The Barbarian is a throwback, a gladiator who exists only to make war. On this day in late February, I have unwittingly become his target. I clutch my own foam broadsword like an oversized baseball bat and wonder how I got into this.
An hour earlier, Gasser fixed me a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, olives and onions at The Mixx, a trendy joint about a block away, where he is head chef. I had met him there to ask about his company, Barbarian Battles, which makes foam weapons for troupes of medieval fetishists obsessed with acting out their anachronistic fantasies. I was curious how somebody could make money with such a business, but more than that, I wondered what kind of person would want to live out Dungeons & Dragons with play swords.
"From the minute I picked up a sword to the day I am talking to you, I've never lost," Gasser explains. It's quite a boast for a 44-year-old salad maker. I size him up: 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds of lean muscle. He lures me out of the restaurant and to his white Toyota Corolla for a demonstration. He hands me a sword from the mobile foam armory that he keeps stuffed in the trunk.
So I'll know how to take a hit, Gasser turns me around and whacks me hard three times across the back. It feels like I'm being smacked by the meaty part of a closed fist: no pain but enough force to be startling. Gasser turns around and asks me to hit him back. Thwack! The 10-pound weapon connects with a sickly slap. It snaps back like a well-balanced fishing rod.
Standing in the center of the street just up a hill from the Corolla, I twirl my sword a few times, feeling foolish. I feel even more embarrassed when the Barbarian assumes a theatrical fighting crouch.
His first slash slams down hard on my right shoulder. His second hits my left shoulder before I have time to flinch. I've just been knighted like a bitch. The Barbarian swivels his weapon 180 degrees, chopping into my leg. I flinch again. I swing my sword in front of me like an old lady warding off a mugger.
"Are you scared?" Gasser asks as I shuffle backward.
"Sort of," I say. But I'm more irritated than anything. Not knowing when you will get smacked makes it hard to get aggressive.
Instead of concentrating on the fight, I start watching passing cars, hoping no one will recognize me. A 20-something woman walks her dog about half a block away. I wonder if anybody in the surrounding offices has taken a skybox-style seat to watch my beating.
Gasser continues to stab at me. He drives me toward the intersection of 49th Street and Walnut while reciting the 500 B.C. battle cry of Greek philosopher Heraclitus: "Out of every 100 men, 10 shouldn't even be there, 80 are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back."