Though I suppose I was known as a rather wild youth, I never cared for fighting. The prospect of hurting another person offered no pleasure, while the prospect of someone hurting me had, of course, even less appeal. But I lived in the kind of places and had the kind of friends that made being in and seeing fights inevitable. My own encounters are blurs in my memory by now, and of all the fights I saw—dozens of them—only one is a pleasant recollection. I find myself thinking of it often, and the memory always returns complete and in sharp detail.
It took place more than 20 years ago in San Francisco during the era of the Beat Generation, when nearly everyone who was either rebellious or curious about those who were rebellious was reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. One of the principals in the combat I want to tell about was a huge hulk of a man known in the North Beach area as "The King of the Beats." On a cool Saturday night, he squared off against a friend of mine named Frank, who happened to be a national collegiate and AAU wrestling champion.
Can a good boxer beat a good wrestler? Can a good boxer or wrestler handle an experienced street fighter or a gigantic pro lineman? How will the street fighter or the lineman do against a master of the so-called martial arts? Perhaps these questions seem silly, even primitive, but they are often debated in locker rooms and bars. People are understandably curious. Based on my own experience and on what I saw that night. I'll wager on the wrestler every time. If he's good, I'll take him over anybody. Once I was more or less forced to defend myself against a 250-pound tackle (I weighed about 185), and I surprised myself by coming out of it well. Results were similar when a U.S. Navy boxing champion took after me outside a bar on Kalakaua Avenue in Honolulu. The one light I remember losing was against a 150-pounder who I later learned was a fine amateur wrestler. He simply wiped me out. I have no clear idea what he did, but he did it quickly and well, and I've never felt so helpless or humiliated in my life.
Frank did it well on that Saturday night in North Beach in the '50s. He did it expertly, beautifully—and kindly, too. We were on Grant Avenue north of Broadway in a place called the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. It was one of half a dozen hangouts in that block of Grant, and every night all of these places were mobbed.
Much beer and wine was sloshed around. Pale young men sat huddled over chessboards. Smoke hung in blue clouds, and there was loud, strident conversation, spiced, of course, with many "I dig its" and "cools." The sound of jazz throbbed through the room.
Frank and I had a booth near the back of the place, such a small booth that the two of us had trouble squeezing in. We ordered a pitcher of beer and pastrami sandwiches on rye, and while we waited we enjoyed the local color.
From the beginning Frank attracted attention. He was a very clean-cut young man, neatly dressed and studious looking with a crew cut and thick glasses. But though he drew curious stares and raised eyebrows from the regular clientele of the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. Frank was in no way offended. By temperament he was remarkably peaceful. Perhaps whatever aggressions he had were disposed of on the wrestling mat. In any case, I had often seen him take rather crude insults from men he could have mutilated in five or six seconds. I doubt that he had ever started a serious argument, much less a fight, in his life.
Our beer and sandwiches arrived. As I was pouring our mugs full, Frank raised his sandwich toward his mouth. It never got there. A huge, hairy hand grabbed it away. We looked up together and there he was—the King, 260 pounds of him. I judged. I'd naturally heard of the fellow and occasionally seen him around, but I knew him only as the King. Everybody called him that. Slowly, half grinning at us, he tore off half the sandwich in a single bite. I remember slowly setting the beer pitcher down, keeping my grip on the handle.
The King towered over us, dressed in baggy pants, a soiled sweat shirt, a blue beret. He was bearded and mustached. Smiling down at us, he slowly chewed.
"You pretty hungry?" Frank asked.
"Yeah, man, I am." It was a fairly impressive voice, a deep bass that cut through the surrounding noise even though he spoke softly.
"O.K.," Frank said. "But when you finish that I want you to buy me another sandwich."
"I ain't buying you nothin', man. I don't dig that."
"I think you ought to buy me one." Frank explained, "or something might happen that you'll dig a lot less."
The King took another, smaller bite, looking vaguely puzzled. Frank was my height, 6'2", a few pounds heavier, but the King, looking him over carefully, decided he wasn't impressed. "Cool it, man." he said. "You dig?"
I was sweating. Frank was smiling now. "This is the last time I'll say it," he told the King. "You took my sandwich. I paid for it. I want you to buy me another one. Then we'll forget it. It's simple, really."
"No way," the King said.
"Do you want to go outside, or do you want it here?"
"You wanna go outside with mc, man?"
"I can dig that."
"Fine. Let's go."
The King sauntered out first, swallowing the last bite of the pastrami sandwich, and as he passed through the front door he had a friend of his own in tow, a stocky little fellow, also bearded, also wearing a beret.
The fight took place in a blind alley farther up Grant Avenue, as perfect a setting as anyone in Hollywood could have devised. Graffiti covered the dirty brick walls. Cans, bottles and soggy newspapers were strewn around, and the dim light from the street shone dully off a long line of overflowing garbage cans. Frank handed mc his glasses. I stood against one wall of the alley, the King's friend against the other.
Then the King struck a pose straight from one of those old John L. Sullivan posters. He wanted to box. Frank had told mc once that he liked to box and was fairly good at it, so I wasn't surprised when he cooperated. Right hand held low, left out front, giving away six inches and 70 pounds, he moved in.
The King flicked a left jab, missed with a right cross. Then there was a sharp crack and the King was flat on his back. All I had actually seen was his head snap back and out from under the beret, which floated to the pavement like a little parachute. The King sat up, blinked and shook his head but had the presence of mind to put the beret back on before he got up.
Get up he did, five or six more times, and Frank kept knocking him down. After the third time the King forgot to put on the beret. As he lay in the alley amidst the cans and bottles after the last knockdown, his friend began giving advice. "Wrestle him. King!" he hissed. "Wrestle him! He probably can't wrestle!"
Seldom, if ever, has well-intentioned advice turned out so badly. The boxing portion of the fight had reminded me of a Popeye cartoon, when the hero, after downing a can of spinach, socks the enormous Bluto around like a pinball. The wrestling section of the fight was short-lived and harder to follow. The King climbed to his feet and charged, and I saw the takedown—a single leg takedown, which is what most good amateur wrestlers are best at—but then things became a blur. Whirled this way and spun that, the King bounced off one brick wall and then the other.
Finally he sat against a garbage can, dazed and panting. "Baby." he said. "This is unreal."
"You ready to go back inside now?"
"Baby, I can dig that!"
"Fine, let's go."
Frank helped him up, then guided him down the street to the Co-Existence Bagel Shop. Inside we found a booth large enough to hold the four of us, and Frank ordered pastrami sandwiches all around and two pitchers of beer. When they came, he paid for everything.
There had been a fight, and a fight is never really nice: and this one probably didn't prove that wrestlers are tougher than anyone else. But a skillful young man had taken understandable offense at something, proved his point quickly and efficiently, and without brutality or even undue force. Then, when it was over, it was over. The four of us didn't become lifelong friends, but we did become friends for the rest of the evening.