from the archives

Streetfight Etiquette

New Yorkers are softer than they sound, writes Tom Wolfe.

Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the April 7, 1969, issue of New York. We’re republishing it here, along with most of Tom Wolfe’s writing for the magazine, to accompany the September 2023 release of Richard Dewey’s documentary Radical Wolfe. Read our essay about the film and Wolfe’s time at New York here, and Wolfe’s own memoir of the magazine’s early years here.

Tonight, 30 minutes ago in fact, it was the same old thing, same as last night … the usual farce … The fact is, I have never seen a decent street fight in New York. Farces, Mexican standoffs, screaming lulus, hisses, scratches, chop­-chop, coo, suck, gulp, bellow — one de­bacle after another! An endless supply! But … pugnacious? Oh Christ yes. Regular gas mouths. Every man in the street in New York is a tiger, especially from inside a car. The insults! I’ve lived here for seven years and I still can’t be­lieve what I hear people call each other — Lame brain! Arsehole! Schmuck! Prong Clit! Pansy! Tulip! Fruit basket! Gladiola! Cow! Quiff! Eggplant! Jungle bunny! … They’ll say anything … Meathead is the fashionable insult this year. Everybody’s a meathead … Im­mediately! … Without a moment’s no­tice! … Never mind the preliminaries!

This morning, for example, I was rid­ing in a cab turning off of 42nd Street into Madison Avenue, and the driver cuts right behind a guy standing in 42nd Street trying to walk across the street. He practically runs over the guy’s heels. He cuts so close — for a split second a hand-grenade loop on the guy’s trenchcoat — yes! precisely! a hand-grenade loop! — a hand-grenade loop on the guy’s trenchcoat rips inside the window next to where I’m sitting. The guy is furious … he glowers … Naturally my boy, the driver, lets him have it — immediately! That’s the ticket! He sticks his head out the window … he bares his teeth … a regular man-eater, my boy is …

“Look where you’re going,” he says, “you meathead!”

There it is! meathead! 

Trenchcoat can’t believe it. He’s be­side himself. He lifts up his leg … He has a ferocious pair of sideburns and a little trick hat of the Alpine style … He lifts up his leg, like a dog … he kicks the cab in the fender … it makes a hell of a noise … he’s kicking and screaming at the same time and thrashing his sideburns around … He shrieks out: “You fogging … muffin!

He calls my boy a muffin! … a muffin! … I like that … But my boy is back on the meathead rampage: “Shut up, you meathead!” he says. Meathead! Muffin! Meathead! Muffin! … We’re out onto Madison now, but you can still hear the Trenchcoat out in the middle of 42nd Street screaming out from between his sideburns into the Weltchaos … “You fogging muffin!”

Now the cabbie turns around to me. I’m his star witness, of course.

“Did you see that meathead?”

I nod, like an idiot …

“I’m watching the light! Why can’t these meatheads watch the light!”

Meathead! Muffin! Meathead! Muffin!

Naturally all this meathead business leads to real fights sooner or later … Then you should see the tigers of New York … Freaking debacles, as I was say­ing … Like tonight, 30 minutes ago … No, like last night, about 8:30, down on Wall Street, or, rather, City Hall Plaza it was, where Park Row, Fulton Street, Lafayette, Centre, Broadway and the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge come together. All the hustling young studs who have worked late in the law firms and financial houses have drifted up from Wall Street to the Plaza to look for cabs … But there are no cabs … Practically nobody takes a cab down to Wall Street at night, so there are no cabs down here to go home in … Some col­lege student driving a cab part-time at night who isn’t rude enough or sly enough yet to talk his way out of a fare to Brooklyn and is coming back empty over the bridge — that is the best you can hope for … The Wall Street studs are roaming around in the darkness with their attaché cases. Every single one has an attaché case … It’s no joke! … Circling, jockeying for position … there’re 10 of them, 15, 20 … It’s windy and cold as hell … There’s a madness in the dark … the cab fever … Their eyes are beginning to shine, like a cat’s … There’s one of them there, under the cigar sign … Another one! under the electrolysis­ sign … Suddenly here’s a cab heading down Park Row toward the big bend through the Plaza … Everybody springs into action, me included … running, waving, screaming like maniacs … “Cab!” … “Taxi!” … and the whistles! Oh Christ! The kind of whistle where you stick two fingers in your mouth … real stud action, you understand … It’s bedlam … The battle is on …

Two of them from the other side of Park Row have cut across the concrete center strip … They hit the rear door of the cab at the same time … One has his hand on the handle … The other one bellies in … It’s fierce! …

“Listen!” the other one says. “I hailed this cab!”

“Hey! Watch it! I got here first!”

“Ohhhhhhh no!” — he throws the little menacing laugh in there — “Take your hand off that door, you meathead!”

“Who are you calling a meathead!”

“You, you little meathead!”

“Whuhh — I’ll show you who’s a meathead, you meathead!”







It’s a chorus! A reprise! An opera! A regular Meathead Rigoletto! I’m right on top of them. They’re bonafide Wall Street dudes, both of them, out in the middle of the street calling each other meathead four times to the beat. They’re both of them in their late 30s, I would say … They both have on $35 felt hats with creases down the center, semi-hom­burg style, the old Wall Street crash hel­met … They’ve both got on terrific over­coats and shirt collars that fit with nice smooth pink jowls popping out like tooth­paste … They’ve both got attaché cases in their right hands, the leather lunch pails … That’s what gets me, the attaché cases … They won’t let go! … One of them throws a shoulder block … Right guard on the Hill School Jayvees, 1946! No mistake about it! … The other one throws a shoulder block …

They’re pushing … shoving … One stiffarms the other one in the face with his left hand and then … bangs him over the head with the attaché case with the right … The other one sticks out a left and then bangs him over the head with his attaché case … They keep throwing these pathetic lefts and then bringing on that great roundhouse right bolo overhead attaché case to the squash.





The attaché cases make this little bop sound when they hit … They’re like two old burlesque comedians hitting each other with pig bladders … with blown-up condoms … They won’t let go! … They’re beating each other’s hats into a hell of a wad … They’re fierce … They can’t raise a bruise, however … The cab is still sitting right there. The driver is a great fat guy. He doesn’t budge … He has a ringside seat … He’s fascinated, like everybody else …

They’re flailing away like a couple of broken fan belts … They’re gasping … They’re heaving … They’re running out of breath … It’s ludicrous … They can’t say meathead anymore … Meat-heh is the way it comes out … Meat-heh! Bop! Meat-heh! Bop! … And then Me-heh! Bop … Me-uh … Bop … Me-uh …

All this has lasted maybe 30 seconds … but suddenly they’re falling back … they’re staggering on their heels like bal­loon dolls … They’re dead on their feet … They’ve had it … they’re gasping for breath … they’re in for it now … Ten years of eating English mixed grills and drinking draft beer in the hofbraus of Wall Street … split pea soup and salt sticks and real butter and cheddar and roquefort and camembert and vodka tonic … and the arteries all gunked up until the passage narrows to the size of a syringe opening … Ah! those winter vacation days in old St. Croix when the tiger puts on his new paisley swimming trunks from J. Press and looks in the mirror and expands his chest and throws back his shoulders … to flatten out the little titties beginning to form on the chest … Ummm … I really ought to start working out … but the old basic muscle structure is still there … not a bad build, tiger … hell, if I worked out a good hard four weeks … I know what, I’ll skip lunches and start playing squash at the Barclay Health Club … But Oh God! the credit has just run out, friends! … They’re gasping for breath … They’re white in the face … blue in the mouth … their eyes are rolling back … they don’t know where in the fog they are … The cab driver moves for the first time … Freak this! He’s not going to be witness to a double coronary attack … and lose a day’s pay … not this boy … He guns off, leaving the two studs blob­bing about in the middle of Park Row … They don’t know where they are … They’re sucking air … But they’re still holding onto the attaché cases … their fogging knuckles are white from it … I’ll never forget it … They stagger toward the curb like a couple of rocking druids … They collapse … they’re half sitting, half lying on the curb, gasping, heaving, rolling their eyes … Intimations of mortality … Do I die right here! … There’s not five feet between them … Me-heh … But they’re both finished … Two tigers … with 20 seconds of fight in them … A pure farce, in a word …

That’s it! There’s not one tiger in a hundred in this town who is in condition to have a street fight. They’re all like those club fighters I used to see at Parker Field in Richmond, Virginia, on Thurs­day nights … After two rounds they were stroked out on each other’s shoulders, waltzing around the ring … Everybody starts yelling and jeering … Fakes! Phonies! Fix! Yellow! Pansies! Holly­hocks! Jonquils! … But that wasn’t it … They were out of breath … It was as simple as that … There was no more … Hell, even a young fighter has to run a couple of miles and hit the heavy punch­ing bag for an hour every day for a month to go six rounds at full speed … And our tigers of the street … They’re indecent …

Indecent is the word! The code of street etiquette in New York is very clear. You can stop and call each other pig stickers, pudding lappers, mudholers, carrots … muffins … whatever is your pleasure … as long as you keep moving … It’s only good manners, and a decent fellow plays his part.

Near the entrance to Beth Israel Hospital, on 16th Street and First Avenue, there’s a crowd in the street near the candy store … Ah! a street fight … Everybody is jumping up and down and banging into each other from behind to get a better look … It seems the heavy in the piece, a big Puerto Rican kid, 16 or 17, was picking on some little Irish kid from Stuyvesant Town project, across the street, and then this other little Irish kid, a skinny little guy, about 14, steps in … He’s half the big guy’s size … They both of them sound the old cry … Now they’re banging-away … The Puerto Rican kid is trying to swarm all over Kid Irish here. But Kid Irish has a good pair of hands. He can handle himself. A left jab to the face, a right cross … combinations … he fights long … he moves in close … he ducks inside the big guy’s wild swings … A short left to the ribs brings him down … a right uppercut snaps him up … It’s right out of the book! He’s a Joey Archer, this little kid, a Willie Pep, a Teo Cruz of the streets … At last! a street tight worthy of the term! … The bully keeps coming on … but he’s … getting his … from the plucky little Irishman … It’s a clas­sic —

Just then a big Spanish guy about 19 years old steps in from out of nowhere and stabs the Irish kid between the ribs with a knife and runs off and that is all there is to that.

I’m telling you! That’s New York! They took the kid into the emergency room and he lived … but there it is! You can’t win! … Any man who volun­tarily gets into a street fight in New York City is … out of his hulking tree … I can tell you … Thirty minutes ago, as I was saying … I’m only going over all this because 30 minutes ago, 8:15 p.m., I was out at First Avenue and 50th Street trying to get a cab. Cold as hell, windy, and 8: 15 p.m., when cabs are scarce any­way … and there’s a guy on the north­west corner already … a big man, a real custom-made Beekman Place dude, by the looks of him … He’s got it … the cab fever … he’s been out here a long time … You can tell it. By now he is a good 15 feet out into the intersection, straining this way and that, looking down First and along 50th, trying to cover both possibilities … His eyes are lit up … cab fever! … He sees me coming … He looks at me like I’m a wild dog … I try to act like I’m just walking along the street … I happen to know the area. I know the only place you can get a cab around there at that hour is in front of La Toque Blanche restaurant on 50th, near the corner, when a cab pulls up to let off people going to dinner … I duck into the doorway of the restaurant. Pretty soon a cab pulls up. I’m on top of it like a flash, hand on the door handle … before the people inside even have their money out … before the driver throws the meter off and lights up the light on top … But the Beekman Place dude has spotted it, too … He’s roaring up … He bellies into me … I can’t believe it … He’s grappling for the door handle —

“No you don’t!” he says. “I’ve been waiting here half an hour!”

“Well, listen!” I’m saying. “Hey! Cut that out! I got here first!”

“Take your hand off the door, you meathead!”


“Who are you calling a meathead, you —”

But now the door is opening from the inside … There’s an old couple inside … Christ! all they want to do is get in­side La Toque Blanche and scarf up some gigot d’agneau and drink some wine … The woman is nearest the door and trying to get out … I can see her trying to creep her shoe and her spindly old calf out the door … She hasn’t got a prayer, of course … The Beekman Dude and I are rousting and bellying each other against the door … Now the woman’s husband is leaning across her to help her out … Her leg is stuck … It’s not funny.

“Gentlemen!” he keeps saying. “Just a minute! Hear! Just a moment, you two!” and a lot of other stuff. And I swear … at that moment both the Beekman Place Dude and I are about to turn on the both of them … I can feel it … The one character all combatants hate worse than death or each other has arrived: the spoilsport … We’re in a frenzy … all this heaving and bellying … we’ll break the old doll’s leg off for her … can see it all coming … It’s pure madness …

Only just then the Beekman Place Dude gets a brilliant idea … He runs over to the other side of the cab … I can still see him running … I can see his knees in the headlights, he brings his knees up high in fast little steps, the way they used to teach the fullback to do on the Hotchkiss School Jayvees … 1946 … Bango! … He’s into the cab from the other side … I’m left on the curb like a jerk … to catch all the noise from the old guy and his wife as they jump into La Toque Blanche …

The cab pulls off and the Beekman Place Dude sticks his head out of the window and yells: “You … meathead!”

And I’m left there on the curb in the dark like a jerk listening to myself scream out into the void all that’s left to say: “You fogging … muffin!”

Tom Wolfe on Streetfight Etiquette