March 2000
s m u g
by Todd Levin



Straw Dog

(Caveat: this column contains only a single joke, and a poorly delivered one at that.)

Leslie, a friend for whom I have a warehouse of respect, recently related an interesting viewpoint on the subject of personal writing. (And by personal writing, I understand that nearly all writing is personal in some respect, but here I mean writing that is specifically of 'self' - like a diary turned inside-out for the public to see.) We were discussing it as a useful, though generally underserved medium for artistic expression, but (ironically) a fairly unreliable medium for personal expression. I couldn't figure out what it was about much of the personal writing I'd seen that troubled me. Then Leslie said, "I think the problem is, in personal writing, you are always the hero." I can assure you, no matter how much I want my imagination to intercede, I am not the hero of this story.

Each year New York City produces at least one million personal stories involving unexpected and often dangerous circumstances. About 999,000 of these stories occur on the subway, which is unpredictable enough to exist in its own separate reality of sustained inverse logic. The remaining one thousand or so stories usually take place in restaurants. Like this one.

This is a restaurant I'd frequented enough to order without a menu, and my visits had almost always been with the same person. In a city with overwhelming choices, this was our exhausted default. I didn't agree to dinner there as much as I sort of surrendered to it. After a predictable meal we sat facing each other, talking and contemplating refills, when we were interrupted by an argument over my right shoulder.

When your dinner is disturbed by a high-volume altercation between two patrons you might gawk instinctively, but human noise is about as common as industrial noise in New York so a little person-to-person conflict is of negligible significance. It demands a quick rubberneck, then back to food and your own human drama. But when those two patrons become six and one of them has a drink hurled at him, you really pay attention. But I guess I have to go back a little.

Six young women were sitting at a table, having a wonderful time. (The kind of detail any good filmmaker would be sure to linger on long enough to involve you emotionally when the bomb drops later.) Their table - one side of it - faced the street, which was in plain view thanks to the plate glass window that made up the west face of the restaurant building. Apparently a lone passerby spotted one of these six young women, found her attractive, and made it his imperative to inform her. Calling out to "Shorty" (not her name) and waving his arms in futility, he soon became frustrated and, deciding he was not using the proper channels to capture her attention, entered the restaurant to close the deal. (He chose to ignore the fact that at least three of the women were waving him away from the window dismissively.)

Back to the drink. After a few minutes of unrequited flirting that quickly escalated into full-scale shouting, Lone Passerby decided to reach out and grab/touch (depending on their court testimony) Shorty. And this brings us back to the aggressively tossed drink, and the terrible events that followed.

Lone Passerby felt wounded and expressed his pain by screaming, cursing and repeatedly threatening the lives of Drink Tosser and the Shorty Five. It was ugly - the kind of ugly that made the other restaurant patrons, myself included, unable to look at their food or each other without feeling like they were ignoring something more significant than their own lives. One of the patrons - he received a peripheral splash of water -- even pulled himself out of his seat and assumed a serious fighting kata, just in case fists or iced coffee started flying.

Tense and Scary resided over the restaurant, until Lone Passerby became subdued long enough to exit the restaurant by his own volition, huffing and puffing as he did so. Patrons slowly made their way back to each other, to dealing with their own lives and food and intimates. But now eating was like poking around a Jenga tower: precarious as hell. Not knowing what else to say, not wanting very much to eat, and not having any real facility for dealing with tense situations, I decided to tell a joke.

"OK, what did the Jewish pedophile say?"


"It's a joke. I swear. It's funny. What did the Jewish pedophile say?"

Understanding perfectly, she played. "I don't know - what?"

(Affecting my best generic pedophile voice, which is essentially a cross between Peter Lorre and The Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt) "Hey little girl, wanna" --- CRASH!!

Ohsweetgodohjesus he punched his fist through the restaurant's plate glass window. Glass burst out into the restaurant with the majority of it raining down on a young couple who were previously uninvolved with this extended altercation. Plates and glasses and whole tables were flipped in shock; patrons were on their feet; and the Shorty Five were screaming "call the cops!" as other patrons concurred loudly. The worst of it, though, was the previously jubilant Drink Tosser in hysterical tears as she was led to the ladies room by friends, keeping very low to the ground - Secret Service style - the entire way.

Spatially, we were trapped. We - patrons and staff -- were trapped with our food and our anxiety as a raging lion paced angrily outside, looking for more action. People were fishing glass out of their hair and from their laps, anticipating something unknowable. As I began to realize who controlled the next move, I got a sick feeling. I knew the person who controlled our ability to leave this restaurant safely - the Lone Passerby (now Crazed Loner) had all the power right now. I wanted to leave. I wanted to be brave and confident and reassuring but most of all I wanted to leave. And this was a fact I could not conceal as I crept around the table to sit side by side with my friend and dinner date. Superficially, this might have seemed a protective gesture, but it was genuinely an effort to keep my back away from the door and keep my eyes on what was coming.

When Crazed Loner decided to flee the scene, I was conflicted. I was grateful to see him leave but an alien, conservative rage started to tear through me. I wanted him punished. I wanted him slugged between the shoulder blades with a truncheon and thrown to the ground by New York's most intolerant police officers in front of everyone in the restaurant. I wanted him punished for insinuating himself on the happiness of a total stranger in order to terrorize her, and for holding an entire restaurant hostage with his unrestrained hostility. I didn't want psychological reports submitted to the courts and I didn't want to know anything about his back-story - his difficult childhood, his three consecutive tours of duty in Vietnam, the girls who hung him out to dry. I wanted him punished and didn't care what was fair or legally just. For one minute I was tomorrow's Bernard Goetz, today trembling behind a plate of cold Pollo con Arroz.

The police did come, which was good because Crazed Loner actually returned. This was an intensely scary scene because even the most crazed of all loners would know with complete certainty that the police would be on their way. That he came back to seek some kind of resolution with this total stranger (and the entire restaurant) indicated to me that we were all significantly less safe now than when he smashed the window. And my future in street vigilantism quickly segued into mortal fear. In the few minutes between his return and his arrest, I could think about nothing other than this: What are his plans for us?

I'm glad I never found out those plans, but it was horrible nonetheless. I tried to imagine how the evening might have played out and each time my imagination chose to end it poorly, with lives taken. It pained me that this person had control over my life, over the lives of dozens of people, and we were apparently helpless to do anything but adhere to his violent whims. But what pained me more, as I tried to piece this experience together and recount it to others, was that I knew I was not even remotely heroic. It left me trying to figure out how to even tell the story. Couldn't see the point in adding symbols or removing them; in ennobling the story by imbuing actions or gestures with a sense of metaphor. It was my story so where was my fucking hero? Couldn't find him anywhere; still can't. Every time I roll it around in my head, all I find is another anonymous, ineffectual observer looking for the nearest exit.



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