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Al Martinez

I am sitting there thinking it would probably be the first bar fight I have ever seen : based on literature. : Kris and John

June 18, 1987|Al Martinez

The older man looks a little like John Houseman, with his droll manner and his arched eyebrows, and the younger guy like maybe Kris Kristofferson in one of his scragglier modes.

They are sitting side by side at a crowded bar when I wander in to escape the bitter weather.

Well, maybe not bitter, but it seemed bitter, if you get my meaning. A little mist on the ocean.

I was meeting my wife at 7 in front of a Hamburger Hamlet, but I was there at 6:30 because I am always early, no matter where I go.

So I decide that a little something to fight the dampness would be good. I drift into the Hamlet and find the only stool at the bar and order some Glenlivet on the rocks with just a dash of water.

And I begin listening to John and Kris.

John is having a manhattan and is holding the glass with the tips of his fingers. Kris is drinking Corona beer from the bottle and sometimes it drools down onto his matted beard. He is making no effort to wipe it away.

The slobbery is driving John crazy and he keeps throwing admonishing glances toward Kris, who seems not to notice.

Kris wears a kind of faint smile and just keeps staring straight ahead at the bottles that line the shelves in back of the bar.

Finally, John can take it no longer and you know what he says? He looks right at Kris and says in a kind of slurred and cultured voice, "Have you ever heard of Samuel Clemens?"

That's what caught my attention.

Kris turns to face him directly and says, "What?"

"I asked you, sir, if you had ever heard of Samuel Clemens?"

Most of us would probably just say sure and turn away, but Kris seems delighted that someone is talking to him.

"No," he says, "is he from around here?"

This is exactly what John wants.

Al Martinez

"Samuel Clemens," John says, sitting up with a kind of arrogant attitude, "was Mark Twain!"

Kris says, "Mark who?"

I don't think John expected that.

"You don't know who Mark Twain is?" he says, genuinely surprised.

Kris shrugs and says, "You want another one of those pink drinks? On me."

"Thank you," John says, "I would like another, yes."

So the cowboy orders two more and says, "Who's the guy you're talking about?"

John, who is momentarily disarmed by Kris' generosity, softens the sting in his voice and says, "Probably the most famous writer in American history."

Kris seems interested.

"Oh yeah? What'd he write?"

I thought John was going to gag on his maraschino cherry.

"What did he write? " John says in the midst of a coughing fit. "I can't believe this! I have never spoken to anyone in all my 68 years who did not know what Mark Twain wrote!"

Kris smiles. "Oh yeah?"

"That pleases you?" John says, incredulously.

Kris shrugs. The simple gesture seems to infuriate John in a kind of patrician way, and I am sitting there thinking that it would probably be the first bar fight I have ever seen based on literature.

I have seen fights over women, cars and football teams, and even over whether Jesus could have made it as a general contractor, but never over authors.

The closest I saw to that, I guess, was an argument that developed over the comparative intellectual merits of Tawny Little and Kelly Lange who, for those ignorant of media stars, specialize in cotton candy news.

Kelly learned TV journalism as a weather girl and Tawny as a beauty queen, which gives you a pretty good idea how limited the intellectual debate might be.

Back at the Hamburger Hamlet, John can hardly contain himself.

"Tell me, sir," he says, "what country are you from?"

He means it in pure sarcasm, of course, but Kris takes it as a legitimate question and says cheerfully, "From America. The accent is Oregonian."

John looks at him and kind of shakes his head like he can't quite believe this is all happening.

"Oregonians don't have accents," he says.

John finishes his drink and is about to leave when he realizes he owes Kris a drink.

"Would you like another one of those?" he says with unconcealed distaste.

"Why, hell yes," Kris says in his Oregonian accent.

While the bartender is bringing them the drink, Kris says suddenly, "You know when Poe died?"

John looks at him for a long time and says, "Poe?"

"Yeah," Kris says, "the guy who wrote . . ."

"I know what he wrote!" John says, annoyed.

"But," Kris says, holding up one finger, "do you know when he died?"

"This is preposterous," John says, standing.

"You don't know," Kris says in a kind of teasing tone.

"If I knew," John says, thick brows lowered over piercing eyes, "I would not share it with you!"

He heads for the door without even finishing his drink, but before he can get out Kris shouts "1849!"

Then he reaches over and drinks the rest of John's manhattan. I was pleased to see that he left the maraschino cherry.

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