IT’S SCARY OUT THERE. Three good guys in Portland calmly try to stop a raging bully from harassing teenage girls on a train, and two of them end up dead, stabbed in the neck by the bully. You never know. Once you walk out the front door, you never know who might cross your path on a given day and challenge your sense of self and decency, not to mention your physical well-being. It can happen in an instant, as I discovered on a recent Friday evening in the north Dallas suburb of Plano. I am having dinner at a small restaurant with live jazz and acoustic guitar. Violence awaits, one table away.
It’s getting toward closing time, and an improvising duo has just hushed the crowd with a pin-dropping version of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Except, not quite all the crowd. Toward the back, right behind me, a guy is jabbering over the music. He has been jabbering for a while with a companion, and some patrons have turned their heads toward him in silent rebuke, to no avail. When the song ends, a man in a blue shirt seated at a table nearby finally speaks up and says, “Could you please keep your voice down.” The talker, who’s got some heft to him and thick features, summons the waiter and asks for his check. I’m focused on the stage, where the band is reassembling for a last few numbers. Then, a sudden clap of angry words. I turn and see the talker looming over the guy in the blue shirt, his right arm cocked to throw a punch. “Come on, you #%$#&$%#!” he yells.
A fistfight? In here? After the James Taylor song? It’s totally incongruous, but it’s totally happening. I leap up from my chair and throw my arms around the talker from behind, in order to keep him from landing a blow on his critic. I get there a half second late, and his fist has already smacked into something, a part of the other guy’s shoulder or neck. Not too bad. So far. The talker is bigger and stronger than me, probably younger. I can’t be sure in the dim light. I’m almost as old as James Taylor and have no particular experience in this area. I hug him as tightly as I can while he and the man still seated exchange insults. He looks and sounds like a highway construction boss I had one summer long ago. “You don’t want to do this,” I say. He ignores me while the guy in the blue shirt, showing no signs of fear, informs his attacker matter-of-factly that he is already guilty of assault.
I AM WONDERING if that was wise, as I wonder what to say to the talker to calm him down. His face is aflame and close to mine now. His eyes turn toward me, full of fury and payback. I keep holding on to him. Words come out of my mouth. “I’m on your side,” I say, not sure why. I am not on his side, other than the side of no one getting blood on their clothes on this Friday evening. I don’t know either of these men. We are strangers, the three of us.
He and his critic continue to trade unpleasantries. I keep my arms clenched around his shoulders, waiting for someone else to come over to help. No one does. I figure he could surely get loose if he wanted, but I might have done the right thing by simply allowing him the appearance of being restrained. Now, he can back away without backing down. But I don’t really know what is going on in his head. Maybe he will break my grasp and then my nose. He could pull out a gun and shoot me, along with the guy who only wanted to hear the music. Two words come to mind: Concealed Carry.
By the standards of barroom melees, this was nothing, yet afterward I couldn’t let go of what happened – or almost happened. I was reminded that, not counting a supervised three-minute round with boxing gloves in middle school (when I was pummeled by a more adept classmate), I have never been in a real fight. How many men want to admit that? In the week after this incident, I asked a bunch of guys my age if any had ever been in a fistfight. Most of them had played contact sports in high school and college, and most of them said no. Most of them are privileged and white. One exception, a distinguished journalist, told me he grew up in a working class neighborhood in Southern California where fistfighting was common and accepted. His older brother taught him how to block punches. And it came in handy.
I GOT NO SUCH TRAINING. When I was 8 or 9, we had a bully in the neighborhood, and my mother told my father he needed to teach me to fight to protect myself. My father, a good man, standing on principle, declined. He told her he was not going to do anything to encourage fighting because that was the problem with the world. Peace had to start at home, he reasoned – on your street, in your yard, in your heart. Years later, I can’t argue with that but also see the challenge it poses to someone being called a pussy by a guy who wants to fight just because that someone politely pointed out his rude behavior.
At last, I feel the talker’s body unclench, and I pull my arms away. He retreats slowly, gathers his female companion and heads toward the door. He shoots a stare over his shoulder back in the direction of the man who asked him to be quiet, and I’m thinking, we are not done yet. But by now the owner of the place has emerged to escort him amicably out of the room. All this has happened in a blur, and as I sit down again, I begin to question what I have done. Might there still be further consequences? The talker could still come back with a firearm and the resolve to avenge his injured pride. Such things happen all the time in bad neighborhood bars, do they not? “A 34-year-old man was shot and killed last night outside __________,” we hear so often on the ten o’clock news. “Witnesses said the shooting followed a quarrel between the two men.” It’s never between two women; it’s always a quarrel between two men (though frequently a quarrel over a woman). Have we progressed at all since founding fathers Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton faced off in a lethal pistol duel in 1804 provoked by insults to each other’s “honor”?
Human history, plain to see, is a long bloody chronicle of aggression and conquest, with modern civilization maybe just a patch hiding our darker DNA. Lately civility itself has lost definition. Manners left us some time ago, but what’s different today is the definite possibility – as demonstrated by this encounter – that even asking for common courtesy can be a dangerous act. The author Chuck Palahniuk wrote the novel “Fight Club” (adapted into the 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt) after the experience of being beaten up on a camping trip following his complaining to some other campers nearby about the noise level of their radio.
CERTAINLY WE LIVE in a culture of violence, where Fox lights up the ratings with a show about Mixed Martial Arts pugilists kicking the crap out of each other. Images of terrible wars and weapons fill our 60-inch TV screens. Rage rules our roads. Politicians pose with rifles. Our current president signaled approval when, during the campaign, his supporters physically attacked a black protester. For decade upon decade the face-smacking, blood-letting mano-a-mano combat in countless movies has shown us how real men ultimately resolve conflicts. Real men hit each other. Apparently.
It starts early for boys, the macho thing. It’s in the air, huge and looming, waiting to slap a judgment on a young man. The first fight I ever saw was in the fourth grade on the playground at St. Monica’s School on Walnut Hill Lane. A crowd had gathered around two boys who were crouched and grappling with each other, and one boy I remember had his arm extended between the other kid’s legs from behind, the fingers of his right hand snapping like pincers in the direction of the guy’s testicles. Fourth grade!
It was also at St. Monica’s that another boy asked me at recess one day if I wanted to play football. He said if I didn’t want to play football, then I was a sissy – maybe the first time I heard that word. I did eventually play football but only through the ninth grade, after which my peace-loving dad conspired with our family doctor and a high school baseball coach to discourage me from continuing. My father wasn’t only worried about me being seriously injured at a young age, he also (in keeping with his general world view and very much at odds with his adopted state of Texas) objected to the warrior culture of football. I didn’t understand at the time, but I get it now. Football can be exciting, but even the great New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff once described the sport this way: “Football is war without guns.”
SOME BELIEVE THAT watching the bone-crunching, brain-scrambling hits in football, like watching movie mayhem, is cathartic and mitigates the need for men to beat up on each other in real life. Either that is true or the opposite is true: That enjoying violence once removed cultivates an acceptance of it and reinforces the idea that violence is necessary, important and useful. Like in a nightclub when somebody asks you to keep your voice down.
Our former national pastime, baseball, is intrinsically less violent yet still honors the hoary tradition of the “bench-clearing brawl.” When, last season, Texas Ranger infielder Rougie Odor decked Toronto’s Joey Bautista after a rough slide at second base, Ranger fans went wild, appreciating the punch as payback for Bautista’s cocky bat flip in the playoffs the year before. Justice served, it was tempting to think. Just like John Wayne would have done it. The Code of the West.
How many times have we heard in both films and real life, someone say, knowingly, “He can take care of himself,” meaning a boy or man who, while he might be a fine musician or Rhodes Scholar, somewhere away from the library or the piano also got schooled in the art of manly self-defense. Whether a notion born in Hollywood or elsewhere, deep down we love this, don’t we? The idea that even the cerebral and mild-mannered can flatten someone if necessary. It evokes memories of the tough men and women who settled the American frontier and later defeated Hitler and Hirohito. But where does that swagger and firepower take us from here, in an age when presidents and world leaders saber-rattle with nukes?
MY FATHER DID NOT live to hear the phrase “think global, act local,” but as I sifted the incident at the jazz club, it occurred to me that his reasoned opposition to fighting was the very essence of that proposition. War begins at home, out on the highway, in a bar. Which is not to say we can stop it, anymore than we can deny who we are. The evidence suggests we are fighters. The evidence was staring back at me that night in the sockets of another man’s eyes. But to accept physical confrontation as the unchangeable natural order of things also requires fatalism beyond my grasp.
I’ve been asked – and asked myself – what I was thinking when I tried to stop the fight. I wasn’t thinking anything. No courage was involved. I acted on instinct, maybe triggered by an aversion to the ugliness of violence going back to the fourth grade. Some would say I should not have interfered, allowing for the possibility of justice to be meted out to the bully. But there was no assurance the good guy would win. After learning of the horrific incident on the train in Portland, I felt a shudder and thought back to the evening in Plano, relieved that my own encounter with an angry stranger did not end up as a story on the evening news or send anyone to the hospital. Another time, another place, it could be different. You never know.