Old Bar Fightin' Men!

by Jim Knipfel

"You don't need to carry anything with you--just be creative. Grab whatever you can. Anything can be a weapon."

Joe had stopped by, ostensibly, to ransack my library. That was fine and good. I'd invited him, knowing that I had a pile of things he'd like, things I'd never be able to read again. But he brought a bottle with him, and I cracked a bottle of Grant's scotch, and before long we were getting pretty loud.

I forget exactly how the conversation came around to bar fights. I think I was telling the story about the time I was attacked by a monstrous ex-Green Beret of a skinhead during the last show my last band, The Pain Amplifiers, ever played. The beating my skull took that night is one of two likely explanations for why I suffer from rage seizures today.

I think that's where it started, actually–me telling Joe about my seizures–which, for a few months at least, before I had a certified medical excuse for my bad behavior–had me convinced that I was beset by demons. No, I think that's where it started, really–we were talking about demons. That's it. How we got started on demons is beyond me, though.

"So what did you do to him?"

"Well, uhhh...mostly let him beat the shit out of me, I guess. Pounded my head all bloody."

"And you didn't do anything." It wasn't a question so much as it was a disappointed observation.

"Well, given that he was 250 pounds of muscle and bone, and I was just a pale, skinny little kid, well, no, I can't say as I was able to inflict that much damage on him."

"That's no excuse. Look at me. I'm shorter than you, but I never let that stop me."

That was true. He was shorter than me, certainly. But Joe has that little something extra, that something I lack, which has allowed him to remain standing at the end of every fight he's been in. Not "craziness," really. Call it a certain ferocity. I can't exactly say that for myself.

"I was in this bar once," he went on, "and this woman started coming on to me. After awhile her boyfriend showed up and wanted to start something. I just grabbed an ashtray off the bar and beat him into the ground with it. So you see? You don't need to carry weapons with you all the time."

I'd been grousing, I guess, about the brass knuckles which had been removed from my coat last time I was admitted to Bellevue.

"Oh, but they just makes things so much easier." Fact is, the only fights I've ever, well, "won"--both of them--have been the direct result of that heavy, primitive aid at the ready in my pocket.

"So now you don't have them. So use an ashtray. Use a bottle."

"Bottles are so damned hard to break, though." I'd tried that little trick before, upon finding myself in one hairy situation or another. I'd never been able to bust them the way they do in the movies, and've always just ended up looking more the fool than I already knew myself to be. There was a time once, though, when I hung out with a woman who was able to break bottles with ease.

I was in Madison, and this punk rock dyke--Scary Mary was her name--and I were walking along the fraternity row there one afternoon, when this frat boy started making with the insults from his front porch. Mary was a hulking, scarred-up, scary woman in a leather jacket and badly cropped hair. Yelling insults at me was one thing. I was used to it. But you just didn't yell insults at Scary Mary. It simply wasn’t done.

She stopped dead in her tracks. Didn't say a word. Just reached down and grabbed one of the beer bottles lying in the gutter (they were plentiful along frat row), smashed it neat as pie on the curb, and started stomping across the front lawn of the frat house, toward the kid with the mouth.

At the sight of Scary Mary coming towards him, jagged broken bottle in hand, dark business in her eyes, the frat boy stood up out of his chair, struck a tough-guy pose, then, realizing what he had gotten himself into, turned and screamed over his shoulder, into the house, "Brothers!" Mary just shook her head, dropped the bottle, and sauntered back to the sidewalk, where I stood, waiting.

All this talk with Joe, though, was moot. For me at least. Just talk. I can’t see myself into any sort of public knock-about at this stage of the game. That’d just be foolishness. I hadn't been in any sort of fracas since Philadelphia. There, early on at least, I had the energy of a 22 year-old, with the attitude, the rage, the cheap weaponry (and the seizures!) to back it all up.

I was sitting in a nice little bar–quiet place, I liked it there. Good bartender. Mike was his name. Nobody bothered me, and I could sit there for long stretches of the afternoon into the evening, and not say much of anything.

Well, one afternoon–evening, actually, it was dark outside–a chubby young man of the baseball cap and sweatshirt variety figured out that I was the one who, a few weeks earlier, had written some terrible, awful things about a local band for a local weekly newspaper. As it turns out, the band members were all friends of his, and he had taken it upon himself to exact a little revenge on their behalf.

I won't go into all the details–the dialogue was corny and stupid, and I was doing one of the worst Clint Eastwood impressions the world (and that bar) had ever witnessed. Suffice it to say that this young man stood very close to me for a long time, fists raised in a form of pugilistic readiness, saying things like, "C'mon asshole–right here," and "I’m gonna kick-your-ass."

A lesson I had learned a few years earlier from Grinch–himself no stranger to the occasional bar fight–was that if your opponent is loud and brash and makes a big scene about wanting to fight you, letting the rest of the bar know exactly what he plans to do to you, then you can be sure that your opponent has absolutely no interest in fighting. The louder they are, the more frightened they are, which, of course, gives you the advantage, which I was lucky enough to take that evening. It was over very quickly, I slipped the knuckles back into my coat pocket, dropped some money on the bar, apologized to Mike, and left, never to return to that fair watering hole again. Pity. It was all just too embarrassing. I was not a tough guy. I was just dealing with an ugly situation as quickly and quietly as possible.

That's another thing about real fights–real fights are often so frightening–not only to be involved in, but to witness–because they are so very quiet. Fists don't explode across flesh the way they do in the movies. Real fights are silent, save for the shuffling of feet, heavy breathing and the occasional, high-pitched grunt. Nor do real fights take place in close accord with the Marquis of Queensbury rules–a small fact with which the young man in the bar was apparently unaware. Real fights are ugly, sloppy, messy, ungainly things.

"No," Joe went on to say, "you do whatever you can, use whatever you can. It's not cheating, because there are no rules. You simply do what's necessary. One thing I've found? And I don't exactly know why this is, but most men, I've found, are completely helpless if you grab hold of their testicles."

I looked at him hard, a little puzzled, just to see if he was joking. Something so obvious, he must be joking. But there was no telltale smirk, no devilish gleam in the eye beyond what was always there. Maybe he's just never been kicked the balls before.

"Grab hold of their testicles and twist, and it's all over with."


After awhile, as the level on the Grant's bottle went down, the conversation moved on to other things. Madness, religion, fear. Come around 11, we finally got around to the library. Joe started making little piles around the apartment as he poked through the shelves. I was glad to see that he was finding things he didn't have already. The Encyclopedia of Aberrations, the transcripts from the Bruno Hauptman trail, a year's worth of Corrections magazine. As the pile grew, I moved the books into the kitchen and gathered them on the table.

Around midnight, Joe decided to take another pass through the "prison literature" shelf, to see if there was anything he missed. As he was down there, peering into the milk crates, the Little One–my evil cat–hopped up on a shelf level with Joe's head. No big deal, I figured; she'd been a sweetie to him all night, which is more than I can say she's been to any other stranger in the apartment. She either hides under the bed until they go away, or spits at them whenever they pass too close. But she'd been on Joe's lap for a little while at least, which was really something.

So when she hopped up on the shelf and started staring at him, I figured it was no big deal, just being curious, is all.

Suddenly, BAM! Out shot a paw, hard, she hissed and ran away. It was over in a second, but her paw had caught him in the eye and ripped out one of his contact lenses. I didn't even know that she'd made contact until a few minutes later, when he asked if I had an extra contact case he could borrow.

It was a bad, tense scene. Joe's work demands near perfect eyesight. In fact, he's been obsessed with my own failing vision for some time now for just that reason. Any damage to his eyes could spell disaster.

But he left my cat alone. I was worried there for a second. Who knows what set her off? Maybe he was taking her favorite book. I don't know. All I do know is that, to the best of my knowledge, Joe left my apartment that night with an enormous bag full of books, having just lost his first fight ever.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.

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