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The One Time I Got Into a Fistfight

I attacked a famous artist for no apparent reason. 

Why would I want to share this story? Without a doubt, it is the most jackass thing I have ever done. Am I hoping that public confession will somehow expiate the tiny, secret shame I’ve been carrying around for the almost 20 years since it happened? Or maybe it’s just that looking back across the gulf of time, it’s almost incomprehensible that this person was me.

Let me set the scene for you, as I remember it: The year is 1999. The place, Washington, D.C. With two friends, I’ve started a small theater company, somewhat illicitly commandeering a stage and rehearsal space from the established theater where they both work and I do not. Our first play (which I directed) is in performance and a big hit: William Triplett of The Washington Post has given us a glowing review, painting us as a young, irreverent, edgy new company: raw, passionate and brave.

This was a high point in my young life. As regular readers of this blog might guess, I was a creatively driven, but deeply insecure kid. External validation in the form of critical acclaim and sold-out performances, therefore, meant a LOT to me. So at the time of this story, I was floating around 24/7 on a cloud of massively inflated ego, convinced that I was the next Sam Shepard or something. There were lots of parties, and lots of drinking, and I stayed out late most nights, reveling in my newfound (and mostly imaginary) role of Enfant Terrible of the DC Theater Scene (in those days, I’d have spelled it “theatre,” so very full of myself was I…).

And it just so happened that, in this advanced state of puffery, I tagged along one night with my theatre crew to a party at the home of an artist — a guy in his early 60s maybe — who welded large metal anthropomorphic sculptures and was supposedly pretty famous for them.

I was already very drunk when we arrived. The party was crowded, almost claustrophobically so, hundreds of people crawling all over the artist’s multi-story townhouse, whose walls, balcony, and garden were full of his otherworldly creations. I hazily remember being introduced at some point to the artist himself — a wiry, edgy-looking guy in a deliberately battered cowboy hat. I told him I loved his work. I was being honest: His art was intense. I vaguely recall that his reply offended me. Some kind of halfhearted grunt or snort that I interpreted to mean: “Yeah. Like I don’t know I’m awesome already.”

This was too much for my little pufferfish of an ego to bear, and as I became increasingly drunk over the course of the evening, I spiraled deeper and deeper into a kind of dark decisiveness: Something had to be done. This effrontery would not stand.

And so it was that an hour or so later I found myself standing in the front garden as the party was winding down. The artist was there, surrounded by a circle of admirers. I don’t remember what happened next, but it may have involved my approaching the guy, throwing my jacket to the ground, and saying something like, “Let’s go, bitch.”

The next thing I know, I’m flat on my back, pinned to the earth. The artist, it turns out, is some kind of Judo master. His coterie is jeering at me: “Get out of here, loser!” That kind of thing.

And so, in ignominy, and with or without the crew I walked in with, I slink away.

But mixed up with the shame and professional jealousy and stupid, drunken macho aggression was something else: I had enjoyed it. The whole thing: from inciting incident to getting my ass neatly handed to me by a guy old enough to be my dad. And I’d swear on whatever you’ve got that the artist enjoyed it, too. It was right there in his compassionate smirk as he helped me to my feet. For him, this was the best, most vivid moment of an otherwise lame and predictable evening.

I’m not sure what I’m getting at here, exactly. I don’t advise that you go around attacking famous artists you’ve never met. And I don’t mean to suggest that being a drunken ass is somehow romantic. Ask Shane MacGowan or Gary Oldman: It gets real shabby, real fast. But that roller coaster I was on at the time was an extraordinary thing, unlike anything before or since, and this ridiculous incident is bound up with and inseparable from it.

That was me. I did that.

I spend almost none of my waking life thinking of myself as the kind of guy who starts fistfights. But evidently I’m that kind of guy. Maybe we all are, under the right circumstances. There were reasons for it besides the drinking — real reasons that say a lot not only about me and what I personally need, fear, etc., but also about ambition, hope, desire, love, and the violence that’s inevitably part of finding your way in the world.

And by the way, if any of you amateur sleuths out there have figured out which artist I’m referring to, I’d appreciate your letting me know. Assuming he’s still alive, I think I’d like to email him. Find out if he still remembers that night. Maybe hear his side of the story?

come say hi to or yell at @jgots on Twitter

and DEFINITELY check out Think Again – Big Think’s new podcast with Jason as host. Promo is up now, first full episode (with Jason Silva) publishes Saturday, 6/20

This isn’t the Matrix. Should you wish to face the ugly reality, there’s no red pill you can swallow.

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