Heartwarming Story

How Papa 'Pipe Raises Kids

So Tailpipe gets married, and his new wife brings along a 6-year-old son. This is, oh, better than three decades ago. Eugene is a sunny kid with a kind of inner quiet. Disarmingly watchful — so watchful, in fact, that Tailpipe starts to think, after a year or two, that the kid probably knows a lot more about the 'Pipe than vice versa. Still, there's none of that hostility that often characterizes relations between kids and stepparents, just a lot of good-natured circling. Tailpipe and the boy do all the things that fathers and sons do. They play games, run races, go on vacations. When it comes to competitive activities, Tailpipe is from the old school.

"You could let him win once in a while," the kid's mother says.

"That would be delivering the wrong message, wouldn't it?" Tailpipe sniffs. With just a twinge of regret, he can see the kid brooding in the other room after the 'Pipe has ruthlessly outsmarted him three times in a row over the checkerboard or the Uno table or, hell, maybe even Snakes and Ladders. No wrong message from this car part. The 'Pipe kills the boy in chess, pins him in wrestling, smokes past him in the ol' race to the corner. "Keep at it, kid," the 'Pipe says, giving him a little pat. "You'll be whippin' me someday."

Prophetic words. Eugene would eventually become a magazine editor, rock musician, one of the nation's leading experts on martial arts, and probably one dude you wouldn't want to mess with.

By the time he's 12 or 13, he's easily smokin' his stepfather, laughing as he zips past like a little supercharged motorcycle. Now he's holding his own at checkers and even Scrabble, and with a smiling Tailpipe sitting unsuspectingly at the chessboard, full of blustery self-confidence, the boy engineers a crushing checkmate in about 20 moves.

"Yeah, yeah," the 'Pipe says, retreating to the Sunday papers. "Beginner's luck."

Long story short (very long, very short), the kid grows up to be this scrappy bruiser with a taste for adventure, and there's damned near no living with him. He outsmarts the 'Pipe at every turn. Out on the Brooklyn streets, he develops a reputation as a fearless but righteous brawler — no credit to the 'Pipe, whose philosophy of life can pretty much be summed up as go along to get along.

By the time the 'Pipe and the boy's mother part company (after a rocky 12 years), the kid has become a cocky Stanford student with a punk-rock attitude and an obsession with martial arts. Those difficult street encounters — they leave an imprint.

There's no more family homestead, but the kid remains very much a part of Tailpipe's life, in the shiftless way that people keep their family connections going nowadays, with emails, phone calls on birthdays and Father's Day, and brief, boisterous get-togethers. Plus, the kid writes, which certainly endears him to the 'Pipe. Things like that are what keep relationships going.

There are various incarnations of Eugene the punk musician (we're skipping ahead rapidly now), but the kid — no, by now, he's a grownup — ends up, since 1989, as lead singer for Oxbow, a Bay Area band known for dark, soupy tracks on albums like Fuckfest and An Evil Heat. There are haunting songs or bizarre monologues from Tailpipe's boy, a riveting, mind-bending stage presence who performs with duct tape on his ears, usually stripping to his skivvies during the show. A writer from the San Francisco Weekly described the sound as "a fever dream of sexual compulsion, pulverizing riffs, and droning feedback." Got it?

The band, which has a loyal following among British and German skinheads as well as the San Francisco underground crowd and even groupies, is also known for its kickass performance style. The 'Pipe is talking in concrete terms here. Oxbow's reputation, like that of the fastest gun in the West, brings out an assortment of stage-rushing mooks, and the stories accumulate about how Eugene chokes off attackers, in some cases putting them to sleep at the edge of the stage with a chokehold, like a nanny calming a kid in a tantrum.

By now, of course, Eugene is a self-confessed "fightaholic," a bodybuilder, and a veteran bouncer with a million anecdotes about "working an anvil chorus" on some guy's head or throwing two dudes out a set of double doors, "one of which was locked." He even has an impressive rap about why he likes to fight ("no pussyfooting around gray shadings of meaning"). He has embarked on a global study of the varieties of asskickery, talking to masters of the art and exposing himself on the canvas to its gladiators (in one case, himself waking up from a clean knockout punch, sputtering, "It's OK; I tripped").

So he's got the stories and the writing skills. Could the book be far behind? It arrives late last year, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You'd Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking (HarperCollins) by Eugene Robinson. It's a moderate success, still out there on the shelves of your local bookstore. The writing is hard-boiled, incantatory, Maileresque, sometimes a little overstuffed, but with lots of hair-raising information about the way things were in a whole variety of tight spots. Knife fighters, bouncers, brawlers, and professional pugilists spill out of its pages, and, always, there's that wised-up Eugene voice.

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