The King of White-Collar Boxing
by David Lawrence
I'm sparring with Lior. I'm his coach. He's paying me thirty dollars for the lesson. He's not even my weight class. He weighs thirty pounds more than me. He's a lot stronger than me. He's built like a fire pump. He's less than half my age and benches three hundred pounds. But this is boxing, not weightlifting.
He's not supposed to hit me in the head. I'm not even supposed to be in the ring boxing, due to head injuries. I was never very good at following doctors' orders. My EEG Report said that I had localized slowing of my brain waves. I suppose that meant that I had some sort of brain damage. I don't know. I like the idea of being brain damaged. It is dramatic. Call me a jar labeled "Schmuckers." I spread myself out. I stick to taking chances. I lick the knife. I read the bread crumbs fallen from the toast as if they were tea leaves. Sometimes I don't know who I am. Other times I am whomever my behavior defines. I am my interpretation of my own actions. Indeed, I am defined by my deeds. Or perhaps I am that vast shifting, sometimes dishonest, plain of self-interpretation.
Lior bashes me in the head anyway. He's no neurologist. I loop an uppercut into his nose and he starts bleeding. We stop. I apologize. I didn't mean it. I'm the one who wasn't supposed to be hit. I was only trying to slow him down. I didn't want to go home with a bruise and get killed by my wife to whom I had promised I wouldn't step in the ring again. She worries about me. I am her psychological project. That's nice. I like her attention but it can be constricting.
My sparring with Lior is all in good fun. We get along. We go back into my office to chat. Lior's a twenty-five year old stockbroker who’s trying to get into shape. I enjoy talking to him. I am a chatterbox. Half the boxing lessons I give are social. We gossip. I help the guys with their girlfriend problems. I help the girls with their boyfriend problems. I am a boxing social worker, a counselor. I help myself by relating to a captive audience. I have lived long enough to become wise. It’s August 2006 and I am nearly sixty years old. Wow. Death is at hand. Come and get me. I can fight.
How many lifetimes have I lived? How many times have I wandered between my left and my right, my love and my hate, lost in the ambivalence of an aging neurotic from the baby boomer era? I am from the love generation that was supposed to save the world. Instead we failed to define it. We assumed. We assumed that love was simple and that violence was ipso facto negative rather than the first step towards ending violence. We did not know that avoiding the responsibility of war could result in our pacifism killing millions of people in Cambodia and Vietnam. We were good hearted but ideological and self-destructive. We called ourselves the "love generation" but hated anyone who didn't share in our hippy values. Anyone who rebelled against the military industrial complex was labeled intelligent rather than naïve and self-destructive. We didn't understand that violence could be more curative of violence than passivity. We didn't know that a stalemate of nuclear bombs prevented the use of them. We didn't think that disarmament could lead to war.
Courage involves the bad public relations of aggressivity. Let love die because love kills. Ooh, but we do get deep or confused. I have a lot to say. I box. It keeps me simple, honest, sincere.
I started boxing at Gleason's Gym in New York City in 1985. Ever since the sixties I had gone through a phase of being a peacenik wearing puka beads, going to poetry readings and chanting Om. Then I became a businessman whose idea of violent exercise was tennis. I thought boxing would put me back in touch with my teenage years when I used to get into fights. I hated violence and the loud screechiness of emotional street fights but I somehow missed dominating another kid. Boxing became the substitute for the ugliness of neighborhood brawls.
A couple of years later Gleason’s moved to Brooklyn and I followed it. It is the oldest and the most famous boxing gym in the world. It was once referred to as the Sorbonne of Boxing, which I liked. After all I had gotten a PhD in Literature from City University Graduate Center in 1976. I was part of the literary "cognoscenti."
My current office at Gleason’s is cluttered and stuffed like a breadbox. The other day a mouse ran across my floor. I’m not afraid of mice. I thought its patter was rather charming. Back at my old office at 120 Wall Street where I was a businessman the custodial staff would have sent in the mouse patrol with rodent killing equipment. Now, I don't even know if I’ll bother to report the mouse to the owner of the gym, Bruce Silverglade. Let the mouse rule. I had a whole team of them when I lived at the halfway house.
I was once the Chairman and CEO of my own insurance brokerage, Allied Programs Corp. We occupied the entire twenty-sixth floor at 120 Wall Street. I had a private office in the corner with a huge tree lined terrace hanging over the East River. My staff used to jokingly call my office "The Shrine." The walls were filled with pictures and magazine articles about my boxing career. There was not much to say about my business career. The idea of making a lot of money wasn't theatrical. It was nice but it wasn't thrilling. I was successful but I wasn't big like Donald Trump. Unlike my dalliance with boxing, my insurance career wasn't newsworthy. I wore Armani suits and Cartier watches. I hid my Rolex because it was too crass, tacky.
The office, the money, the prestige are all gone. But the same magazine articles, plus stray new ones, now cover my walls at Gleason’s Gym—People Magazine, New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, American Health, etc.Only my walls are smaller. I share 150 square feet with the world super bantamweight kickboxing champion, Devon Cormack and his sister, the female world boxing featherweight champion, Alicia Slick Ashley. Their belts are on Devon’s desk. The only championship belt I have is from the Rapper’s Federation Fights. What a joke. I fought Curtis Blow. Not exactly world class caliber. But at least it's something and I'm strangely proud of it.
“There’s a sign that the gym is closing early tomorrow,” Lior says. “What’s up with that?”
“They’re shooting a scene from Law and Order. Bruce said I could be in it but I don’t know,” I said.
"Are you kidding? Do it. It's who you are. An actor. A coach. That's what all your students like about you,” Lior said.
“It's only extra work.”
“Does it pay?”
“One hundred and forty bucks.”
“Hey, that’s almost five lessons.”
He was right. I only got thirty dollars a lesson.
“What the heck. I’ll do Law and Order,” I told Lior.
Later I told Bruce that I’d take the part and thanked him profusely.
That night I asked my wife if I should be an extra on Law and Order.
“How much does it pay?” she asked.
“One hundred and forty dollars,” I told her.
“Take it,” she said. “I’m proud of you. You’re working so hard.”
I kissed her on the cheek. She was proud of me. When I bought her a hundred thousand dollar diamond ring in 1985, she seemed less happy with me than she did at this moment. I thought of the Beatles' song, "Can't Buy Me Love." It's all in the effort. Sometimes.
That's one of the beauties of being one of the have-nots. Every little thing I did for her now thrilled her. The poor whine about having nothing but they get love for next to nothing. Every little thing they do impresses. Not much is expected. Everything is a gift or a surprise. My wife was just happy to see me trying. And I was happy to see her happy that I was trying. Not that we hadn't had our rough times when we were adjusting to our marriage and our child. But now was different. Age had mellowed us. We let things slide. We felt like young newlyweds saving for our first apartment.
I guess my wife thought all those millions in the past came easy. In some ways they did. Money was meaningless. I now liked being a working stiff more than I liked being a millionaire. Even food tastes better. When I laid out twenty bucks at a diner it was more meaningful than using my old house charge at Le Cirque. I was finding truth in struggling. I liked being poor. I was an idiot. Was I crazy? Maybe.
According to the doctors I am brain damaged. I discovered this through acting. When I lost my business, I tried to get rich and famous by becoming a movie star. I wanted to earn back everything I had lost. I played in underground films that never made it to the screen.
While taking classes at Weiss Barron Acting Academy I discovered that I couldn't memorize my lines. I mean it could have been my age --I was in my fifties. Or it could have been because I was bipolar. Or it could have been the stress of having lost my business. Or it could have been all of that plus having been punched in the head thousands of times over a couple of decades of boxing.
Anyhow, I went to a psychologist, Joel Redfield, who gave me a battery of tests. He discovered all sorts of cognitive deficits and dysfunctions. Had I become an idiot? I didn't know.
He said I'd have to see a neurologist to discover if there was any structural damage from boxing. He suggested that I should always box with headgear. Like that would really help. He didn't know that it was illegal to box without headgear in a New York State Gym anyway. Headgear merely protected fighters against cuts from head butts. It didn't reduce the impact of a concussion.
The neurologist, Dr. J. Charney, did an EEG. He discovered that the test came out abnormal with "localized slowing of the right tempero-parietal area (which) suggests an underlying structural abnormality." He told me to quit boxing immediately.
I did. But I didn’t quite believe him that I was brain damaged nor did I believe the psychiatrists that say I'm bipolar. Maybe I have dementia pugilistica? Maybe I'm punch drunk. I don't even really know what dementia pugilistica means. To me it's a name, a label I can hang onto. It says something about me that I did something enthusiastically enough to get hurt. That I'm the kind of guy who lays it all on the line for whatever his goal is. That's not much. But when you're looking around for who you are, it's something. It gives me an outline I can bounce against. I don't float free towards insanity.
My feelings about Bruce's offer to be in Law & Order changed the next day. The idea of sitting around the gym for hours being an "extra" was awful. I had things I wanted to do. There were poems to be written. I had been writing most of my life. I had a few hundred poems published. I was a poet. Not that I liked poets. Most of them were wimps. They displayed their superficial sensitivity to avoid being more deeply sensitive; they hid behind their soft bellies. Writing was part of me. I couldn't stop it. My poetry was my communication to the next generation. It was my goodbye letter.
Besides, I wanted to see my wife early. I didn’t want to get home at midnight. I called her and told her that I decided not to take the part in Law and Order.
“Why not? Is it because you’re just an extra, not a star?” she asked.
“No. It’s just that nothing’s going to come of it. And I’d rather be home with you,” I said.
“But you need the money.”
“I know. I’ll work harder during the week,” I said.
“All right,” she said. “It will be nice to see you early.”
"You too,” I said and hung up. I told Bruce that I decided to skip the shoot. He didn’t care. Plenty of extras wanted the work.
I went back into my office and took out a sheet of paper. I started writing a poem about anything. It didn’t matter. I liked the process not the commentary. I liked to be engaged in creation. I didn't care what I created.
I was happy to be in my office. I didn't belong in the outside world. I wasn't really part of it. I had fallen from grace. I had bailed out of Wall Street. I had done a two-year bid at Schuylkill Federal Prison Camp. Would I end up a bum on the streets? Would I go back into business again and regain my wealth? Maybe I'd teach poetry at a university. Maybe I'd return to active boxing. No, I couldn't. No one would give me a license at my age with my messed up EEG.
I was a surprise. I didn’t know what shadow was rising to meet me or falling behind me. It was fun to walk in my footsteps. I was a happy guy. No matter what.
It was 1986 and I was happy to see Sam bleeding. I liked Sam but I didn’t like what he represented—the proliferating field of corporate lawyers. They possessed the laws, the rules, the regulations. Their shit didn’t stink. My chest still hurt from the punch he gave me when we sparred a couple of months ago. It was a lousy punch, a thud more than a snap. But Sam weighed over two hundred pounds and his fist cracked my sternum. I think. I never got it x-rayed. I was no wus. I didn’t need any doctors. I couldn’t laugh or cough for weeks.
Chuck was sparring with Sam. I liked watching Chuck master him. Chuck was a six-foot tall, one hundred and forty pound black man who moved like Sugar Ray Robinson. He lived in Harlem and used to spar with businessmen to pick up extra money. Later his picture appeared in a book of people with unusual occupations.
Men are killers. It’s built into the tip of their penises. I had spent the sixties trying to get in touch with my feminine side. Now I wanted to embrace my masculine side. Sam had all-American blond hair. He had played high school football. He was rah rah, and all that. He caught a straight right and his nose bled red droplets onto the spotted canvas. I thought of Jackson Pollack splattering paint in the hopes of immortality. I thought of Sam getting his nose busted up in the hopes of discovering his own mortality. Hell, what was I thinking? I was the only one in the gym who’d even heard of Jackson Pollack.
When Suzanne Berlin first showed up at Gleason’s Gym in March of ‘86, I didn’t pay her much mind. I had figured she was working for some local newspaper. Ever since I started boxing I was used to being interviewed by small time presses. Everyone wanted to know why a millionaire would box. It was a sport for poor people like polo was for the rich. I had no idea Suzanne was a big time reporter. She was wearing khaki pants and a flight jacket. There was a friendly purple mole on her right cheek. She was foreign, cute. I was standing on the ring apron with her, watching Sam bleed.
“I’m a reporter,” she said, with a German accent.
“That’s nice,” I said.
I had started boxing at Gleason’s about a year ago. I was still working out there even though I was now training two nights a week at the New York Athletic Club for the Wall Street Charities Fight, which was a much-ballyhooed tournament for brokers. All my respect went to Gleason’s. I was in awe of its hallowed tradition of pain. The New York Athletic Club was some sort of white-collar crap. It was the kind of place George Plimpton might go to, a salt and pepper cartoon of violence. A little blood sprinkled here and there. There were no blacks or Puerto Ricans fighting for their lives there. It was like an all white glee club. I wasn’t afraid of the New York Athletic Club and without fear there wasn’t any religion. There was something sacred about pain.
“Is his nose hurt?” Suzanne asked about Sam.
“His nose bleeds all the time,” I said. “Don’t worry about him.” I figured because she was a woman she’d be upset.
“It’s not my nose,” she said. “Why should I care?” She was German. I forgot that her culture’s etiology was the gas chamber. What was a bloody nose to a person that came from a country that did scientific experiments on twins? The Nazis used to throw naked children in snowdrifts and time how long it took them to freeze to death. “I’m doing an article for People Magazine about Yuppie boxing,” she added. “I’d like you to be in it.”
She said it just like that. Like People Magazine wasn’t the biggest deal in the world. Like I wouldn’t be knocked over with joy to get a write-up there. Like I wouldn’t want my fifteen minutes of Warhol fame. But one thing really bothered me about what she said. “I’m no Yuppie,” I said. I hated Yuppies.
“What do you mean? Aren’t you rich, young and upwardly mobile?” She must have seen my chauffeured Rolls Royce waiting outside the gym.
“I’m not young for boxing,” I said. “I’m thirty-eight already.”
“But you’re young to be so rich.”
“Maybe. But I’m not upwardly mobile. I’m the CEO of my own insurance brokerage. I’m not a striver.” I smiled. This was an upper class distinction. Like knowing the difference between a French Cabernet and a Merlot. Like knowing the distinction between discreet, clear diamonds and hazy bling. I hoped she’d understand. I didn’t mean to be a snob. I took pride in a little wit. It wasn’t for effect like Oscar Wilde. I didn’t want to escape from myself. I was always trying to define who I was.
“So you don’t want to be in People Magazine.”
Of course I wanted to be in People Magazine. “I just don’t want to be called a Yuppie,” I said.
I had only been boxing a year. I had played tennis for twenty years and here I was getting so much attention as a neophyte boxer. For my tennis, I never got more than one line in the New York Times.
“I’ll try not to call you a Yuppie,” she said.
“I don’t care,” I said. People Magazine. Wow.
On the surface, the reason I got involved with boxing related to my wife’s making me give up my motorcycles. On a deeper level there was this tribal thing. I wanted to defeat enemies. Boxing was a forbidden planet. It was filled with ethnic lower classes. I was separated from the poor by my position. I thought they might have some secret I wanted to hear. A sacred truth I could write a poem about. I used to teach English at Hunter College. Poetry was my way out of death. If someone read my poems in the future, I would live forever. But I hadn’t written anything in a long while.
One morning in May 1985, I was fiddling around with my motorcycles in my garage at my summer home in West Hampton. I loved my early morning rides. I felt reckless, free.
My neighbors were all upscale schmucks. I looked at the happy families around me and I wanted to puke. They reminded me of myself. Boys with toys, girls with wardrobes. I spent many joyous mornings sneaking out of the house to go over to the professional motocross track. I was starting my Yamaha up when I saw my wife, Lauren, and my son, Graham, coming into the garage. They were never up this early. Graham was seven years old. He wore little jeans and his hair in a Beatles’ cut. He was adorable. He had done some work for Ford Modeling Agency but my wife made him quit when she got worried that it would interfere with his schoolwork. Give the woman her due. She was no stage mother. She wanted what was best for him.
Graham was crying when he came into the garage.
“Daddy, you’re going to die,” he said.
He looked so sad. I patted his head. What was he talking about? I wasn’t dying.
“Did you hear?” Lauren asked, all teary-eyed.
“Hear what?” I asked
“Our driver, Jerry. He died in a motorcycle crash!”
“Don’t die, Daddy.”
I was stunned. Jerry had only been driving for us a couple of years. I was sad to hear that he had died. He was a wild, cool kid. He had told me he was getting a motorcycle. I wasn’t listening. I did not stop to consider that it would end in his death.
In a way Jerry’s death made me jealous. He actually rode his motorcycle to a grave. That took balls. I didn’t have his guts. I was still trying to get the nerve to jump a bump on the motocross track. And there he was, courageously dead. He outdid me.
“You better get rid of those bikes before you kill yourself. You owe it to your son,” Lauren said.
“You owe me daddy,” Graham shrieked.
Lauren didn’t want me to kill myself? That was nice. But you don’t take away a man’s courage in the face of death. I was a gladiator. I’d show her. I’d do something that would really blow her away.
“Then I’m taking up boxing. I’m going to fight at Madison Square Garden,” I said.
I didn’t know where that came from. I had never wanted to box before. I had never even attended a fight. I figured the image of me slugging it out like some mad African in the ring would drive Lauren crazy. I didn’t want to annoy her. Yet it somehow tickled me. Love is a sadistic, erotic field of action. I wanted to see if I could get her to respond. Putting her on edge was like arousing her. I wanted to stick pins of wakefulness in her. I wanted her to love me uncomfortably.
“Good,” she said. “Take up boxing.”
Good. But it didn’t really matter that I would have to give up the dirt bikes. I wasn’t going anywhere with them anyhow. I was scared to jump the bigger bumps on the racetrack. At least maybe I’d have the balls to fight. I did some street fighting when I was a troubled teen. I once split a kid’s head open. Screw it! I was ready to roll my testosterone around like craps in Atlantic City, to prove that I was the man. Not that I had anything against women. I just wasn’t one. I was from Mars, not Venus. I was Iron David. Ride em, cowboy.
Who was I kidding? I was brought up with a Jewish golden spoon up my ass. There was a bar mitzvah in my rectum. I was a golden Torah. When I became a success in business, I attended museum soirees and charity functions in an Armani tuxedo. You could meet me at book parties or boutique openings. My picture appeared in the society pages of magazines. I was aristocratic like a gentleman horse breeder. If someone told you that I planned to become a professional prizefighter, you would have laughed. Remember this was before white collar people and women started joining boxing gyms.
I really wasn’t the boxing type. I was not war torn Bosnia. I was a small postal district out west.