If you ever question whether kindness in the world has—at least some bit—increased since the days of your youth, then consider this: as a child, there was a boy in my neighborhood who, due to a hideous birth defect, was known as Freak Nose. It wouldn’t happen today—it could never happen today—because if any kid suffered one-tenth the abuse he did, the school authorities, Department Of Social Services, local police and maybe even the ACLU would be involved. But it was the 80’s, before the anti-bullying movement and before teen suicide awareness, a time when such pathological harassment was seen as normal grade school teasing. For Freak Nose, the only thing worse than the era he was born in was the place he was born into. Boston was then, in many ways, still a hardscrabble city and a strain of blue-collar cynicism ran through the soul of every resident. Whether it was from the climate or tumultuous history, children were as harsh as their parents and in that small universe of street corner bravado there was little room for differences or disabilities.
From the back or side, Freak Nose looked like any boy his age, with big feet, a mop of uncombed hair and floppy ears. But the lower half of his face—everything between his cheeks and chin—was a mashed-up contortion of skin and scars that made a cleft lip look handsome. Had Freak Nose been twenty years older, it could have been explained as a work accident; thirty years older and it might have been a war injury. Yet he was only a child. As a result of the deformity, his mouth could never fully close and, if you got near enough to hear, he slurped constantly to keep the saliva from dripping out. Maybe from bad hygiene or the exposure, his gums were always pink with inflammation and a thick gray plaque covered each tooth. Freak Nose was so grotesque that when he came down the sidewalk men would turn away and mothers would cover the eyes of their children. A superstitious old lady that once saw him as she was leaving mass held up a crucifix and declared him to be an abomination.
Freak Nose was almost never seen in the open. Years of verbal taunts and beatings had caused him to withdraw from the society of his peers and to live in the shadows. He crept through alleys and backyards; he hid behind mailboxes and lampposts. With torn clothes, scuffed knees and an awful disfigurement, he roamed the neighborhood alone like some modern-day cross between Oliver Twist and Quasimodo. Freak Nose was timid and fearful and he would startle at the slightest movement. Whenever he was spotted, it was always from a distance and as soon as someone called out to him, he would dash off.
Since Freak Nose was a recluse, not much was known about his life but that didn’t stop the spread of malicious gossip. It was said that he couldn’t speak, but communicated only by grunting, and that if he got upset, streams of yellow spit would shoot from the hole in his face. Many joked—and some believed—that his alcoholic mother had been raped by a Doberman and that Freak Nose was the unnatural result. This vile rumor circulated so wildly one summer that the older kids left out bowls of dog food in the areas they knew he would frequent.
In the cruel and perverse ethos of adolescent tradition, the sighting of Freak Nose was a rite of passage. But by the time I was twelve, I still hadn’t seen him and, much like Santa Claus or Bigfoot, I began to doubt his very existence. Then one day, while hanging around the bowling alley with two dozen other youths, I saw something move between the rows of automobiles. At first I thought it was an animal—a dog, or raccoon even—but as I watched, I realized it could be none other than Freak Nose. I bit my lip and didn’t say a word, silently cheering him on as he attempted to crawl to the safety of the woods behind the liquor store. And he almost did, until some brute saw him too. In an instant, sticks, stones and bottles were flying across the parking lot and Freak Nose, trapped between two cars, flailed in a cloud of dust. He shrieked and moaned, hissed and squealed, and when he did try to run, his jacket caught a side-view mirror and caused him to flip head-over. I had never experienced such brutality and I must have been naïve because it left me teary-eyed and short of breath. I wanted to help—and I would have—but I was younger and smaller than the other kids and coming to the defense of a freak would have been social suicide. I was relieved when a rock hit a Buick and triggered the alarm, causing everyone to flee. The next day I returned to the scene and found his things scattered across the pavement—a half-eaten Charleston Chew, some nickels, a bus pass.
Throughout my childhood, I watched Freak Nose get dunked into a trash barrel, thrown in a snow bank and hurled over a picket fence; whipped with tree branches, pelted with pinecones and burned by smoldering cigarette butts. Everyone picked on him, from athletes to altar boys, and something about his condition made him the one acceptable target of everyone’s spite. One night some drunken teens cornered him in an alleyway and, although I didn’t witness what happened, I later saw Freak Nose running hysterically down the street with his underwear stretched over his head. The younger children were no less vicious and once I observed a pack of ten year-olds surround him by the train tracks, where they doused him in Coca Cola and threw burrs in his hair.
It seemed that Freak Nose was never hit outright, perhaps out of some twisted sense of fairness or because no one wanted their skin to touch his. It didn’t matter, however, because the pain of the physical torment didn’t bother him half as much as the humiliation, especially when girls were present. The entire neighborhood was at the local park for a basketball tournament one night when, in the middle of a rebound, a player stopped and pointed to a dark silhouette on the hillside. “Hey, Freak Nose, use a tissue!” he yelled and the crowd burst out laughing. Before Freak Nose vanished behind the trees, I turned and saw, in the white glow of the field lights, tears coming down his cheeks.
I didn’t see Freak Nose for another year and, although he had grown a foot and gained twenty pounds, he was uglier than ever. His hair was straggly, his pants were pissed-stained and he had acne so severe that, at times, it bled. While most youths, as they moved into their teens, became more concerned about their looks, Freak Nose hadn’t. Some claimed he was homeless, that his mother had moved to Florida with a man she met while working at a gas station. Maybe it was out of desperation or because he had nothing more to lose that Freak Nose, after years of ridicule, finally began to fight back. We were gathered under the train bridge one afternoon when he appeared on the station platform and sat staring at us. When a few insults and beer bottles didn’t get him to leave, one of the toughest boys walked over to scare him away. Before we knew it, Freak Nose was one top of him, swinging both fists, seething and howling, as frantic as feral dog and twice as savage. By the time we ran over, Freak Nose was gone and as we pulled our battered friend to his feet, all he could say was, “For Christ’s sake, don’t tell anyone!”
Something about dignity is its own form of beauty and shortly after the incident the most amazing thing happened. As I was walking past the elementary school one evening, I heard whispers and looked through the fence to see Freak Nose sitting with a girl. They may have been holding hands—I couldn’t tell—but they seemed happy nonetheless and when they saw me, I pretended not to notice. For that whole summer, Freak Nose was left unharmed and it seemed the world had at last forgiven him for that unpardonable crime of his own appearance. He began to wear cleaner clothing, to hold his head up high, and to smile even. On one occasion he walked down the main street without any apprehension, waving to strangers and proud for the first time. If his newfound love could do anything, I thought, it was to wipe away the shame from those years of mistreatment and if he was at peace with it, then so was I.
Sadly, whatever clemency Freak Nose had been given didn’t last long and the next attack was to prove the most violent. During a storm on Labor Day weekend, Freak Nose stepped out of the arcade and was approached by a gang of kids. As his girlfriend looked on screaming, they shoved him back and forth in the rain, called him names and even spat on him. When he tried to resist, they pounced and within seconds he was being kicked and punched from all sides. I saw the fracas from the pizza store across the street and, no longer so young and so small, I shouted at his assailants then ran over to help. But by the time I arrived, the group had dispersed, the girl had disappeared and I looked down in the gutter to see Freak Nose, thrashing in the slurry, defiant to the end.