29. If ya know what’s good for ya
Hitch hiking back from Auckland on a hot December day, I was dropped off at Mangamuka Bridge. It was late afternoon but there were still a few hours of daylight left, and I was really thirsty, so I decided to stop at the pub to have a beer before I resumed showing my thumb to the cars heading towards Broadwood.
I stood at the bar and put my backpack on the floor beside me as the bartender slid a draft lager to me. Standing a ways down the bar were four blokes who looked like they had just finished hay making. They all wore shorts and black singlets, and their arms and shoulders glistened with sweat.
After I had taken a few gulps of my pint, one of the farm boys, short and blonde, said in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the room, “Have you noticed how many slimy hippies have been flooding into the North?”
One of his mates quickly responded, “I heard that a filthy, hairy lad was hitch hiking around here recently and he just disappeared. Poof. No trace.”
Another farm worker added, “Yeah. However, I hear those hippy chicks will do it with just about anybody.” Looking towards me, he giggled, “Those shaggy blokes too – they’ll gladly take it up the ass.”
Amid chuckles coming from all around me, the first guy growled, “That’s because they’re so chickenshit, they’re too terrified to say no.”
I took another swallow of beer, intending to get out of there as smartly as I could. Behind me I heard a gruff voice: “You gonna let ‘em talk to you like that, mate? You oughta smack their honky faces in.” I turned around to see two Maori guys sitting at a table nearby. The speaker stood up; he was taller than anyone else in the bar and as solid and strong as a kauri.
The other Maori fellow stood up too, proclaiming, “Too right, mate. Look, we’ll back you up, eh?” He looked even stronger than his buddy. He turned to the farmers and went on, “Yeah, step outside, fellas. This gentleman wants to take it outside.”
The four farm boys looked at one another, smirks on their faces, and slowly turned and stepped a pace away from the bar. I was thinking – I don’t want to be seen as a coward, but I really don’t want to get into a fight and get my nose broken or something. I just want to get out on the road and stick my thumb out again. If I can get out the door, maybe I can run away before anyone starts fighting and they probably won’t bother to chase me.
So I finished my beer and in my deepest, coolest Clint Eastwood voice said, “Let’s do this.”
I slung on my backpack and walked ahead; when I got to the door, I realised that I was alone. No one else had moved towards the door. I stopped and listened: no sound of any bodies moving. I turned my head slowly and saw seven faces on the edge of bursting. Then together they all exploded with wild laughter. They were bent double with their hands slapping each other’s shoulders. The bartender wheezed, “Funniest bloody thing I ever bloody saw!”
The taller Maori guy walked up to me and pretended he was going to slug me in the face. He said, “Mate, you really swallowed that one. For that you deserve a beer. Come back, come on.”
He bought another beer for me and they asked me a few questions before they lost interest. I finished my beer quickly, trying to disguise a tremor in the hand holding my glass.
As I was throwing on my backpack to leave, I was remembering what my Uncle Jack had told me: “When you’re back is up against the wall, say something funny.” I turned to the nearest black singlet and poked him on the shoulder with a finger so that he turned his head to look at me. “Look, buddy,” I said, “If ya know what’s good for ya…” His faint smile turned into a scowl and he straightened up and turned to face me.
I let the pause continue long enough for the tension to grow. “…you’ll eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”
The two Maoris roared with laughter. Everyone else was smiling or chuckling, even the blonde one, who seemed to be the leader of the farmer troupe. As I was almost to the door, he called out, “Come back any time you’re itchin’ to start another fight, mate.”
“Yeah, we’ll back you up again. We won’t let them honky bastards push you around!”
“You hories are the ones who need backing up,” I heard a Pakeha voice yell out. I walked through the door to the echoes of their friendly bickering.
I didn’t even try to get a ride out of there before dark; I had a smoke and slept that night under the bridge.
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