I had to think it over before putting up this week’s post. Will anyone be interested in bar fights?
Then I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Restaurant Laughs, and this week there was a highlight on all the brawls taking place at Chuck E. Cheese. Yup, Chuck E. Cheese! Click here for a video on the story.
I’m sure it’s possible spend a lifetime behind the taps and never once be called on to break up a bar fight.
But in many neighborhood spots, where I spent most of my early years, you’re happy just for the nights when there isn’t a scuffle.
At The Lark Tavern, we only had doormen on weekends. During the week, the bartenders joked with the customers, laughed and slung drinks, but we also kept a close eye on things.
A big guy walked into The Lark one night, and we knew he was going to be trouble. He just didn’t fit in and considering all the different people we had at The Lark, if he didn’t fit in here he wasn’t going to fit in anywhere. Maybe that was his problem.
He was a huge guy, over six-feet tall and at least 250 lbs. He had a massive chest and arms bigger than my legs. He was wearing a tight T-shirt with his muscles bulging underneath. He was black, but sort of an albino black, with very light skin and a brush-cut of light orange – yes, orange – hair.
He didn’t say a word for most of his first beer, then he started talking to himself. He made sure that everyone in the place heard him.
He wasn’t happy here — “THIS PLACE SUCKS!” — that kind of thing.
“Fuck you!” he said to the man standing beside him. The poor guy had made the mistake of glancing sideways.
“Come on,” we told the big one, “No need for that. Why don’t we all relax and have a good time.”
He wouldn’t stop. Fuck this and fuck that, and fuck everybody.
“Come on, guy,” I said, “Keep it down, OK? Just relax, . . . no one is looking for trouble.”
“Fuck you!” the big guy said as he leaned into my face.
Then he turned and hurled his beer bottle against the wall on the other side of the bar. A young couple at a table ducked as the bottle smashed over their heads.
“FUCK YOU!” he said to everyone in the crowd now staring at him. He shoved the guy next to him hard. Fortunately the man was already moving away, so he stumbled a bit but stayed on his feet.
“FUCK YOU!!!” he said as he swung back to me.
I didn’t have much choice. I had to do something. He looked like he was about to start swinging at people.
I grabbed the house billy club, and came out from behind bar. That club was a two-foot cylindrical piece of oak with a metal rod inside. On the other side of the bar, I stood about three feet away from him. It must have looked ridiculous. He was huge, and I was 5′ 9″, 160 lbs.
But I had the billy club.
“Time to go,” I said.
I’d been a collegiate wrestler and was now in my third year of Karate. In a few months I’d be an amateur boxer, fighting with Archie Goodbee as my trainer. I was young and fearless . . . and sometimes just plain dumb.
The guy looked at me, with one hand in his jean’s pocket. “Do you know what I’ve got in my pocket?” he asked.
The hand in his pocket was moving.
It could have been a knife. It might have been a gun. But in either case he’d have to bring it out before he could use it. His pants were so tight that if it was a gun, the barrel could only be pointed down. He wouldn’t be able to shoot without taking the gun out.
“Do you know I’ve got in my pocket?” he asked again.
At this point, I didn’t have time to think things over. How many times have I stepped to the other side of the bar, and then thought, “What the hell am I doing?” Standing in front of this guy now, I thought, “This is not what I planned. This isn’t good.”
“Go ahead,” I told him, “Bring it out.”
I jabbed the hand in his pocket with a quick stab of the billy club, then brought it quickly back, cocked behind my side. If he started to bring his hand out, maybe I’d have a split second to smash his wrist with the billy club. With his wrist broken, I’d have another hundredth of a second to swing back as hard as I could and club him across the face.
Why the hell did I come out from behind the bar?
“Go ahead,” I told him again, “Go ahead, bring it out.”
One of the other bartenders, or maybe a waitress must have called the police — it was an experienced crew at The Lark; they knew when it was necessary to call the cops. As this guy and I stood glaring at each other, two uniformed officers walked through the door.
The Albany Police . . . God Bless their rapid response time. They escorted him out.
While working behind the bar afterwards, I thought about had just happened. You hear stories about people being killed in bars.
Usually The Lark Tavern was pretty laid back, and you could avoid trouble if you used your wits. Johnny La La taught me a lot about heading off problems.
Johnny was a cranky old barman but he could settle disputes, quiet customers down and shut people off as easily as someone might turn off a faucet. When he had to, Johnny could charm the skin off a snake.
Sometimes you watch bartenders do everything wrong, fueling the flames, creating problems for themselves. I‘ve seen bartenders yell: “You’re not getting another drink! You’re drunk . . . I’m not serving you anymore!”
Johnny would talk with them quietly. If you were watching from the side, you would have thought that Johnny and the guy were long-time friends, having a private conversation. “I’m not trying to give you a hard time,” Johnny would say quietly, “But I want to make sure everyone gets home OK. I want to see you back here another day.”
“Look, don’t take it personally,” he’d say if they were still putting up fuss, “It’s just my job.”
Always start politely, that’s what I learned from Johnny La La. There’ll be plenty of time to escalate if they won’t listen to reason.
Don’t let anyone else at the bar know what’s going on. Why make a guy feel that he has to defend his honor with everyone watching?
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll buy the first beer,” Johnny would tell them quietly on the side.
Sometimes problems start before you know it, and there’s no chance to get ahead of them.
One day at The Lark a group of big guys got out of hand. They were all friends just having fun, but two of them began wrestling. They thrashed their way to the seating area and knocked over a table and a couple of chairs.
I came out from behind the bar and pulled the two grapplers apart. I told them this wasn‘t a gym and it was time for all of them to go.
They seemed reasonable, these students from Albany State. I think they were football players at the college. I motioned for the group to follow me and walked toward the door.
Why did I turn my back?
Suddenly I was up in the air.
One of them had picked me up and had me over his shoulder. Now he was bringing me down fast and I saw the edge of the bar rushing up at me.
“Jesus Christ, I’m going to hit the fucking bar!” I imagined being paralyzed, spending the rest of my life in a wheel chair.
I spun out at the last second, kicking my legs back. By shifting my weight, with his momentum stretching him beyond his center of gravity, he was spun onto his back as we toppled.
I landed on top of him as we hit the floor — it wasn’t something thought out or planned, just a reaction from high school and collegiate wrestling.
I jumped up. The guy was still on the floor with his friends standing over him, laughing.
“OK,” he said from the floor, lying on his back, “Ok, I’m an idiot.”
At Johnny D’s we have a crew of trained doormen, but I remember one Sunday afternoon during the Blues Jam, when we had a young woman checking ID’s.
This big guy walked in, clearly from the streets, and the petite door lady stopped him. As they talked he was making angry gestures. “I want to speak to the owner!” the guy shouted.
I walked out from behind the bar.
“I want to speak to the owner!” the guy turned toward me.
He was huge. He looked like The Incredible Hulk. He had a massive chest and bulging arms beneath a ragged yellow T-shirt. The shirt was smudged all over with dirt. Was I imagining there was also blood on that shirt? It looked as though he’d already been brawling somewhere else.
“I’m the owner,” I told him. Of course I’m not, but sometimes I say that when I think it’s appropriate.
“What the fuck is the problem?” the guy asked. “Why the fuck won’t this girl let me in?”
He was two feet away from me, arms away from his body as though he was about to grab me and crush me.
I tried to calm him down, telling him that it would probably be better if he came back another time. As we talked, I was thinking about what this guy might do to me. My mind was racing with the moves I’d use if he started swinging.
I tried to straddle that fine line between being unbending, yet non-confrontational.
I would later learn that he’d just gotten out of prison. He’d been serving time for beating the crap out of people and sending them to the hospital. Right now he was clearly fucked up on some kind of drugs.
He stood there looking at me, and when he saw that I wasn’t going to back down the strangest thing happened. His eyes began to water.
He had a few tears running down his dirt-smudged cheeks.
“Give me a hug,” he said, stretching out his massive arms.
“What?” I thought.
“Give me a hug,” he said.
I hesitated. If he got those arms around me, I’d be fucked. There’d be no chance for a quick defensive strike to a vital area.
“Give me a hug,” he said again.
So I gave him a hug.
We stood in the open area by the front door, arms wrapped around each other for a minute, and I patted him on the back.
Then he turned and left.
“Thank you,” he said over his shoulder as he left, “Thank you. I know I’m all fucked up . . . I’m all alone.”
“That was the first time here I’ve actually been afraid for my safety,” the young door lady said afterwards.
“But all he wanted was a big hug!” she laughed.
Yup, I took a lot of ribbing for the rest of the shift.
That young lady was inexperienced (we always have male doormen at Johnny D’s now) but surprisingly, women are often the best at handling trouble.
Stacey Conway, one of the female bartenders at The Lark Tavern, could shut people off, calm them down or even ask them to leave, and they’d never blink.
Stacey was always polite but firm, and never raised her voice unless she had to – but when she had to, the snap in her voice and that angry wave of her finger commanded their attention. And no matter what she did, it never threatened their male ego.
Years later in Boston, I was spending a night off at a bar called 33 Dunster Street, in Harvard Square. (It’s now the John Harvard Brew House.) A brawl broke out to rival the movies – three separate groups, maybe a dozen guys in each, brawling.
The manager was a tall, thin woman from England with flaming red hair. She stood at the top of the stairs and yelled: “Stop this! Stop this right now! The police are on their way!”
She stood at the top of the steps, yelling, “Stop this right now!”
And one by one, each of the groups stopped. Just like that. They all turned and looked at her, then raced toward the door to get out before the cops arrived. I’ve never seen anything like it.
In some bars trouble is a rare occurrence, while other spots have problems on a nightly basis.
I’ve seen bartenders who have a tough time dealing with these problems, and I’ve seen others who actually enjoy the excitement. They’re all pumped up after afterwards, as though they loved this part of the job.