The Bronx Is Just Like It Sounds
“Jab their eyes out, Jay!” While explaining this, Al took off his glasses for all my opponents to see the hollow space where his eye used to be…
I spent nights jogging on black ice covered Bronx concrete, rocking a hoodie with a skin tight garbage bag underneath, blasting Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring as I exited the pristine fields and Gothic churches of Fordham University, en-route to The New York Golden Gloves Championship in Madison Square Garden. The midnight run was a spiritually enlightening terror dash through the different territories of the Boogie Down. You run faster when you don’t want to stop and stick out on Billy Bathgate Avenue, and I projected the man who didn’t mind getting hit in the face and had actually begun to enjoy it, or so I tried. Every so often, I would pass a fellow shadow boxer who made me wonder if they knew the truth, or if they too questioned whether the hours of preparation were merely a masquerade, a sham, a character that we had created, actors miming action heroes we had seen in movies. Regardless, there were other people punching the air after midnight, and this gave me hope.
I entered Little Italy through Arthur Avenue, only to realize these weren’t Italians at all, and the place was quickly becoming Little Kosovo. While the remaining Italians opened and closed their delis during the day, the Albanians came out at night, pacing in front of Jake LaMotta’s birthplace. I passed Webster Avenue where the fluorescent neon rim shops melded into Jamaican pool halls, the barbershops, and Jimmy’s Bronx Barbeque. I darted down the middle of the Grand Concourse, past the overpass where the Bonfire of the Vanities dilemma began. In and out of the fluorescent light-pooled crack spots and down to Hunt’s Point where the hookers spent their winters bundled in synthetic furs. Sometimes I stopped at the end of my run for a quick chat with RP while I stretched. “Really Pimpin” starred in the Hughes Brothers’ American Pimp. When the interviewer asked him if he beats his women, he responded: “I ain’t got a heart like Hitler or nothing, but I do pimp accordingly.” Then the girls looked at the camera and said, “I only met him last week.”
Really Pimpin was on the hunt for a pair of brontosaurus boots to wear to the Players Ball. He always had some new slang and jingo lingo of the day he’d spit from his grille, slapping me back to my college campus. The “Shaker Melody” repeated, and I belted out, “‘Tis a gift to be simple! ‘Tis a gift to be freeeeeee!” It was 2000, the Bronx was hard as ever, but I figured people are far less likely to try to rob you if you sing, punch, and run simultaneously.
For years, Puerto Rican bachata had dominated the speakers of the Mount Vernon Boxing Club. There is a DJ in every boxing gym; he becomes so by winning the most titles, and Glen Ghani had four New York City Golden Gloves dangling from his thick gold chain. The 5”3 featherweight spoke through a gap tooth. While I wasn’t intimidated by Latin Mighty Mouse, boxing gyms have a lot in common with prisons—it was best to keep a low profile before turning them on to the Go-Go rhythms I had transported from Chocolate City.
I spent my teenage years training at Finley’s Boxing Gym in Northeast, DC, where Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, Bantamweight Champion of the World, played Chuck Brown’s Greatest Hits, on repeat, all day, every day. Mr. Finley called me “Billy Conn.” He was always warning me to be “the cautious Billy Conn,” and not “the cocky Billy Conn” who was up on points, only to be KO’d in the 13th round by the Brown Bomber.
When I told old Mr. Finley I was moving to the BX, he gave me that Chuck Brown’s Greatest Hits tape. “Well before the shooting in Pennsylvania Park that left a man with a bullet in his spine, Chuck was Bobby Foster’s sparring partner. When Chuck got to Lorton Penitentiary, he traded five packs of cigarettes for his first guitar—and that’s Go-Go history,” Mr. Finley explained.
I never met a Puerto Rican Puerto Rican growing up in DC, and I just could not decipher their rhythms inside the ring. DC fighters all fight like Chuck Brown plays the guitar—too sharp. I decided that I needed Chuck Brown to bust me loose. When Ghani’s bachata tape came to an end, I made my way to the boombox, the Greatest Hits tape in hand.
Ghani made eye contact and cut towards me. “What you doin?” Ghani questioned. Undeterred, I slipped the tape into the deck, and before pressin’ play, I responded, “What you know about GO-GO?”
Back in DC, Too Sharp would play that Greatest Hits tape to death—at which point he would bring in a new Greatest Hits tape. I’m still not sure if Mr. Finley was playing a joke on this here white boy. All I know is that at that moment, Chuck Brown did not sound like Chuck Brown at all. “R—U—N—J—O—E, Run Joe, T-h-e-p-o-l-i-c-e are at your door!” was all slow motion, the tape was dilapidated. As opposed to Drama City’s number one shot caller, Chuck sounded more like he was calling Heidi from the other side of the Alps.
Slow motion Chuck Brown or not, bachata had started to feel a lot like latin square dance music—either we switched up the tunes, or I was moving camp to Webster PAL. Convinced that I was willing to knife fight in the parking lot over this matter, I stood my ground against the featherweight, who then explained, “Look, man, the only reason we listen to my music, is because nobody else has music.”
From that day forth, Mount Vernon Boxing Gym became a daily sitcom over who would control the stereo. Owen “2002 NYC Middleweight Champion” Rahway and his crew of Jamaican sanitation workers wanted dancehall. Chris Pignone wanted techno hair gel. Rob “2001 NYC Super Middleweight Champion” Kucher, Faith the “2001 NYC female heavyweight champion” Webster, and Noel, the scrappy Puerto Rican who wore tinfoil on his head to foil the CIA––all agreed that my newly purchased Chuck Brown’s Greatest Hits tape was exactly what we needed to be listening to while dancing with ourselves in the mirror.
You could always hear their cackles coming down into the basement as The Kosovo Kid entered the club, closely followed by his crew of Albanian gangsters. They had witnessed war crimes and were now stealing luxury cars for a living. I was a broke college kid, but more importantly, I fantasized about being a part of Jack Palance’s posse. The first day I met them, I inquired as to whether they were accepting applications.
Dexter owned an Albanian social club two blocks from Fordham’s campus where I bartended on Friday nights. The Albanians liked that I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, but then some guy got stabbed over a cup of hot water and lemon, and I started rolling with Rob Kucher up on McLean Avenue, amongst my fellow Irishmen.
My trainer, Al Artola looked like he played guitar for Tito Puente’s band. Al was a former bus mechanic for the public school system. A school bus engine exploded, melting his right eye and ending his boxing career, and so he spent his days training kids and fixing Delvin Rodriguez’s cuts in professional bouts, wearing fuchsia aviators to hide the gaping hole. For some reason I placed much value on his cutman skills. It’s harder than it sounds, fixing cuts. You’ve only got a minute between rounds to perform surgery, only to send us back out with gashes covered in Vaseline. All he asked in return for his support was victory.
Mr. Finley always told me, “Women weaken the knees.” It was spring break of 2000, and while my friends were off to the south of the border STD-laden rivers in search of tropical pussy, I had managed to refrain from busting a nut for over a month since the New York Golden Gloves tournament had begun.
I boxed for myself. Not once did I invite friends, family, or anyone to see me in the act. I never wanted to have to worry about their worrying. Boxing in boxing matches was just one element of the character I created, and at 3-0, with one knockout, I had made it to the semi-finals.
The locker rooms at the New York City Golden Gloves reminded me of the Emergency Room where my family and I waited to hears news of my little brother Freddie’s compound fracture. What advice do you give a man who doesn’t know what he’s up against? It could be a southpaw, an orthodox fighter, or a friend. Until drawing straws, the four of us stared each other down, dilated pugilist pupils in the direction of those who might oppose our Madison Square Garden dreams.
I was listening to “All Eyes on Me,” when Al removed one of my earphones to remind me: “Jab their eyes out, Jay!” While explaining this, Al took off his glasses for all my opponents to see the hollow space where his eye used to be. At 6”4, 156 pounds, my left jab was, and still is, my best friend.
Chocky, the Dominican cemetery worker and I had become friends. Al and Chocky’s trainer were tight, and I would go down to Jerome Avenue Boxing Club and spar with him, wondering if we might ever have to make it official.
I went to the scale and weighed in at 158 lbs. I was then provided with a neoprene suit, a jump rope, and asked to lose two pounds as Chocky came up to me and said “good luck,” in his deep, Dominican accent.
The referee told us “touch gloves,” and I gave Chocky a friendly pound. People yelled “Fag!” This was confusing, as I was about to punch my friend in the face and wanted to establish, “nothing personal.”
I was winning after the second round. Al told me so while covering my face with Vaseline. I looked out into the crowd and made eye contact with this little kid who seemed genuinely concerned with my well-being, standing next to his father who was looking for blood.
Chocky and I were slugging it out. He knocked me down with 30 seconds left to go. I got up immediately, but while usually this would have sent me into a rage, I couldn’t source the hate within that usually propelled me through those moments after realizing I have run out of body fat.
As they announced the decision, I knew Chocky would go on to win that prized golden gloves chain, dangling around his neck as he dug ditches in the Bronx cemetery.
They raised Chocky’s hand in victory as I realized that I would have to ride the D train back to Fordham Road, covered in blood. I wished that my father were parked outside in his ’65 cream Mercedes E320 convertible, waiting to take me back to DC. I could feel those sheepskin seats. Then I reminded myself that my daddy never taught me how to knock a Dominican out.
Jay Bulger is the director of Beware of Mr. Baker. He still lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jaybulger.