructors will ride to the building where they all live. "I've got to sell this thing," he says, shaking his head over a recent four-digit repair bill. He's already selling another car to a guy in Canada. But he's used to juggling stuff: weekends working in his parents' grocery store as a kid, a brief first marriage, having two girls in college while raising a five-year-old son, dealing with the sudden death of his older brother in a freak accident last year. His family has moved to Florida, and there's pressure to join them, but Gonzalez is standing his ground. He will tell you, unprompted, that he loves his life.

Thomas, always moving quickly, hops into the back. He used to make an epic commute to a high-tech job in Staten Island, but then he was downsized. So he and a pal set up a business that sells lottery information to people in 23 states, using patterns seen in winning numbers to predict what the next moneymakers will be. Seems weird, but he says it works. "Like me doing training," he explains, "I don't give up."

Will, looking a little weary, rides shotgun. He is leaving early (that means 9 p.m.; he gets in around 10 a.m.), and everyone in the place knows why: A close relative is having cancer surgery in the morning.

The SUV pulls out, and Mapes Avenue turns into Tremont. They drive past the place where Pereira brought jujitsu to the Bronx decades earlier. In the blocks around, Fight Back students are fanning out to wage their myriad battles. Lawton sizes up his own. "It's gonna be a long day tomorrow," he sighs, softly.

Another "victim" has entered the eight-man circle. The drill proceeds as before, but the teenage boy in the center doesn't dispatch every attacker right away, like Higgins did. He takes a few punches first. Gonzalez shrugs this off. Jujitsu isn't a fortress, after all. It's a life raft. For anyone, but especially for kids in a neighborhood where the odds often aren't in their favor, it's a way to get by�in fights and in life. "Are they gonna get hurt?" he says. "Sure, we all get hit, all get hurt sometimes. But they stay alive."

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