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I woke up this morning with a Clint Eastwood line in my head: “There’s nothin’ like a nice piece of hickory.” Clint’s tough guy has just dispatched a gaggle of bullies who were beating up on some poor yokel: cattlemen against clod busters, something. They’re terrorizing the guy, Clint comes along, selects a raw ax handle from a barrel of such in front of the frontier general store, proceeds to dispatch the bullies. I don’t think he kills anybody, we never learn how many were permanently crippled. We see them all lose their taste for the fight: they’re either out or they slink away. Mob dispersed, Clint, never having broken a sweat, tosses the ax handle away, and says, “There’s nothin’ like a nice piece of hickory.”
I remember first seeing that scene, being reminded of Sanjuro, where Kurosawa, the source of so much “Clint” bravado, and Kurosawa’s Toshiro Mifune, single-handedly disperses an army sent to murder nine or ten young samurai. The team of targets is hiding in the temple, Mifune walks out of the temple, grouchy, making a display of just waking up: the bear in the stump. When the soldiers try to search the temple, Mifune tells them to take their shoes off, show some respect. The army tries to brush him aside, and Mifune knocks them all cold with his katana still in its scabbard. He doesnt’ chop them up, he stiffs them in the solar plexus. He cracks the scabbard against their brazen pusses. The army retreats: no blood drawn: not the team of samurai, not the invading thugs, and certainly not Mifune’s.
Well, I love Achilles stories, we all do: and David stories, and Davy Crockett. Lots of guys, from Homer to Elmore Leoonard, Stephen Hunter, blah blah, have made a nice living from such: I presume the Gilgamesh poet did too. And the last couple of days I’ve been trying to read a newcomer (never mind his name, I don’t think he’s that good): and that’s the tradition he’s tried to put himself in: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Travis McGee … Tough loner, outsmarting, outfighting the pros.
Notice: Mifune’s my favorite ever on-screen: the Swaggers, Bob Lee and his father Earl before him, are my favorites, ever, on the printed-page. Well, my own attempts in tangential genres never got completed however promisingly begun, but my own attempts were imitating the same sources Clint imitated. Well, and good, too bad, tough cookies. What brings me here today is a story that perked up out of the past as I put the coffee on, still occupied with Clint, and Mifune: then intruded upon by this newcomer: who has his hero prevent a fight by telling a pair of bullies, very much à la Swagger, that if they try anything, he can break every bone in their bodies before they get a hand on him.
Remember, I can put the third of three bullets into each of you
before you feel the first two.
Bob Lee Swagger, Point of Impact
I love tough guys, I love the braggadocio. Humphrey Bogart doesn’t need to be able to really take the guns off the hood, not even off Elisha Cook Jr. for me to love the ideas, the symbols, the pretense.
(Bless John Houston: however great Bogie looked, appreciate Cook Jr. in that absurd overcoat!)
(Now that’s movie making!)
So: the story I am about to recount is for me just that, a story, somebody’s portrait of a tough guy in a tough situation, never mind that they’re pretending it was themselves, maybe embellishing a little.
1974, ’75 I’m in my Circle Gallery on Madison Avenue. Times are tough, I’ve been reduced to a staff of just me: director, manager, gofer, dust-wipe. Guy comes in. He spends a lot of time looking at the LeRoy Neiman eching of Bobby Orr. Tiny little thing, part of a suite, $40 or so. I’ve got one framed, maybe $100. This guy looks and looks, talks abut Bobby Orr, that’s the attraction: Orr, hockey. The guy is big enough as guys go: no giant. Eventually he starts talking about his own hockey. Gradually I notice the network of fine scars all over his face. This guy has been used as the puck! Looked at close he looks like a Ray Bradbury illustration. But it hasn’t diminished his potential Hollywood value, no, it’s part, an essential part, of what makes him look great. Very male.
He sees that I’m digging him, so he keeps it up. I let him do all the talking, I make no attempt to tell him of my adventures behind the crease (as a spectator in New England, a privileged spectator, member of the faculty, at a college with a famous hockey team). Guy proceeds to tell me some of his own adventures around Manhattan.
He’s walking in the park, Riverside Park, upper park, up around Grants Tomb, right next to the Drive.
A horde of Puerto Ricans appear. They split, get on both sides of him, surround him. He doesn’t cut and run, he just judges which guy is the alpha, turns to keep facing him, ignores the others. This alpha is holding a paper bag, a little paper bag, like you’d hold a beer in, right out of the bodega. The guy says, in English (of a sort),
|“I got a gun here.”
My guy keeps turning as the circle mills around him, keeps facing the guy with the bag.
“What else you got?” my guy inquires.
“I got a gun, we’re a gang, we’re robbing you.”
My guy lets one handle and part of the wire of a garrote drop below his sleeve. Even by street light, they’ve got to see the handle, part of the piano wire! begin to guess what it is!
“I’m not saying you can’t rob me,” says my guy, if you’ve got enough man power, if you’ve got enough weaponry. But a dozen spic muggers and one gun don’t impress me.
“Dig it: I’ve killed ninety-seven gooks, hand-to-hand. I can snap your head off like that. Killing another dozen spics won’t bother me, at all.”
He turns as he talks. Now the whole garrote dangles.
But by that time the hoard has dispersed. The alpha, as he backs into the shadows is still holding his beer can, in its little bag.
It was the guy’s show. I made no attempt to tell him of the time, I, stupid drunk, had evaporated a similar threat, only in Morningside Park, by smiling, and cackling, and limping evilly toward the gang.
A guy in Jesup, federal prison, guy looked tough to me, said to me, sixty-nine years old, wholly outmatched on all sides, feds, convicts, “Hey, tough guy!”
I never did smile at the guy, laugh, sidle up to him, and say, “I’m not a tough guy. I’m helpless. I’m just pissed off.”