Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Fight, Bull

Steven Church
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Winter 2012)
A friend of mine, a longhaired, bearded carpenter, told me a story about a 
time he boarded a city bus in Fresno, California, and nearly resorted to 
violence —the kind of violence they write stories about in the daily paper. 
Your memory isn’t even working normally. It could happen to you or to 
me. It could happen any day. The carpenter remembers climbing the steps 
into the air-conditioned bus, his eyes quickly scanning, surveying the 
space as he walked the narrow path to an empty seat. 
 
The army had taught him to see, to be aware of danger, but I’m not sure 
he expected this. An overweight girl followed behind him, nobody he 
knew. Just a girl. A big girl he’d seen waiting at the bus stop. The two of 
them moved carefully, close together through the door. If you didn’t know 
you might think they were a couple. And before either of them could find 
a seat, a noise rose up from the back of the bus, an unmistakable ruckus of 
sound. The carpenter couldn’t miss it. Others must have noticed too. 
Three boys began to hoot and laugh, mocking the girl, mooing like a cow 
at her and slapping their thighs in hysterics. In a situation like this, your 
mind, you’re in a combat situation. Your mind is functioning. You’re not 
thinking in a normal way. 
 
The carpenter found a seat near the girl. She tried to ignore them, but 
they kept going, kept mooing like cattle. They weren’t happy with simple 
humiliation. This carpenter boiled and watched and listened to them, 
trying to tamp down his anger. It was wrong, what they were doing. The 
girl took their abuse for a few blocks, took it with her chin down, tucked to 
her chest. Eventually she moved to another open seat near the front of the 
bus. You are so hyped up. Your vision actually changes. 
 
It’s not long after this that the teens started in on my friend, the carpenter. 
At first he didn’t understand, didn’t realize they were calling him 
‘‘Geico,’’ and saying, ‘‘Hey, Geico? Geico?’’ in reference to the insurance 
commercials featuring hairy-faced cavemen. But eventually he too understood 
that they were mocking him for his appearance. He wore a full 
beard and long hair, sometimes a vest and blue jeans. He wore functional 
glasses with black frames. They called him caveman. 
 
Perhaps because there were three of them, they felt safer, stronger, more 
brazen. Perhaps they baited him because they hadn’t seen this bearded 
carpenter, in an e√ort to defend his friend, grab a belligerent drunk at a 
party, slam him against a wall, and throw him to the ground, hadn’t seen 
this carpenter deliver a swift, violent kick to the drunk’s head, and certainly 
hadn’t held him back from kicking again, caving in the drunk’s skull. 
Would he have done it? I don’t know. But I saw in his eyes that he could do 
it if he wanted to. When I’d held him back, my arm across his broad chest, 
my mouth whispering into his ear, ‘‘Easy, brother. Easy,’’ I also knew that I 
was holding myself back too. How quickly we can cross over. 
 
Your field of view changes. Your capabilities change. What you are 
capable of changes. You are under adrenaline, a drug called adrenaline. 
And you respond very quickly, and you think very quickly. They mocked 
him because they could, because this man, this bearded carpenter, was 
too smart to bite, because he had already turned the other cheek. He 
ignored them. Or tried to. That’s all. You think! You think, you analyze, 
and you act. And in any situation, you just have to think more quickly 
than your opposition. That’s all. You know. Speed is very important. 
 
Even in that moment when the encounter went from offensive to 
threatening, as one boy came and sat down across from the carpenter, 
staring openly, daring him, taunting him openly, he didn’t take the bait. 
The boy leaned over the aisle, cooing, ‘‘Geico, Geico. Geico,’’ close enough 
to smell, and as he twisted his face close, trying to catch the eyes, he said, 
‘‘Geico?’’ again like a test, right in this bearded carpenter’s face. 
 
This better man didn’t smash the boy’s young face, didn’t beat his head 
against the floor or one of those metal poles until it split open and blood 
bloomed from the crack. My intention was to murder them, to hurt them, 
to make them suffer as much as possible. He didn’t produce a gun suddenly 
there in his hand, didn’t shoot all of them, didn’t put a hole in the 
last boy’s back, a clean round hole like a birth mark. If I had more bullets, I 
would have shot ’em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of 
bullets. 
 
The carpenter didn’t do any of these things because we have long since 
left his story and drifted into a story shaped by Bernhard H. Goetz and his 
gun, his fear and rage, and by a culture that embraced the expectation 
that violence is the easiest answer. In 1984, the year I turned thirteen, 
Bernie Goetz took a gun onto the Number 2 subway train in Brooklyn and 
shot four unarmed black men who he claimed had threatened him with a 
screwdriver. He was later acquitted of all charges except possession of an 
illegal firearm. I was gonna, I was gonna gouge one of the guy’s eyes out 
with my keys afterward. 
 
This bearded carpenter didn’t go after the eyes, didn’t even tell me that 
he wanted to. Like me, he doesn’t own a gun, certainly wouldn’t carry one 
onto a city bus, and doesn’t seem capable of such melodramatic violence; 
perhaps it’s because this man, though he too grew up with Goetz, is no 
vigilante nor stock character of the eighties, and he knows how to control 
his violent capabilities. He knows his limits and switches and how to lock 
them down. His story thus became a vessel for my own imagined defense, 
my own burdens of fear. I remember this carpenter’s story as both a 
warning and a lesson. I try to open it up again here on the page, to see 
again how he resisted the urge, how in the face of a threat, he turned 
inward, looked away, and waited for the bell to signal his stop. 
 
Perhaps you’ve never stood before a mirror as Robert De Niro does in Taxi 
Driver— stripped to the waist, lip curled in a snarl, arms flexed— and 
practiced intimidating facial expressions and quips. You fucking looking 
at me? Maybe you’ve never said things that Clint Eastwood says in Dirty 
Harry, lines that Charles Bronson delivers in Death Wish, or lines from 
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Russell Crowe, or someone 
else. You feel lucky, punk? Perhaps you’ve never imagined or pretended 
how you would fight your way out of a tough situation, never dreamed of 
movie-quality, Gladiator-style vengeance against the men who harmed 
you or your wife or mother or brother or, worst of all, your children. 
 
If so, you’re just a very different sort of person. I do this. Or I did as a 
boy. It seemed a normal response to the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve had very 
few opportunities to ever put the lines into practice, but I’ve spoken those 
of Al Pacino and De Niro and Bronson— or I’ve imagined myself speaking 
them—and I’ve internalized stories focused on the violent unhinging of 
one man’s world, and I’ve imagined myself capable of movie-quality violence, 
pictured myself doing terrible things to people as a way to protect 
myself or my family. 
 
In the original Death Wish, Paul Kersey’s wife is beaten and his daughter 
raped and brutalized by a gang of thugs who follow them home from a 
supermarket. His wife dies and his daughter is left in a catatonic state. It’s 
an awful scene. Devastated by the attack, Kersey, played perfectly by the 
painfully wooden Charles Bronson, takes a business trip to Tombstone, 
Arizona, where he visits the famous OK Corral. As if some seed of this old 
cowboy story takes root, an idea sprouts in Kersey’s head, an idea clouded 
with an anger to which many people in America could apparently relate. 
He returns to New York, bent on vengeance, and proceeds to systematically 
hunt down people he considers of the same general kind as those 
who attacked his family, providing Bronson with opportunities to deliver 
his own brand of Hollywood vigilante cowboy violence. 
In one particularly eerie echo of the Bernie Goetz story, Kersey buys a 
bag of groceries that he doesn’t need and carries them onto a subway 
train. He sits there like a spider lurking on his web, the bag of food 
dangled into the aisle like bait, and when a boy bites, grabbing for the 
groceries, Kersey shoots him dead. 
 
If you’re susceptible to such films (and I apparently have a predisposition 
to them), you find yourself both emboldened, even empowered, by 
these stories and troubled by the violence, the fear and anger, the distrust 
and racism that lurks within many of them. Eddie Murphy used to talk 
about the ‘‘Rocky effect’’ in his stand-up act, that indestructible, invincible 
feeling that Italian guys get after watching Rocky, as if empowered by the 
film they too are capable of going toe to toe with a real-life Apollo Creed or 
Clubber Lang. Right or wrong or just a reality, such movies begin to shape 
our interactions with the world, and it seems that real trouble comes 
when our imagined defenses, shaped as they are by violent fantasy, slam 
up against a real threat. 
 
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, is a children’s classic with pen-
and-ink renderings of a young bull who is not like the other bulls. While 
the others are out in the fields butting their heads and stomping their feet 
and acting, in general, like young bulls, Ferdinand repairs to the shade of 
his favorite cork tree, where he prefers to ‘‘sit just quietly and smell the 
flowers.’’ Despite his individuality or perhaps because of it, Ferdinand 
grows to be the biggest and strongest bull of the bunch. Soon the men in 
funny hats come to find the fiercest bull for the bullfights in Madrid. 
Ferdinand, uninterested in the men or in fighting and being fierce, returns 
to his favorite tree for some rest and relaxation. But instead of 
sitting on the grass he sits on a bee. 
 
The bee, being a bee, stings him and Ferdinand leaps into the air, 
snorting and pawing the ground. Because of this display, Ferdinand is 
mistaken for an aggressive, fierce bull and shipped o√ to Madrid in a 
rickety wooden cart. He’s thrust into the ring, called ‘‘Ferdinand the 
Fierce,’’ and surrounded by fans clamoring for blood as well as all the 
lovely ladies with flowers in their hair. The tension builds around the 
pomp and circumstance of bullfighting as the bandarilleros, picadors, and 
the matador all parade into the ring. Ferdinand finally makes his entrance, 
trots out to the center of the bullring, plops down, and promptly 
refuses to fight. He sits there just quietly and smells the flowers on all the 
ladies. He is unquestionably heroic. The matador, who can’t show o√ with 
his sword, is shamed to tears, and Ferdinand is shipped back home to his 
favorite cork tree. 
 
Published in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, the book has often 
been called a ‘‘political’’ text and Ferdinand considered a pacifist character. 
The book was banned in Spain, burned as democratic propaganda in 
Germany, and even regarded in the United States as being detrimental to 
its efforts during World War II. 
 
Ferdinand, it seems, was one of the first hippies. In the face of ritualized 
competition, cultural homogeny, and violent aggression, he resisted. 
When misjudged, pushed into the ring, prodded and provoked, he 
chose the path of nonviolence. When expected to fight, he stopped to 
smell the flowers. 
 
Mike Tyson once said, ‘‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the 
face.’’ I have a plan for even the most ridiculous threat situations. I even 
have a ‘‘First Day in Prison’’ plan. It has di√erent variations but, unlike the 
Ferdinand scenario, my plan doesn’t rely on passive resistance. No, it 
involves sending a message to other inmates through unnecessary and 
extreme violence. It involves compound fractures, crushed windpipes, 
and other really gruesome stu√. There’s no good reason why I have a plan 
for my first day in prison except that I’ve seen too many movies, but I don’t 
think I’m alone in my tendency to mentally script out a response to seemingly 
unrealistic threats. 
 
I think most people do this. At any given moment, we might project 
ourselves into an imagined near-future and see our new self acting and 
reacting to threats and dangers. This is what allows us to drive a car in 
tra≈c without freezing up. And such quick, dynamic, and imaginative 
thinking is at the heart of the dilemma I’m trying to explore. This acting, 
this fear-driven role playing, is a desperate sort of practice for the violence 
that many of us are raised to believe will inevitably befall us. And it 
encourages us to live in between the present and the potential future, a 
kind of liminal space wherein all possibilities are a matter of statistics. 
 
Our loved ones will be threatened or killed. Trusted institutions will 
fail to protect us and may even victimize us. We will be attacked. Our 
friends will turn on us. It’s just a matter of time. We will be jumped, 
mugged, punked, or sucker punched in a bar. Or we’ll simply be targeted 
at a party, one of those end-of-the-year parties at which everyone is drunk 
and loud and laughing, when everyone is letting out a lot of stu√. No 
matter how hard we try not to, how innocent we might be, we know we’ll 
be pushed into the cage of an old story, forced to play a role that quickly 
transcends our imagined practice. 
 
This is how the real story goes: You’re sitting at a table talking with a 
group of friends and colleagues at a backyard party. It’s spring and things 
are blooming in the Central Valley. You’re just having a few drinks, not 
standing out, not being loud or obnoxious, not making yourself a target. 
But from nowhere it seems, the husband of a friend punches you in the 
shoulder. You see his swing in your peripheral vision and barely have time 
to flinch. He punches you hard. Then he laughs. He’s drunk. Says, ‘‘Let’s 
play the Fight Club game.’’ 
 
You want to tell him that this isn’t that kind of party. Instead you say, 
‘‘No. I don’t want to play the Fight Club game.’’ You look up at him. ‘‘Please 
don’t hit me,’’ you say. You’d rather be like Ferdinand smelling the flowers. 
‘‘Smell the flowers,’’ you want to say to this man. 
But no . . . 
He hits you again. 
‘‘Seriously,’’ you say. ‘‘I don’t want to play. Don’t hit me.’’ 
He’s laughing now. 
Someone else says, ‘‘Don’t. Don’t do it.’’ 
But he doesn’t stop. 
 
Instead he swats you open-handed on the back of the head. Like a punk. 
Like he’s cuffing a mutt. Like you’re his dog. And this does it, this wounds 
your pride. This is all it takes for you to cross over. He punks you in front of 
all these people, makes you look the fool. You’re old enough, smart enough 
to know that you should turn away or turn inward. You should be the 
bigger man by refusing this lowly role, but you just can’t do it. 
 
You feel a tide turn, as if his dither knocked something loose and 
rattled a side of yourself that you keep caged up. You’re six foot three and 
weigh 250 pounds. You have a sizable scar on your face and a protruding 
brow. Some people think you look intimidating, especially when you 
shave your head down to stubble, and you’ve sometimes relied on this 
image to keep you out of confrontations. But you’ve never really been in a 
fistfight in your life. You’ve been able to blu√ your way out of most situations. 
You’ve never been pushed over the edge. Your father always told 
you, ‘‘You never start a fight. But you finish it,’’ and you took this to heart. 
You tried to prevent this one. You tried to warn him not to hit you. You 
don’t like to be hit. And though you didn’t know for sure what you would 
do until he hit you, when he smacks you in the head, you know instantly 
and immediately that you will finish it, you will hurt him, and you will 
make it abundantly clear that he does not want to play this game with 
you. And almost as quickly you also know how the violence will happen. 
The whole scene runs through your brain. You rehearse your lines and 
moves. Time seems to warp and bend to the story. You’re playing a role 
you’ve rehearsed in front of a mirror. You stand up slowly and push in your 
chair. You know there is menace in these actions, know that your calm will 
make you seem even more frightening. You’ve seen this in a movie somewhere. 
You don’t say a word as you turn to him. And at this point he’s 
backing up, away from you, grinning stupidly. But it is too late. He’s 
crossed a line. Or you have. Perhaps an invisible line between reality and 
fantasy— a line that honestly worries you. But you’d made it clear. You’d 
asked nicely. You told him you didn’t want to play his movie game. 
 
Everyone watches and listens like an audience. You step up to him and 
grab him around the throat with your left hand. He’s smaller than you but 
not tiny. In one big heave, you slam him against the outside wall of the 
house. His head thuds dully on the wood siding. With your left hand still 
on his throat, lifting up ever so slightly against his jaw bone, pressing him 
into the wall, you point your right index finger into his face and say, very 
slowly, ‘‘Don’t. Fucking. Hit. Me,’’ and then you let him drop and you walk 
away. 
 
When the show ends, I step away from that version of myself and 
quickly realize that it was one of the most intense physical confrontations 
I’ve ever been in and something I never want to experience again. The 
adrenaline flush leaves me tired and shaky. I want to vomit. And shit. And 
cry. And then die. It was terribly uncinematic. At first I was afraid I’d 
seriously injured the guy. I’d clearly overreacted to what wasn’t a real 
threat, clearly allowed him to push all my buttons and flip my switches. 
Later, and for months afterward, I would be plagued with guilt and regret 
over the incident, replaying it in my head and trying to picture myself just 
walking away, just turning away from him and leaving the party. 
 
Despite many people telling me things like, ‘‘He had it coming,’’ I knew 
this wasn’t true. Not really. I knew that as much as I didn’t deserve to be 
hit and smacked, to be humiliated like that, he also didn’t deserve to be 
slammed against a wall. The whole thing was so stupid. It was as if the two 
of us had been sucked into a clichéd pop-culture narrative of masculinity 
and violence, and neither of us knew how to get out. So we played our 
roles until the lines were exhausted, the audience confused, and every
thing collapsed, until it was no longer a game or a movie and became too 
real. Sometimes I wonder if this is what happened to Bernie Goetz. I read 
his words and I think he sounds like a character, a fiction, a Frankenstein 
monster of man-thoughts and stolen words, as if he’s a child reciting lines 
he learned but never understood. 
 
Here is what I know now: There is no redemption through violence, no 
true empowerment. Only a weakening of the soul. The movies lie perfectly. 
Even the facts hide the truth much of the time. The stories are 
delicious fictions. There was no hug between me and the guy at the party, 
no burying of the hatchet, no breaking of bread or some other clichéd 
ending. There was only a smudge on the siding, a mark from his head, and 
the bruise on his throat. There was only my deep and abiding guilt and the 
fear that there is—perhaps in each of us—a part that is susceptible not just 
to violence but, perhaps more dangerously, to the self-aggrandizing narratives 
of violence as protection, salvation, and redemption. 
 
I wonder if I still cling to the stories of my carpenter friend and Ferdinand 
as well as to the stories and words of Bernie Goetz because they offer 
two extremes, two possible responses to the threat of physical violence, 
because they cause me to question: Am I like Ferdinand, the gentle bull 
who refuses to fight, preferring instead to sit just quietly and smell the 
flowers, or am I the sort of man who can be provoked into a confrontation? 
Yes. Yes I am. 
 
note 
 
1. All italicized passages are quotes attributed to Bernie Goetz, taken from the following 
three sources: ‘‘Your memory isn’t . . .’’ to ‘‘Speed is very important . . . ‘‘ from Myra 
Friedman, ‘‘My Neighbor Bernie Goetz,’’ New York, February 18, 1985; ‘‘My intention was 
to murder . . . ‘‘ from ‘‘ ‘You Have to Think in a Cold-blooded Way’ ’’ [transcript of Bernhard 
H. Goetz police interview], New York Times, April 30, 1987; and ‘‘If I had more bullets, I 
would have . . .’’ to I was gonna, I was gonna gouge . . .’’ from ‘‘Margot Hornblower, 
‘‘Intended to Gouge Eye of Teen, Goetz Tape Says; ‘My Problem Was I Ran Out of Bullets,’ ’’ 
Washington Post, May 14, 1987.