Nick Ciccarelli, boyishly handsome at 38, with chiseled features and a passionate, New York City way of speaking, can tell you a lot about his life and how the world operates, but he can't say for sure where he was born.
"Either Sacramento or Brooklyn," he smiles. He knows the year, though: 1967.
Ciccarelli's early life is a Dickensian saga of wandering, violence and neglect. His mother is currently married to her ninth husband. Yet all along, Ciccarelli says there was an inner voice that whispered to him, "I want to be a good guy."
Now Ciccarelli is teaching others, especially women, about what he learned about self-defense on the street. He's a personal trainer with his own business, Studio 112 Training Center at 1020 N.E. 112th St.
Ciccarelli figures he's got 50 clients, 75 percent of whom are women. A few, in fact, are female police officers who are looking to increase their self-defense skills. Ciccarelli had worked as a personal trainer at a North End gym but a change of ownership and a new operating philosophy inspired him to strike out on his own.
At 6 feet, 205 pounds and a picaresque personal history behind him, Ciccarelli's not only lucky to be alive but is in a unique position to lecture his classes on the worst capacities of human behavior. He's experienced life on the street and he's seen some of the most hardened sorts of criminals when he worked as a guard in the sexual predator unit in the state prison system
Ciccarelli, smart, funny and earnest by turns, carries a New Yorker's impatience with what he regards as Seattle's sometimes gauzy notions about the world. "We can't afford to be politically correct," he says. "When someone wants to do you harm, they count on you to be smaller and weaker."
Ciccarelli doesn't mince words.
In fact, he's about to get a tattoo, in Latin, which translates as "Punish Cowards." Ciccarelli is referring to sex offenders, whom he characterizes as 90 percent cowards.
"Always be aware of what's around you," he advises. "A creepy guy? What defines him as creepy?"
Ciccarelli answers his own question: "Feelings. A sixth sense. Civilization has taught us to ignore it. Please, please heed that warning."
He has some more advice for women, too: "No Walkman while running or walking in a dangerous place."
He teaches women, confronting a dangerous situation, not to punish their attacker, but to disable and disengage and get away safely. "If you're 5 feet 3 inches and 100 pounds, you're not going to hurt me," he says.
"I would call myself a scientific street fighter," he says. "All my stuff has come from learning on the street."
A corpse, an epiphany
Ciccarelli's dad shipped out to Vietnam after his birth. A succession of stepdads followed, including one who repeatedly beat him when he was a young boy. And there were foster homes as his mother moved from one husband to another.
Ciccarelli's first brush with the law came at 9. He remembers, at 12, seeing a woman attacked by three men on the New York subway. "I couldn't stop it," he says.
"I never victimized anybody," Ciccarelli says of his days on the street in Brooklyn's Italian neighborhood. As an older teenager who set off on a cross-country voyage on a Harley. At 19, back in Brooklyn, he experienced an epiphany of sorts.
"I saw the first kid, an Irish kid, I gave a bloody nose to," Ciccarelli recalls of the corpse lying in the street. "He wanted to be a tough guy. I knew then what I didn't want."
All along the way, Ciccarelli says, he only fought those he considered bullies.
"You have an adjudicator complex," he remembers a judge telling him. He looked up the word in a dictionary.
It's that sense of equalizing the odds that drives Ciccarelli now, he says.
In 92 percent of all domestic violence incidents in this country, the crime is committed by men against women, according to figures from several government sources provided by the Seattle City Attorneys office. Additionally, women are more likely than men to be murdered by an intimate partner: 33.5 percent of the victims are women against 4 percent for men in 2000. A mid-1990s survey conducted by the Justice Department found approximately 2.5 of the nation's 107 million females 12 years or older had either been raped, robbed or assaulted in a typical year, or were the victims of a threat or an attempt to commit such crimes.
Ciccarelli's classes for women address the world we live in. He prefers to think of his teaching approach as extra-reality based.
"I don't teach how to engage in combat," he says. "I teach how to disengage from combat. I teach women to go for the thumb. You poke a man in the eye or kick him in the balls and you're going to make him insanely angry."
He knows that approach - disabling, disengaging, not punishing - will not always be well received in some self-defense circles.
"Take a small joint and cause pain," he says. A wrist. An elbow. Achieve what you can achieve."
Kauser Dar, 40, works out with Ciccarelli. Dar designs and builds satellites for the government. She works late hours downtown and she travels a lot in a male dominated profession.
"I learned that I could use techniques that didn't require strength," the 120-pound Dar says. "I learned based on my own specific body how to get away and be safe. He teaches you to practice when you walk into a room to scan the room and be aware. He says if you're uncomfortable, act on it."
There's another aspect to Ciccarelli's approach Dar finds useful.
"What's good about the way Nick teaches is he's a very good storyteller. People relate to him."
Indeed, Ciccarelli has hundreds of stories from his life to illustrate his approach. His dark, Italian eyes narrow when he recalls, in the sex offenders unit in prison, how a picture from a children's catalogue fell out of an inmate's Playboy magazine.
Which is why he has no time for politeness or fear of embarrassment overcoming suspicious feelings about any person or situation.
"If you act and are wrong about someone, you'll live to tell the story and laugh about it later," he says.