Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Port Authority Shogun


Had he lived Bruce Lee would have been 65 years old today.

It's hard to imagine the star of "Enter the Dragon" dealing with the all-too-mortal issues of aging. If you've ever seen any of his movies, you'd swear this incredible being, this force, could never grow old. And, of course, he didn't.

I remember seeing "Enter the Dragon" in high school and, yes, plot wise, it's an abomination, but you knew that going in. It's all about the fighting, Bruce Lee taking on whole divisions of thugs, doing sommersaults into his enemy's face and harpooning that homicidal old geezer in the hall of mirrors.

He was all the rage back in the Seventies. Back then when people said "Bruce" they weren't talking about Springsteen. And then one day he was dead. I remember going back to school after summer vacation and spotting a Chinese kid in my class. He was a martial arts student and a huge Bruce Lee fan.

When he saw me on the first day of school, he didn't ask how my summer went or how I was doing. He just looked at me in disbelief and said two simple words "He's dead." And I knew exactly who he was talking about.

My brother and I used to have a poster of Bruce Lee from "Enter the Dragon" hanging up in our room. I think I got it at King's Plaza Mall, at a store that was going out of business, but the memory is pretty hazy. I'll never forget that poster, though.

Poster Boy

It's a still image from one of the film's numerous fight scenes and Bruce is all coiled and muscular about to dismember some hapless son-of-a-bitch. It's like freezing a bolt of lightning just as it's about to strike.

I know the poster got damaged in some way, like almost every other poster we had, and we took it down and tossed it out. Now the only poster from the era is the black light image of Jimi Hendrix and I don't even want to guess how old that thing is.

Everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee when I was a kid. When kids got into fights, they would invariably starting doing the whole Bruce thing, waving their arms in circles and making these low frequency feline screeches.

You wanted to be fearless, unbeatable, incredibly cool. If you could be Bruce you could handle yourself on the subway ride home, you rescue smaller kids, and you could drive the girls crazy. Beat the hell out of pimples and geometry.

But there's more to Bruce Lee than ass-kicking. People were obsessed with the guy and he's even being used as a force for peace. There's a statue of Bruce Lee in Bosnia, erected as a way of uniting the various warring factions. They may loathe each other, but everybody loves Bruce.

I wondered how Bruce would have handled the Port Authority Shogun, a fellow--I don't want to call him a freak, even though that's accurate--that I ran into a few weeks ago.

It was a Friday night and I was running late for a friend's birthday dinner. I had mapped out the location on Yahoo! and I figured the place was close to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Only I couldn't find any sign of it.

The terminal was in full bustle mode with commuters heading home for the weekend and travelers coming to and getting out of the city. I took a walk down 41st Street, the one that divides the terminal, in search of the restaurant and suddenly the city, the people, the whole world seemed to vanish and I was walking down this deserted canyon.

I heard this loud metal clattering up ahead and I saw this raggy looking guy swinging a steel pole over his head in a kind of lame kung fu routine. The pole was apparently solid because every time he dropped it there was an incredible and rather frightening noise.

I kept walking, even though I was getting nervous. Do I turn around or cross the street? Or do I stand my ground, whatever the hell that means? All these goddamn people in this city, who usually get in my way, and all of sudden it's just down to him and me.

And then it got worse. As he was twirling the pole overhead, the shogun's pants dropped down to his ankles--revealing that a stunning lack of underwear.

Okay, so was this for my benefit? Was he looking to seduce me? Doesn't seem plausible, even though I'm so incredibly handsome. But if not that, what? Why was this guy exposing his equipment on the dark side of the Port Authority bus terminal?

He quickly dropped the pole and pulled up his pants. I kept walking. If I had been Bruce Lee, of course, I would have gone to town, ripping off my shirt, swirling my arms, and throwing a series of blinding punches and kicks. I would have made this degenerate clown sorry he had ever been born.

Remember how Bruce nailed old Han in the hall of mirrors? Just before he launches his attack, he says something like, "you have offended me and my family and the Shaolin Temple" and then kicks the one-handed paper-hanger through a glass wall. That's what I wanted do to this lunatic.

Prepare to Die

But I'm not Bruce Lee. I'm a short, middle-aged guy looking for my place in this world. And the shogun, well, maybe he was harmless, but that metal pipe was nasty.

I walked by and the man did not approach me. I felt cut off from the rest of humanity and when I looped back up to Eighth Avenue, I saw that I was several blocks away from the restaurant.

I don't know if I fed the wrong numbers into the computer or if the map software had gone haywire. In any case, I felt like an out-of-towner, getting lost in the big city and running into one of its demented residents. Wait'll the folks back in Schenectady hear about this!

I wonder what happened to that guy, what his story was, why he was there doing this bizarre show for an unwilling audience of one. He was probably some drug addict who will someday be scraped off the sidewalk in the shadow of that big, heartless building and no one will ever miss him. He'll evaporate like a cloud of bus fumes.

The world won't mourn his loss, the way it did the passing of Bruce Lee. No wailing women, no devastated fans, no legends that would live on for decades after his death. Just a rubber bag, a toe tag and a hole in Potter's Field.

Maybe the shogun wanted to be Bruce, just like we all did in high school. He wanted to be feared and respected in a city and in a world that does their best to grind you down. I can't see anyone putting up a poster of this guy in their bedroom, unless they wanted to scare away intruders.

This perverted dance in the street light's beam was probably this guy's only big moment. And if I had gotten the restaurant's address right, I would have been spared witnessing it.

So Bruce Lee's gone, like so many idols. That's one of the rules for getting in the club. You have to die young and at the top of your game.

If you're still alive after a certain time, then you're old, you're a has-been, and you should step out of the way and make room for the younger generation. I wonder if that would have happened to Bruce if he were alive today. Imagine calling Bruce a has-been. Society forgives a lot, but growing old is unpardonable.

So, happy birthday, Little Dragon. We may have gotten old down here on earth, but we can still dream about being like you.

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