Where Everybody Knows Your Name

By Clarence George on July 12, 2013
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Who was I all of a sudden, Bert Sugar, Dr. Joyce Brothers? I wanted that 99-cent iced tea.

Stillman’s Gym had been there, between 54th and 55th. Long gone, of course, like pretty much everything else that should have stayed but didn’t…

“The Neutral, as its familiars call it, is a few doors north of Stillman’s gymnasium and is patronized chiefly by fight managers, trainers, and boxers, who are locked out of Stillman’s between three and five o’clock every afternoon, and by ex-boxers, who favor a place where somebody is likely to recognize them.”—A.J. Liebling

It’s close by and I’m a nostalgist, so I sometimes visit the southwest corner of 55th and Eighth. Pointless and not a little masochistic as there’s nothing to see but a modern and ugly apartment building where history used to be but isn’t anymore. Stillman’s Gym had been there, between 54th and 55th, and the Neutral Corner Cocktail Lounge and Restaurant right on that southwest corner. Long gone, of course, like pretty much everything else that should have stayed but didn’t, replaced by a Hale and Hearty Soups or a Starbucks or a Duane Reade or a Dunkin’ Donuts or a bank branch. Take your pick.

Come to think of it, it wasn’t a Dunkin’ Donuts. I’d have remembered that because it was hot and I was thirsty and I would have gone in for an iced tea. Come the hot weather, you can get their iced tea for 99 cents, even the large. It’s a good deal. That’s right, I was going to head back to my own block where there’s for sure a Dunkin’ Donuts, staffed by these hot and spicy Bangladeshi girls who are awfully easy on the eyes and who know me and sometimes toss in a free doughnut or two with a wink and a smile.

There was an old man looking at the Hale and Hearty Soups or the bank branch or whatever the hell it was and he didn’t look hungry or like he had a check to cash. I didn’t recognize him, but I know a kindred spirit when I see one.

“The Neutral Corner,” I said. “Where it used to be.”

He looked me up and down with the kind of look I once got when I went on an interview and the guy told me I wasn’t right for the job but wanted to know if I’d consider “security.” He looked tough despite his small hands and the office was in the kind of building where dentists from bad schools hang out their shingles and where businesses go to die. My gut told me he was looking for someone to chastise reluctant debtors and I said I’d get back to him but didn’t.

“You a boxer?” the old man asked.

“No.”

“You look like them fat heavyweights I hear about sometimes.”

“Yeah, that’s been told me more than once,” I said. “You? Boxer?”

“Little bit, long time ago,” he said. “But I used to be in the game. Know Melio Bettina?”

“Sure.”

“Used to work with him. My name’s Donovan.”

“That’s a good name,” I said. “If I had a bulldog, I’d name him that. Or maybe Galento.”

“Why not ‘Two Ton’?”

“Depends on how fat he got.”

“What’s your name?” he wanted to know, so I told him.

“You got two first names,” he said. “How come?”

“Not really sure,” I said. “Family mystery. Come from a long line of pirates and rogues. One of my grandfathers was stabbed to death.”

I wanted to ask about Bettina, but he had another boxer in mind.

“You know what your name’s like?” he asked. “Your name’s like Clarence Henry. You know Clarence Henry?”

“Sure.”

“Tell me about Clarence Henry.”

Who was I all of a sudden, Bert Sugar, Dr. Joyce Brothers? It was hot and I wanted that 99-cent iced tea.

“Well, he was a heavyweight contender in the ‘50s,” I said. “A bit on the small side, but very strong and a hard hitter. He fought Jimmy Bivins, Turkey Thompson, Omelio Agramonte, Harold Johnson, Archie Moore, Bob Baker. Battling Blackjack, who was executed for murder. Um, oh yeah, destroyed Bob Satterfield. Um, oh yeah, fought a guy named Shirley Pembleton, who must have learned to put up his dukes real early.”

“What else?” Donovan asked in a tone I hadn’t heard since math class.

“Well, he worked for ‘Blinky’ Palermo and got into a whole lot of hot water for trying to fix a fight between Joey Giardello and Bobby Jones. And, uh, that was the end of his career, and, uh…” I trailed off.

“Look, I always liked him,” I said in the face of a silence as cold as the iced tea I was hankering for. “Henry’s in the World Boxing Hall of Fame and is arguably Canastota material.” Silence. “What I meant to say is that I would argue in favor of that…of his being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.” Silence. “And the argument would be vigorous, let me tell you.” Silence. “Do you have a petition you want me to sign?” Silence. “How ‘bout an iced tea?”

The old man gave me a look that reminded me of Robert Ruark’s encounter with a Cape buffalo: “He looked at me as though I owed him money.” He imperiously pointed to the Hale and Hearty, and in a stentorian tone declaimed: “This is the Neutral Corner!”

He stormed off as though gathering an invisible cloak about him.

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  1. Mike Silver 09:06pm, 07/23/2013

    Beau, I remember that seminar in Commack some years back. I do recall speaking with several people afterwards including someone who really knew his stuff-can’t place a face-but must have been you!

  2. Clarence George 10:00am, 07/21/2013

    Cnorkusjr:  I’m beholden to you for reminding me of Nedick’s and their famous orange drink—“I’ll meet you in the Orange Room of the Hotel Nedick’s.”  It’s their centennial, and they’d probably still be around if they hadn’t messed with success.

    Thanks as well, and also Beaujack, for more memories of “The Toy Bulldog.”

  3. beaujack 08:32am, 07/21/2013

    Hya Charley. As a youngster in the 1940s, my dad took me into Mickey Walker’s bar on 49St and 8th Ave, across the street from the old MSG.
    There was the retired Toy Bulldog behind the bar, with a stogie in his mouth shaking hands…At that time I knew little of Mickey Walker but he was one of my dad’s favorite fighters, and I soon knew of his greatness…

  4. cnorkusjr 07:14am, 07/21/2013

    Reading the list of food places you all mentioned here in the area, but no one mentions “Nedicks” near entrance to the Garden on 8th.
    Why go to Papaya King when you could get a dog and orange drink at Nedicks, one of my favorites when my father took me to Rangers Games as a kid. In 1965, on a visit to Garden, my father and I ran into Mickey Walker on 8th Ave. My father introduced me to the “Toy Bulldog” as THE Champ. My father mentioned that Mickey owned a place across the street of the Garden of a bar he had but is there no longer. They mentioned names that I did not know at the time but I’m sure they were in the fight game. It was a good time.

  5. beaujack 08:03am, 07/19/2013

    Mike, I once met you as a seminar in Commack, LI a couple of years ago.
    Budd Schulberg was also there..Small world. Allie Stolz was a classy boxer puncher, though not too rugged. He was a little past his best when he met Willie Pep who was outweighed 6 pounds by Allie. I also saw Bob Montgomery ko Stolz just before he retired…Speaking of pure boxers, I must mention Tippy Larkin as a boxer, so good that he beat Willie Joyce 3 times, kod Allie Stolz, won just about every round from that great boxer Billy Graham…But Tippy Larkin had a glass chin ,but if he had Billy Graham’s chin, Tippy Larkin would certainly have been an all-time great LW.

  6. Clarence George 02:37am, 07/19/2013

    Mike S.:  Doug Fischer has done it again.  In response to a fan asking what he should read to learn the history of the Sweet Science, Doug had this to say:

    “Three books that are good for gaining an appreciation and foundation for boxing’s rich history were brought up in this week’s Monday mailbag and I’m happy to mention them again: ‘In This Corner…! Forty Two World Champions Tell Their Stories’ by Peter Heller, ‘The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science’ by Mike Silver and ‘The Boxing Register,’ which is the official record book of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (currently in its fifth edition), by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt.”

    He never mentions my book.  True, I haven’t written one, but that’s beside the point.

  7. Mike Silver 10:52pm, 07/18/2013

    Beau—You saw the Pep vs. Stolz bout! How I envy your actually seeing these two master boxers in action. Stolz was a bit past his peak, I believe, but who outboxes Pep at his best? Stolz was robbed of the title when he lost a controversial decision to Angott. He wouldn’t play ball with the mob guys so no title.

  8. Mike Silver 10:46pm, 07/18/2013

    Yikes! Beau Jack—I think we may have had the same father! Yes, for a young (or old) boxing fan Stillman’s was paradise. And icing on the cake was the post workout meal at the Automat! My father would also take us occasionally to the Gayety—a deli in the Broadway area that served up the most delicious turkey on club sandwiches. He kept promising to take me to “the Brass Rail” which was a more upscale place but can’t remember if we ever got there.

  9. beaujack 03:02pm, 07/18/2013

    Of course Pep almost lost his life in a plane accident, not a car accident.
    MY BAD !
    Aside : I first saw Willie Pep in MSG 1943 when he outclassed a terrific Allie Stolz, a lightweight from New Jersey.
    Pep was like a mind reader as he seemed to anticipate his opponent’s every move…He that night could be described as “uncanny”...
    Then in 1947 Pep was in that horrible plane accident that almost took his life….

  10. Clarence George 12:49pm, 07/18/2013

    Not a writer, Beaujack?  I beg to differ.

    Jimmy Leto is indeed unjustifiably forgotten.  He has around 150 bouts to his name, and fought guys like Chalky Wright and Georgie Abrams.

    By the way, Pep’s accident was in a plane, not a car.  Relax!  I’m waiving the fine…this time.

  11. beaujack 09:49am, 07/18/2013

    I am NOT a writer, but I love boxing dearly and have a retentive memory.
    It started when I pre-teener lived next door to a trainer of the great LH champion John Henry Lewis…Every night I would go next door and spar with some stablemates of JH LEWIS, but I never saw the champion himself. .But a welterweight named Tommy Jones befriended me , fed me salad with olive oil and sparred with me…But Sadly Tommy Jones had to go to Australia to get bouts, and I never saw him again until about 3 years ago in some boxing article there was a photo of Tommy Jones and a guy who beat Tommy Jones and Charley Burley amongst others. His name was Jimmy Leto, a great forgotten tough welterweight…With this background and my dad who boxed smokers in the roaring twenties, I became a devotee of boxing from my favorite era the 1940s…Saw most all the greats ringside including the WW Ray Robinson, and the” will of the Wisp”, Willie Pep before his near fatal auto crash…

  12. Clarence George 05:26am, 07/18/2013

    Beaujack:  What exactly, pray tell, are you waiting for to pen your memoirs?

  13. beaujack 05:06am, 07/18/2013

    CG,I remember Schrafft’s restaurant on E 42 St, right across the street from the defunct old Commodore Hotel. And I fondly recall the Garden Cafeteria, across the street from the old MSG on 8th Ave and 50th Street. After the Friday bouts we would go to the Garden Cafeteria, eat amongst the fighters and their trainers and shoot the breeze. Next day on Saturdays I would be at Stillman’s gym where to me a young fight fan, felt like I was in paradise….

  14. Clarence George 02:19am, 07/18/2013

    Mike S. and Beaujack:  I, too, remember going to Horn & Hardart, usually with my mother and grandmother, as well as going to the Pierre with my father to get his hair cut.  And it was a barber shop, not some newfangled hair-styling salon—no female women around to put the kibosh on the telling of an off-color tale or two.

    You’d probably both like “When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s,” by Joan Kanel Slomanson, which came out a few years ago.  High time somebody wrote a similar book on Horn & Hardart.  You, Beaujack?

    Ah, the Automat.  What do we have today?  People going to “dark restaurants,” where they’re served by blind waiters.  Don’t hold with such decadent nonsense myself.

  15. beaujack 08:45pm, 07/17/2013

    Oh the mention of Horn and Hardart Automat makes me salivate .
    My dad and I would go to the Automat on Bwy most everytime we went to MSG. For 5cents we would get a great cup of java with a 25cent apple pie and other goodies coming out of the coin operated turnstyle…You could spend hours at the Automat with no one bothering you…We would also go to the East 42nd St. Automat next to the NY Daily News. And then to MSG Friday nights. Heaven to a young fellow like me. Yessir !

  16. Mike Silver 08:30pm, 07/17/2013

    Thanks Clarence. My book is in good company. Thinking about “Old New York” your mention of the Horn and Hardart “Automat” brought back memories. Food better than any five star restaurant (for a 12 year old kid, at least. And those little windows where you dropped nickels into a slot to get your food—so cool). “Toughness and class”—right on!

  17. Clarence George 02:58am, 07/15/2013

    Yo, Mike S., Doug Fischer has been going gangbusters of late on the dummies who “think” the new breed could take their counterparts of old, sneering at the fatuity that Klitschko could beat Louis or that Mares would take Pep.  With that as context, he recommends you (as well as lesser writers) in today’s “Mailbag”:

    “‘In This Corner…! Forty Two World Champions Tell Their Stories’ by Peter Heller is a great book for young boxing fans to read in order to learn Who’s Who in boxing history and to gain appreciation for the standouts of the past.

    “I would also recommend ‘The Arc [of] Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science’ by Mike Silver and ‘The Boxing Register,’ which is the official record book of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (currently in its fifth edition), by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt.”

    Thought you’d like to know.

  18. Clarence George 02:25am, 07/15/2013

    Thank you, Mike S.

    A few pockets of resistance remain, such as Papaya King on East 86th, there since the 1930s and essentially unchanged.  The best hot dogs and a grape drink that tastes like it did when you were a kid.  But gone the days when you could get a paper-thin hamburger that was the best thing your tummy ever knew and a chocolate milk shake that wasn’t overpriced melted ice cream, or soda served as it should be—in a v-shaped paper cup placed in a metal funnel.

    Gone that New York mix of toughness and class.  It went the way of Schrafft’s and Horn & Hardart, replaced by McDonald’s and Burger King and other bastions and purveyors of vulgarity and shabbiness.

  19. Mike Silver 08:33pm, 07/14/2013

    Clarence, your description of New York during its great heyday is right on target. A magical, exciting, vibrant, energizing tough city. And those Friday night fights at the old Garden on 50th street—-so New York!

  20. Clarence George 02:48am, 07/14/2013

    “The Naked City” (from 1948, with the always wonderful Barry Fitzgerald and Ted de Corsia) was the first film shot on location in New York City.  In addition to its considerable entertainment value, it provides an excellent depiction of what the city was like before being turned over to homogenizers, schoolmarms, and degenerates, and transformed into a gigantic tourist center for a bunch of rubes who haven’t the faintest clue how to walk with purpose on a NYC street.

    In the late 1940s, and for long after, the city was renowned for its charming seediness, as well as elegance.  Precious little of either remaining.  I remember once being at The Russian Tea Room when some character walked in dressed in the ubiquitous T-shirt, shorts, sandals, and baseball cap (bill backwards, of course)...and was seated!  I would have sat him down all right—on his butt on the sidewalk.

    As for “Somebody Up There Likes Me”...Paul Newman (whom I never liked) got tough with Tony Zale (whom I always did) while sparring, and Zale knocked him out.  Excellent!  It cost Zale his role in the movie, but I’m sure he thought it worth it.  He was replaced, by the way, by Courtland Shepard, who admittedly did a good job.

  21. Mike Silver 12:14am, 07/14/2013

    Ah yes, Stillman’s. I was lucky enough to see the gym in its last two years of existence. There was Gaspar Ortega, Dick Tiger, a very young Emile Griffith, Ike Chestnut, Alex Miteff, Joey Archer, Federico Thompson and of course visiting fighters who were going to fight in the Garden or just wanted quality sparring. Eder Jofre even came up one week (missed him dammit!) but did get to see Into work out there while he was champ. There was that constant wonderful smell of lineament mixed with leather and sweat. The sound of the speed bags. The movie “Naked City” has a short scene that shows the interior of Stillman’s. Also “Somebody Up There Likes Me” has a scene, but someone told me its a Hollywood stage set—but looks authentic to me.

     

     

  22. Clarence George 05:00am, 07/13/2013

    Beaujack:  I love your reminiscences.

    Mike:  Your approbation is always appreciated. 

     

  23. Mike Casey 04:33am, 07/13/2013

    Love reading these kind of stories. Great picture too. Very Runyonesque! Well done, Clarence!.

  24. beaujack 04:26am, 07/13/2013

    Your piece on Stillman’s gym on 8th Ave, brings back to me a great bit of nostalgia..As a youngster In the 1940s, I would go to Stillman’s gym weekly to see the greatest fighters in the world train. I would see the one and only Lou Stillman sitting on a tall bar stool, with a stogie in his mouth introducing the boxers in the two rings, berating everyone who rubbed him wrong. Stillman ran a tight ship. The gym reeked of sweat but there were no windows open, but it was heaven to me growing up. Besides the fighters , I would see great trainers as Whitey Bimstein, Freddie Brown, Charley Goldman, Ray Arcel, Chickie Ferrera, plying their trade…In the New York area, there was a boxing card every night of the week except Sunday, where we would see the same fighters who trained at Stillman’s gym. Wonderful days for me, for sure in those times. Yessir!

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