Showing up the Actor

Showing up the Actor

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Showing up the Actor

When I was younger I spent much of my time alone. My father bred in me, perhaps by nothing more than his example, a certain New England stoicism which thrived on solitude. Nothing displayed this rustic discipline more than the pop-up camper my father bought from our neighbors when I was six. From that summer our family spent most vacations on the road, pulling the camper behind us, my father winching it up and spreading the canvas roofing in Nova Scotia or Florida or upstate New York.

Many summers later I insisted that I live in the camper, parked in the driveway. My mother brought me my meals and my father decided I should begin reading Hemingway. I sat propped in the tent-like house, eating hot dogs and reading terse, athletic prose about boxers and bullfights and impotent veterans. I figured out why my father named our dog Brett.

I also spent a good deal of time at elite institutions of learning. When he wasn't camping my father taught math at prep schools. From my birth until my fourth birthday we lived at St. George's in Newport, Rhode Island, among the brocaded mansions like Egypt's pyramids, crafted of heavy-set stones. Then, in 1981, we moved to Phillips Academy in Andover, where the shops on the main street came in threes: bank boutique salon bank boutique salon.

I can think of no better reason than that for why I took up boxing in the summer before my Senior year of college -- than that I spent most of my youth alone at elite institutions. And yet, in my four years as a student at Phillips, enrolling eleven years after my family's arrival, I wasn't entirely alone. A friend of mine, Noah -- his father also taught on the faculty. Noah also received the ninety percent tuition discount. Noah's fridge was also usually empty, because he had also eaten in school cafeterias for most of his life.

He had also, for four years, somehow slipped between the kid whose wealth was a ticket to fuck around and the boy whose mother was a janitor, between the blonde suburban girl whose father owned The New York Times and the tight-knit handful of urban kids who came under the banner program of "A Better Chance" -- that is, between privilege and opportunity. This is not to say that the two sides of this educational gauntlet weighed in equally.

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Boxing beckoned me with an intellectual prospect, a chance to watch the myths I carried coalesce into reality. Hemingway, Mailer, Raging Bull: you name the legend, I probably bought it, deep down at least, hook, twine, and little metal weight. But if I began as a witness I left as an actor. I acted out a discipline, that stoic solitude, scripted from summers camping on the road or in the driveway. I was in love with an idea, and there is nothing like boxing to remind you of the distance between an idea and a thing, between a well-turned sentence in an autobiography of "Hurricane" Carter and a well-turned right-hand lead, between glossy photographs and a broken rib.

I don't think I got anything out of it, save a tighter one-two combo, a slow left hook that always ran too wide, and a humbler sense of self. But I do think that my expectation, as I began, that I would indeed get something out of it, reveals my reasons for wanting to box, and how those reasons differed from those of most of the other fighters training at the Phantom Gym under Artie. The rest of the fighters and me: we were both looking for ways out, but out of very different things.

. . .

Artie smiled and shook his head. He ran the expanse of his flat palm and long fingers over his bald head.

"So you don't want me to weigh in?" I asked, or insisted, standing in the doorway of his office, a room that used to be a bathroom. Now it contained a bed against one wall, a dusty desk facing the door, and a tinted window with the upper panes cracked. A visiting amateur fighter slept nights here. His last fight landed pictures in Sports Illustrated and he was headlining at Fox Woods in a few months.

Artie gave a high chuckle and continued fishing through his drawer for a stack of papers. "Here they are," he said. He looked up at me. He handed a sheet of white paper across the desk. "Why don't you fill this out," he said, "Then you can stick around." He looked past my head, out to the ring and the dangling bags beyond, like loose calves on a crowd of old women. "I've got some guys sparring today. You can weigh in after you see them."

I nodded slowly and pushed my tongue against the inside of my left cheek. I clenched and unclenched my fists, as I thought boxers probably did a lot, to keep them supple. I sat down to fill out the form. About an hour later a skinny black man named Marcus dropped a slightly shorter black man to the canvas with two crisp smacks: a swift left jab to the head, snapping just over the southpaw defense, and then a left hook body shot that followed so quickly, with such force, that I had to ask the man ringside, in a green sweatsuit and thick-rimmed glasses, what happened. I only saw the shorter man hit the floor and raise one arm to end the fight.

He couldn't speak. His breath caught in his throat in little wet gasps like the sound of baby birds waiting for their mother to regurgitate food for them. Marcus was talking to Artie about how he felt weak today, and how he was sorry to be late, but he couldn't get out of the factory before five. Artie poured water over his head and then came by and slapped my shoulder and shook my hand. He gave the other guys pounds, forearm at an angle and palm cupped to sound a pop at contact, but he always, for the next two months, shook my hand with his palm parallel to the floor, a silent greeting of skin sliding against skin. I decided to postpone my weigh in.

. . .

When most people defend boxing, they claim that it's not violent, but beautiful. They claim that it's not naked and real, but sport, dressed and prepared. That it's not brutality, but art. This is certainly true, but doesn't seem to say much. This assumes that boxing could somehow gain something if it were considered an art. Others have reacted to this, idealizing the raw physicality: it's not a sport, or an art, they say -- and that's why we love it. Boxing is like life or, better yet, life is like boxing. Yet this assumes that boxing could somehow gain something by proving how real it is.

To me, boxing has more to do with expectation, with what one thinks is scripted in, and what scripted out, with the roles acted, with force delivered and force received. When one attends a ballet and half-way through the first dance one of the dancers stumbles and her ankle tears like a husk of corn, that's a surprise. No one expects that pain and shock. It isn't part of the script, so it frightens us.

In boxing this pain is written in. Muhammad Ali once said that you never have to get hit when you box. He was so quick, no one would touch him. This may be true, in an occasional exception, but in general hitting is expected. Boxing doesn't deal in preconceptions of art or reality, rawness or sport. The only expectation it assures is force. Impact is its common denominator.

. . .

Artie introduced me to Nick, another fighter, on the first day, and told him to walk me through a workout. Despite Nick's demonstration, it wasn't until after the first week that I managed to synchronize my arms and legs while jumping rope. At first I threw the rope over my head and jumped from my knees, almost bringing them to my chest. Then I hopped a few times as I brought the rope around again. I ground through the motions like tangled, rusty gears, or flopped and lurched like a mound of dough on the kneading table. There was nothing fluid about it.

At the end of that first day though, I felt pretty good. Artie was even impressed.

"Do you stay in shape?" he asked.

"I run everyday," I said.

He nodded.

"So I'll see you tomorrow," I said.

He looked me up and down. "You may not want to. You probably don't want to come in everyday," he said. "Every other day is fine."

"I can come in everyday," I said, almost too quickly.

Unwrapping his hands, Nick overheard our conversation and laughed into his chest.

I did train the next day, and then, at the end of the session, I had the same conversation with Artie. This time, however, he was right. I woke up on what would have been my third day of training with a searing soreness in my left shoulder and an ache which ran from my stomach to my neck. I had to switch to my right hand to brush my teeth because the back-and-forth motion sent flashes of pain into my left shoulder.

. . .

One day after I had finished wrapping my hands, but before I stepped up to the bags, Artie pulled me aside to a collection of photos on the gym's right wall, underneath the expansive mirror facing the ring. He gestured to a few girls and said that they were the other Brown students who had come down the hill and across I-95 to learn to box with him. They stood in a row with their practice gloves puckered on either side of their faces. Artie smiled and nodded and put his hand on my shoulder. I looked at the photo again. I said that I didn't know any of them.

Nick was the only other kid that summer who would return to college in the fall. He'd been boxing with Artie for the past two summers, and wanted to fight in the Bud Belt in September. Usually Artie's gym placed someone in the amateur tournament every year, but Nick wasn't sure if he could make it this time. It was a long drive from UMaine, and hard to stay in shape for the three weeks after school started. He was studying engineering, so he could build race cars. There was no way I would be sparring by September, but I wrote down the date of the tournament on the back of my hand anyway.

Nick always jump-roped with a serious intensity in his face. He looked at the mirror with a clenched jaw and swore whenever the jumprope caught his foot. Like me, Nick had only tattered running shoes, instead of the high-laced red boots some of the more experienced fighters wore. Nick hopped twice on each rubber sole -- left left right right left left right right. With each shift his head cocked to either side like a pendulum and his hair bounced less and less as the workout went on, gradually matted down with sweat.

. . .

The Phantom Boxing Gym doubled as Artie's house. Past the hanging bags and the ring in the middle of the floor, with its red canvas and spit funnels at each corner, just to the left of the office, there was a hole in the wall like a wound. It looked like someone had made it with a sledgehammer. The bricks around the gaping hole, under the mortar layer, showed through like coarse gums. Through it stood a metal rack for pull-ups and dips, and then a bench for lifting. A mirror was nailed along the left wall in the dark corridor. To the right ran a row of lockers and then a small shower room.

But beyond this, past a blue tarp draped over another hole in the farther wall, lived Artie and his son Akbar. I never saw the space, as the blue barrier was always in place, but Akbar would come and go during most of the afternoons while I was training. Sometimes he seemed to just be getting up at around four, when the amateur boxers arrived to start their warm-up.

Sometimes he worked out as well, but usually he never went past the jump roping. He had a low lope to his jumping, his left foot flowing out smoothly and then rolling back under his body, and kicking back up just a bit behind him as the right rocked forward to slide over the rope, snapping downward under the right and then the left foot. His arms remained totally motionless but his wrists rolled in a relaxed rhythm and his head bobbed forward and back slowly and softly. Both eyes blinked occasionally but always stared at his own loping form in the mirror along the gym's right wall. In this he was like most of the boxers, who watched themselves as they shadowboxed, or as they massaged their muscles and flexed between rounds.

I once asked Artie if Akbar boxed. He smiled and shook his head and the lines around his eyes crinkled. It always surprised me to see such soft dark eyes on a man who must have been over six-six and had hands that could palm my head.

"Akbar needs his hands," he said. "He plays basketball. He's going pro."

In the middle of the ring, the jump rope whisked slowly around Akbar, as if wrapping him in a sphere of protective film, or an encasing web. It slapped the floor at intervals: ssstack-ssstack-ssstack-ssstack.

About half-way through the summer, I took a week off from boxing. When Akbar asked why, I told him I was going on vacation.

"Vacation?" he said, with a strong accent on the second syllable. He jerked his head back and looked at me as if I'd told him I parted the Red Sea in my spare time. He leaned back in the chair next to the hole in the wall which led to his house. He smiled and then started laughing, sliding his hands together behind his head.

. . .

There was one fighter, Boompsey, whose jump-roping rolled with an even more relaxed gait than Akbar's. Boompsey didn't come in until I had been training for about two weeks, but everyone else seemed to know him. His lope, with or without a jumprope, was so mellow that he seemed to move in a slow-motion haze. His head bobbed to the right when he punched and his eyes always drooped in his round head.

Some days Boompsey wouldn't show up to train. Then Artie would call his house, and he'd roll in half-an-hour later. Some days he came with his daughter, and she sat and squirmed in her pink jumper, on the chipped green bench next to the door, under the magazine clippings of upcoming fights and the press photos of famous fighters. I was never sure if Boompsey was his real name, but I never heard anyone call him anything else.

I was there for Boompsey's first sparring match. He fought against a much bigger kid with dreadlocks, Seth, who always dragged his younger brother to training. Seth was always yelling at his brother, calling him lazy and fat, telling him he'd never get any respect if he didn't get tougher. Seth's brother, a chubby kid with buck teeth, had trouble with ten sit-ups. This was Seth's first time in the ring, too.

The sparring matches usually only lasted three rounds, but this one carried on into five. Boompsey just kept bobbing his head, the headgear rocking with him like a buoy in a calm harbor. Seth kept circling. Then he snapped out with his left. The punch began as a forceful lunge, but peetered out in a flail. Boompsey leaned his head back and turned it away and slapped out with both fists. He hit Seth in the shoulder. The two separated. Boompsey bobbed. Seth circled. This went on for three rounds, until the two fighters stopped hitting altogether and rested on one another's shoulders, breathing hard, arms limp at their sides.

"Neither of you are getting out until you throw a decent punch," said Artie. "You're just slapping."

The fighters ringside said that Boompsey had only been in street fights, and that's why he couldn't offer a solid pop. Eventually he hit Seth square in the mouth, more because Seth was too tired to defend himself than because Boompsey's punch had any force. Artie called the fight.

"Good fucking rounds," said Seth, and smacked Boompsey on the back, who nodded. Seth then chased his brother out of the gym and down the hallway, because he had been calling Seth a pansy and a loser from ringside.

I only heard Boompsey speak once, and it wasn't to anyone in particular. We were wrapping our hands and a group of kids were talking about a scuffle the night before that became a shooting and left some kid dead somewhere down the street.

Boompsey shook his head slowly, and spoke more or less to his feet, "That's why you never step to anyone, because you never know."

. . .

When at rest your hands should be kept loose and, depending on your fighting style, close to either side of your face. The jabbing hand, your off hand, bobs just in front of your ear, next to your temple. Your other hangs a bit farther back, directly next to your opposite ear, to protect you against a hook to the head. You tuck your elbows into your ribs, to absorb body shots.

You turn your torso slightly to the right, but keep your head facing forward -- and up, always chin up, even though its tempting to duck behind your hands, as if into a crevice between two rocks. Up on your toes with your left leg in front and the right leg behind: it's from the back leg that you push to throw your jab. It sounds like a simple posture to maintain, but three minutes is an extremely long time to guard your face.

That doesn't even include snapping out your left fist, then your right, tightening each as it strikes, thumb tucked under the four fingers curled into your palm. You make contact with the palm facing the floor and the striking surface flat, and you pull your hand back as fast as you throw it out, rotating slightly back and forth with each punch, hopping a step with the left jab, turning the torso and rotating the back foot to reach with the right. Each time you hit you can feel the impact in your waist.

. . .

If I didn't get my hands back fast enough, Artie would hit me. This usually happened after three rounds of jumping rope, four of throwing combination left-right, left-right-left hook around the perimeter of the ring, and a few of shadow boxing -- it happened when I stepped up to the bags. I spent two rounds on the heavy bags, and then one on the uppercut bag, a lighter sack hung horizontally so one could lift a fist into it with the knees and pop the bag from below.

The last round before sit-ups and pull-ups -- three sets of ten for each -- I spent on the double-end bag, an air-filled ball suspended at shoulder height on two bungee cords, one from the floor and the other from a beam jutting from the wall. I was supposed to hit it with combination punches as it lurched back and forth, left and right. It had a terrible habit of swaying off my jab, just out of reach as I threw my right, and then rushing back just behind my rising fists, smacking me in the face as I moved in for a finishing left hook. Then it would hover there, vibrating, waiting again to mediate my violence against myself.

It was this slow defense that Artie was trying to improve when he'd smack me in the side of the head. He held the heavy bag in one wrapped arm and intoned in a low voice:









Then he hit my right ear with his other hand. I snapped to the left and clenched my teeth.

"Don't look at me. Bring your right back faster, Left."









Wap. Wap. Wap.


I threw these punches a lot during the two months I boxed under Artie. I never even learned a right hook, although I did make it to the left and the uppercut. There was a certain discipline, a severe practice of getting it right at Artie's gym (and, for all I knew, in the rest of boxing). Left-right-left-right: if you can't get that, then keep doing it until you do. I threw left jabs until my shoulder burned and just holding my arm above a hanging slump made me grit my teeth in pain.

Once, when I had been at the gym for about a month, Artie caught one of new kids teaching another new kid how to throw a left jab.

"Hey," Artie yelled. "Don't teach him that. You're doing it ass-backwards. Just concentrate on your own form."

And yet Artie wasn't all serious. He joked with the hangers-out who weren't paying to train. The gym was always filled with visitors: older guys who used to box, skinny kids whose training fathers looked younger than me, amateur fighters who had moved to another gym but returned to thank Artie, kids who had dropped out but still came by to watch the sparring matches or disappear with Akbar behind the blue tarp. Artie always joked with them.

One time a guy with a crew cut and a long green t-shirt, about twenty, strolled in with his girlfriend. I was just finishing my sit-ups, and rested with my hands on my knees on the far side of the ring. He gave pounds to the people he passed, or head nods to a few, and then yelled Artie's name. When Artie popped out of the office he wrapped his arms around the kid for a quick second and then smacked him on the left shoulder. The kid smiled and dropped into a boxing stance, throwing a few jabs at Artie's face.

Artie smiled as he leaned in and out, holding his hands relaxed in front of him. Then the kid rolled in with two quick left hooks, body and head, and Artie's smile dropped. It wasn't that he got angry, but his body tightened. His smile flattened out. He swooped under the second punch, compact and swift, and snapped a one-two combo within inches of the kid's head. Then he smiled again, began to laugh, and gestured for the kid to follow him into the office.

It was frightening to see a man that big move that fast. I once saw television show on natural disasters, and I watched a tornado hurl a house over a corn field. It was something like that. What really struck me though, was that moment when Artie brought his guard up, that instant pressed between two smiles, like a sudden dip in an otherwise smooth path. He didn't get tense, but he didn't stay loose either. His face glossed over flat for a just a second with eyes that measured only cause and consequence. His fists tumbled out like two driving pistons, or bucked from his body like a rodeo in slow motion. Then he was smiling again.

. . .

I boxed for only two months, July and August. September arrived and school monopolized the two hours necessary each day for training. Back at Brown I thought about boxing and the fact that it was easy for me to leave it back in the summer, during my vacation. Then I saw Artie in late September, a few weeks before the Bud Belt, working as a bouncer at a club in Providence. He was standing on the sidewalk in a black suit, his arms across his chest, his bald head almost glowing in the streetlight. He shook my hand with his palm parallel to the pavement.

"I'm going to try to make it to the Bud Belt," I said, which wasn't really true until I said it.

"Don't sit in the front row," he said. "Unless you want to be splattered with blood."

I nodded. "Right. Thanks."

. . .

I got lost in Fall River and never made it to the Bud Belt. I have to admit I didn't look too hard once I got lost a few times, and I often wonder why I didn't. In any case, I didn't. Instead I felt an odd sort of relief when I couldn't find the amateur fights. Then I felt angry at my relief. I gripped the steering wheel and swore and shook my head, perhaps at my poor sense of direction, but probably at boxing. I shook my head at my anger over my relief at not finding a room of people boxing. I was angry because they would be boxing not because they liked the idea of it -- or even the thing of it, maybe -- but because they needed to.

Necessity, unlike want or enjoyment, is a clear dividing line. Anybody can want something, for any number of reasons. With necessity though, in the end, you always admit, if only by your actions, which side you're on. You either need it, or you don't. As I passed out of Fall River I turned onto Route 1A, the coastal route. I drove out to Newport alone. I didn't really want to be there, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go.
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