Confronted with a racist slur after I made childish taunts toward a down and out beatnik poet, I decided I was Jackie Chan. High-kick, haymakers and me falling on my arse ensued...
“It will end no other way.” – Tool
Fight stories are like sex stories: all you need are a couple really good ones, and people will think you’re doing it all the time.
This is one of my fight stories. But first:
I must have been in the sixth grade when I bought Tool’s Undertow. It was one of the first two CDs I ever purchased—with my parents’ money, sure, but I went into the record store and combed the aisles myself while my ride idled out front. The other disc was Soundgarden’s Superunknown. I like to think I impressed the dude at the checkout counter: “Yeah, that kid knows his shit… Maybe he’ll start a band with me.”
Later, I bought Tool’s Ænima, and a kid I played hockey with named Anthony would sing the track “Ænema” a capella on road trips we took for our travel team. We’d be sitting in the backseat, his mother at the wheel, mine in the passenger seat, and Anthony would lean over to me and almost whisper these foreboding lyrics:
Some say a comet will fall from the sky.
Followed by meteor showers and tidal waves.
But the safety of the car, the safety of the destination—an ice rink somewhere in suburbia—and Anthony’s comically large head would eclipse the doom. We’d both be laughing, two boys with braces and crustaches being driven ‘round by our mothers.
I lost touch with Tool (and Anthony) after Ænima. It wasn’t until my second semester at the City College of New York that Tool came back into my life—thanks to Justin. Justin and I were getting MFAs in creative writing, and we had a fiction workshop together with the much-loved Mark Mirsky. Justin had left his law career behind to pursue the new degree, and the previous semester I quit my nine-to-six writing erotic fiction at a publishing house on John Street in Lower Manhattan.
I don’t remember when Justin and I started talking—it was probably at one of the readings/parties our friend Dave would throw at his apartment in Harlem—but in no time it was clear to me that I had never really listened to Tool. It wasn’t that I was a poseur—it was that there was a whole level of experience and understanding that I had yet to tap into. Justin was pumped to explain Tool to me. He spoke of time signatures and spirals, the Fibonacci sequence and Bill Hicks—and, of course, the transcendental experience of seeing Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor, and Danny Carey live in concert.
It was settled then. I was to be Justin’s initiate into the Tool army—once they came to town.
In the meantime, I listened to a mix Justin had put together for me. It had tracks I had once owned on CD, as well as a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter,” renditions of some songs from the bassist’s previous band, Peach, and a live version of “Pushit” that differed significantly from the album’s version.
In the live version of the song Maynard, the singer, asks the audience to “find a comfortable space…that’s not only comfortable but vulnerable… We want you to shut your eyes and go there—and we’ll meet you on the other side.”
Maynard was asking a lot from me. At the time I was trying to get away from vulnerability. That’s probably why I started training Muay Thai kickboxing. Although I’ve always been in shape—at various points in my life close to what I’d call “meathead-light”—and capable of defending myself, I felt like the bullies of the world had it in for me. Although I could easily count the times I’d been on the receiving end, I had seen their many cruel works on others. And I wanted to make sure that when the scumbags came for me, I was ready to fuck them up severely.
I took my kickboxing training very seriously, in my mind—in that the thought of kicking ass was stronger than my willingness to actually put in the time. So I’d roll into the gym maybe twice a week, but I’d spend every subway ride I took—hours and hours of travel—imagining variations of going shin to shin with an opponent, overpowering him in the clinch, and eventually dropping him with a roundhouse kick to the head. Back in high school I had the same thing going with Jeet Kune Do. I only lasted a few months in Bruce Lee’s martial art, but my parents continued to pay dues to the sifu until the yearlong contract expired.
As our semester of grad school carried on, I listened more to Tool—I bought Lateralus and 10,000 Days—but didn’t think much about ever seeing them play live. But then I got this email from Justin.
No, Tool wasn’t playing in the Tri-State Area anytime soon—but Schism, “NYC’s premier Tool tribute band” was. November 30, 2007. B.B. King’s in Times Square. Tickets complimentary.#
Schism opened with “Sober,” as Justin and I sucked down the first of many vodka-and-cranberries. Yeah, “Cape Codders,” I know, I know—it was set to be a wild night.
Justin had seen Schism a few times—he takes any opportunity he gets to see Tool or some Tool cover band in the flesh. Schism was good, he assured me. He remarked on the improvements they’d made from the last time he’d seen them—the drummer especially. “But he’s nowhere near Danny Carey.”
The singer was on point throughout the concert. It was eerie. It was like this fat Hispanic-looking dude had swallowed Maynard whole, and, with no hope of ever escaping that body/prison, Maynard was resigned to sing out of the fat man’s mouth.
“He sounds just like him,” I said.
“I know,” Justin said, dancing—doing this head-down, legs-moving-in-semi-circles, kind of shuffle. “But the real Tool is so much better.”
Um, yeah…I figured that.
After the show we decided to get one more drink and found a dive bar around the block on Eighth Avenue, steps from the Port Authority. I’m not sure if we continued with the vodka-n-crans or if we switched to beer, but after one more we were back outside the place. Rain had come at some point that night—the street looked black with sweat. A drizzle here and there, we stood beneath the awning.
I was watching Justin smoke—should we find another spot to drink?—when my opponent approached us. (Yes, this is the fight story.)
He was a big guy.
I’m 5’10” on a good day—even on the bad ones—so he must have been at least 6’2”, maybe 6’3” with the afro. Thick winter coat, rolling a piece of luggage behind him, he was a bum—but, being so close to the Port Authority and looking well-fed and like he hadn’t slept on the streets in a while, he was more specifically a bum-in-transit.
He stopped to ask Justin for a smoke, but Justin had none to give. The B.I.T. stuck around anyway. He wanted to talk—some human interaction—with us, but Justin and I weren’t feeling it. The B.I.T. asked us what we did, and we told him that we were writers… Then the poor guy pulled out his poetry.
Look, I’m certain—100%—that there wouldn’t have been a fight that night had the B.I.T. kept his poems holstered. He drew first, reading aloud lines he had scribbled on his spiral notepad.
At the time I believed that most “poets” deserved to be ridiculed—and I still believe that—but this guy didn’t deserve what we gave him. I mean, we were on him from his first utterance. “That blows, dude!” “Terrible!” “Holy shit!—that’s awful!”
We were two drunk assholes pretending to be “writers” and we’d just come from watching a Tool fucking cover band! Who were we to be so cruel? To be such bullies?
But he was such an easy target, this B.I.T., this bus-riding bard… His poems rhymed too—they were that bad.
It was time for us to go, so Justin and I walked away, but the B.I.T. was on our heels. We had just spent the last few minutes shitting on his heart—and he had more to say to us. Justin pulled ahead, as I kept an eye on the transient third-wheel in my peripheral.
Suddenly, the B.I.T. said something that moved me more than any of his rhymes. The exact words are garbled in my memory of that drunken night, but it was something to the effect of “I’m gonna fuck you up!”
His words moved me so deeply that I swung ‘round and clobbered his tall head with a haymaker. We were fighting now—even if he didn’t know it—my next punch grazing his shoulder.
I took a Thai boxer’s stance and peppered the outside of his right leg, below the knee, with two quick left kicks (more foot than shin). I backed him to the curb. He wasn’t responding with anything! This little white boy was surprising him! And I was surprising myself!
When we reached the gutter, I sent a right roundhouse kick—all shin!—to his thigh (I couldn’t kick any higher than that). Still, no physical response from him—he was all retreat.
I got cocky and reached back into my arsenal of never-perfected moves—I’m talking all the way back to 1999/2000, NY Martial Arts Academy, Little Neck, NY, J.K.D… I reached deep into that pocket of my memory and pulled out a cross-behind side-kick…
Hey. I was drunk. The street was wet. My jeans were somehow baggier that moment, and my right heel got caught in them on the attempt to look all Bruce Lee, and I busted my ass.
I lay in the street for what the alcohol made to feel like minutes. I was all damp and vulnerable. I picked myself up and saw Justin standing at the open door of a taxi.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said, as if he hadn’t seen the battle. “Let’s go.”
I got to my feet and headed to the cab. Where was my opponent? Where was the B.I.T.?
“I could’ve stomped you, nigga!” I heard him yell before I saw him crossing back over to the sidewalk.
“What?” I said, Justin leading me into the cab.
“I could’ve stomped you, nigga!” the B.I.T. said. “I could’ve stomped you!”
The thought of his foot stomping my head on the pavement was far from my mind. But that word—that word nigga—ignited something in me.
Justin was still trying to pull me into the cab—“Let’s just go, dude!”—but I had something to say. I don’t know why I had to say it. I stood my ground, the cab door like a shield. I extended my arm and pointed my finger at the B.I.T., who was too far away to be a threat anymore (if he ever was one). It was like we were the only two people in the world—and this pronouncement I was about to deliver was of the utmost importance. I summoned up every ounce of my drunken being and declared unto him, “I! Am! Not! A! Nigga!”
What was I thinking? What was that stewed 25-year-old thinking? Why did that word mess me up so much? Maybe it was that he and I had just “fought”—and that word somehow cheapened the exchange? I don’t know.
Or was it a blip in space-time? The universe snagged its heel in its pants, and we swapped identities just long enough for him to say his lines and for me to think, “Did that white man just call me a “nigga”?”… Ridiculous, I know. I don’t know.
But just before I slid into the backseat of the cab and Justin and I headed north, I added, with a kind of after-school-special delivery, “And neither are you [B.I.T.]. Neither are you.”
As we drove away from the war zone, Justin said something like, “That… was fucking retarded.”
And he was right—although I wouldn’t accept that until years later. I actually thought I had fought pretty well that night (not a scratch on me, except for a deformed pinkie on my right hand).
I realize that in addition to not being a nigga, I’m not a fighter either, and that the vulnerability Maynard was talking about was probably more in line with what the B.I.T. was doing—that is, reciting poetry, albeit shitty poetry to drunken a-holes—than what I was trying to do…
I still haven’t seen Tool live. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to look Maynard in the eye.