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.