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.