Back in Lawrence, it took me a few months to shed my urban cowboy skin: pointy boots, ho belt, rhinestone shirts, and smokeless tobacco. I stopped playing the stomper, saying “y’all,” and using exclamatory phrases like “Boy, howdy!” I returned to The Stones and Elvis Costello and became an average-looking guy indistinguishable from my cohort: midwestern college students circa 1981.
I bought another motorcycle and took on a deeper color, which was supposed to be more badass: blood red. Let’s go with maroon. Distance runners weren’t usually thought of that way, but at least on my bike, I was a little bit more like a Hell’s Angel or Conan. I still didn’t have massive arms or a battle-ax, but I rode a mechanical horse, and my letter jacket again disguised the thinness of my arms, which you can see was always an issue for me. Even today, now that my arms are no longer thin, they still look spindly to me. I hold them out and think some beefy guy is going to mistake me as an easy target. I don’t have an eating disorder or a body-dysmorphic disorder; I’m just saying it’s funny how the mind works. Do you suppose there are other things I still distort as well? Wouldn’t I at least be well advised to consider it? By “I,” I mean all of us.
Another motivator to buy that motorcycle was my morbid curiosity, which got worse after Mom died. Every time I got on my hog—if you can call a Honda 360 a hog, which I suppose you could, but probably shouldn’t—I thought how it might be my last act. Death by motorcycle was more imminent and in my face than death by cancer, a new fear of mine—but you’ve probably already guessed that. So, I got on my bike and sometimes thought, “Well then, fine. I’ll die young, too.” I remembered when I was twelve on Apache Street, and those two boys died a couple of houses up from mine after hitting the back of a school bus. I can only imagine my Uncle Stanley, who died when my dad was only four, the Tays tale full of wheelies and bravado as he showed-off to girls before crashing. Riding my motorcycle was thumping my chest at Death. Bring it on! I felt a little bit braver every time I lowered the kickstand, still unbroken and alive. It was sort of exposure therapy, and in the future, I’d stroll many graveyards for the same reason. I would imagine the people beneath the headstones, what sort of life they’d led, and how important they probably thought they were. Reminding myself of my mortality fueled my press to get the most out of each stage and incarnation of my life. I was so obsessed about morbidity and my eventual death that I focused on the content of my life (what I did day-to-day to savor every minute) and missed the larger point of the process of my life (my character and how I lived my life as a whole). This is similar to psychotherapy, content versus process, and I know now that the most profound change occurs in the process, what happens during the sessions between client and therapist, not so much the minutiae of what’s shared.
Despite improving my athletic scholarship to a full ride, I still needed an income, so I bartended as Prefontaine had. There were many fights in the bar, a couple each week, because the drinking age back then was eighteen. Kicking out the drunks fell to the bartenders. No prob; all that fighting made me want to fight, too. So nine years after junior high, it finally became true that I really did want to rumble. To clarify, I didn’t want to get beat up. I just wanted to hit a few drunks in the puss, a word Grandma used to say when I was little (but already nasty). I would snicker as she blushed and stammered, “What? Why, listen, you! In my day, that meant mouth, right square in the mouth!” It embarrassed Grandma to appear nasty, which she certainly wasn’t, being second reader in her tiny Artesia church. But I liked having something on her, even just pretend; I was a little bit of a prick that way.
Anyway, I know it sounds mean to want to slug someone in the mouth, but that’s how angry I was after losing my mother and my religion, and all the crap I took before that. I’m telling you what really happened at the time, even inside of me, and sparing you some made-up version of me distributing sack lunches to the homeless or using my body to shield baby seals. There’s already enough BS in the world, and I don’t care to add to the pile.
So, I perched on a tall stool at the bar door, and some kid refused to produce ID. I wouldn’t let him in, so he reached into his pocket for his blade. That’s what popped into my mind, anyway: This guy’s going to stab my skinny ass. Or maybe he went for his car keys, planning to place them between his fingers and really tear up my eyes. So I slugged him in the puss, and it was on! As a distance runner, I looked as if I couldn’t handle myself, so the bar’s regulars jumped in and put the guy’s arm behind his back. I didn’t expect anyone to jump in for me, and I wasn’t cowardly. I didn’t holler, “Save me, sweet Jesus!” or pee on myself.
When the cops came, one happened to be a running brother, so the “bad” guy went to jail. Although I was offended that everyone thought I was such a big wussy that I could be attacked or needed defending, it felt good to have allies and be on the side of power. I served up as little beer foam as possible for those regulars after that.
Looking back, I don’t think I needed to escalate the situation as I did. My cop buddy said the dude was old enough to drink; he just forgot his driver’s license. He didn’t even have a knife, but I projected my own stuff onto him because I knew for a fact that some people carried steel. Maybe he only reached for his keys to drive away. Now I wonder if my fear and desire to act out my anger placed me in the role of aggressor. I’d like to say that’s ironic. Today, I’m sort of a stereotype: a male who has aged out of aggression and become more self-possessed. I like to think that I’ve kept my passion for life, though.
I’m conflicted about all the fighting I did when I was young. Today I meet men who tell me they’ve never slugged another human being, nor have they ever been attacked. They must’ve had very gentle childhoods. My old emotions are like a spatter painting, an impression of physical, verbal, and emotional attacks, so many that the wounds blur together into red and anger and black and aggression. Now I think we all deserve gentleness. Care. Still, when I meet another male, I assume that if I’m not cautious, he may attack me; remember, it used to be a daily risk. My emotions haven’t caught up with my environment. Even today, when males get into arguments, my first thought is: red alert, this may escalate beyond words,pronto! How nice it must be to live in a world without dangerous males stomping around, ready to slide a blade between your ribs, bust you in the puss, or squeeze your soup-bone of an arm until you drop to your knees. I recently asked my old buddy, Antelope Legs, if this resonated with him, as he was there back when we formed our expectations of the world. He said yeah, with males he’s prepared for violence. So it’s not just me. It sucks, but it feels good not to be alone.
My eighteen-year-old son has never been attacked; he’s never even seen a live fistfight. I’m really glad for him. It’s sort of difficult for me to imagine a life with such a slim chance of being attacked. He just assumes that the other kids will either talk it out or walk away; I just assume that if I get crossways with a male, I may end up rolling on the ground. I’m getting too old for this. I’d like to think I’ve gotten too wise for this. I wouldn’t mind being forty years younger and in a safe emotional place as my son is. In a way, I envy him; in another way, I’m proud I’ve given him better than I had at his age.
Now I wonder: sometimes when I sensed danger, was I the only dangerous one there?
Bartending seemed like a good Bukowskiesque experience, except I soon grew tired of the superficiality of bar-buddy conversations, surly drunks, and poisoning myself nightly with cheap beer. The dysfunction of alcohol-fueled sociability mixed with gritty poverty was way more attractive when confined to novels. Although I liked having a sort of bar gang, I grew to dislike breaking up fights at the pool tables and tossing out belligerent drunks at closing time. It was similar to how combat was described: crushing boredom punctuated by five-minute firefights. In the bar it was cursing, flailing fists, and the drunk ending up red-faced and sprawled out in the parking lot or in the back of my buddy’s squad car. After I’d collected the adventure of bartending, it began to grow into my identity like cancer, trying to take over who I actually was. That wasn’t OK because it didn’t lead me to run faster, write better, or move in a direction that felt like personal growth.