As a boy, John Reed found that learning to fight was an outlet for him. But fighting was a harder habit to break than he thought.
Tribeca, the 70s. Heaven for artists and stray boys. Me and Miles—the artist’s kid and the poet’s kid—and all the other ruffians, seven years old and up. We would run in the sand of the landfill (now Battery Park City), and fetch racing forms for the old Italians, and ride bikes and skateboards on the West Side Highway, then abandoned. In the warehouses, boarded up and derelict, we crawled into empty spice barrels and rolled ourselves down the stairwells. We went home, crashed at each other’s houses, smelling of ground coffee, all spice, and chocolate powder.
It was Candyland, but without heat, and without food. I would wake up, mattress on the floor, to see my glass of water had frozen solid. After the truckers tossed the vegetables they couldn’t sell, the boys were in the dumpsters—dragging crates of string beans and tomatoes home. I remember showing this kid Terry (not a friend, a bully who ended up in jail for rape, then murder) how to fill your stomach by drinking directly from a gushing showerhead. The wonderful thing about that place, that time: there were no expectations of anyone.
I didn’t glimpse the better life—hot dinners and no freedom—until I was nine. I rode in the back of a van—some after-school program that I didn’t go to much. I sat apart from three boys, two other Johns and a Michael, who went to the same private school. (I would join them there, three years later.) They were the type that would mock you for dumpster diving; this was the closest I had ever gotten to kids like that.
We drove to a judo club. I recognized the location. Soho. A hike, but still walkable from my house. After the class, I kept going back. To pass the hygiene inspections, I rubbed the dirt off my ankles, and used the club nail clipper. Shiro Oishi, the sensei, finally sent me home with a note, and I returned with a check. He began promoting me—without the required tests and fees—because the paperwork and niceties were beyond my scope. Once, when I broke a toe, he carried me home.
In college, I stayed sporty, but my posture worsened and I didn’t eat enough. Six feet, 125 pounds. A head and a coat hanger. One night in Northampton, a gang of University of Massachusetts goons accosted me and my Smith girlfriend, Laura. I slipped neatly through their ranks—and safely led Laura away. But I didn’t like it; I had grown up with alcoholism in the house, and I swore I’d never stand idle while a man threatened or abused a woman. After Laura broke my heart, I put on 30 pounds of muscle, and straightened out my back.
Twenty-eight. I’d been playing (that’s the verb) judo for seven years, competing, and I was studying jiujitsu as well. I was 175 pounds, worked out at the gym five times a week, took three judo classes a week, and four jiujitsu classes a week. Not a hulk, 175 pounds, but in retrospect, I was a well-put-together welterweight.
Saturday night with my girlfriend, Kelly. East Village, trying to get to Chelsea. Behind her, I climbed into the taxi. I told the driver to make a right on Eleventh Street. I didn’t want him to miss the turn; if he did, we’d have to go all the down to Seventh Street, circling around Tompkins Square Park. He missed the turn. I told Kelly to get out, we were getting another taxi. She got out. Heated words with the driver. Not paying the dollar-whatever on the meter.
Martial arts guys are very often getting over childhood issues, anger things. Not to say Martial arts guys are meatheads—they aren’t. As the advertisers have discerned, the MMA audience tends toward guys with education and disposable income: not cowboys, but doctors and lawyers and stuff. My training partners were professors, investment bankers, judges, software architects. They were nice guys, meticulous, most of them with a cool head—but also guys who had something subterranean, volcanic.
The cabbie would have driven away, but when I got out, I left the door to my side of the taxi open. He had to get out of his side of the car, walk around, and close the door, which he did. More heated words, and he came at me. I know when someone is coming at me with bad intentions, so I tapped him on the chin.
There’d been snow, and he went flying into a snow bank. Kelly marched off, and I followed, explaining that the guy had come at me. She informed me that the man had been weeping before he got out of the cab.
The real surprise—that wasn’t my last fight.
By 34, I’d married, and after the disappointment of a miscarriage, my wife, Yeardley, was six months pregnant with our daughter. Optimistic, I signed up for a seminar on buying property in foreclosure. To get there: the Lexington Avenue subway, uptown, rush hour.
My judo days weren’t entirely behind me, but I wasn’t competing anymore, and thought I had left my temper behind. I was wearing my Burberry suede jacket, which hung loose, looked waspy. (One of my judo buddies once told me, “you clean up nice.”) Under my left arm, I carried an orange Rhodia notebook. I planned to take notes.
Even “cleaned up,” the judo’s in my face. The cauliflower ears, the busted-up nose, the chipped front tooth. I don’t know where the scar tissue under my left eye came from. A burst blood vessel in my cornea has never completely cleared up. Women are sometimes curious enough to touch my nose or ears. The wear could be rugby, could be lacrosse, could be some distant past—and on the train heading to my foreclosure class, that’s how I was feeling. I was a new man—leaving behind boyish deliriums.
When I had to get out of a crowded subway car—for years, I’d ride the 1 train up to judo during rush hour—I’d let out a grunt, deranged, and the oceans would part. This car was so crowded, I doubted that would suffice. I am not above pushing to get into or off of a train, and as we neared my stop—51st street, 59th street, 68th street, Hunter College—I prepared to bust a move.
“‘Scuse me,” I grumbled. The big guy in front of me didn’t move. The doors had opened. I pushed by him—through the heaving coats, through the hot breath.
“I’m getting off,” said the big guy, guttural. I’d seen his face—staring into the void. If he had been planning to get off, he’d been planning too slow.
I got off in front of him. One person inches from the next, we walked in the migration toward the stairs. He pushed past me.
“There’s no reason to be so rude,” I said.
He stopped, turned around.
He was 6”3’ or 6”4’. He wore a brown cloth overcoat, which bulged at the belly. He was over-accoutered with expensive knick-knacks. Watch, rings, cashmere scarf. A stupid-looking hat. Maybe a Homburg.
He wore his tie in a full Windsor. Pink. Stripe or pattern. White shirt.
He looked like a guy with a lot of white shirts, and colorful ties. Mid-level banker. Not rich enough to know what elegant was, but rich enough to wear a beaver felt hat. The Lexington Avenue line, which runs from the Financial District to the Upper East Side, is crawling with lowlife like that.
I’d spent years competing in judo, in weight divisions. My training partners also competed, in weight divisions. This guy had a similar build to Mike, who I worked out with. Mike, an IRS investigator who lived with his mother, had once told me he could “chew me up and spit me out.” For three years, I took damage, proving him wrong. Mike weighed 260 to 280, contingent upon his intake of his mother’s lasagna. With a cocktail in my hand, I’d say that the banker weighed 260 pounds, and that I wasn’t exaggerating. Honestly, he could have weighed 280.
About me: I hated big guys. Not the person, but the size. I’m not small, but I had a Napoleon complex, fairly common, and I spent much of my time in martial arts gunning for big blowhards just like the dude in the hat. Some of them even bigger than him. And many of them with two or three black belts. Also, I hated bankers.
Once, in “kumi uchi,” meaning “freefighting,” I was paired off with Mike the IRS guy. Having just been promoted to brown belt, Mike was getting a little too happy. I looked over to my sensei, Nobuyoshi Higashi, one of a half dozen old-school Japanese masters (judo, jiujitsu, aikido, karate, everything) in the New York area. As I imagine it, I directed a watery, pleading look at him. He nodded at me, once, and I turned back to Mike—and hit him with a left to the body that broke two of his ribs.
Homburg, the banker, judging me with a flick of the eyes, a quick down and up, decided he didn’t need to hear he was rude.
“What are you gonna do about it?”
As packed as the platform was, a circle opened around us. The other commuters, motionless—watching and listening—had metamorphosed. They were at the races. They were at the fights.
Judo competitions are scary as shit; every competition, you see guys dislocate their shoulders or elbows. More than once, I’ve seen guys push themselves so hard they bled from their eyes. I had enough experience to not rattle, and to know that there was a real risk of getting badly hurt.
Then I heard my own voice, “I’m just gonna kill you.”
Homburg looked me up and down, again, “I don’t think so.”
He lifted his hands, like a boxer.
Years later, Jose, a real boxer, a one-time professional who had crossed into the financial world, told me that the banker sounded like a former football player—that those guys were on Wall Street. I was taken aback by how right that sounded; Homburg did look like a football player, one who’d boxed a little at the gym.
In boxing, if you come out of your corner and pop a guy with a straight right hand, no jab, that’s an insult. You should not be able to connect with that punch, not without the jab, and if you can do it one second into the fight, your opponent has a serious problem.
I still had the notebook in my left hand. My right hand was limp, by my thigh. Getting punched by a guy who outweighs you by a hundred pounds is inadvisable—the sooner I hit him, the less prepared he was, the better. I launched a straight right into the side of the face. Not too hard, maybe 30%. Let him know I could connect whenever I wanted.
He staggered back. The circle around us enlarged. His fists had dropped. He shouted “Hey!” and lumbered back at me.
An unscientific theory, based on personal experience and the pro fights I’ve watched on television: big guys bleed. They have all this fluid in their heads, and when they get whomped, the juice squirts out. And Homburg was kind of protecting his chin. So I punched him right in the middle of the face. All the way, 100%.
Super slow motion. His tie and the collar of his shirt exploded. His hat flew off his head. It was attached under his chin with a cord. His head was shaved. He was much older than I’d thought. I’d guessed 40, a few years older than me. He was closer to 50, maybe past 50. His eyes were rolled back, and his whole head, even the top of it, was impossible red. He was falling like a sack of meat. He was out. I thought to myself, “I killed this guy.” One time, the week after Halloween, I punched a decaying pumpkin. That’s how it felt. My hand had gone way into his head.
Before he hit the ground, I was scanning the crowd. Had anyone recognize me? There was a woman, out of nowhere, standing next to him as he went down. She was beautiful, small but stacked, with huge blue eyes. The kind of woman that would have been my girlfriend, if she hadn’t been so bossy, if she hadn’t been so much better than me. She had her fists balled, and was screaming, “See? He’s an old guy. Are you happy now?” She said it again, but I was already running. A path cleared for me. I zipped down the platform and up the stairs, I swear, like an Olympian. Then I was on the street, walking. I sped, foot over foot, to the school where the Learning Annex classes were held—and I sat through my seminar on buying in foreclosure, which turned out to be a pretty weak option.
The next day, there was no sketch of me on the cover of The Post. I couldn’t imagine that I hadn’t fractured some bones in the guy’s face, but at least, I reasoned, the injuries hadn’t been serious enough to warrant wanted posters. Years ago, when I used to tell this story, I’d defend myself by saying “he had it coming, but I wish I wasn’t the one who’d delivered it to him.”
On December 6, 2010—on the way to a Christmas party I’d helped to organize for the National Book Critics Circle—I saw him again. For a long time, I’d avoided the Lexington Avenue train at rush hour, but it had been six years since the fight (if that’s the word), and I’d forgotten the interdict. The night was cold, frigid, and the car wasn’t too crowded—the seats were filled, but nobody was standing. In my late thirties, I lost sixty to seventy percent of my hearing; impacts, such as those of the falls taken in judo, might have contributed to my “premature hearing loss.” The subway, once screeching and traumatic, had become meditative, cavernous. I contemplated the advertisements, the passengers across the aisle—and there he was. Staring into the void. But I knew he would recognize me.
He didn’t. He looked right through me—had no idea who I was. We were dressed almost exactly as we had been dressed six years before. I was wearing the same suede coat. He was wearing a Homburg, a new one, strapped under the chin. He’d gained some weight; I’d lost some.
I got off at 23rd street. Unknowing, he remained behind the closing doors. The train rumbled off—as if into the recesses of memory. Since then, I’ve carried the knowledge that whatever he had coming, I had no part in delivering. And that whatever it was, whatever sorrow of intervening years—I could see it in his slack, bewitched expression—had also come for me.