One of the weird things about street fights. Whenever I see people punching each other it never seems real to me. I think it’s because of all the years watching all the fight scenes in all the Hollywood movies and TV shows. Whenever they punched somebody on the screen there’d usually be that loud punching sound effect. P-KKKOWW!!
But in real life you usually don’t hear the punch. Especially if there’s a lot of commotion going on. So it doesn’t seem like a real punch without the punching sound.
I wonder how much stuff is like that in our minds. Where the fake stuff on the screen seems more real than the real stuff in our real lives.
It’s a holiday tradition on the street scene: WHO GETS THEIR ASS BEAT?
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas fights break out. Without fail. You see? Everybody else is celebrating family and home. Two things most street people lack. So a lot of them are bitter about that. And somebody must pay for this injustice.
I hit Hate Camp this Thanksgiving morning and I’m not even half-way through smoking my first cigarette when it breaks out.
This crazy homeless woman who is constantly screaming and cursing for no perceivable reason, is laying in her sleeping bag doing her angry screaming harangue at all of her invisible enemies.
This barrel-chested guy who’s built like a middle linebacker is trying to sleep at his campsite by a tree about 20 yards directly across from her. Suddenly he stands up and shouts: “WOULD YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP! I’M SICK OF LISTENING TO YOU!!”
“I’m not talking to you. Mind your own business,” she says.
“IT IS MY FUCKING BUSINESS,” shouts Barrel Chest. “I’M TRYING TO SLEEP AND YOU KEEP WAKING ME UP!! SO SHUT YOUR MOUTH OR I’LL STICK MY BOOT UP YOUR ASS!!”
“Oh fuck off. Have a nice life.”
That sets off Barrel Chest. He suddenly charges towards her like a raging bull. He pulls her tarp out from under her, pulls it over her head, spits at her.
“NO NO LEAVE ME ALONE!!” she screams, cowering in fear.
Then this young street guy who was standing nearby gets into the middle of it. He weighs at least 50 pounds less then Barrel Chest, but he bravely steps in between the two. “Leave her alone.”
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY FACE OR I’LL BEAT YO’ ASS!!” shouts Barrel Chest. They’re jaw-to-jaw, chest-to-chest. The young guy refuses to back down. So they start grappling with each other’s arms, wrestling around trying to prevent each other from throwing a punch. But Barrel Chest gets loose and punches him a hard shot to the side of the head. Followed by several more punches to the head (the ole left right combo).
“STOP STOP STOP!!” everyone is shouting. This other street woman gets into the middle of it to try and break it up. But Barrel Chest gets in one last punch to the head before the young guy finally backs off. A passing car starts honking their horn and shouting at him to stop fighting.
“ARE YOU FUCKING ASSHOLES HONKING AT ME,” shouts Barrel Chest. “I’LL BEAT YOUR FUCKING ASSES!!”
A contingent of street people come running to the scene to cool things down. So Barrel Chest storms off in a rage. And the young guy staggers off in the other direction, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his brain (I gotta give him points, he never went down, the boy can take a punch).
I stubbed out my cigarette and headed off in search of some quieter burg with which to celebrate my Thanksgiving.
I swear to God it never fails. Every holiday.
It’s 7 PM, dusk. I often find dusk to be slightly eerie and witchy. That twilight period where it’s transforming from day to night; light to darkness. It’s like reality is up for grabs or something during those in-between moments of twilight.
Anyways, for lack of anything better to do I go to People’s Park to hang out with Hate Man. I buy a cigarette from Hate for 50 cents (Virginia Slims, naturally), light it up, and survey the scene. This hulking guy I call the Walrus — because he always wears 4 pairs of pants, 3 of which are always inexplicably hanging around his ankles — is sitting on a log across from Hate Man. I smell something odd in the air. Look around to see if somebody is smoking some weird drug. It’s the Walrus. He’s flicking his cigarette lighter across the back of his head, setting bits of his hair on fire. That acrid smell of burnt hair. Dude’s a little peculiar.
Another wingnut is pacing back and forth aimlessly, pointing his hands as if he’s holding a rifle, aiming them at the people in the park as he pretends to shoot people dead. Everybody needs a hobby, I guess. Another nut is staggering around in circles, talking to himself. Cackling wildly. I think to myself: Why did they do away with mental asylums. It seems like such a valid concept.
“Oh fuck a fight just broke out,” I said to Hate Man. Across the way on the other end of the park this black guy and this black woman are facing off against each other, shouting and cursing. The woman lands several solid punches to the guy’s head (excellent boxing form). Then she picks up a big rock or a stick. The guy is backing away with his palms up. “They’re a couple,” said Hate Man. “I think they’re married. She hits him all the time. And if he hits her back she calls the cops on him and has him arrested.”
“PUSH FOR A CIGARETTE, HATE MAN!” shouts the Walrus. He suddenly jumps up from the log, starts moving towards Hate Man, but loses his balance, tripping on the pants around his ankles, almost falls down, hops and staggers and bounces to keep from going all the way down, before he retains his equilibrium. At least for the moment.
I put out my cigarette in the dirt. Wondering what the hell I’m doing here amidst all of this. Worse possibility, I belong here.
I get up in search of a quieter place to drink my 40 of OE.
One of the odd byproducts of all the years living on the street scene — I’ve seen literally hundreds and hundreds of fights over the years. Most of them just involved people punching and slapping and kicking and hair-pulling and eye-gouging and wrestling around on the ground like pigs in slop.
But occasionally people would bash each other with big sticks and rocks and slabs of concrete and skateboards and bicycles and whatever else was handy (we really haven’t evolved that far from the caveman even as we made it to the moon).
And every now and then someone will pull out a knife or a machete or smash a bottle over some chump’s head. And I only have a hand-full of gunfire stories, thankfully (I try to roll with a lightweight crew if I can help it).
But I remember one particularly odd and ludicrous fight. This guy took umbrage with something this other guy had said or done (that’s usually how it starts). He was righteously outraged about SOMETHING, I tell you (god knows what). So he challenged the other guy to a duel. Right there in the middle of the street.
“C’MON MOTHERFUCKER LET’S DO IT RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MOTHERFUCKING STREET!!!”
He took off his jacket and slammed it to the ground in preparation for mortal combat!! Then he took off his shirt and slammed that to the ground, showing off his manly and muscular chest!!
But then, in a move that surprised many of us who were watching, he took off his pants and slammed them to the ground. Then he took off his underpants and slammed those to the ground.
So now he’s standing there in the middle of the street, completely naked. His penis swaying poignantly in the breeze. He’s looking around. He knows he’s mad about SOMETHING. But he can’t quite remember what it was that he was mad about (you know how it is with those darn drugs — sometimes it’s hard to maintain your train of thought).
He stood there for awhile in the middle of the street, naked, with a confused and befuddled expression on his face. Muttering vague curses to himself. Until he finally gathered up all his clothes in his arms, and sheepishly trotted off down the street.
That wasn’t one of the more particularly impressive fights I’ve ever seen over the years.
I remember one of the first fights I got into on the street scene. Actually, it was more of a confrontation than an actual fight.
It was 1997. And me and Duncan used to set up our vending table on Telegraph Avenue every day. We were in the middle of a big social scene back then. So we’d often bring out 5 or 6 extra chairs for our friends to sit in so they could hang out with us while we were wiling away the hours doing our vending thing. That usually worked out pretty good. Because most of our friends were pretty cool people. But every now and then, one of our friends would invite one of their friends to hang out with us. Somebody that we really didn’t know. That’s when things could sometimes get sketchy. Because, as you probably can imagine, there are more than a few sketchy characters on the street scene.
That’s how this guy named Beedy came to be sitting there with us, hanging out at our vending table one afternoon.
Now Beedy was a vicious, little guy. He had shot a guy with a gun once. And he had done time in San Quentin. And he hung out with a pretty rough crowd. So he had a fearsome reputation as a heavy-duty guy that you wouldn’t want to mess with. He also had a nasty, little mouth. And as he sat there with us, he kept making all this sneering, mocking comments about “cartoonists and artists.” I forget exactly what his comments were. But as a cartoonist and artist myself, I began to take his comments personally. So I politely asked Beedy to leave our vending table.
Beedy said: “I can sit here if I want.”
I corrected him: “No you can’t.”
So I got up and stood behind him and pulled his chair out from under him. Beedy went straight down on his ass. WAP! He immediately jumped back up, mad as a hornet, and started throwing punches at me. So now we’re dancing around, sparring like boxers, feigning punches at each other.
Now, the problem I have with fighting, in general, is that I generally start out with a burst of righteous anger. And that fuels me into combat mode. But after a couple of minutes I start to feel ridiculous. Like, what the hell am I doing dancing around in public throwing punches, with all these people watching me. So I start to feel like a fool. And that saps the killer instinct needed to maintain a good fighting stance. So I’m generally lousy at fighting.
At any rate, my friends quickly got in the middle of me and Beedy and broke up this fight. Beedy dashed off. But not before he turned around and pointed his finger menacingly at me and shouted: “I’M GONNA’ GO TO THE PARK AND PAY A COUPLE OF NIGGERS 20 BUCKS TO COME OVER HERE AND KNOCK YOUR VENDING TABLE OVER!!” And then he dashed off in the direction of the park.
So now we were in the middle of a situation. “It’s on,” as the saying goes.
I considered packing up our vending table. We sort of felt like sitting ducks, sitting there on the street corner (Telegraph & Haste for those of you keeping score at home). But I figured that would send out the wrong signal. That we’re scared. Intimidated. Backing down. I figured this was going to be an on-going situation, so we might as well sit tight, see how it plays out and get it over with.
About a half hour later, this guy I know named Reggie comes rushing towards our vending table. “Hey Ace. I gotta’ tell you. Beedy just came up to me and offered me 20 bucks to knock over your vending table. I told him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Beedy. Ace and Duncan are friends of mine! I’m not gonna’ do that!'”
“Hey, man, thanks for the tip, Reggie,” I said.
So then I told Duncan, “Listen, I’m going to go across the street to the Café Innermezzo to get a cup of coffee. Hold the fort.” And that’s what it felt like. Like we were the cavalry at Fort Apache waiting for the onslaught of the Indians on the warpath.
The Café Innermezzo was an ideal spot for a look-out. Because it had a big picture window facing in the direction of the park. So I could see if anybody was rushing towards our vending table long before they got there. Lo and behold, I soon spotted Beedy himself rushing down the Avenue on the other side of the street. He rushed by our table and kept going. I decided to see where he was going. So I darted out of the Innermezzo and followed him down the Ave.
Beedy darted into Fred’s Market. And I darted in right behind him. I darted off to a side aisle where I was out of view, wondering how I was going to play this one. Beedy grabbed some food and a soda and rushed up to the counter. I darted right behind him on line. Beedy was excitedly talking to Fred who was working the cash register, when he turned around and suddenly saw me standing there right behind him. His face blanched with shock and surprise. And the tell-tale look of fear in his eyes. I mean, it’s unsettling when you vow to wreak violence upon somebody, and then you turn around and there the person is standing right behind you. Which was exactly the message I wanted to send to Beedy: See how easily I can sneak up behind you and get you if I really want to? Beedy paid for his items and rushed off down the street.
Later that evening, we’re all hanging out on a bench on the campus, when a mutual acquaintance of both Beedy and me walked up to me and said: “Hey Ace, Beedy feels real bad about what happened today. He wants to apologize to you.”
“Sure,” I said.
Beedy sidled up to me and said: “Hey Ace, I’m really sorry about what happened to today. Can I buy you a beer?”
“Oh man, you don’t have anything to apologize for,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just one of those things that happens sometimes.” I said this because it was a way for both of us to save face. Reasonable heads prevailed and we resolved the thing without it turning into an on-going war. Sometimes you get lucky in that way. Most of the shit people get in fights about on the streets, it’s almost never really worth it. Beedy and I shook hands. And that was the end of that one.
* * *
Looking back on that whole period, now that I think of it, it reminds me of something. I went through a period when I was a young man, for several years, where I was absolutely fearless. I feared no man. I didn’t even fear death. At the time, I firmly believed that death was just shedding the physical body and merging with the Godhead. So what was there to fear about death? I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And that knowledge gave me a fearlessness and an absolute confidence in every situation.
I don’t have the feeling so much anymore, nowadays. And, to tell you the truth, I kind of miss it.
Then I go to the Park, I’m hanging out with the boys, telling them the story about this nut going off on me for no apparent reason. And then another stranger, this Asian college student, shows up and says: “HEY, I HAVE FOUR BOXES OF FRESH PIZZA IF ANYBODY IS HUNGRY.”
And that’s cool. But the confusing philosophical question is this: One stranger wants to fuck with me for no apparent reason. And another stranger wants to help me for no apparent reason. And neither of them makes any apparent sense. . . . Though I have to believe it all makes sense on some level. . . . I guess that’s my ultimate philosophical leap of faith: That this life makes sense. Even when it often doesn’t seem to.
* * *
Anyways, I leave the men’s room in disgust without even taking a leak. This young Latino guy in a blue Warriors jersey immediately follows me out of the men’s room, pushes his chest into mine and angrily confronts me.
“DID YOU SPLASH ME??” he said
“No, I didn’t splash you,” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“YOU SPLASHED ME IN THERE!!” he said.
I made a bee-line back upstairs. Grabbed my backpack and started organizing myself for my departure. Then I noticed through the front window that the guy with the Warriors jersey was right outside on the sidewalk, pacing back and forth and glaring at me like he’s waiting for me to come out. What the fuck. How did I get myself in the middle of this? I killed a few minutes milling around with the people at the bar, figuring the guy would get distracted (whiskey-bingers usually have the attention-span of a flea) and go off in search of some other victim. Then I darted out the front door and headed up Telegraph Avenue in the opposite direction of the asshole.
I darted up Durant Street thinking I had escaped from the asshole. Only to realize, to my dismay, that the asshole had followed me and was running towards me shouting: “YOU SPLASHED ME!!”
I turned and confronted him: “No I didn’t splash you,” I said.
“Oh. OK,” he said. “I’m a nice guy.” That seemed to placate him. He turned and started walking back towards the bar.
“All right, cool cat,” I said. Thinking we had resolved the grievance. Whatever the hell the grievance had actually been.
Instead, he turned around and shouted at me: “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY TO ME??!!”
Then he charged at me and started pummeling me with punches. I had my arms up protectimg my head, so even though he was flailing away at me, none of the punches did any damage, except for one that hit my knuckle (it was a little sore the next day). And hopefully the Asshole broke a few bones in his hands while he was flailing away.
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU??” I asked, in all sincerity.
Which seemed to strike a nerve with the Asshole. Probably because it’s a question he grapples with on a daily basis. So he turned and headed back to the bar. And the whole thing was over as quickly as it had started.
Sometimes I think there’s something a little unmanly about me. Because I generally go out of my way to avoid getting in fights. Even when someone sincerely deserves to get their fucking ass beat. I guess I feel kind of squeamish about physical violence. I find all that “macho” stuff vaguely ridiculous. Even as I’m 6-foot, about 200 pounds, and could probably do some damage if somebody really pushed me. . . Every now and then someone will push me too far, and I’ll actually start throwing punches back at the asshole. But the problem is: After a minute or two, my rage will subside and I’ll feel like a fool dancing around in public throwing punches. I’ll complete lose interest in the fight. But I have to will myself to keep fighting, because you can’t just stop at the point, because the other guy is still flailing away. You can’t just stop dancing in the middle of a dance. Once you make that commitment you’ve got to play the whole stupid thing out to it’s conclusion.
I guess my attitude, re avoiding fights, is this: “It’s a big world. And the whole point is to occupy a part of it that doesn’t include the Asshole.” That attitude seems to make sense. So I’m sticking with it until further notice.