It was a rainy night. The water had been tapping at my window for hours while I wrote. Across the street, the BART trains would whoosh by periodically, leaving clouds of spray that glowed golden as they dissipated past the street lights below. I walked out on to the deck to stretch my muscles and noticed that the night was beginning to clear. I could even see a few stars. Suddenly I felt the need of company; lively company, not the kind one encounters in the Berkeley coffee shops at those hours. So I jumped into my car and headed to San Francisco, across the Bay Bridge.
The girl I had been seeing in those days had gone off to Los Angeles for about the fourth time, chasing that old dream of stardom as an actress. If I remember correctly, one of her "contacts" called to suggest that she try out for a part on some obscure play that was to open the following month in a makeshift auditorium near UCLA. She always asked me what I thought, but I never had the heart to tell her that I didn't think she had the talent. Crossing the Treasure Island tunnel that night I got the feeling that I wouldn't be seeing her again.
Once in San Francisco I dove down Steiner street into the Marina district, to some of the nightclubs that were quite popular during those days. All of them were disappointingly quiet and sedate. Then I thought of Zack's, and I hurried north across the Golden Gate.
Zack's was a club in Sausalito, by the water, near the motley collection of houseboats that the town council was always trying to evict and across from the hillside mansions of Belvedere that you could see from the rear deck of the club on a clear night. Zack's claim to fame was the turtle races that they held once a week, I think it was on thursdays. People would bet on the turtles and those that picked the winner were given a free beer. It was a gimmick that attracted customers but I only went there on the weekends because I liked the atmosphere. It was cozy, with a good view of the bay and music from small rock bands that played stuff we could dance to, because there were always young ladies there, looking to find Mr. Right.
The place was already packed when I got there. Not an empty chair or stool. I had to reach between some customers to get myself a beer and then I stood on the edge of the dance floor trying to decide which young lady I would approach for the next dance. One or two of them had smiled back at me so I was feeling pretty confident. Then, a moment later and from somewhere behind me, I heard someone yelling even above the din of music and chatter. I turned and saw a huge guy--he must have been 6'6" and about 250 pounds--and, to my surprise, he was yelling at me. He had reddish, unkempt hair and blue eyes, and he was wearing a white t-shirt only partially tucked into his wrinkled levis. He looked like a country boy, was accompanied by two guys of similar appearance and he was obviously drunk.
I moved toward him in the crowd, turning my head to hear what he was saying.
"You heard me!" he roared, "I don't like you! I don't like your looks!"
The last part was quite clear because the band had just stopped playing. I smiled and told him that it was okay, that he didn't have to like me, and I turned away hoping that would be the end of it. It wasn't. He continued his tirade, called me some names and suggested that I leave or he would throw me out. By then, more and more of the people around us had become aware of the situation. Some were staring at me, no doubt wondering what I would do. Others were staring at the drunk. His two friends were sitting on the bar stools next to him and were getting quite a kick out of his antics, laughting and and egging him on.
I remember with great clarity everything that happened at that moment. The adrenaline sharpens one's senses. First of all, I was angered by the fact that what started out to be an enjoyable evening could be destroyed simply by the stupidity that overwhelms some people when they drink. However, leaving the establishment in order to avoid this confrontation was never an option for me. I was brought up in a culture of machismo and vestiges of that still had a hold on me. So, preparing for the worst, I reasoned that I had a distinct edge on this guy, not only because he was drunk and I wasn't, but because he was clearly a coward. Out of all the people in that bar he obviously chose me to insult because at 5'8" and 170 lbs. I was quite a bit smaller and also because he knew I was alone. Therefore, I liked my chances. The only problem was the three to one odds. Yet, at that very moment a guy who was sitting on the bar stool nearest to me turned his head and calmly told me, "Don't worry man, I got your back. I'll take care of the other two."
He was only a bit bigger than me, with short cropped hair and a dark tan. And he was all muscle.
Angered by the fact that I was ignoring him, the drunk pushed his way past some people and came after me. The right hand punch he threw at my head was badly telegraphed, so I had no problem ducking it. Taking a slight step to my left I caught him with a glancing left to his right ear and he stumbled to the floor, but not before taking down a small table occupied by two young girls. Their drinks, after splashing on their clothes, went crashing to pieces on the floor. The crowd moved back where possible and my adversary's two companions jumped off their stools simultaneously and moved forward. I don't know if they were coming for me or to pick up their friend, but I do know that my new friend grabbed the nearest one and flung him back against the bar, then stood in front of the other one, who promptly returned quietly to his stool.
I must admit that by then I was looking forward to the resumption of the match. All the butterflies disappear with the first punch and I hadn't had a good fight since my high school days. The drunk was mumbling some obcenities as he struggled to his feet, but we were suddenly separated by the bartender and two security guards. I was told to leave the premises or face arrest and although several customers spoke up on my behalf, the only concession they made was to order the drunk outside also.
My ally paid for his drink and in a clear, loud voice said to me: "Come on, I know a place up the road that has a lot more class than this dump."
Outside, before I could thank him, he jumped into his car and told me to follow him. We drove a few miles up highway 101 to a Holiday Inn Hotel. As we walked up from the parking lot he told me his name, which I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten, and when I remarked about the good shape he was in, he explained: "Hell, I've just come back from four years in Viet Nam. Over there the heat takes away every ounce of fat, and if you don't build up your muscles you probably won't make it back."
He said that he was on his way back home to the midwest--I forget where--but wanted to spend a few days in the legendary San Francisco area first. "I'm dying for a woman." he said. "Let's pick up a couple of them and take 'em back to my place."
The hotel's night club was more of a ball room and the crowd there was closer to middle age. We bought some drinks and walked around but I couln't find anyone close to our age group. That didn't stop the soldier. He danced several dances with a woman that could have easily passed for his aunt, and it was clear that she was overjoyed to find him and wasn't going to let him go. I shuddered at the thought that she was probably there with a friend and I would be coerced to take her for his sake. I was thankful to him for helping me, a stranger, at my moment of need, but not that thankful. So I snuck out of the hotel like a coward, laughing at the thought that sometimes it is easier to fight with a man than to dance with a woman.
The rain started again by the time I got home. I was still too hyper to sleep, so I resumed my writing. Listening to the rain again pelting my window I remember thinking that it was as if I had never left my desk and none of it had ever happened. But it did happen, and the reason I remember it is because I never got to express my gratitude to that soldier.
Causes Frank Pineiro Supports