Article commissioned by the Mail on Sunday for Daniel Radcliffe’s West End debut in Equus.
Horses and Gonads and Dykes, Oh, My!
The Director was a Hungarian refugee, temperamental to the point of rabidity. My leading lady had that very week come out of the closet as a lesbian and was having a torrid affair with the assistant stage manageress. And there I was, just turned a not terribly worldly 22, receiving my very first stage kiss, while frantically thinking about everything I could to distract myself. Death, garbage, horrible car accidents - anything to block out the fact that the aforementioned newly-Sapphic ingenue and I were both stark naked and entwined in a writhing embrace.
On top of everything else going wrong in that production, the prospect of my nether regions misbehaving in front of an audience of hundreds didn’t bear thinking about.
If you want to know how much more pleasant your run of Equus is going to be in comparison, Daniel Radcliffe, please read on.
The dual quest for my first professional acting role and the acquisition of my precious Equity Card began immediately upon my return from California, having been expelled from a trendy ‘Theatrical Conservatoire’ for, among other things, questioning the point of a curriculum which supplanted the learning of verse-speaking with exercises devoted to empathising with a tree. During one class, which was devoted to exploring the best way to become a cup of coffee, I was sternly admonished by my teacher for projecting the essence of hot chocolate instead. But Drama School has little to do with the realities of the entertainment business, and the acting profession is a cruel one.
Yet I finally did get my chance, unexpectedly and without any effort on my part. It’s strange, but it seems that although we work hardest to attain the relatively trivial things in life, the most important, life changing occurrences just happen. Or perhaps, as Hamlet said, there truly is ‘a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’ My path into the professional theatre began in a cheap café where I befriended an old actor, an 80 year old German émigré named Kurt who would regale me and the other patrons with the routines he’d originally delivered as a Master of Ceremonies in the cabarets of the Weimar Republic.
‘Once I went for a drive and ran over a cow’, he declaimed. ‘I thought I’d killed it. But I whispered in its ear and it leapt up immediately. The farmer was amazed. So I told him that all I needed to say was ‘Heil Hitler’, the two words guaranteed to make every ox in Germany jump to its feet!’ He chuckled, and absently rubbed the blue numbers tattooed on his forearm. ‘You will find it impossible to read for a union show without an Equity card. But I know a director who’s holding a casting for the juvenile lead in ‘Equus’ tomorrow. Shall I ring him on your behalf?’
I stayed up all night rehearsing a monologue from the play, went to the appointed place, and auditioned my heart out. At home I cannibalized my fingernails to the shoulder while waiting for the verdict, as cobwebs and dust bunnies multiplied thick on my silent telephone. No mobiles in those days, and I couldn’t afford an answering machine. Nor did I have an agent, who could have taken The Phone Call for me if it ever got around to arriving.
Kurt rang me two weeks later. ‘They’ve lost your number’ he said. ‘Call the production company. You’re still in the running’. I was stunned. For once, someone in the industry actually wanted to hear from me. Five minutes later a quiet ‘We would like to offer you the part of Alan Strang’ heralded my entry into The Theatre.
‘I swear that you will never regret this’, I promised them, awe-struck, in my deepest, most manly voice, solemnly hung up the phone, bestowed a glance reminiscent of Hamlet at his most cerebral upon my silent flatmates, drew a slow breath, and with consummate maturity ran up and down the corridor of our apartment, howling ‘I’m gonna be in a play with a naked girl with tits!!!’
My memories of rehearsing and performing Equus are like viewing a train wreck by flashes of lightning. Our director, Tibor Feheregyhazi, (‘“SMEETH!”, “SMEETH!” he would bellow, "Eet’s pronounced 'SMEETH!!!”) was a brilliantly inventive maniac with a fluent line in Hungarian obscenities. And he needed them. I have never met anyone so brilliant at lifting such a psychologically complex show from the pages of the script and forcing it onto its feet with such breakneck speed. While Mr. Radcliffe revels in the fact that Broadway shows have the luxury of rehearsing lines, blocking (i.e. moves) lights and sound for a least a month, then have a few weeks of public previews to get it all perfect before opening night, may he never be in a position to discover that regional theaters must do all of this in about 2½ gruelling six-day weeks.
Rehearsals galloped apace, spurred by the horsy theme, the constraints of time, and increasingly florid examples of Hungarian invective. The comparative politeness and reserve of the Anglo/American theatre director is regarded as effete by Europeans, and Tibor was a continental right down to his cloven hooves. I suspect that had his life gone differently he would have excelled as a guard in a Siberian labour camp.
We all bonded, as performers do, pulling together like survivors of a nautical disaster stranded in a lifeboat. My co-lead, a distinguished older actor playing the head of the psychiatric hospital where my character was confined was a delight to work with, and invited me to a lovely lunch cooked by his male partner. The ancient couple who played my parents (they must have been aged at least a Methuselah-esque 45 or so) unselfishly gave me valuable tips, the woman playing my nurse in the psychiatric hospital was long-haired and very pleasant to observe, and the stern actress playing the magistrate who sentenced me was having a happy liaison with the spotlight man.
Rehearsing the upcoming nude scene was preying heavily on my mind, among other body parts. It’s integral to the plot, I told myself, dramatically necessary, and best of all I would get to embrace a naked girl, an experienced siren a full three years my senior, whilst similarly attired myself. This situation, slow developer that I was, was still a very interesting novelty to me in civilian life as well.Regrettably the spirit of company bonding didn't extend to my relationship with my leading lady, ‘Polly’. My successful efforts, worthy of the most saintly of ascetics, to control my usually rebellious lower self during our nude scene were more than matched by her visceral feelings of revulsion for me. I realized that all was not well when during one rehearsal she shed her clothes as scripted, (as did I) acted our love scene while displaying such consummate professionalism that my feared Reaction never had the chance to occur, then stalked into the wings attired in nothing but a look of utter disgust and flung herself sobbing into the spherical Assistant Stage Manageress’ embrace.
‘I hate it when he holds you in his weedy little arms’, bellowed the elephantine ASM. ‘My twelve-year old son is more mature than that idiot!’ Everyone tactfully ignored this. Tibor called a rehearsal break, and muttered skyward, apparently criticising God in Hungarian. Thereafter Polly took to anesthetizing herself with copious amounts of wine to counteract my presence onstage. She was never unsteady once, either in posture or performance, but her breath could have dislodged a buzzard roosting over a cesspit. And her ASM lover somehow managed to complete the entire run without speaking to or looking at me save out of direst necessity.
I got my own back after she’d plastered a huge feminist poster on the greenroom wall advertising ‘The Christabel Pankhurst Rape and Sexual Assault Centre’ by scribbling ‘Phone Now for Group Rates!!’ on it. See? Her twelve year old son was more mature than I.
Opening night. Standing ovation. Tibor snarled that my performance had been far better during the first read-through, and flung the lighting man against the wall with a bellow of ‘Kurva anyad!’ (‘Your mother is a stipendiary Venus’) for not engineering the final fade quickly enough. Then the police read our glowing reviews and decided to pay us a visit on the grounds of obscenity.
‘If you want to see it’, I overheard Tibor roaring down the telephone,’ you can damn well watch the whole show, not just stick your heads into the back of the auditorium when the nude scene is playing. And if you want to watch the show, you can bloody well buy your own tickets! And Lofasz a seggedbe!!’ A familiar phrase, gleefully taught me in high school by a friend of Hungarian extraction, and very apt given the play’s equine theme. Tibor, in typically diplomatic fashion, had suggested the policeman place a stallion’s appendage where Liberace might have found it the most gratifying.
‘Just give your usual wonderful performance’, he reassured me, smiling beatifically. ‘If they arrest you the publicity will be fantastic for us.’ I managed to forget about this during the show that evening, until I happened to glance into the audience and noticed a pair of glowering arts patrons in the front row, bulky frames attired in too-tight business suits and sporting formidable moustaches.
My suspicions were confirmed when one of them crossed his legs, revealing white socks. Strange premonitions of being taken into custody mid-lovescene and carted off to prison with a tag labelled ‘Exhibit A’ dangling from the evidence clouded my concentration until the curtain call. But the ASM stuck her head into my dressing room, bitterly informed me the police had sent word that they’d enjoyed it very much and would be taking no further action, then slammed the door behind her.
The run was not an easy one, Equus being an extremely physical show, full of ritual. On several occasions the script called for me to sit on the shoulders of the actor miming my beloved horse Nugget, and he’d gallop around while I chanted the praises of my horse-god. Once, we overbalanced, fell into the front row of the audience and Nugget twisted his ankle. It was a disaster for us, but not the Company Stage Manager.
At the interval he marched out and, beaming, addressed the audience, saying, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve waited my entire career for the chance to say this…Is there a doctor in the house?’ There was total silence until a woman shyly said, ‘Well, I’m a veterinarian…’
The audience erupted with laughter. The vet was conducted backstage, and expertly taped ‘Nugget’s’ ankle, but informed him solemnly that had the injury been worse she would have had him put down.
Fortunately for our production the present day Anti-Smoking campaigners were not in existence then. These humourless ideologues seem to agree it’s fine for Mr. Radcliffe to swear, go frothing mad, strip naked, attempt simulated sex and blind six horses, but insist it would be a bad example if, as scripted, he really crosses the lines of decency by lighting up a cigarette. Actually that scene is quite moving and shows the growing trust between boy and Psychiatrist as they share a smoke and a chat.
My problem was that I didn’t know how to smoke. My early attempts to impress at school led to near respiratory collapse and universal derision. To this day trying to inhale tobacco smoke makes me retch. As a substitute, the Props Department provided some herbal cigarettes, a truly macho brandname called ‘HoneyRose’ and I practised with them in the greenroom. They smelt like pot. Tibor was convinced I was a drug addict. But I persevered, and also scratched out the effeminate logo on the pack, scrawling ‘Real Balls’ in its place, thus leaving my masculinity intact.
As the run continued, audience numbers grew, and I found myself in the extremely unfamiliar situation of signing autographs for lots of young women. A pretty blonde named Maureen even invited me home, much to my amazement. As I stood there in her living room, babbling quietly to myself, a soft voice summoned me to the bathroom where she awaited me, reclining in a perfumed bubblebath surrounded by flickering candles. Only a bit shy (I reasoned she’d already had a preview) I undressed, stepped into the tub, sat down, and lolled back as seductively as I knew how, all the while gazing at her with what I fondly hoped was smouldering intensity.
To this day, I firmly maintain that the effect would have been immeasurably more erotic had a candle not set my hair on fire, with a consequent stench that easily counteracted the fragrant atmosphere Maureen had taken such pains to create. And her hands were very soothing as she bandaged the gash in my back that the bath tap had inflicted during my panic-stricken leap upwards.
That I still rose to the occasion was due equally to that delightful woman’s forgiving nature and the recuperative powers of youth. Next morning, I opened her closet door to get my coat, hanging next to which was the largest jacket I’d ever seen, one which could have comfortably been worn by a somewhat over-developed orang-utan. ‘Oh, that’s my boyfriend’s’ she said. ‘He’s a lumberjack. He’s working this weekend.’ She kissed me and smiled sweetly. ‘You’re so much gentler. Of course, he doesn’t mean to be rough with me- it’s just that he has the most enormous hands…’
I avoided that part of town for the rest of the run.
25 years ago, I moved to England and graduated from a ‘real’ drama school, the prestigious Bristol Old Vic. My appearances in London’s West End have been too numerous to mention, but only because I happened to live there for a few years. My work as a performer in Britain has been extensive; my stature in the profession such that I have effortlessly maintained an extremely svelte waistline. While I’ve always been able to laugh at adversity, I sincerely wish I could find something else to amuse me once in a while.
I am now too old to play juvenile leads. And far from playing roles no-one else can play, until my ambition triumphs over my history I remain a specialist in bit parts no-one else will play- incinerated Luftwaffe pilot, comic junkie in rehab, neo Nazi assassin, resurrected corpse. Few actors have the luxury of choosing.
But for those who do, as Robert De Niro said, ‘The talent is in the choices’, and choosing to give up the security of being an idolised children’s actor to put himself on the line and face the challenge of the adult theatre (and its attendant Critics) at such a young age is a brave thing for Mr. Radcliffe to do. The industry is littered with aging child actors who could not manage the leap; the late Jack (Artful Dodger) Wilde, Gary Coleman and Corey Haim spring to mind, and too many others roam around in the same lonely wilderness.
As for the industry moguls who would prefer he remain an infant cash-cow rather than develop as a professional, I could refer Mr. Radcliffe to my old director Tibor. I haven’t seen him in forty years, but I’m sure he’d find it easy to frame an interesting Hungarian suggestion as to what Hollywood can do with Harry Potter’s magic wand. ‘Varazspalca a seggedbe’ as the wily old Magyar would say.
Alan Strang is a wonderful part, Daniel. Break a fetlock.
The rapacity of a shark in a feeding frenzy is as nothing compared to the reaction of an unemployed actor when a casting director’s third assistant idly mentions a possible audition. Finally, the chance of a part, some money, and most important, the vital exposure which will precipitate the inexorable and long-delayed climb to global fame, the adoration of millions, untold riches, and the possibility of being able to quit work as a market researcher, live prop in a wax museum, or sex shop clerk, to name but a few of my past humiliations.
The layman is aware, of course, that most ‘thespians’ are usually ‘resting’ (two terms which actors abominate and never use) and is sympathetic to the constant stream of rejections he knows this must entail. But he also thinks that “rejection” is simply the consequence of unsuccessful readings for specific roles. I wish. For the most part, actors never get anywhere near an audition in the first place. We spend our days in menial labour, chasing rumours of castings, and blindly firing hundreds of photographs, CVs, and showreel DVDs off to theatres, film studios, TV stations, Casting Directors and anyone else who might conceivably employ us.
The rejection letters ooze back in two descending categories: the FOAD and the PEEPEE. The FOAD letter, an acronym which can be euphemistically rendered as “Fornicate Elsewhere and Die” is a form-rejection with one’s name misspelled, signed by the director and enclosing one’s cursorily regarded photo, unread CV and unplayed DVD, they having been deemed too repulsive to pollute the files. The PEEPEE is similar, only this form letter, also enclosing one’s cursorily regarded photo, unread CV and unplayed DVD, has been signed Per Pro by the secretary indicating they have been deemed too repulsive for the director to see at all. Needless to say, these “billets-don’ts” are only forthcoming if a stamped SAE has been included with the application. This is the only business where even the rejections cost you.
But my current quixotic adventure began with a newspaper article mentioning an upcoming remake of that classic swashbuckler, The Prisoner of Zenda, which would feature the apparently handsome and painfully talentless Mr. Flavour-of the-Month as the dashing Rudolf Rassendyll. Splendid Ruritanian cavalry uniforms, plenty of swordplay, and a long shoot on location. What more could an actor possibly desire!
A part in it, for one thing. I rang Equity in order to trace this posturing trainwreck’s agent, who in turn referred me to the production company, whose secretary kindly disclosed the casting director’s address. Leaving nothing to chance, I hand-delivered my details. I suppose I could have gone through my agent, but lately my mere existence seems trial enough for him. And a day or so later, unheard of to relate, the casting director’s assistant rang to express interest in my photograph (!) and asking if I could ride a horse.
The honest answer is no, I can’t. Horses make me nervous. They are very Large. One end neighs loudly and has big teeth: even more appalling conditions prevail at the other, and in between are entirely too many legs. Nevertheless, should a Casting Director ask if you’re Jewish the proper reply is “not necessarily”. It is vital to keep all the options open. So I breezily assured her of my equestrian brilliance, gulped, and rang my local Medieval Tournament School
Look hard enough and you can find one. This sort of place teaches riding, jousting, broadsword, and shieldwork, falconry, and anything else the young anachronism-about- town needs to know. Better yet, they’re adept at quickly teaching desperate actors not only how to ride, but to ride with panache. So when I approached them with my dilemma, they responded like consummate professionals, devised an intensive three hour daily course of study for two weeks, and introduced me to a sturdy black and white mare, a skewbald cob named ‘Mookie’, derived from Moo-Cow.
The combination of neophyte and horse is an uneasy one, and the bruises, falls, backache and strained muscles quickly rid me of any romantic illusions I had entertained about my innate ability. This was going to be much harder than I believed possible. Still, I finally got the horse saddled and clambered onto her back. The lessons could now begin.
A horse, as I quickly learned, can gauge a rider’s capabilities almost immediately. Mookie turned her head, regarding me with a dour glare and I suddenly realized that her petulant underlip and and bitter expression reminded me of my recently deceased maiden great-aunt. But riding-school horses, too, are professionals, and Mookie was no exception. With a despairing sigh, she moved off and began the laborious process of schooling yet another aspiring Zorro in the agonizing mysteries of the Rising Trot.
Apparently one has to go up and down, I discovered. The horse also goes up and down, mostly on a different wavelength. This quickly showed me why females always seem so much more enthusiastic about learning to ride. It’s because the Rising Trot holds no terrors for them, being a fiendish exercise devised by and for eunuchs.
But the tuition was superb, and the men and women who patiently instructed me performed miracles. By the third day, my Rising Trot was near instinctive. The fourth day produced a shambolic canter and a surprised smile (horses do, I found) from Mookie. And not long after, shield on arm and lance thrusting forward, I streaked down the field, at two with my trusty steed.
Preoccupied with learning to ride, I nevertheless was aware of an ominous silence Prisoner of Zenda-ward. Accordingly, I rang the Casting Director with the assurance that my ‘remedial classes’ had re-honed my equestrian skills to a keen edge. After a moment’s recollection to remember who I was, she uttered the classic phrase: “Ah, yes. Well, they already have a pretty good idea of whom they want to see…’ A FOAD by any other name would smell as rank. Obviously they felt it was not going to be “a pretty good idea” to see me.
At this point, remembering the notoriety my last publicity stunt had garnered, I decided to go public yet again. Willing my skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in order to guarantee myself the eternal, albeit posthumous role of alas-poor-Yorick the jester in Hamlet had resulted in global fame for a week. I had hoped, successfully as it transpired, that this macabre and Chaplinesque gesture would strike a responsive chord in a world afflicted by mass unemployment. Although my then-agent found herself unable to parley any of the resulting TV or radio interviews into something so exotic as an audition for anything, I still enjoyed my minor celebrity status. For once my phone was ringing, and what a delightful novelty that was.
(Needless to say I have been eclipsed. The current RSC Hamlet is using the skull of a MrAndre Tchaikowsky, who not only matched my bequest, but also had the temerity to die before me, thus usurping my part. And he’d never even been to drama school.)
Nevertheless, I hoped that someone at the Independent, the newspaper whose front page feature had broken my tale of skullduggery, might remember. So I rang them, set all phasers on “exploit” and pitched a photo-story about my Ruritanian ambitions. Then I had them ring the executive producer of Zenda offering a prominent placement of Mr. F.O.T.M.’s photograph to tie the article to his upcoming film. Only a cad would ignore the chance of all that nationwide free publicity. My chance to audition was guaranteed, I reflected smugly. Strange how I’ve never been asked to portray Macchiavelli.
Meanwhile, my riding lessons galloped apace, and my confidence had increased to the point where I felt comfortable enough to lengthen my stirrups a little in order to relax my legs and get my knees out of my ears. But there are two sorts of riders: those who have already fallen, and those who are yet to fall. And pride goeth before…
The Light Brigade galloped close behind me as I led them hell for leather towards the Russian cannons, the infernal thunder of the bombardment echoed by the pounding hooves of my noble stallion Moo-Cow… and then reality intruded and I quickly and successively lost stirrups, riding helmet, and horse.
The casualty nurse at Whitechapel Hospital assured me that tending to the aftermath of a riding accident conferred much more of a social cachet than sewing up the knife wounds with which she usually dealt. The six stitches in my head are to be removed shortly, the concussion was not too serious and I have made a full recovery save for a slight ringing in my ears and an obsessive compulsion to Arise and lead the Israelites out of the Land of Egypt.
As for The Prisoner of Zenda, the infuriating tranquility of my career will not be troubled by any untoward activity. The production has been shelved, my phone is silent, the FOADs and PEEPEEs infest my postbox like maggots. That’s showbiz, luvvies.
But what the hell. I’m still riding, and have graduated to a beautiful chestnut thoroughbred gelding named Kerry, who previously worked as a somewhat andante racehorse. I enjoy the exercise and my new acquaintances. And I understand that three new episodes of a Napoleonic War series are to be shot this autumn, naturally featuring the excruciatingly talentless Mr. Flavour-of-the-Month in the lead. Splendid cavalry uniforms, a long shoot on location, and the same casting director as The Prisoner of Zenda…
HOLD ME CLOSER, TINY BOUNCER
Being a brief memoir by a Diminutive Doorman
My early amatory pursuits were often cut short when the object of my desires would roll her eyes skyward and squeak "Buzz off, creep! Like, I'm a real good friend of the bouncer. "Whereupon, with negligent hauteur, she would indicate a homicidal troglodyte balefully observing my incompetent attempts at courtship, a sight which invariably caused me to beat a quick and strategic retreat. I hasten to add that I was never rude or suggestive, just short, which ranks right up there with child murder and leaving the toilet seat up in the feminine catalogue of the unforgivable.
But those experiences left me with a profound respect for the enormous men who acted as doormen and security guards in bars: their size, their self-confidence the casual ease with which they tore malefactors limb from limb The thought that I would one day join this violent pantheon never entered my mind.
Yet I did. I am five-and-a-half feet tall and weigh 135 pounds. I am also a nightclub bouncer. Strangely enough I'm still alive. And underemployed. Having trained for the stage at England's prestigious Bristol Old Vic school and having managed to work in mainstream British theatre for almost ten years (sans visa) before being deported, means that my job skills are limited to an excellent command of Elizabethan English, an awesome facility with rapier and dagger, and the ability to cut a fine figure in tights. Oddly enough, after years of applications, I've never once been invited to audition for either the Stratford or Shaw festivals, but one must make do. So, I'm a bouncer.
I must admit that, aside from my build, I do look the part. My head is shaved, my eyes are deep-set, my brows black and jutting. This conceals my natural cowardice splendidly on those occasions when I need to switch into Menacing Mode. For instance, I've learned that the question "How does a dwarf like you get a job bouncing here'" is best answered with a grim smile and a growl of "Do you really want to find out?" followed by a sepulchral laugh and a gentle punch on the shoulder. It never failed to unnerve them. The question, on the other hand, never failed to unnerve me.
My mentor in the profession was Jamie, 6-foot-2-inches and 280 pounds of steroided hostility complicated by a degree in art history. We worked together for several months at a Gothic/Alternative bar on Queen Street West called Club Noir, which was intensely fashionable for about two weeks and is now, sadly, defunct. Jamie's instructions in the art and science of being "pacification consultants," as we dubbed ourselves, were lucid and sensible. I learned to ignore verbal abuse to keep calm, and to kick kneecaps. I learned how to cajole a troublemaker's friends into calming him down for me, and to always double up when a man had to be ejected, politely explaining to him that he was outnumbered and need not feel any shame for backing down and not fighting us. A good doorman, Jamie told me, should never have to throw a punch.
"Of course, sometimes you do have to fight," said Jamie, with a faraway expression suggesting a mystic having a vision of paradise. "There's a wonderful painting in the National Gallery of Great Britain by Cornelis van Haarlem called ‘Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon'. It's sort of like that." Indeed, once I saw him bashing some troublesome drunk's head against the wall in underemployed frustration, screaming "You probably don't even know the difference between Manet and Monet, you Philistine!"
But alternative bar patrons, for all their panoply of chains and black leather, are essentially nonviolent. This is because their ghoulish appearance conceals a basically timorous nature. When ejected for disagreeable behaviour, these self-conscious, insecure vampire wannabes do not, as a rule, return with several large friends and walk about on your face No, they dash off to their next class at the Ontario College of Art and make you the subject of a terribly unflattering sculpture. I find this bearable.
Nevertheless, though a bouncer’s job is 95 percent boredom, consisting of a slow patrol of dance floor and washrooms, wearing an impassive expression and walking in a slow, purposeful manner that evokes visions of the implacable progress of a glacier, altercations do occur.
And wading into a melee, fists, boots, elbows, and stomach churning, is pure adrenaline intoxication with no thought of consequence. There's simply no time to think or feel -hair is grabbed, groins kicked, fingers bitten. There is no such thing as winning unfairly; you just do the job as quickly as possible. You and your partner work as a team, and you are sober, thus the advantage is yours. A roll of quarters held in the fist is also a great help. And having neutralized the opposition, the combatants must then be removed- as a last resort, by pinching the upper lip with a gloved hand and hauling them out.
My reputation was established pretty quickly when I first had to lay violent hands on a troublemaker (my size, thank God). Managing to catch him off balance and unawares, I dragged him through the exit and dropped him onto the sidewalk. He immediately leapt up at me, frothing, whereupon Jamie stepped out of the shadows, grabbed him, and snarled, "You've probably never heard of a painting called "Guernica," but you're going to resemble it."
I left him to the evisceration and strolled in to deal with the rest of his prey's gang. They were staring at me, stunned. "Right," I rumbled in my deepest voice, Charlton Heston with bronchitis. "All of you. Get out. NOW." They obediently filed through the door, none meeting my maddened glare. I watched them go, standing solidly, fists on hips, legs wide apart, and boots firmly planted. The pose was carefully assumed. It looked impressive and kept my knees from knocking.
Violence, however, was only used as a last resort, and I always felt more satisfied (and a hell of a lot safer) when I dealt with a situation by combining tact, craft, and guile. If diplomacy can be defined as the art of warfare by every other means, I was the Henry Kissinger of Queen Street West.
One particularly hairy example concerned four sizeable gentlemen from a motorcycle gang called the Bucket of Blood, who were slightly intoxicated, unstable, and collectively attaining critical mass. Customers were frightened. Waitresses were quailing. Cataclysm was imminent. And I was told to deal with it.
Well, muttering the usual imprecations against the casting directors who have forced this profession upon me, I swaggered up to the main side of beef, an edifice whose muscular development would have shamed a gorilla. Peering up beneath his pendulous brow ridge, I made eye contact, stood tall, and jokingly head-butted his shoulder. The group turned in unison to regard me, their jackets creaking like a leather lounge suite. "Look," I improvised, "I got trouble. There's about five guys over there, and they're getting nasty. When it comes time to throw them out, I gotta know you men are gonna help me. Right?"
They all smiled, resembling a squad of Visigoths offered the chance of pillage with an option to incinerate. A rough translation of their reply can best be rendered "Certainly, my dear fellow. We'd be happy to assist you in your endeavours to expel the miscreants. Nor need you rely upon us for excessive gentleness. Merely inform us as to when you require our services."
Whenever I passed them on my rounds for the rest of the evening, they'd look at me hopefully, beseeching my permission to mangle. It made me feel quite paternal. And they all shook my hand when they left.
In a way, though, that situation had one redeeming element which helped me deal with it. I was a man, talking to other men. And although those men were drunken, testosterone- wracked imbeciles, I could empathize because, like all males, I've been one myself on occasion.
But an angry female drunk is a horse of a different choler. (Sorry.) Two are worse. Two angry at one another are a real problem. And breaking up what used to be referred to in less liberated times as a cat fight, requires tact, delicacy, and a suit of armour. Women almost never fight, but when they do, it's for keeps. Believe me, the sight of two maddened beauties, keening like mænads, vermilion claws extended, rending one another, face and bosom is not easily forgotten. And interposing oneself between them, joking to effect a reconciliation, as one can sometimes do with males, is definitely not recommended.
My professional advice to people finding themselves on the fringes of such a situation is, working with a trusted partner, to seize the Amazons in simultaneous full nelsons and rotate them a half turn (avoiding the flailing stiletto heels) so that they are separated and unable to see one another. Then race them out different exits. Having done this, you will appreciate why bouncers usually wear long sleeves and gloves.
A more pleasant, restful aspect of the job involved being an "access‑control operative", or doorman. On a warm summer night, it was a real treat to stand at the club entrance, checking proof of age and welcoming the regulars. The scenery was delightful: leather clad women with big hair, combat boots laced over ripped fishnets, rubber skirts, bosoms erupting out of lace bustiers, chains connecting pierced nostrils to pierced ears. Their escorts were lanky, menacing fellows, handsome and luxuriantly maned, wearing battered motorcycle jackets, shredded jeans, and cowboy boots.
We'd grin at one another, punch shoulders, and engage in secret handshakes of such complexity as to confound a Mason. I'd be handed invitations to watch their bands play. I'd be invited to very private, after hours drinking establishments. And the women, in passing, would often leave a lipstick kiss on my shaven skull, a gesture that became an affectionate tradition.
Life was strange. At age 35, I had finally become extremely cool. People looked up to me, so to speak. I radiated street credibility. My opinions were solicited, my approval sought. I advised the lovelorn and counselled the unemployed- the myopic leading the blind.
And I consoled runaways, though there wasn't much that could be done for them or for their families. Because even more depressing than the runaways were their parents, often honest and uncomprehending small-town types, in the city for the day, hopefully proffering photographs containing demure images of their missing daughters.
No photo, of course, bore any resemblance to what the girl now looked like. In her new urban persona, the hair would be dyed jet black, flaming red, or albino white. The eyes would be black-rimmed and heavily shadowed, the face rice-powdered, and the mouth a crimson slash. The cheerleader outfit would be replaced by a studded leather jacket and a wardrobe that Madonna might reject as extreme. "If you see her," one mother begged me before walking on to continue her search, "Please tell her she'll always have a home to come back to."
I could not bring myself to explain that she might pass her daughter on the street and not recognize her.
After one of these long emotionally draining nights, which would often end at three in the morning, unwinding is vital. And when a job forces you to spend so much time in a loud, smoky nightclub crammed with violent drunks, nothing beats a nice, relaxing visit to a loud smoky booze can crammed with violent drunks But there was one important difference- off-duty, one could leave whenever and with whomever one pleases. And replete with various intoxicants as they are by that hour, even the most unobservant of women can appreciate my astonishing resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sometimes, when the gods were otherwise occupied and thus unable to ruin my chances some black-stockinged Venus would undulate up to me and purr "Aren't you one of the bouncers at Club Noir (or wherever else I was risking my life that week)?" And my evening would be enormously improved. As a nightclub fixture many of these women felt they knew me already, and sometimes the feeling was mutual. Especially if the last time I'd seen them was in a photograph, looking demure and dressed as a cheerleader.
As I grow older, I find that one of the strangest things in life is how we often play different roles in the same recurring situations, like actors switching parts in mid-scene. This was proved to me yet again when, patrolling one evening, I noticed a large patron in drunken, animated conversation with a bored female regular. And as I passed by, the old, chilling phrase was on her lips "Buzz off, creep!", she squeaked. "Like, I'm a real good friend of the bouncer." And with negligent hauteur she indicated me.
Christ, he was big. A variation of the typical heroic declaration made in practically every old B-movie sprang immediately to mind. "Do what you want to the girl, but leave me alone," I whimpered inwardly. Still, duty called. I squared my shoulders, marched up to him, and assumed The Expression. I couldn't hope to look like a homicidal troglodyte, so with acknowledgment to Wagner, I glared upwards, transfixing the unwelcome Romeo with what I hoped was the basilisk gaze of a rabid Nibelung, and wondrous to relate, he beat a quick and strategic retreat.
The wheel of my life had come full circle, I thought, as she smiled at me admiringly and kissed my cheek. But I was wrong.
It came full circle shortly thereafter, when she went home with someone else.