(Originally written 1992-93. The encounter occurred in early 1985, at age 18.)
THE Laser Palace arcade, though a few mocked it as the Loser Palace, was well-occupied that afternoon, and being a wet day exacerbated the humidly stuffy atmosphere within. Nevertheless, upon entering I went straight for the Space Shuttle pinball machine and plugged in the requisite two bits. Removing my worn, wool insulated, denim jacket, I noticed Barney standing next to an adjacent video game, staring at me.
What’s his problem? went through my mind, as well as some concern.
Returning my attention to my pinball machine and pressing the start button, Barney spoke: “Michelson was up here, and he’s looking for you,” he informed me, a little too gleefully for my comfort. “He’s drunk.”
John Michelson was a tough-guy wannabe, known to get drunk and then into street fights; it was even alleged that he was an “experienced” fighter while under the influence of moderate amounts of alcohol.
“Thrills,” was my brave façade response. However, the truth was, I really wasn’t into a physical confrontation, and I began to wish I’d stayed home that bleak weathered Monday afternoon.
Barney—a.k.a. “Burney,” because of his propensity towards selling underweighted cannabis allotments—was a smalltime, small hearted drug dealer. His faded denim upper and lower body attire plus weather-beaten Dayton boots, all complimented by his scraggly head hair, did everything but make him look the least bit trustworthy. Just his rowdy, worn out appearance alone should’ve served to warn those of a pacifist predisposition to not deal with him, for he simply couldn’t be counted upon to practice business ethics of the scrupulous sort.
As for John and his dealings at the time, he was facing a likely four years of jail time for rape, and he was ‘living it up’ while free on bail pending a ruling on a defense motion for the judge to grant him an appeal of his conviction. His friend Greg, and his own older brother Rod, I’d heard, testified for the prosecution against John in exchange for reduced sentences for themselves. (The victim testified that the three, without doubt extremely intoxicated, assaulted her after they picked her up hitchhiking.)
Not wanting to be obvious about my intimidated mindset by leaving the arcade too soon, I decided that I’d leave after a game or two. Or so I thought.
About five minutes into my game (I was doing well on that pinball machine for a change, just my luck), within my peripheral vision I could see the door open; sure enough it was John. But just as quickly as he’d entered, he’d disappeared amongst some video games. Where in hell did he go? I thought, my adrenalin flow increasing.
The next thing I knew, he was standing behind me at my four o’clock, and I could smell the liquor on his breath.
(It’s noteworthy that I was at a crossroad in my troubled youth at which point I was just beginning to stand up for myself against bullies and other wannabe-tough-guys-at-others’-expense skid folk.)
“Let’s step outside,” he immediately insisted.
“When I finish my game,” I countered, still attempting to maintain a confident demeanor.
JOHN and I went back about three years, though we only knew each other by looks. The first time I came across him, I was walking along Marine Drive by the White Rock pier one summer day in 1982, as he was walking in my direction accompanied by two younger boys (one likely was his younger brother Gerald, and both appeared to be in admiration of the bigger John). As they approached me and passed by, John gave me a nasty look. Not wishing to initiate a physical confrontation via the always risky ‘stare-dare challenge,’ I returned my gaze back to straight ahead.
It would be about two years later that John would unconvincingly behave courteously towards me, as though he’d never seen me before. Initially, I theorized that perhaps his chivalry was at least in part due to the two new friends—beholders of renown no-nonsense attitudes and respectable reputations as true-to-their-nature tough guys—with whom I’d begun associating.
Consequently, I presumed that John, unlike that first time by the White Rock pier, no longer had a problem with my presence.
It indeed seemed to be as such, until I persistently refused to “front” John twenty-five dollars (i.e. pay first, and then hopefully receive your cannabis soon-enough after his disappearance) for a supposedly real eighth-of-an-ounce plastic sandwich baggie of cannabis. He adamantly felt that I should trust him with my money as he’d disappear between some houses, allegedly to the residence of some super-paranoid-as-per-usual drug dealer who supposedly refused to face most of his customers.
Regardless of his assurances that there was nothing for me to worry about, I nevertheless insisted, though to no avail, that I go along with him and (most importantly) my money into the presence of the dealer. Soon after that unfortunate disagreement, my then closest friend informed me that John was well-enough known to, at the least, pinch a couple joints’ worth of cannabis for himself or even go as far as help himself to all of the cash or cannabis.
As it happened, following that incident John decided that, like old times, he didn’t like me after all, therefore he commenced erroneously, maliciously propagating around the scummier side of town that I was in fact a police informant or “a rat.”
If Frank isn’t an informant, he wouldn’t insist upon coming with me to the dealer, was his flawed yet self-serving logic.
It wasn’t long before he and a couple of his ‘tough guy’ friends expressed their contempt for me one Saturday night by throwing little pieces of rolled-up paper at my head while I was racking up yet another top score on the Star Wars video game (naught but an enough-practice-makes-perfect accomplishment though nonetheless seemingly earning me even more contempt from the trio). But what was I to do—try fighting off all three scumbags? Not bloody likely, for John alone was enough for me way back then.
A day later, I was drinking a mickey of Southern Comfort at the same said closest friend’s residence, with the previous night’s unmerited bullying I’d endured lingering in my thoughts. With the liquid courage alcohol consumption increasingly motivating me to express my anger and requisite physical vengeance, I foolishly decided to even the score with my nemesis. By the time we’d driven uptown to the arcade, I was as obnoxiously cocky and extensively motor-functional disorientated as a drunk could be—and I’d end up receiving a bruising for it.
I went inside the Laser Palace and called him out onto the paved parking lot. Once outside, with a dozen or so onlookers from the arcade around us, things got physical, with me monopolizing the receiving end of the action.
For a short period of time, perhaps six to eight weeks following the altercation, I felt psychologically as well as physically emasculated by his presence; meanwhile he, on the contrary, doubtlessly felt superior. But it didn’t take me very long to rebel against that strong sense of subservience, and I began giving him dirty looks. More so, the occasion would soon arise whence I even gave him an unmistakably firm shoulder bump as we passed each other on my way from the Laser Palace to the local Muffin Break coffee shop.
“NOT good enough!” was John’s silent yet quite physical response, as he suckered me. It was clearly an impaired, clumsy attempt at getting me into a solid headlock, for I readily slipped my head out from his clasping arm. He nevertheless continued his attempt at wrestling me into a position favorable to him, all occurring as physically debilitating dreadful thoughts raced through my mind. Perhaps the most intense stomach-turning thought was the one undoubtedly from within my defeatist psyche; the one which readily let me know as I was hit two or three times that I was in a very bad situation and place infested with malicious people who held naught but considerably ill will towards me and my presence—the latter which only further debilitated any defensive moves to which I may have otherwise had access. (It would be three decades later that I’d read George Orwell’s 1984 in which the narrator at one brief point seemingly curses “the treachery of the human body which always freezes into inertia at exactly the moment when a special effort is needed.” To this day, I’ve yet to meet anyone who’ll discuss the meaning to him/her of the abovementioned treacherous mind over matter, especially when it comes to unrestrained debilitating fear. Although, it seems that Orwell would’ve likely been able to relate to what I experienced that violent day at the Laser Palace arcade.)
We landed on the barely carpeted, cement-based floor and tussled for but a moment, each determined to get on top of the other thus gaining dominance. Fortunately, I got him on all fours, with my right knee pressed down onto his back.
“Now it’s your turn,” I said as I initiated repaying his assault, directed to his head. However, with a sudden burst of kinetic energy, he threw his body mass upwards and me off of his back.
John’s friends and allies took him outside to wait for me as he took in some fresh air. I, on the other hand, remained inside with my boney legs feeling like buckling. Meanwhile, I began futilely squinting about the floor for my glasses, which I’d eventually reacquire two days later, all twisted up and useless (except for a few spare parts for future specs requiring them).
I had fear in my heart, while his held drunken rage within. The two extreme opposite ends of the psychological/emotional spectrum greatly interact thus feed from and get depleted by one another; thus, each is increasingly intensified and usually results in one triumphant winner and one lacerated loser.
About ninety seconds later, John walked back in and towards me with his forefinger motioning me to, “Come here, Frank.”
“No way, man,” I declined, waving my hands in the negative as he approached me. He then began angrily rambling incoherently about my ‘offenses’ committed against him, though in reality all being either just alleged or in factuality.
Perhaps feeling confident that I wasn’t going to strike back judging by the panic likely showing in my eyes, he laid one on my left cheek. But my unpredictable hair-trigger-fury-when-hit reflex, rather than any fear I had felt, fully revealed itself and dictated my temporary ‘psycho’ physical response to his surprisingly weak blow. As his arms covered as much of his face as possible to block my rapid succession of uppercuts, our ‘winning/losing’ roles up till that point were already shifting: I had become the aggressor while, it appeared, he became the stunned and much less presumptuous.
By utilizing the derogatory term ‘psycho’ to describe my very rare mental state, even during such a horrible experience, I’m expressing how some altercation spectators perceived me when I so dramatically lost my temper composure control the instant that an angry, rambling John blatantly drifted me one to the cheek. In fact, I discovered exactly what was/is meant by the phrase, “I saw red” or “seeing red,” for that’s what I saw—just like a very light red tinted, transparent filter instantly placed over each eye’s pupil. …
(Personal essay concluded in Part 2)
(Frank G Sterle Jr)