Run For Your Life: Part 1
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The low point of my manhood occurred in the summer of 1986, in a bar in a squatty strip mall in Port Charlotte, Florida. It was called The Rheinlander Haus, run by a black Jamaican man named Eno who wore a burgundy tuxedo every night. A musician named Wayne, in a toupee and understated black tux, played Rat-Pack oldies at the white-Formica organ bar, and a cocktail waitress who looked and dressed like a sex-kitten Pocahontas served up drinks. My friends and I liked the place because it was close to work, and it felt a little like the bar from Star Wars: eclectic and time-warpy and unbelievable to people our age: 23
My fellow newspaper reporter, Thom, and I were sitting there one night, with Wayne at his organ bar, after filing stories for a late deadline, when Pocahontas set down in front of us two pink drinks with maraschino cherries and little paper umbrellas floating in the top of them. I should probably add that we, unfortunately, had both independently chosen that day to wear our pink Ralph Lauren button-down dress shirts.
"These are from the gentleman over there, against the wall," she said.
We looked at her, confused, then turned to see the mystery man across the room. He was big, much bigger than either of us. I remember facial hair and a Texas Rangers baseball cap. He scowled.
Thom, a 20-something, skinny chain-smoker known for throwing things into ceiling fans during parties, turned and held his glass up the guy across the room and yelled, "These Shirley Temples rock, dude! Thanks!"
We turned back to our beers, a little anxious. Wayne smiled, shaking his head – Oh, those boys! – as he continued singing his very-stylized version of "New York, New York."
But then, though he continued singing, his smile melted, his eyes grew wide and eyebrows arched upward, and he cocked his chin, looking at me, as if to alert us to something behind …
Someone squeezed my shoulder. I looked down to see a beefy hand with dirty fingernails.
"Do you know why I bought you guys those Shirley Temples?" asked the voice.
"No, but they're great, dude," Thom said. "Great joke. Can we buy you a beer?"
He leaned down to coarsely whisper in our ears. "I bought 'em because I wanted to get drinks for the two biggest pussies in here tonight … Out front! Right now!"
He turned and started strutting away, looking over his shoulder to see if we were following orders.
"Holy shit!" I said. "There's no way I'm going out there. I've never been in a fight in my life. I'm not gonna start now."
"He's got some friends who followed him out," Thom said. "Dude, we're in trouble. What the hell did we do?"
"It's me, man," I said. "Rednecks hate my face. They always want to beat me up. Always have."
"How we gonna get out of this?"
"Just go out with us," said a new voice.
We looked across the organ bar at the couple that had been sitting there all evening.
"You guys are no match for that guy, I'll tell you that," the old man said. "He'll eat you alive."
We quickly introduced ourselves to Joe and Phyllis Breinhoff, who had just moved down from Terra Haute, Indiana. Luckily, they were subscribers to our paper, and they were thrilled to recognize our names. And Joe was right; no one would attack two men in pink shirts if they were accompanied by an old man in a Marines baseball cap and a silver-haired woman toting an oxygen tank in a macramé purse.
We ventured outside and found Mr. Shirley Temple leaning against a pickup truck with four or five other Bubbas around him --- and they were Bubbas, indeed. Cut-off T-shirts. Baseball caps. Men muscled from work and bellied from beer.
Those who have never lived in Florida are surprised when I mention its redneck leanings. But, as any skinny, bespectacled, college-educated young man in penny loafers soon learns, when you drift away from the coastal cities of the Sunshine State, into the suburbs and towns, you enter Deep South: Confederate-flag bikinis … barbecue houses … bass fishing … pit bulls on leashes of rope… bars with NASCAR playing on TV. In this world, clean-cut guys who wear pink dress shirts are undoubtedly gay and need to have the cartilage of their faces crushed and rearranged.
Our new friend, Joe, kept them at bay while we walked to their silver Crown Victoria. "You boys go on home," he said. "Don't be messing with my houseguests. Go on! Get out before I call the cops."
We left our car at the Rheinlander Haus and rode with Joe and Phyllis to their home off Midway Boulevard. Phyllis made drinks, a Tom Collins for herself and Manhattans for the rest of us, and we sat beside the pool in their lanai, talking.
"Don't you guys know how to fight?" Joe asked.
"I'm a lover, man, not a fighter." Thom said.
Joe shook he head. "Well, every man's got to learn how to fight. Didn't your dads teach you? You guys' parents divorced or something?"
"No," I answered. "I just never had the need to fight."
"Ever?" Joe asked. "You've never needed to defend yourself?"
My mind raced across 23 years of life, searching for bouts of painful, bloody conflict, and I realized that I'd masterfully, unequivocally avoided physical violence, which lead me to wonder for the first time: What did this say about me? Did it mean I was smarter than most guys … that I could sense when situations were getting ready to boil over and would duck away before fists began flying?
This was partially true, I'm sure, but there was another reality: Those who don't know how to fight are forced to flee, which makes them cowards.
I'd never learned to fight. I was raised by parents who listen to NPR and read The New Yorker and thought that violence represented an inability to quell conflict with brainpower. We owned and ran a weekly newspaper; in our house, words were considered the ultimate weapon. It was boys from lesser families who fought with fists.
If this was true, I had succeeded tonight – Victory again! – yet I could not shake the feeling that I had lost something … if not a battle, then what? My honor had just been saved by a man half a century older than me because I would not (could not?) defend myself.
I detected a new void somewhere deep inside. It would stay with me for years to come.
I looked down at my Manhattan. GIRLYman-hattan, I thought. Then, I remembered the paper umbrellas we'd left behind at the bar, and I hoped Pocahontas would save them for us.