A World Without Compassion
“It was always like this. You swung between hatred and glory, often within seconds of each other. It was a world without compassion…”
I just read “Losing Moses on the Freeway” by Chris Hedges. It is, as the title suggests, a book about loss of faith. But whether we’re religious or irreligious, fantasists or heathens, among the blessed or one of the damned, Hedges explodes myths, of the left, right, and center, as efficiently as George Metesky exploded bombs. He may have graduated from Harvard Divinity School. He may have worked as a foreign correspondent in such far-flung hotspots as the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and Latin America. He may have won a Pulitzer. But those are just factoids peppering a distinguished résumé, not a measure of the man.
Six days after graduating from Colgate University, Hedges, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was hired to preach at the Gloucester Memorial Church in Roxbury. To those unfamiliar with Boston, Roxbury, especially those days, was a hardcore ghetto. Freighted with idealism, the soon-to-be former seminarian discovered, to his dismay, that there was neither hope nor dignity in poverty and that God, the institutional God to which he was accustomed, was less an actuality than a word to be flung in the face of nonbelievers.
After trying and failing to create even a small dent on the troubled lives around him, Hedges, out of frustration, began spending time at the Greater Boston YMCA, a few blocks from the Mission Main and Mission Extension Housing Project, where he could hit a heavy bag.
The gym became my sanctuary, Hedges writes, the only place I felt safe.
One part academy, one part social club, and one part desert island, boxing gyms are dream factories where the nightmare of daily life can be forgotten, if only in three-minute intervals.
I watched them pound on the heavy bags, snorting out bursts of air through their nostrils, counting out their combinations in cadences. The rhythmic noises, the thuds of fists into the bags, provided a comforting drumbeat. The coach had been a ranked welterweight before being partially blinded when his cornea was scratched by old regulation gloves that had detached thumbs. He moved about the room in a windbreaker, exhorting his fighters, pushing them to fury. Thumbs, not long after his partial blinding, had been attached to gloves. But it came too late for him.
Boxing is noble and tragic in equal measure. It may be a matter of where one looks. Or it may not matter unless one looks, and perhaps not even then.
I found my community through him and his small group of fighters. We worked on the bags in the basement and sparred upstairs on the basketball court, slipping in our plastic mouthpieces and donning padded headgear. We had about a half dozen welterweight fighters who fought at 147 pounds. Quick and agile fighters frustrated me. They bobbed and wove beyond my touch. I was saved by my ability to absorb punches and by the strength. I enjoyed the punishment I inflicted when my blows connected with an opposing fighter and he began to reel, especially when I had been battered and outmaneuvered. This enjoyment, however, did not extend to hurting a dazed opponent.
That reluctance to hurt a dazed opponent describes Hedges in a nutshell. His disinclination to finish what he started is anathema in boxing. It might be anathema in life itself.
The fighters clung to the sport. It was their last ticket out of a life of menial jobs in restaurants and on construction sites. Losses were not simply losses. They meant the end of the dream, the brutal realization that they would never escape from poverty and work they hated. The physical pain never matched the emotional collapse. Fighters, who rarely expressed emotion, buried their heads in their hands and wept, their shoulders shaking and their chests heaving, when they were crushed by an opponent. They disappeared soon afterward, often without saying good-bye. The pride, the cockiness, the arrogance, the hope, which they could be insufferable, was suddenly swallowed up in despair. We greeted these defeats with silence. We offered weak words of encouragement. But we wanted them to go away. It was as if they had a disease we feared would infect us, a disease we knew to be mortal. It was defeat on this scale we feared most, more than bruises, swollen ears and noses and blood that colored our urine.
I’ve been in dressing rooms where I’ve seen fighters sobbing after a loss. I’ve been in gyms where contenders, after getting their comeuppance during a sparring session, ran from the building in tears. It was shocking at first, but ceased to be shocking thereafter. Nobody loves a loser, and losers know this better than anyone. No matter how winning is defined, no matter how it is achieved, no matter whom or what suffers as a consequence, winning is all that counts.
We talked about champion fighters, how old they were when they got their break. We knew their fight styles and how they compared with our own. We modeled our boxing styles after those we emulated. Jimmy saw himself in Rocky Marciano, another young man, a cook, Sugar Ray Leonard. We came to believe we were these incarnations.
None of us talked about work. It was what you did to survive. Several of the fighters, including the coach, did construction. Some worked as cooks or in supermarkets. There was no glory or identity in profession. I did not have to explain that I was a divinity student. No one cared how I made a living. A few saw me cleaning up outside the church and assumed I was a janitor. I never corrected them.
Reality begins in dreams, or so we’ve been told. But life is rarely that simple.
The fights took place on Saturday night in Charlestown. We met at the gym and rode the subway with our gym bags on our laps. Prison buses, with wire mesh over the windows, delivered minimum security prisoners in handcuffs and leg shackles. They were brought as part of the prison’s recreation program. Few of us stood a chance against the inmates. The inmates covered up long fight records to box as amateurs. Some came from New York and Philadelphia, which for some reason made them appear more intimidating. They worked out hours every day. They rarely had mercy when their opponents, stunned from a combination, stumbled backward. The local fighters from Charlestown, all white, were much less menacing. The crowds came to life when there was blood and dazed fighters. They shouted for the inmates to knock us down. ‘Hit him! Hit him!’ the crowd would bellow. I swiftly realized this was a good way to get hurt and decided early in my career to spend my time during the Saturday bouts working the corner.
With his fair complexion and college degree, Hedges had options which his stablemates did not.
The arena was dimly lit. It had a boxing ring surrounded on all four sides by metal folding chairs. We were paid $25 a fight whether we won or lost. Those who came to watch were older men, who smoked and drank beer. Charlestown was an ugly place. The crowd shouted out racial slurs. The white sections of Boston, such as Charlestown, were far more dangerous for a black man than Roxbury was for a white. There may have been more violent crime where we lived. But there was much more hate in the white enclaves in the city. Most in my neighborhood would not drive a car through South Boston. Walking down a street in a place like Charlestown, even during the day, was out of the question.
Racism is a mug’s game. By focusing on “the narcissism of small differences,” in the words of Sigmund Freud, instead of the human condition, we serve the interests of those who want to divide and conquer. We need to direct our ire, not at the hypothetical “other,” but at the puppeteers pulling the strings.
The crowd had sympathy only for the winners. I watched the crowd boo and jeer a fighter one night who was overweight, ridiculing him mercilessly with insults as he warmed up in the corner. The bell rang and he began to fight with tenacity and speed. He overwhelmed his opponent. The crowd began to cheer and whistle. They shouted encouragement and applauded his victory. It was always like this. You swung between hatred and glory, often within seconds of each other. It was a world without compassion.
Boxing embodies extremes. That’s part of what makes it appealing, part of what pushes people away.
Once a fighter was dazed, especially one of our own, we implored the referee to stop the fight. Boxing as a sport was fine, beating up a dazed kid who was having his body and his dream pummeled into the ground was not. We hated boxing then, hated the crowd, the anger, the intensity, everything about it. But it was the blood and the destruction of young men, maybe even the destruction of dreams, that the crowd paid money to see. The fight went on until the victim tumbled to the canvas.
Perhaps Budd Schulberg said it best: “As much as I love boxing, I hate it. And as much as I hate it, I love it.
I had the wind knocked out of me in one bout. I struggled to draw gulps of air, high-pitched gasps coming out of my lips. My opponent, startled by the sound, backed away.
“Hit him,” the referee said. “The fight’s not over.”
“Yes it is,” I choked out, holding up my hands and walking to the corner.
“You don’t have enough hate in your heart to be a boxer,” the coach told me afterward.
That may be an oversimplification, but oversimplifications, like stereotypes, contain a grain of truth.
I began to sour on the sport. I clung to the camaraderie, a camaraderie that I did not want to give up for the loneliness and fear in the projects. But I went home after fights or practices with my head swimming. I felt seasick. I lay on my bed, ice wrapped in a cloth on my forehead. I lay as still as possible trying to focus when I opened my eyes, the ceiling spinning above me. I hated this more than the pain and bruises and bloody urine. It could be hours before my vision returned.
One night we were in the gym sparring. A group of college women were having an exercise class on the basketball court. They were probably from Northeastern University. To the other boxers they were beyond reach, these girls with lithe bodies and high school diplomas and fine manners. I peered back at my world.
“Come on,” Jimmy said as we got ready to spar. “I’ll make you look good.”
Who wouldn’t want to look good in front of lithe coeds with fine manners? In two words, Chris Hedges.
I began to skip workouts after two years. My heart was not in it. I put on the heavy gloves, always slightly moist inside, during one of my last workouts. We began to spar. Jimmy did not hit me in the head. He glowered at me during the break. We began again. Again, he did not hit me in the head.
“Why don’t you hit me in the head,” I asked.
Jimmy and a couple of other fighters crowded in on me.
“You’re studying to be a pastor,” he said. “We will never hit you in the head again. We are dumb fucks. You need you mind for the Lord.”
Hedges stopped boxing but continues to fight. He can be called many things, but complacent isn’t among them.