This essay was actually assigned as punishment for punching a Men's Journal editor at a staff party at an East Village saloon-the magazine journalism equivalent, I suppose, of having to write "I will not punch my editors" one hundred times on the blackboard. I won't bore you with the details of the scuffle though I will note the following: (a) tequila was involved, and (b) truth to tell, the editor had it coming. Let me add that this is strenuously unusual behavior for me. I am a happy drinker more prone to sloppy hugs than frothy fist-throwing, but, again: When you mix tequila with a blowhard editor, things can sometimes fall apart. My starkest memory of the evening is the sound of the locks clicking shut on the door after I'd been ejected from the bar; they seemed to go on forever. As a fresh transplant to New York from the South, I didn't know a door could have that many locks.
Naturally there were consequences: For one thing, I had to write this essay. Bad behavior has always fascinated me, though the subject of bar brawling arrived with its own set of difficulties. The line between bad behavior and sociopathic behavior, in this case, is terribly thin. I have zero interest in the kinds of fights bullies engage in to puff up their frail sense of machismo; that's just violence for violence's sake, and it happens all too frequently and odiously around the world. What interested me, instead, were the kinds of amateur bar fights ignited by overdoses of passion plus liquor. That is to say, bar fights fought by otherwise reasonable (or semireasonable) people for concrete (or semiconcrete) reasons. Broken hearts, political differences, grudges, and slights, that sort of thing. Obviousness aside, I wondered: Why does liquor-and a bar setting-prompt people to violence? What exactly causes people to snap? And why do so many of them rip off their shirts before fighting?
As to my essay's happy presence in these pages, I must confess that it rarely occurred to me to think of bar fighting-at least of the amateur, one- or two-punch, black eye-resulting variety I tried to focus on-as a crime, though I suppose it certainly is. The ideal bar fight should be quick and for the most part painless enough to never require police attention but, true, it's assault and battery, no matter how loose and saggy the punches. I'm reminded of the time, ten years or so ago, when I was fired as a reporter for a small Mississippi daily for listing a man's legendary bootlegging past in his obituary. Huffily, the publisher informed me that the paper was not in the habit of noting people's crimes in their obituary. "But bootlegging isn't a crime," I protested. "It's a…service." I believe my newspapering career ended at that very precise moment.
I no longer touch tequila, by the way. (A pal of mine smartly calls it "felony juice.") Nor do I punch people. I am, however, still inexorably drawn to saloons where folks do both. As they say: One thing at a time.