You Brought a Slap to a Knife Fight

There are a great many things I want to experience before I die. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that two of these are getting punched in the face and punching someone else in the face. Am I embarrassed because I’m admitting that I haven’t punched/been punched, or am I embarrassed that punching/getting punched is something I want to do before I die? I don’t know. Maybe both.

Lest you erroneously jump to the opposite conclusion, I want to state with unmistakable clarity that I don’t have a single macho bone in my body, and I don’t aspire to. As a rule I think violence is silly and differences can and should be worked out by other means. Nevertheless, getting punched in the face and punching someone else in the face seems like an essential and profound part of the male experience. It strikes me as the kind of experience that sears itself onto your consciousness, changing the way you look at yourself and the world around you.

I think that when I do get in a fight, I will probably look like this.

Failing to punch/get punched during my 70 or 80 years on the earth will signify to me that I led an overly cautious life. It won’t make make me any less of a man, really. It will just mean that I probably played things a little too safely, and missed out on some vivid and intense experiences as a result. I mean, I’m not talking about a life of brawling in seedy bars in Bangkok. I’m just talking about living the life I currently have but with a one-off incident where I’m involved in a riot at an English soccer game, or have to fend off an angry mob in a small village in Burma because I unwittingly insulted the village elders. That type of thing.

I mention all of this because for I really thought last night was going to be the night. Melissa and I were out and about, and because it was raining cats and dogs we had to take the subway home. It’s worth noting here that in spite of its reputation, New York City is a very, very safe place. I’ve lived here for almost six years, and I’ve never once been mugged, or even come close. I saw a guy with a gun on the subway once, but that’s as close as I’ve come to anything dangerous. I walk around New York without even a second’s concern for my safety.

So we got on to a crowded train at around 10 PM or so, and when we did I noticed a rail-thin fellow in mustard yellow sweats walk to the exit of the train, yell something about stabbing someone in the back, and then retake his seat directly across from Melissa and me. I figured he was talking to a friend who had just exited, and didn’t pay much attention to him or what he had said. Before long, though, he was making faces at Melissa and trying to engage her in conversation. He wasn’t necessarily being crude or offensive, but it was making both of us uncomfortable.

My desire to punch someone in the face notwithstanding, I do not go around looking for a brawl, primarily because so few people know and will comply with the rules of a slapfight (only slapping, no one can laugh if you scream a little bit, and crying is allowed and even expected). What’s more, I’m not one who subscribes to a rigid code of honor or cares much about saving face. Unfortunately, this guy’s advances towards Melissa were only intensifying, and I felt compelled to do something. I didn’t feel like I could allow him to keep coming on to and embarrassing my wife in public, and so I said, “Hey. Stop it.” The minute I did this it became clear that this was what he had hoped I would do, as his attention instantly switched from Melissa to me. He began to challenge me to do something, to see who was quicker, and so on.

Me, basically.

He wasn’t just a garden variety thug, though; there was an air of instability, even mental illness about him. I didn’t know if this meant I should be more or less frightened of him. He continued to quietly make threats, and began to work in mentions of stabbing and knives. Melissa and I stared straight into the distance, hoping not to elevate an already fairly tense situation. But as I tried to ignore him, listening to him make threats, part of me began to chafe and strain at the restraint I was showing.

I’ve felt somewhat put upon lately, and my ability to grin and bear unfair or boorish treatment is diminishing. Just the other day I yelled at the super of our building in a way that truly startled me. It just came out of me, out of a place inside me I had never seen before and didn’t know existed. I knew there was no point to confronting the guy on the subway, that the smartest and best and right thing was to continue to ignore him and walk away once the train reached our stop. But there was another part of me that wanted to walk across the train and smash his face in.

That part of me quickly died down, though, when he flashed his knife at us. It happened so quickly it took me a moment to process, but yes, he definitely flashed a knife at us. As I write this I realize it sounds like we were in grave peril, and yet neither of us really felt like that. We wanted to get off the train, and were definitely on edge, but something about the situation didn’t feel all that dangerous. Of course, that assessment of the situation changed when he jumped up from his seat and moved towards me.

Now that I think about it, I probably should have tried a little singing and dancing to ward him off.

I would be lying if I told you that a little pee didn’t come out. I’m kidding. It didn’t, but my heart did kick into “wings of a hummingbird” mode. He extended his hand, said, “Nice to meet you, I’m Justin. It’s not like that.” Showing just how programmed we are to respond to certain stimul in certain ways, I reached up and shook his hand as though he were my daughter’s prom date. I shook hands with him, a confused look on my face, half expecting to feel his other hand plunge a knife into my kidney. He walked to the other end of the train, we arrived at our stop, exited the train, and watched behind us to make sure he didn’t exit with us.

I’ve thought kind of a lot about that situation in the 24 or so hours since it occurred, ruminating on chivalry, honor, pride, and meekness. But mostly I’ve just been wondering if I blew my one chance to punch someone in the face before I die.

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26 Responses to You Brought a Slap to a Knife Fight

  1. Eliza says:

    I actually kind of know what you mean, although I don’t want to be punched, but I do have to say, punching someone int he face looks soooo satisfying. I have slapped someone really hard and oh my did it feel good. Remember that Chris? We were in the car and he was just being really really really annoying and in my face about something, and I just slapped him hard across the face. I”ll never forget his face of shock, disgust and pain. Ahhh, priceless.

    oh and p.s. that is super scary and weird about that guy, I would be freaking out.

  2. Rebecca Bell says:

    whoa. that sounds genuinely scary, davis. good for you for standing up for your woman.
    one time some creep followed me out of this scary store in a sketchy part of town where christian was waiting in the car with the kids. i didn’t know i was being followed, but when i saw christian speed towards me in the car and roll down his window and yell something about watching out or he was calling the cops, i knew something was not right. i looked behind me and there was this slimy-looking, obviously-disturbed junkie and that same “hummingbird-in-my-chest” feeling came over me. i’m so glad i had someone there watching my back.
    moral of the story: take a self defense class. or carry a gun.

  3. tyler says:

    This is exactly the reason that I want to be like a ninja. One who is calm, patient, having no fear, but able to react to the most dire of situations in a possibly deadly way, especially when it regards your family, especially Lyla and her future siblings. Kudos to you for not smashing his head through the window, although you should have punched him in the face and stole his knife, that would have been great posting material. I am sure you will have another chance, and it seems better to be ready to take action when you have to. Good luck out there.

  4. Layne says:


    I have to say that that your shaking hands with the perpetrator reminds me of Jack shaking hands with Ben Linus during season 3 of “Lost.” They keep him in a cage, antagonize him, etc. and he ends up shaking the guy’s hand before he leaves. I wanted Jack to eviscerate him and he ends up being friendly with him. Disappointing.

    I wish you would have punched him. Hopefully you’ll get another chance. For the record, I’ve punched/been punched in the face and it was quite the experience. You should try it sometime.

  5. Macy Bell says:

    wow! That is a pretty freaky story. I loved the telling of it too, pretty interesting seeing you go through your thoughts in the moment. I would love to hear what Melissa was feeling too. I am just wondering how safe I would really feel in Ryan’s hands. I mean I know he would do whatever it takes to save me, but on the other hand who knows if it would work or how far he would go , you know him against a freaky, slimy thrasher dude. Scary stuff.


  6. Troy says:

    Davis that’s the price we pay for having hot wives. I’ve had to pull out a few “Hey I’m right here” over the years as I’ve endured looks and comments at my wife. Luckily never had to come to fists though.

    Having experienced both being punched and punching someone, I can tell you that it is a fantastic demonstration on the wonders of the endocrine system. When I got punched in the face, it was like my body and mind transformed. Ancient, ancestrial strains of DNA sprang to life and called upon my Viking forefathers to give me strength and ferociousness I had never before considered possible. It was a wonderful and frightening feeling at the same time. Wonderful because of the surge of power, energy, and determination. Frightening because when all known boundaries of self-control and strength are removed, you’re not sure what you’re capable of in this unexplored mental and physiological state. Kind of like when Peter Parker put on the black Spiderman suit.

    But yeah, you’ll be fine. You don’t need to experience that.

  7. Skewquando says:

    Scary story Davis. No I’ve never punched or been punched. But one thing I do know is that the traditional punch to the face is always a bad move. Its likely that you’ll end up hurting your own hand more than the persons face. Instead punch to the throat or a hard forearm to the neck. Either one will render you enemy at least unconscious or worse. One fatal move that I’d like to try on a bad guy is an open palm thrust to the nose. I’ve been told if you do it hard enough their nose pieces get pushed up into the brain and they die.

    But alas, Davis you made the right move. Avoiding the conflict altogether by avoiding eye contact and then accepting the humiliation of the handshake at the end. You didn’t get the satisfaction of inflicting pain, but you end up the winner by remaining within the boundaries of normal society. But it would be cool if you used this experience to start moonlighting as a crime fighting super hero. Think it over Davis, I saw your dodge ball pics, you’ve got some skills.

  8. Andrea W. says:

    Wait, Eliza, you slapped Christian in the face? How have I not ever heard about this? That reminds me of the rule my husband has insituted. Our oldest daughter is constantly lurking in the shadows to jump out and scare her already anxiety ridden little siblings so Brennan has given all the other kids permission to punch her when she does it next (it has to be done in reaction to the scare not 5 minutes later out of anger). To quote my husband on another matter but perfectly applies here, “It’s not great parenting, but it’s decent.”

    Davis, what the… it’s time to get you two out of Gotham City. The sad thing is you will have lived in big cities for like a decade with a few stints in third world countries and are unscathed and watch the second you move to suburbia you’ll get punched out at a little league game.

  9. Ali says:

    I wish you would have been around when i got slapped on the subway. i wanted somebody to punch him so bad.

  10. Ben Pratt says:

    The rules of slapfight had me laughing. Oh dear.

    Justin sounds charming. Next time you meet, when he flashes his knife you should flash a BIGGER knife and say “The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master!”

  11. Jon says:

    Davis, having grappled with you in the past, I can attest to your battle strength. You would be capable of some serious damage. Unrelated, I would pay top dollar to witness a Bell Brothers Cage match. Can we make this happen? Each sibling has such unique physical attributes it would be almost impossible to predict. We could say it’s for science.

    Having been a human punching bag on a number of occasions, I can tell you it is not enough to be punched just once in the face. That is a fleeting sensation that will only open you up to a lot of uncomfortable emotions and embarrassing mental recaps of what you wish you had done. However, defeating a man in a no holds barred Indian Leg wrestle match will let loose those “viking emotions” Troy commented about sans the facial wounds. Challenge Justin next time you see him. Best of 3, texas rules, winner takes all.

  12. Davis says:

    Eliza, I never heard about the slapping incident, although I don’t even have to hear the facts of the case to rule summarily in your favor.

    Rebecca, I actually do want to learn some self-defense. I’m thinking krav manga.

    Tyler, it would be pretty amazing to be a ninja, wouldn’t it? Never having any fear of what life throws your way? 20 Samurai charging at you with swords? Yawn.

    Layne, believe me, I wish I hadn’t shaken his hand. That was pure Pavlovian response. And please do tell about your experience of punching/getting punched.

    Macy, I think you’re pretty safe in Ryan’s hands, considering how freakishly strong his actual hands are.

    Troy, was this per chance the boxing match with Carston McCullough? I was there, and man. Intense stuff.

    Skew, I agree, a punch to the throat is the way to go. And yeah, if I’d had a dodgeball with me, I would have worked that guy over with it. Dodgeball to the face! Dodgeball to the gut! How you like me now, Justin?

    Ang, I think that’s a fair rule, actually. I’m going to go ahead and say it IS great parenting.

    Ali, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you on that one. Be honest though: did you deserve it?

    Ben, I’m memorizing those lines as we speak, and then I’m going to go ride the A train for 6 hours tonight.

    Jon, since you threw me around like a rag doll in our last brawl, I assume you’re mocking me. Fools mock, but they shall mourn. Watch your back, son of Don. Watch your back.

  13. Christian says:

    My favorite “fight” story follows:
    One of my friends was tired of the taunts of another one of my friends (Skew) who had a sharper wit but smaller biceps, so he pinned him on the world’s greasiest floor right below where they both made pizzas in Pizza Hut.

    Eliza, it’s good for you that I don’t remember that slapping incident. I have lawyers for these things now. I was slapped one other time by a really big guy I knew I didn’t have a chance with in a grudge match, and I had the good sense to go into full diplomat mode.

    Macy wins the funniest and meanest wife award for “I am just wondering how safe I would really feel in Ryan’s hands.” Dis, BigRy. Maybe I’ll call you SmallRy or WeakRy from now on.

    Jon, you want to know what would happen in a cage match between me and one of these beefy brothers of mine. Watch the video below (not you though, mom). I’m Brad Pitt’s Achilles. They’re Boagrius.

  14. Macy Bell says:

    You guys totally missed the point of what I was saying. I was just thinking about being in their situation and how safe you would feel with any normal guy, Ryan , Davis , kook, anyone and how safe you would feel being that you guys are not fighter dudes and have never dealt with a guy with a knife before, not that I think that is abnormal at all. I just wonder how it would all go down if Davis had to fight the guy, or if it were me if Ryan had to. That is all. I completely trust Ry, and think he would do whatever takes. Got it Kook!

  15. Christian says:

    No you’re right, I agree that you would probably rather have Davis or me with you than BigRy. I just thought it was funny.

  16. Macy Bell says:

    I did not say that! In fact I would probably choose Rex over you or Dave.

  17. Christian says:

    Um, I would choose Rex Qwando from Napoleon Dynamite over Davis and me too, hands down. I think anyone would. It’s fine, Ry just doesn’t have as much brawling experience as D and I, so it’s natural for you to feel the way you do.

  18. maweesa says:

    what i REALLY want to do is punch someone in the nose so hard it breaks. i’ve always just wondered what that would feel like.

    and speaking of the other night.. it was pretty freaky. after spending the last 4 years in the bronx i feel like i’m pretty used to crazy people harassing me but that guy really was freaking me out. luckily, i had davis there to protect me.

  19. Eliza says:

    Wow keep going kook and macy, I like it. I glad you clarified Mace, because I was a little sad for Ry, but now that you explained I totally get your point and know what you mean.

    Chris, really you don’t remember this? We were pretty old, like I want to say you were 17ish and I was 12ish, possibly older and we were in the minivan and I had just had enough of you. Afterwards, you were really really angry and my only saving grace was that mom and dad were in the front seats, otherwise you would have killed me. Which was funny they were there because I distinctly remember not getting in trouble, sad for you, but awesome for me. I guess we all agreed you really deserved it. I did feel a little guilty after though, when you gave me a lecture on how there is no way you could have done that to me and gotten away with it. Anyway, good memories.

  20. Christian says:

    Geez maweesa… That’s going a little far. The rest of us were just messing around.

  21. Troy says:

    D…yeah that’s one of three situations I’ve been in and by far the most dramatic. It’s tough to reflect back on the black spiderman behavior. Like Jon said, uncomfortable emotions and embarassing mental recaps. I wish it was at least with some crimina and I was defending my family, not with some kid from the tennis team for a hat full of cash. Maybe I can find honor in Kooks eyes cuz he likes Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

    Jon, the one caveat to the whole punching thing is when you punched me in the nether region. Instead of an adrenaline-fueled rage, my body just started shutting down and yearning for death. In Jon’s defense, everyone reading should know he insists he “missed” and that it was not intentional. Understandable. Everyone at some point has made aim for the femoral artery and ended up with collateral damage.

  22. Christian says:

    Troy, I was at that event and it was the closest thing to a fight club I have ever witnessed (and it was in happening in ritzy Somerset, nonetheless, right under the noses of all those Farmington blue bloods). I remember you working that guy too. And V. Vernon passing around a hat with money. Good memories.

  23. Nate Bray says:

    Dear Davis…. I have been punched in the face several times and most recently at my flag football game last fall. I’m now 35 and have been married 10 years. Since my marriage there has only been two years where I made it through the year without a punch in the face being delivered to another human being from my beloved knuckles… Let me say this.. I LOVE TO PUNCH PEOPLE IN THE FACE. I have learned two things.. 1. hit them hard, like you really mean it hard 2. keep punching until someone else stops it, otherwise you will get several bruises on your face which hurt for days.

    I continue to plead with my wife that she will allow me to take my gift of hitting others to amateur UFC fight night, but have yet to get the green light. I’m not an angry person, i never look for a fight but I have found that there are several people who have lots to say until you shove your first in their mouth to silence them. I like peace and quiet….

    Love you


  24. Danica says:

    Awesome. My favorite part is definitely that he made all these quiet threats and even flashed his knife and then was like, “It’s not like that.” Ohhh, okay. Thanks, Justin. I thought it WAS like that for a second.

  25. Davis says:

    Maweesa . . . that is kind of disturbing.

    Nate, I love – LOVE – that you still regularly get in fist fights. I’m going to come visit you, and we’re going to get into some fights.

    Danica, yeah, Justin is one of the more confusing people I’ve dealt with in a while.

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