Back when men worked for scale and magazines still allowed ads with the Marlboro Man, my father used to regularly take me to “Kathy’s Bar” at Damen and Lawrence. I was only four, but I realized that this working man’s bar would be my Friday nights of the future if I didn’t graduate from eighth grade.
After a long day at preschool, I was at Kathy’s throwing back a Coke and snacking on peanuts. A commotion arose from some of the regulars by the pool table. Two ironworkers came to the forefront of the group and squared off in the center of the bar. The intensity of their slurred speech and violent finger pointing told me this was not an argument over the Cubs game.
I knew this wasn’t normal bar behavior and I looked to my father for how to respond to this potentially life threatening situation. My father abruptly turned his chair. He was now in the perfect position to watch the throw down. I was so close to the action, the spittle could land on me. I kept glancing back at my dad for clues to run out of the bar for our safety, but my father was ordering another beer from the waitress as if he was sitting ringside at the Spinks-Holmes fight.
“Dad, dad, what’s going to happen?” I asked as my spine tensed up and adrenaline pumped throughout my body.
“They’re going to fight,” he retorted while tossing some popcorn in his mouth and leaning back in the chair as he perched his shoes on top of the table. “If you don’t turn around, you might miss it.”
I had seen preschoolers bitch slap each other on the playground, but this was a real, unsupervised fight. There were no teachers to break it up, no helicopter parent able to airlift Little Billy out trouble, nor a code of honor to stop once one boy starts crying. These were two full size dudes about to go full tilt drunken bum fight.
Suddenly, a maiden appeared between the men. I wondered if they were going to beat her up too. I glanced back at my dad. He stood up and walked away. What was he doing? A real life version of Van Damme’s epic movie, Bloodsport, was unfolding in front of me. My dad abandoned me. Was this one of those early manhood tests? Survive a bar fight and become an adult? If I could survive, I knew what story I would be sharing at ‘Show and Tell’ on Friday.
The standoff, like two wild elks squaring off over a mate, continued. They circled each other while the woman stood in between begging them to back down and resume the pool game. The intensity built as one of them grabbed a beer bottle.
“Please there are children here!” she shouted as her missing teeth came into my view. No longer part of the peanut gallery, I was involved. With that desperate plea, the men backed down. They exited with a few vulgar words as the bar returned to its normal state of affairs.
My father returned and sat in his chair.
“Dad, where did you go? These guys fought each other,” I exclaimed as the intensity in my voice had yet to subside.
“I went to the bathroom. And these guys didn’t fight,” he calmly stated as he took a pull out of his beer, “as soon as a girl gets in the middle of two guys arguing, it’s never going to happen.”
I took in this vast wisdom. Other classmates of mine where playing with Legos and watching Sesame Street with that stupid yellow bird. I was learning how the real world works.
“Besides,” he continued, “there was way too much talking. Real bar fights happen with a punch, not a bunch of yelling.”
Kathy’s Bar is now a T-mobile, the Marlboro Man has retired to that great cattle ranch in the sky, and the union worker has faded into the history books much like Jack Dempsey. However, I still have the memories of surviving my first bar fight.