Letter From Milo: Street Fight

July 23rd, 2018

I haven’t lived in Gary, Indiana since the late 1960’s, but the town still has a grip on my imagination. There was a time, in my early teens, when I thought it was the greatest place on earth. It was a crude, tough, smelly, violent town, open 24 hours a day to accommodate the shiftworkers at the local mills and foundries. A person, if so inclined, could find a meal, a drink, a card game, a joint, uppers or downers, or a piece of ass any time of the day or night.

Both my parents worked odd hours so parental supervision was close to non-existent. I had the run of the streets and I took full advantage of my freedom. I wandered around at all hours of the day and night, going places and seeing things that no 13- or 14-year-old should go or see. My favorite part of town was the tavern district, a wild and woolly neighborhood where anything went. It was a decadent, noisy, chaotic neon wonderland of saloons, greasy spoons, poolrooms, private gambling clubs, whorehouses, pawnshops, and of course, a bail bondsman.

There was even a clothing store I’ll call Tom Smith’s. It sold the cheapest, ugliest clothes imaginable. The only reason the store was succesful was that it would give anyone credit. Any unemployed mope with a bad credit history could walk into the place, agree to pay 225 percent interest compounded daily and walk out wearing a purple shark skin Nehru jacket, pointy-toed patent leather shoes with Cuban heels, and a stingy-brim hat with a jaunty feather in the band. The only reason I mention the store is because of its garish neon sign. In my opinion it displayed one of the great advertising slogans. It read, Tom Smith’s Fashions, Rome, London, Paris, Gary.

As I mentioned, Gary was a tough town. Steelworkers took pride in working hard, playing hard, and fighting hard. In fact, the best street fighters attained the status of local heroes. Their exploits passed down for generations (a Gary generation lasted about five years). Great street fights were recounted endlessly, dissected, and analyzed the way Big Mike and Benny Jay can break down a Cubs game.

Pete would have had him if Don didn’t kick him in the nuts.”

“Well, that’s part of it. No rules in a street fight.”

“That’s not the point. Don just got lucky. Pete was kicking his ass.”

“Final score is all that matters.”

“If they fought 10 times Pete would win nine of them.”

“Unless he got kicked in the nuts.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“You are.”

“Well, fuck you.”

“Fuck you, too.”

“You wanna go outside?”

“Anytime, punk.”

Every tough town idolized its street fighters. In his wonderful book Manchild in the Promised Land, the great Claude Brown devoted pages to rhapsodizing about Harlem’s storied street fighters. My friends and I would spend hours talking about our local heros – who was tougher, who could kick whose ass, was size more important than speed, how important was getting in the first punch. Street fights were our epics, our Trojan Wars and Waterloos. In our minds, the combatants were idealized and adored, blue collar Achilles and Hectors, who worked at U.S. Steel and drove Chevys instead of chariots.

When I was a kid I could count on seeing a good street fight once or twice a week. But times have changed. I haven’t seen a street fight in years. Men don’t settle their differences with fists anymore. Nowadays they’re more like to settle their disputes with Glocks or assault rifles.

It’s a different, more dangerous world. I remember when it all changed for me, back in the early 1970’s. I didn’t personally witness this incident but I got the story from several occasionally reliable people who claim to have seen it.

Crazy Ray Volk and Skinny Johnson had a beef. They were both infatuated with a go-go dancer who worked in a bar that Skinny Johnson managed on U.S. 20 in Gary. It was a love triangle played out on a very mean stage. The dancer led both men on, apparently enjoying the attention. The two men, however, weren’t satisfied with sharing the dancer’s, ah, charms. Each wanted her for himself. The they had several confrontations, exchanging insults and the direst threats.

One evening Crazy Ray showed up at the bar with a pistol. Skinny Johnson saw Crazy Ray coming at him and dove behind the bar where, coincidentally, he also had a pistol. Crazy Ray began firing at Skinny Johnson. He must have been drunk because he was fewer than 10 feet away and missed all six shots, firing until the pistol was empty. When he realized that Crazy Ray’s pistol was empty, Skinny Johnson stood up and fired twice, hitting Crazy Ray in the chest with both shots. Skinny must have been sober because it was a fine piece of shooting

As Crazy Ray lay dying he uttered a few last words. Legend has it he said, “Damn, I wish I would have brought my other gun with me.” RIP Crazy Ray.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that street fighters can lose a fight and live to battle another day. Losers of gunfights are generally one and done.

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