If you really want to hear about it the first thing you’ll probably want to know is that a bar isn’t a place of sacrifice ... surrender, solitude, cirrhosis, sure, but not sacrifice.
Unless you are the bouncer.
I’m the bouncer.
And being the bouncer is a lot like being the designated driver at a raging house party. It is part drug intervention and part Animal Planet.
The difference is that most interventions are well-planned, emotionally sensitive ordeals, and say what you want about the late Steve Irwin, but at least the wild animals he was pissing off were sober.
I don’t know how I got this fucking job.
Well, that’s not true, but I do honestly have to ask myself what the hell I am doing in this line of work from time to time.
Right about now I should mention that I am roughly five foot seven, and a hundred forty-five pounds.
Normally, a person of my size would not be employed in this type of profession because I don’t look like some Cro-Magnon-gorilla-Frankenstein-manbeast with tattoos on my neck and a head the size of an industrial-grade microwave.
But, I am a martial arts instructor, and the head teacher of my dojo referred my services to the bar owner.
I want to make it clear that while I do sometimes enjoy physically harming people, I would never actively pursue a situation where that sort of thing could happen, without very good reason.
Years ago I dedicated my life to the study/teaching of my discipline, and though that sounds very romantic and all, the brass tacks of the matter is that working a second job is the only way to sustain this dedication.
The dojo, though formidable, is a small establishment and working there alone cannot fully financially support me. I make about one hundred-fifty dollars a night while bouncing, and for only this reason, I hold this vocation.
It was a sacrifice I was willing to make for the love of something that kept me alive.
My theory on dreams, lifestyles, achievements, goals, etc, is that to reach them, something will be sacrificed, regardless—and it is always better to choose what it is that will be sacrificed, rather than allow the natural process of stress and striving to choose for me.
The latter is how things and people get neglected, pawned, and/or unnecessarily damaged.
There are many other things I could be doing with my life as an able-bodied, educated, single young man in the heyday of my late twenties.
My mother often chooses to remind me of this, and how she gave up smoking, drinking, contact sports, recreational narcotics, roller coasters, and any aspect of joy in efforts to bring me safely into this world.
One of the other things she loves to remind me of is the master's degree I hold in literature, which was paid for in full via scholarship, and which hangs above the old fencing trophies in my childhood room at her house, collecting dust.
Why I am not standing at the front of a college lecture room in a collared shirt and Oxfords, teaching Dostoevsky to hung-over twenty-year olds while collecting a professor’s salary, is beyond her.
That being said, the irony of putting my body on the line in a seedy bar, to humbly sustain a way of life that is devoted to a refined mastery of the body, is something I choose not to think about—unless I am drunk.
And I don’t get drunk a lot, it hinders my job requirements.
Usually there isn’t much trouble.
The place I work for is a hick-bar in a folksy college town.
The locals are kind, and the drinks are strong.
The University’s football stadium is located about three blocks from the establishment, so the only real ruckus that occurs takes place in the Fall season—when home games get out. During such occasions, the bar permits me to call in an extra man, just in case.
I always call in Haoa, a displaced Hawaiian local boy who also happens to be another instructor at my dojo. He is about one inch taller and ten pounds heavier than me, arms covered in beautiful Japanese-style tattoos of black bamboo chutes.
Before he came to the dojo, he’d left Hawaii to become a successful tournament fighter in Thailand.
His fighting career was skyrocketing, as he was one of the only foreigners to consistently hold and defend the championship belt.
But the higher up you go in the tournament bracket, the dirtier the game gets on account of the gambling.
His last fight there, Haoa was given a large sum of money by a collective of gamblers and told to throw the fight.
It was his latest title defense—he hadn’t lost to anyone in years.
But instead of doing as the gamblers had paid him to, Haoa knocked his opponent out in the first round. As a result, he had to flee the country, or face potentially life-threatening retaliation at the hands of that gambling collective.
He has a hard time explaining exactly why he didn’t throw the fight, but I understood.
We were kindred spirits of some sort, and the fact that our dojo’s head instructor often paired us together on weeknights to teach the intermediate students strengthened our friendship.
The only time we ever talked about what happened to him in Thailand, he simply said, "Some tings bra, you no can give."
Football season was over, but it was January and apparently the university’s basketball team was undefeated, going into a huge game against their biggest rival.
It was a weeknight, which was weird in terms of bouncing but the bar was expecting a heavy turn out once the game ended.
I’d been deeply depressed all day after learning that J.D. Salinger had just died.
I wasn’t really in the mood to work, but hey, when you live hand to mouth on a shoestring budget, one hundred fifty bucks sounds good all the time—no matter who dies. When I got the phone call, I was cleaning the mats in the dojo with Haoa.
We barely had time to go home, shower, change, and grab a mouthpiece.
As a bouncer you always carry a mouthpiece.
You carry it in your front pocket and you make sure that nothing else is in that front pocket but the mouthpiece.
You also wear a protective cup, because people like to think they can end a fight quickly by kicking you in the scrotum.
This is not the case when one uses such foresight.
By the time we got to the bar, the game was almost finished and given that the home team was losing by a landslide, there were a great deal of fans who’d already forsaken the court side contest and begun to drown their disappointment.
The whole joint was filling up fast. My own morose demeanor was difficult to contain, and in an uncharacteristic show of angst, I took my shift drink within twenty minutes of being there.
A bouncer gets only one shift drink, meaning that he can obtain a beverage of his choice, on the house, once, while he is working. I usually wait until my shift is over to take mine, if I take it at all.
But goddamn it, J.D. Salinger was dead, and I couldn’t fucking deal with it.
The man wrote Catcher in the Rye! He had been at D-Day and survived the Battle of the Bulge! He’d given up fame and notoriety to disappear into seclusion and write stories that he refused to show to anyone and kept locked away in a safe (so it was rumored; it is also rumored that he burned them all). He was a legend to me, the last of the old foul dudes, and part of the reason I fell in love with literature at a young age. Now I would be forced to place him in the ranks of my posthumous pantheon- with Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, and Fitzgerald.
All of my heroes were dead.
Some part of me inside was being siphoned away, slowly.
The fact that I was thinking of literature at a time when I should have been scanning the bar for potential threats irked me. Taking the burning double shot of Crown Royal whiskey and chasing it down with a beer-back of Heineken was my protest against this lack of discipline.
The bar was loud, rowdy and growing like the reaching leaves of some wind-ripped jungle; Haoa was on the outdoor porch near the other exit staring at me strangely.
He motioned with his thumb to my left, and it was then I realized that there was a small troop of college kids waiting in line with their I.D. cards in various forms of presentation.
Startled out of my distant state, I did my job—carefully inspecting drivers licenses hailing from all over the country.
Most of the line consisted of girls, but towards the back of that entering group were some very drunk, very large young men.
I’ve found that the average person, when presented with a situation that does not coincide with their perception of the world and its workings, will receive this disconnect with caution.
There is usually a moment when they realize that there is something very strange about the circumstance they’ve just encountered.
In my world, it goes something like this:
Me: Hey can I check your ID please?
And then there is the inner monologue that goes on during the period of time when I am using a small handheld flashlight to check birth dates on shiny plastic rectangles.
I imagine it sounds a bit like:
Patron: (The little man here, who is paid to beat me up and drag me out if I get too drunk, doesn’t look like any of the other men who are usually paid to do this ... either this bar is laid back, or this man is very dangerous. There is something unnerving about how calm he is and it makes me feel strange inside. Avoid eye contact.)
Most folk act accordingly and my night goes on without incident.
But alcohol is a powerful drug, and when mixed with the type of unabashed personality that enjoys vocalized self-expression, problems manifest instantly.
On that night, the night J.D. Salinger died, when Haoa and I were working the place, the very large, very drunk men who stumbled in were of the latter disposition.
"Hey can I see your ID please?"
"You’re the bouncer?"
"Yes sir, can I check your ID?"
"Shit, I could toss you clear across the room if I wanted to!" he laughed to his friend behind him while reaching into his back pocket.
"Well, it's unfortunate you feel that way, sir, you have yourself a good night." I said, waving him through and handing his ID back to him.
Right then I knew the evening would end with violence.
Haoa came over and asked me about the interaction.
I told him to keep an eye on that guy and his friend.
The game was over and the place was getting about as full as it usually did during the Fall when football fever was in effect.
I continued to visually check in with Phoebe and Jess, the bartenders—this is another one of those things particular to the job of bouncing.
Paying attention to the bartenders and who they cut off.
Phoebe has seniority back there and it is her that I take my cues from.
It is a subtle sort of affair.
The weekend before, some jerk had tried to reach across the bar and slip his index finger down her exposed cleavage—I didn’t see this, and it wasn’t a game night so Haoa wasn’t there. Phoebe slapped this guy across the face, with a smile on hers, then reached into the register and removed a crisp green bill. "Hey I’ll give you twenty bucks if you go start a fight with that little guy sitting by the door over there," she said, pointing at me. And naturally, with signature alpha male bravado, the guy took the twenty and came over to where I was sitting at my post. It was fast and ugly and this was mostly because the guy wound up to punch me from about three feet away. This made it easy to see the blow coming. I elected to jump in and head-butt him while he lumbered at me with his fist cocked back, trying to throw his punch like he was hurling a baseball. And yeah, it hurt. Slamming the top of your forehead into the bridge of a man’s nose is not a painless process for anyone involved in the matter.
But it is here that my theory on dreams, goals, achievements, etc, directly corresponds to my theory on bar fighting.
Something will be sacrificed, one way or another: bones, blood, teeth, pride, chairs, tables, cue sticks. Better to choose what will be sacrificed than have this thing be chosen for you.
In the above case, I chose my forehead, because it is hard and I don’t have to use it the way I have to use my other body parts throughout the course of the day ... try eating breakfast with a broken hand.
Anyway, this is a good example of what I am sometimes required to do when some jerk steps across the line of civility in that particular establishment.
And this was about to happen again, the night Salinger died.
Phoebe was pouring drinks like a champion, working the requests from all angles of the crowded bar counter.
Jess was doing her part too, wandering the floor and collecting orders from the tables full of drunken fans.
"Sweet Home Alabama" came through the jukebox speakers again, murdering the airspace for the fourth time that night, and I was swearing under my breath at this awful reality.
There was no one coming in the door, and so I took my hourly stroll through the place, eyes darting back and forth while collecting empty pint glasses off the tables for Phoebe and Jess.
When I started to walk the glasses I’d collected over to the bar, I heard the telltale sound of an angry Hawaiian. Though I myself am of Blackxican descent, I feel comfortable speaking for my Hawaiian associate and his people in this one regard: you don’t mess with an angry Hawaiian.
They are warriors.
It is customary for young men of the islands to engage in street-fights as nonchalantly as we on ‘the mainland’ attend a movie theater.
Ask any Kaneohe local boy.
Drive-bys, shootings, stabbings, these things do not often occur on the islands. Rather, an old-school code of conduct concerning confrontation is upheld ... picture S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish with less white boys and no switchblades.
That is the cloth from which Haoa is cut.
He is an inherently reserved and gentle young man until a certain point of contention is reached.
"What, you boys like jump? Come then, you fuckaz!" he barked, his voice raised above the general noise and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The dispute involved one of the young men who’d entered with the large group I’d carded earlier. His sour-faced friend with an opinion of how far he could throw me was there at his side. It was near the bathrooms, a narrow space crowded by vending machines and an ATM.
The women’s bathroom was full but the men’s was not.
A young woman, who had to relieve herself urgently, asked Haoa if he would guard the door while she ran into the men’s room to take care of business.
He agreed to do so, as this is a common occurrence at the bar.
The young men from the big group who came in earlier seemed to take issue with this, and even though the young lady had finished up and come out, the guys insisted on making an issue of it. Why? I don’t know. I will never understand why people will exacerbate any minor occurrence into an excuse to fight.
Why not just tell someone that you want to fight them if that’s what you really want to do?
Why the posturing?
Just be yourself.
The arguing was escalating even as other people came in and out of either restroom. I put my mouthpiece in and surveyed that this was going to be more difficult than usual, on account of the confined quarters in the highly trafficked passageway.
Haoa and I met eyes only briefly as he returned his gaze to the aggressors.
His mouthpiece was in and I could see the black rubber covering his upper teeth while he yelled.
The rest happened very quickly. Decisions were made and more terrible things happened. Haoa snaked his necked, dodging the first punch and then dropping the guy who threw it with a perfectly timed punch of his own. I heard the crack of flesh and knuckles, accentuated by the flopping thud of a body hitting the ground.
At that point, another guy who apparently happened to be friends with the now horizontal man’s group, popped out of the men’s bathroom.
I saw him eye Haoa who was engaging with the unconscious man’s buddy, and I knew what had to happen.
All of these guys were big, wide and thick, like two-legged bears.
Haoa and I, though muscular, are slender and wiry, we had the advantage of movement—we could slip past each other and the soon to be flailing bodies with greater ease than our opponents.
The vending machine, the ATM, and the bathroom doors would be impartial friends/foes, depending on where the rest of the fighting spilled.
I jumped over the downed man and dove at the guy exiting the restroom who had already extended his arms to grab Haoa. Stuffing him back through the swinging door of the bathroom, we fell onto the white tile together. The fall knocked the wind out of his lungs and I was on top of him. My first punch hit him where I intended it to, in the throat. He coughed loudly and I rained punches down into his face until his teeth cut his lips and his eyes went dull. His blood was all over my hands and wrists; some of it had splashed up onto my face.
Jumping up, I turned and ran back through the swinging bathroom door only to find a very similar situation.
Haoa was attempting to put the mouthy young man I’d spoken with earlier face first into the vending machine. This was not a martial arts technique, but this was his second try, and he was using the cowl of the man’s hooded sweatshirt to accomplish this feat. The awful sound of cheaply reinforced glass being smacked loudly was met with a series of shouts and calls from surrounding bystanders.
But Haoa didn’t see the other two young men coming at him from behind.
He couldn’t have, he was invested, in the Hawaiian sense of the word.
I slipped past Haoa and the downed man behind him who was rolling over onto his stomach and clutching his lower jaw.
The first guy tried to punch me with a somewhat educated form.
He’d probably been a boxer.
His jab landed on the right side of my face and it stung, but I was ready for his right hand which I broke using the tip of my elbow.
I knew it was broken because his hand and my elbow met at full force, him coming at me and me going at him.
He stumbled off to the left, clutching his hand and swearing profusely.
I kicked him in the liver to make sure that he would not return to the fight.
He slammed into a table and his head hit the wood on the way down.
I finished this just in time to gain bearing on the second man, who was running towards me with his eyes focused on Haoa.
Raised over his head with both hands was a freshly removed dartboard. No darts, but still, a dartboard.
He blew past me and it was then that I knew that I was going to eat shit. Not for a bad reason, for my friend. But nevertheless, eating a heavy blow and knowing it is coming is never a pleasant understanding.
I did as I knew I must, it was the only way to save Haoa from receiving all that momentum and that entire dartboard.
Were he to take a hit of that magnitude in the back of the head, he could have been severely injured.
It was a calm decision, thought out quickly and peacefully resigned to.
My left hand shot out behind me and grabbed the back of the attacking man’s jacket, pulling him off balance and stopping his forward progression. There was no way I’d be able to get a punch off in time, I knew this, but tried anyway. Then the man with the dartboard wheeled around and brought it down on my head. The world went away in a single black snatching; I felt my legs buckle as my face met the floor. I went down with a grunt of pain, and a half groaned swear word, hoping I’d given Haoa enough time to finish it all. When I woke up the bar was mostly empty.
It was darker than usual, as the house lights had been completely shut off and only the stale white light of the kitchen illuminated things.
My head felt awful and my first thought upon realizing that I wasn’t dreaming was that the world would never be the same again because J.D. Salinger was dead.
"Can I get my shift drink?" I murmured to no one. Phoebe was sweeping a pile of broken glass from the shattered frontage of the vending machine, and Jess dropping a bag of ice onto the counter in front of me snapped me to attention.
"Did it go okay?" I asked Jess.
"What do you mean did it go okay? Look at you! Your face is a mess! Put that on that cut," she answered, laughing in a short chuckle.
Haoa was outside the front door talking to the cops. When he came back in the bar, he was all smiles and slapped me on the back. "Oh bra, I heard you took one fada team huh?"
"Did you get him?"
"Yesi bredren!" he laughed, nodding his head in the direction of the shattered vending machine.
I could see the flashing lights of the squad cars blaring in through the windows.
"I oughta charge people to watch you guys do this shit!" Phoebe spoke from the corner while she used a dustpan to collect the fragmented glass. "It would turn a profit and cover damages!"
I moved in and out of consciousness a few more times there at the bar counter.
Tiny dancing lights, purple and gray in color, circled my field of vision.
Jess slid a small bottle of hand sanitizer towards me and I took the tiny thing and squeezed the gel-like liquid into my palm.
Rubbing it over my knuckles, I felt the familiar burn where skin used to be. Hitting people in the mouth always sucks, because in the mouth exist teeth, and teeth by default are meant to cut and tear.
I was caught in a drifting blackout, and at the same time determined to drink myself back to life.
Someone placed my pay wage of one hundred and fifty dollars down on the counter in front of me and I asked for a shot of Crown.
I shoved my arm forwards slowly and palmed the wad of bills.
My head kept pulsing, that dartboard had been heavier than it looked.
For some stupid reason, I couldn’t get Holden Caulfield out of my mind.
"Goddamn money, it always ends up making you blue as hell," I said. And I kept hearing his words splintering through my wrecked brain. Someone, I think Haoa, fed me the shot of Crown and when the throbbing in my head went away, I started to remember pieces of the fight. They were obscured by my thoughts on Salinger and how perhaps it would be more appropriate to take some stupid job at a high school or college rather than potentially eat dart boards to the face while fighting large drunk men in efforts to make monthly end's meet.
At least then I could assign the books of all my heroes to a new generation who would otherwise never know of them.
"J.D. fucking Salinger died! Someone bring me another drink!" I bellowed, thinking the stupid thoughts I only think when drunk.
Thoughts about why I still insist on living the way I do as opposed to listening to my mother and not risking my physical health.
I slid the clean pressed bills into my pocket with a raw scabbing hand.
"Who?" Jess asked, wiping down the counter and taking the now melted bloodstained bag of ice from in front of me.
"He wrote Catcher in the Rye! Nine Stories! Franny and motherfucking Zooey! Didn’t you people go to school?"
Blunt force trauma to the head and alcohol produce a certain type of belligerence that I was richly exuding.
"No, why, you like teach us bra?" Haoa asked, laughing and tossing an onion ring at me from across the bar where he was pouring himself a beer.
"No!" I shouted out, taking the shot that Jess put in front of me and letting it fall into the back of my throat.
And I didn’t want to explain any of it—literature, heroes, starving martial-artistry in the name of selfhood.
Some explanations you shouldn’t give.
Sometimes its better if you just don’t ever tell anybody anything.