FIVE MINUTES INTO THE QUESTION-AND-ANSWER segment of his appearance at Beyond Baroque, Robert Fisk nodded toward the raised hand of the man sitting directly in front of me, a portly man in a gray ponytail and a black pro-Palestinian T-shirt. The man stood up, and introduced himself as a Chicano and descendant of the dispossessed Indian tribes indigenous to California -- people corralled, killed and run off their land by the Europeans who colonized this continent. "Soy Palestino," he declared. He turned to face the audience and said it again: "Soy Palestino, okay?" He then launched into a meandering harangue that, whatever its historical merits, was increasingly less relevant to the occasion. There were grumbles, murmured objections, barely audible demands to sit down, but the man just went on, every sentence a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
Fisk, the man who managed to sympathize with impoverished Afghans even as a mob of refugees in Pakistan was beating him up, seemed flummoxed. "Question, please!" he demanded, his already ruddy complexion reddening. But none came. "Question, please!" This only made the non-questioner's rage less abstract, and more focused on Fisk. The man began to shout, his rant laced with epithets about Fisk the Anglo (which, technically, I suppose, he is).
It's long been the bane of the public speaker that audience members exploit question-and-answer periods less to satisfy genuine curiosity than to air their own ideological grievances, however loosely related to the subject at hand. But lately the practice seems to have spun out of control. At a conference on computer security recently in the Bay Area, panel moderators routinely reminded participants to refrain from making statements, a directive hardly anyone recognized as legitimate: Like the followers of frustrated political movements, the pundits of Silicon Valley don't so much need to ask as to respond. And respond this ponytailed man did, at an increasingly furious pitch, until Fisk, at the end of his famously tolerant tether, summoned "Uncle Fred." The literary center's director, Fred Dewey, stepped in and ever so gently shut the man up.
The incident might have ended there, except that a few more questions (and, alas, statements) into the proceedings -- after the progressive Jewish woman had asked what Jews in the United States can do to promote peace, after a young man in a hat had quizzed Fisk about 9/11 conspiracy theories (they're bunk) -- Fisk called on the man sitting next to the man in the gray ponytail, the first man's doppelgänger but 10 or 15 years younger, a man with a black ponytail corkscrewing at the same angle on his neck, a similar build, and an unmistakably similar political sympathy. The man stood, cleared his throat. "I want you to answer my friend here," he said. "I want you to speak to the parallels between the European occupation of this land in 1848 and the Israeli occupation of Palestine."
One theory of the evening is that Fisk was exhausted, absent-minded, and just didn't size up the second man well enough before he acknowledged him. But another says he knew what he was in for, knew the first man's diatribe was still lingering poisonously in the air, knew he'd responded too quickly and emotionally the first time. Having regained his composure, he realized the Chicanos in the audience had to be heard. If nothing else, it would look bad for a reporter who's built his career on unflagging fairness to have silenced an outspoken and frustrated member of a local political movement.
Fisk was not available at press time for comment, but thinking back on his answer, I've become convinced he knew what he was doing -- that he was acting out of tenacious decency, not forgetfulness. "I am a Middle East reporter," Fisk calmly reminded the younger man, "not a scholar of American history. And while you may have a legitimate point, were I to speak to it, I would be, as the English say, talking out of my hat." The man sat down. "Next question?"
SPORTING LIFE: The Fighting Newsboy Vs. Double D
THREE MEN HAVE FALLEN BY THE wayside. First, Rick "Laser" Levitz, a Hollywood agent with one loss to his credit, bowed out. Then Jeff "Cool" Lippa, a former actor, tore a tendon in his bicep. Finally, screenwriter George Richards, nicknamed "The Spaniard" in a nod to Russell Crowe's role in Gladiator, canceled for mysterious reasons. The Spaniard possesses a formidable uppercut; he once brutalized my ribs, knocking the wind out of me in a training session. I have made strides since then, sparred with former WBA lightweight champ Ray Mancini, and gained a bit of muscle. I am ready for my first official amateur bout.
Four days before the big event, I learn that my opponent will be the man with the "beautiful mind." No, not John Nash, but a fellow Princeton graduate, a Phi Beta Kappa celebrated for his paranoid/paranormal delusions: David Duchovny -- Mulder -- known around the gym as "Double D" and "Big Daddy." Maybe I am the one hallucinating.
Modest and famously laconic like his X-Files character, Double D complimented me on my fighting after one workout and noted that my body had "redistributed" since our first encounter in October 2000 when I joined Ruby's gym.
It's like a speakeasy. You don't need a password, but Ruby's is an invitation-only gymnasium hidden in the basement of a synagogue. I cross the threshold with mosaic tile and notice the black-and-white photos of "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom and Barney Ross, two great Jewish boxing champions from the 1930s. But it is another Jewish fighter of the era from whom I have taken my nickname, the Fighting Newsboy. Mushy Callahan (born Vincent Morris Schneer) earned his Newsboy moniker by defending his Boyle Heights turf as a youngster when he hawked papers on street corners.
Double D and I, squaring off in the opening attraction of today's series of matches before an audience of 100, enter the ring to our respective fight songs -- his "Dangerous," mine the Stones' "Street Fighting Man." He is wearing a black tank top, displaying his lean but toned muscles. But what really interests me is the contraption on his head; rather than the traditional headgear, Double D sports a black mask with a thick horizontal guard that covers his famed nose. Maybe Double D thinks he can intimidate me with this â daunting look, which makes him resemble Jason in Friday the 13th. Maybe Double D's agent remembers how his client was kicked in the face during the shooting of Evolution. The problem with the horizontal shield is that the depth and speed of the punches thrown below it are hard to gauge. This will be a fight with no head shots, which means all of my punches will fall under his radar.
The bell sounds and we touch gloves. He is quick, quicker than me, with fancy footwork. He darts around, occasionally switching to a southpaw stance, while I stalk him in the ring. I hear no voices in the crowd, no catcalls, no cheers. It's just Double D and me.
As the fight progresses, it turns into a wrestling match, the two of us clinching, me shoving him into the ropes, him spinning me around. We seem to be about the same strength, although at 5-foot-10 I have the lower center of gravity. I keep pursuing him in the ring, landing right crosses to his upper chest. At one point, I hear cornerman Brian Phelan tell me to throw the jab, so I do.
The last round blurs with all the others -- plenty of clinches and shoves, Double D dancing, me chasing him, and a final explosion of punches.
The fight is over. Now I hear the cheers. Trainer Dave Paul, who has refereed the fight, hands us both a commemorative poster with photos of all the day's fighters pictured. Double D drapes a towel around his shoulder, and we await word from the judges.
Then it comes: "And the winner from the red corner." Dave Paul raises my hand. I am shocked. It has been a very close fight and could have gone either way. Double D seems upset. I try to embrace him, but he storms away. It cannot be easy for a celebrity to step into the ring in a hidden but nonetheless public place and fight in front of a crowd.
Now, he comes over, and I see his handsome but prominent nose, the nose that was concealed during the fight. The man with the beautiful mind hugs me in this fight temple. I must be hallucinating.
Nightlife: All in the Cat Club Family
IT'S THURSDAY, JUST BEFORE MIDnight, and the dimly lit Cat Club on the Sunset Strip is packed.
"There's Eric Dover," whispers my sister.
"I don't know who that is," I whisper back.
My sister rolls her eyes as Dover, the former lead singer of Snakepit, passes by. She and everyone else in the room know that Snakepit is the band formed by the guitarist Slash after his split with Guns N' Roses. I've come to the right place to relieve my ignorance. The Cat Club provides a crash course in the history of Los Angeles' music scene in the '80s, when the L.A. hard-rock sound reigned from Paris to San Diego.
In front of the plush velvet couch where my sister and I grab a couple of seats is John Miller, the British impresario who discovered Billy Idol and later became the tour manager for The Cult. And coming out from behind the bar is the club's proprietor, Slim Jim Phantom, formerly of the Stray Cats -- the rockabilly revivalists who played their first gig at Miller's London nightclub Vortex. Phantom opened the Cat Club in 1999, two years after closing the much-loved Diamond Club on Hollywood Boulevard.
Phantom walks through the crowd to the small stage in the center of the room and takes his place behind his drum set. He's been taking the stage most Thursday nights since the Cat Club opened, with a changing assortment of L.A. hard-rock musicians. Of late, Phantom, Muddy Stardust, and two former Guns N' Roses members, guitarist Gilby Clarke (who replaced Izzy Stradlin) and keyboard player Teddy "ZigZag" Andreadis, have organized more formally under the band name Col. Parker. The group recently released its first CD together called Rock 'n' Roll Music on the V2 label and plan to tour this year. Still, when various group members go on the road, Ryan Roxie or Eric Singer (who's played with KISS and Alice Cooper) pinch-hits. Roxie's in tonight.
"Why aren't you home taking care of your kids?" a biker chides a platinum blond in her 40s seated next to Chris Mancini (Henry's son). The blond's daughter, seated on her other side, smiles as her mother replies by shaking her ample bosom toward the stage.
"This song is for Carrie," says Roxie, referring to recently deceased Cat Club regular Carrie Hamilton (daughter of Carol Burnett, and a singer in her own right, who died of cancer). "Don't take no offense to the lyrics."
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Andreadis breaks out his harmonica for "There's a Little Bit of Whore in Every Little Girl."
"We're hippies at heart," says Clarke about his bandmates. "It's about keeping it rock & roll."
And the band played on.