My father emigrated as a child with his parents from Poland. His father, Michael, worked in the South Chicago mills. When my father was 12, Michael suffered a beating that sent him to Dunning, a county mental hospital. In Chicago, the name Dunning was synonymous with insane asylum, nuthouse, booby hatch. When I was a kid, teachers invoked it as a threat: “Keep that up and you’re going to Dunning.” A siren provoked the warning “They’re coming from Dunning for you!” Incarceration in a place that mythical stigmatized one’s entire family. As the eldest son, my father had to drop out of school to help the family of seven survive. While working his way up to foreman at Harvester, he managed to finish high school at night and even took a couple of college courses in mechanical drawing. His dream was that I’d be the mechanical engineer he’d never had the chance to become. When, in my freshman year at a high school famous for its boxing program, I told him I wanted to join the boxing team, he told me no way. The beating that left my grandfather a vegetable on the city dole still reverberated through a generation unimagined at the time.
In my grandfather’s time, there were taverns that sponsored illegal fights on paydays. Men bet on their local champions, and the fighters fought bare-knuckle under the streetlights in the alley behind the tavern. My grandfather fought, mostly drunk, every other week until the night strangers brought him home on a stretcher of blond-colored door, unconscious, eyes rolled back, blood leaking from his mouth, nose and ears, and his paycheck missing.
My father couldn’t forget the image of that door. He told me the story one Sunday when the two of us were picking through one of the wrecking sites he’d stake out to loot for BX cable, pipes, flooring—scrap he’d use to rehab our apartment building. The excavation pit was closed off from the street by a makeshift wall of doors from the demolished buildings, with DANGER KEEP OUT slapped in red paint across them. He said his father lay comatose for a week before an ambulance took him away. The blond door, stained with his father’s blood, remained propped against the bedroom wall in their flat as if it might open on a secret passage leading to a hidden room. The bloodstain had come to look like illegible handwriting. Weeks passed without Michael coming home, and finally my father couldn’t stand looking at that door. He couldn’t heft it, so he enlisted his kid brother, Victor—Chino—to help him. They managed to drag it into the alley. My father looked at the bloodstain one last time. He could make out an S, the first letter of his name, as if he’d been left an indecipherable message. The homeless patrolled alleys, sorting through the trash for treasures. That door would be somebody’s lucky day. Now that they’d hauled it out of the house, my father felt guilty for throwing away a perfectly good door.
It wasn’t until he told me about the door that I remembered how back when I was still too young to understand where we were going, he’d take me along on an annual visit—he never said to where. My mother would pack a shopping bag with food and used clothes, but she never joined us. It seemed a long drive out to what we called “the country,” past cemeteries and forest preserves, along roads lined with shade trees and smoothly paved, unlike the potholed streets on the industrial South Side. Finally we’d enter the black spearhead gates of an institution. Shopping bag in one hand and mine in his other, my father guided us down corridors that reeked of disinfectant and urine. A voice from the end of a hall was always shouting, “I don’t belong here!” Attendants would bring out a gray-stubbled, dazed old man in a wheelchair and leave the three of us some privacy before a sunny bank of windows that looked out on a lawn dotted with invalids. The old man’s hands were clenched in his lap. My father would gently pry open those petrified fists and take the battered hands in his and smooth his fingers over the scarred, bulging knuckles. He’d lower his face to the old man’s hand, now defused on the armrest of the wheelchair, as if to kiss it, but instead he’d rest his cheek there a moment. Then it was time to go. After a few such trips, I asked, “Dad, who’s that old guy?”
“Your grampa Michael,” he said.
I knew better than to try to persuade my father to let me box. It wasn’t that he blamed boxing for what happened to Michael. Actually, aside from his love of swimming, boxing was the only sport my father showed the least interest in. After he’d dropped out of school, among his many odd jobs was spotting pins at bowling alleys. But bowling—one of the two major sports for men in our neighborhood, probably because it could be combined with the other major sport, beer drinking—didn’t interest him. He didn’t play golf or tennis, not even table tennis. If he had a hobby, it was the endless upkeep—plumbing, painting, tuck-pointing—on the fixer-upper on Washtenaw Avenue he’d saved for years to buy. We lived on the first floor because that was where landlords lived. Until he converted all six flats to oil, he rose each morning at five to stoke the coal furnace before leaving for the factory. Each night, he’d return home to some waiting repair. There wasn’t time for games, not if he was going to realize the stage in capitalism beyond basic survival that he called “getting a leg up.” He wasn’t a Bears fan; he didn’t follow the Cubs or Sox and never took me to a ball game or came to a single track meet I ran in—not even the state finals—nor did I expect him to. I lived in a time and place of unsupervised childhoods, a condition that didn’t feel at all like neglect. It felt ecstatic and free, and my allegiance was to keeping it that way. But my father did set Wednesday nights aside for the Pabst Blue Ribbon fights, and I’d watch with him. It wasn’t some father-and-son ritual in bonding. Decades before anyone imagined interactive computer games, my father sat before the 17-inch screen participating in the battle, his fists cocked, his face registering the rush of emotions and adrenaline as he feinted, ducked and counterpunched. You kept your distance from his seat at the edge of the maroon stuffed chair or else risked getting clobbered.
Maybe a magnetic pull toward fights ran in our family. A generation earlier, my father’s younger brother Victor—my uncle Chino—won the welterweight division of the Golden Gloves. He had boxed in the Navy and was never defeated in the ring. Like my grandfather Michael, Chino would end up in Dunning, in a room he referred to as the Dybek Wing.
Unlike Grandpa Michael, who sat staring from his wheelchair into the void, Chino staged several escapes over that spear-tipped fence, legendary for impaling crazies. When he managed a breakout, he’d jog the streets of the old neighborhood in his high-tops as if training—shadowboxing, jumping an air rope, hustling handouts. Once, waiting in the car as I frequently did when my father left it running in a no-parking zone to avoid feeding a meter, I saw a bum in a hooded jersey, jogging down the block, yelling “Stosh!” to my father, who’d just stepped out from an auto parts store. Pretending not to hear him, my father, with a look of shame, jumped in the car and sped away. I felt ashamed too for not having recognized Chino and then running out on him. I asked my father why we didn’t stop. He told me that Chino owed him too much already. “Dough won’t help,” he said. “He’s got the family curse.”
It was the first I’d heard about a family curse, but I didn’t ask my father to explain. On some level, I already knew that whatever he’d say would—like the phrase family curse itself—sound like a superstition that should have been left in the Old Country, and that hearing my father say aloud what he’d left to silence would only further the alienation I’d begun to feel toward him.
Before Chino’s bouts with depression or bipolar disorder or whatever they were calling the family curse at the time, my uncle tried to teach me to box. It pleased him that we were both southpaws. At family get-togethers at my grandma’s house across from the freight tracks and granary towers on 17th Street, Chino would give me a nod that meant it was time to leave the boring small talk behind. We’d sneak out into her backyard, and knee-deep in weeds he’d teach me the jabs, hooks and uppercuts, and how to throw them using my hips and legs so the blows weren’t pitty-pats. He taught me to keep my thumbs tucked so I didn’t dislocate them as I swung at the moving targets of his open palms. He taught me to always keep my guard up.
There was always more to practice—combinations, defense, footwork, strategy. He knew baseball was my favorite sport, and he explained why Sugar Ray Robinson was an athlete equal to Willie Mays. For my 11th birthday he bought me a pair of pillowy, oversize gloves. I’d wear a football helmet, and we’d spar, me bobbing and weaving while Chino flicked jabs, until I was flushed and could hear both his slaps and my breath echoing in the helmet.
He never hurt me. He’d tighten his stomach and insist I punch him in the solar plexus: “No mosquito bites, a real punch. Pretend I’m a heavy bag.” I didn’t want to hit him, which he found hilarious. “I’m like the great Houdini—abs of steel—you can’t hurt me, and if you could, no pain, no gain, right?” Then, in answer to his own question, he’d have us on our backs doing the elbow-to-knee twists he called pug-ups, guaranteed to make my solar plexus impervious to punishment too. “Surviving a right-hand world gives lefties an advantage,” he assured me. “Fast hands run in our family.”
I believed him about hand speed because I had fast feet. I could outrun everyone at St. Roman grade school and every kid including the older guys in Lawndale Gardens, the housing project kitty-corner from our apartment building. On the football field, I’d never been caught from behind. If not for Chino, I’d have never been the only güerito enrolled in the Hermandad de Boxeo program at the Marshall Square Boys Club. We entered the ring there armored—padded headgear, a mouthpiece, mandatory jockstrap and a kind of ill-fitting padded corset that protected the ribs. A knockdown, let alone a knockout, was all but impossible at the Boys Club. Occasionally a fight was stopped because of a thumbed eye or a split lip, but fights were decided on points as if they were fencing matches with tipped foils. My strategy was to attack just as my opponent was adjusting his rib pads or the headgear obscuring his vision. I expended my energy dancing like Sugar Ray. That grace might reside in the economy of motion never occurred to me. My long, skinny arms gave me a reach advantage and no one I fought had learned how to take a fight inside. I flicked my right-hand jab and kept my left cocked, ready to erupt into the rhythmic combinations I’d tattooed against Uncle Chino’s palms. Mostly they glanced off my opponent’s gloves, but landing a punch was secondary to the flash of throwing it. My Brothers of Boxing weren’t connecting either, which I attributed to my savvy defense.
A year later, I was on the boxing team at St. Augustine, training for my first freshman fight in the Catholic Youth Organization tournament. We trained three days a week, hitting the light and heavy bags, doing sit-ups and running endless laps up and down stairways through the corridors of the school. The only actual boxing up to then was sparring matches in which I’d held my own.
The CYO hall was packed and over-heated. They’d propped open the doors, and a haze from the men smoking outside hung at the exits as if the wet night were smoldering. There was a holiday feel, something almost jolly about the boisterous voices of the dads, most of them white. Some had boxed CYO themselves. They were there to relive their glory days and to cheer on their sons. My father wasn’t among them. I’d forged his name on the permission slip required for me to box. I had left the house that evening with my sax case stuffed with my gym gear. The sax was hidden under my bed. My father thought I was going to band practice.
Freshman fights didn’t affect the standing of the varsity team. We were the warm-up act, the preliminary bouts. The teams were all from South Side Catholic schools. I drew a guy from St. Elizabeth, a predominantly African American school that for the past few years had challenged St. A’s domination. The St. Elizabeth team wore orange tees with the school name across the front and the boxer’s last name stenciled on the back. Maybe I had run too many laps because I weighed in a few pounds under lightweight. Ward, the kid I was fighting, was a couple pounds over, but approximations were apparently all right for the freshmen. He was a head shorter than I was and built more like a tackle than a lightweight. He had an inordinately thick neck, a pubic-like scruff on his chin, and he was dripping sweat as if he’d already gone several rounds. I had started grade school early and was a year younger than most of the freshman class. If Ward was a freshman, I couldn’t help wondering how many times he’d been held back.
There are doorways we treat as ordinary, although in stepping through them one enters another reality—a church, a bar, the ropes of a boxing ring. I never had worse butterflies than when I climbed into that CYO ring. To ease the tension, I pounded my gloves together and danced in my corner. It was an unintentionally gung-ho, badass display. One of the dads at ringside, a freckly, rusty-haired guy working overtime on his beer gut, picked up on it immediately and began taunting the kid I was fighting, referring to him as N-Ward: “Yo, N-Ward, Bean’s gonna beat your black fireplug booty.”
Ward stripped off his sweat-soaked tee. From across the ring, his booty appeared as muscular as his thick neck and biceps. He nonchalantly glanced my way and we locked eyes. I involuntarily smiled. He turned and spit into the bucket beside his stool. I tried to pretend I had only been stretching the muscles around my lips in preparation for the mouthpiece. A clichéd observation struck me as if I were the first person ever to realize that, unlike on a ball field, in a ring you stood disrobed with nowhere to hide.
“Dat mean Bean gone tear youse a new one, N-Ward,” the rusty-haired guy announced in a mocking accent through hands cupped like a megaphone. It amused his drinking buddies. “Dat be a rabid rottweiler Bean, boy!”
Ward stared furiously at me. He banged his gloves together, then punched himself in the face so that perspiration flew. Boxing, like baseball, had never been about anger for me. What anger I managed to summon now was toward the rusty-haired drunk calling me Bean as if we were teammates. Bean? And then I got it: Stringbean. With his every racist insult, I could see Ward growing more enraged. That he had every right to be made it worse.
The bell rang and Ward bull-rushed across the ring, windmilling wildly as he came. Father Cross, our boxing coach, had posted a sign in the training room that read, I THINK THEREFORE I STINK. But thoughts flashed through my mind as they do during the suspension of time between diving from a high board and hitting the water. I thought the windmilling exposed Ward as totally undisciplined, a street fighter with no appreciation for the science of boxing; I thought how a ringwise boxer would turn that free swinging into an advantage and play his composure off Ward’s rage, exploiting it, maybe slipping to the right a half step inside Ward’s wheelhouse and nailing him as he rushed in, careless with aggression, clueless as to defense, then tying him up, frustrating him even more. Like a diver in midair, I had time to think that those were strategies I’d heard from Chino, moves instinctive for him, as they decidedly were not for me, and that I was in an uncontrolled free fall, a nanosecond from belly flopping into water as unforgiving as concrete.
Blows hailed down wild, mostly glancing, but harder than I’d ever been hit in my life. I tried to dance away. I’d imagined foot speed to be an asset in boxing. It was no more an advantage in the ring than it was in a swimming pool, where guys on the swim team, whom I could easily outrun, left me behind in the crawl. I was too busy running to fight. Rather than chase, Ward allowed a few steps separation and then rushed again like some inexorable squat engine of war, forcing me into a corner where he’d catapult haymakers. Defense was a glorified term for what little nonstinking instinct I had. I was merely trying to survive, keeping my chin tucked and my elbows tight to my ribs and my gloves up. Ward hit so hard that blocking his blows hardly mattered. Each roundhouse rammed my gloves back into my face as if I was beating myself. I bobbed and ducked from side to side like Chino taught me and tried to spin out of the corner, and Ward head-butted and body-slammed me back against the ropes, then clinched in a way that trapped my gloves while he stomped my foot and tried to knee me in the balls. His knee, which caught only my thigh, would leave a deep purple knot that served for the next eight months as a souvenir of a moment on the ropes.
The celebrity ref, a local precinct captain with a Caesar hairdo and an Irish brogue, separated us. “None of that now, lad,” he said to Ward. “Next warning, a point deduction!” he yelled to Ward’s corner. “You want to quit, son?” he asked me. “I could stop it for your lip.”
I hadn’t realized the head butt had cut my lip. There was a sweaty streak of blood along my forearm. “Lip’s just a boo-boo,” he said, “but you’re not defending yourself.”
By using the word quit, he’d made quitting impossible. I shook my head, raised my gloves, and Ward charged in swinging, his flurries pounding my reactions into that familiar slow-mo, two rounds earlier than usual. Instead of backpedaling, I circled to his left, throwing pitty-pat jabs. He chased, looping 180-degree right-hand bolo punches across his body, and as he pivoted to square up, I caught him with a lucky straight left, a punch we both stepped into at the same instant, so perfectly timed it seemed rehearsed, one of those moments sport offers when it appears as if opponents have collaborated to choreograph a beautiful catch or a goal. It was the best punch I ever threw in my life and it knocked his mouthpiece flying.
“Go to your corners, lads,” the ref said, signaling time-out. He turned his back to retrieve Ward’s mouthpiece, and Ward attacked, driving me against the ropes with head shots, mashing my ear, and when I ducked behind my gloves, he pummeled my ribs, going, “Bang! Bing! Bam!” as if narrating comic book action. Or maybe it was “Bean! Bean! Bean!” My ear ignited; my brain went blank. A reeling disorientation dulled the impact of the blows, but I remained aware of Ward’s trash talk. Minus his mouthpiece, it was nonstop like his fists: “Gonna fuck you up, Bean, gonna show your cracker fat-ass father you’re a bitch.”
That fuckhead’s not my father, I wanted to say, but Ward caught me in the gut and I sank to one knee, unable to talk or breathe while the ref pulled Ward off, yelling, “Fight’s over. You’re disqualified, lad.”
It had been not quite three minutes.
I sat doubled over on my stool in my corner, woozy with deafness and the flame spurting from the mangled left side of my head. I wanted them to get the gloves off so I could gently press my ear back in place before it fell to the canvas. Through my remaining good ear, from the muffled buzz of the crowd, I heard the rusty-haired dad holler, “Bean, way to take one for the team!”
By the time the bus reached my stop, the elation of watching the wet neon shades of Western Avenue that welled up in me after I’d learned my ear was still attached to my head was fading. My ribs ached and stiffened up. I could barely drag my sax case off the bus.
That night, my ribs woke me from a dream in which blood and brains leaked from my ear, soaking my pillow. The pillow felt sticky with blood, but it was sweat. I crept in the dark to the bathroom and pressed a cold washcloth to my throbbing ear and then flicked on the light just long enough to be sure I hadn’t pissed blood like the boxers with lacerated kidneys I’d heard about. In the kitchen, I sneaked a Popsicle from the freezer and, back in bed, pressed it to my blue-black, swollen lip. I worried the fight had ruined my sax embouchure for good. I alternated pressing the Popsicle to my lip and to my ear, until the Popsicle began to melt, and I unwrapped it. It was cherry, my favorite flavor.
The next day, when third-hour U.S. History paused for the 15 minutes it took for announcements to be read over the PA, I was credited for having won my fight at the tournament. My classmates hadn’t been there to see the debacle, and they applauded.
I never bothered to officially quit the boxing team, just stopped showing up to practice. Coach Cross didn’t bother to call me into his office to ask why. I retired undefeated.