Recession Proof: Chapter Two
“Nobody can think straight who does not work. Idleness warps the mind.” – Henry Ford
Tuesday morning came quickly and I was thankful. Being unemployed through the month of September when I was normally three weeks into my history curriculum, had me on edge, and the wife too. Sure, I had started to receive compensation, but I needed a real job. I’d been pulling my own weight since I was 15 when my father disappeared, my mother died and I began living in my uncle’s unfinished basement, sharing the space with his two untamed dogs. It was at that time that I asked people not to call me “Junior” anymore. I was an angry kid who didn’t need the daily reminder. Sharing his name was bad enough…
Along the way I had plenty of jobs before settling on teaching. I worked as a body shop apprentice, delivered packages, drove a canteen truck, reconditioned used cars, landscaped, was a construction laborer, sold life, health and disability insurance, and eventually worked as a bartender while I finished up at URI. I got my first teaching job just two days before my 27th birthday, ten years ago. I take great pride in doing whatever it takes. If I’m nothing else, I am a survivor…
Tuesday morning we gathered around the table, spilling sugar and non-dairy creamer on the cheap blue plastic tablecloth while pouring our coffee. The plan had changed. I was going with Steve Chalupa for the day, my direct boss. We had some pick-ups to do. He headed over to a late model navy-blue Crown Victoria parked out front. I followed. Then tossing the keys to me he said with a rewarding smile “Nick, you’re driving” The car was big and plush inside and handled like a dream.
Steve is 6’2” tall with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, a confident gait, movie star good looks, and brutal charisma. His thick dark hair was heavily gelled, combed straight back and hid the touch of gray beneath that hinted he's no young kid. When he talked he made eye contact, but his eyes were black or at least very dark brown, and it was hard to see his pupils, disguising his mood. His long, smooth forehead and dark eyebrows added to his intimidating features. As I drove, he directed me, adding that normally we’d be sharing the driving, but that today, the job was all mine. I had the feeling that if it worked out, this arrangement would be permanent. He continued by telling me I was a good driver, “calm and controlled”.
At the first stop, I waited in the “Vic” while Steve went inside a small meat packing plant. He came out twenty minutes later all smiles and told me we were heading to Russo’s Gym, about a half hours ride. I’m a fight fan and I knew a few local pugilists who trained there several years ago, and I’d been there before.
The gym, located in Coventry on the Pawtuxet River, was in an old brick-and-beam warehouse that was once part of a textile mill that had flourished in the latter part of the 19th century. Occupying two floors, the space had exposed rough cut chestnut beams and columns, brick exterior walls, large arched windows that provided natural lighting, and high ceilings. I knew exactly where it was. I didn’t know that Steve had been a promising light heavy-weight before a shoulder injury ended his career some fifteen years ago.
Before the door closed behind us, everyone in the gym acknowledged Steve’s arrival. He was a celebrity in there. Pictures on the wall showed him in his younger days, body ripped, gloved hands up in the traditional pose, and those dark eyes looking much younger, but every bit as intimidating. He told me to lay low while he changed up.
He came out of the locker room in medium length, black satin boxing shorts and a plain white tank, stopping to sit and lace up his faded black leather boxing shoes, which showed considerable wear. Steve looked real comfortable laced-up and in the gym.
He warmed up by skipping rope, which did little to distract his attention or steal his wind. He continued talking, asking me if I worked out. I told him I did, careful not to use the words treadmill or elliptical. In there it was all raw. Sweat-soaked bodies, heavy bags popping, speed bags humming, ropes whistling, and medicine balls thumping. There was a lot of activity that morning and I couldn’t help but look around with kid-like enthusiasm.
After five minutes of skipping rope without a miss and breaking a light sweat, Steve headed over to one of several speed bags mounted on the rear wall, by the fire escape. His concentration was up a notch, but he still carried on a conversation with me. Without looking away or breaking his rhythm, he told me he bought this gym ten years ago for a song, and that Eddie, the heavy-set guy who was standing by the ring apron, ran the place for him. He said there were several promising fighters in the gym’s stable, and that we’d get to see a highly anticipated sparring session between two up and coming middleweights in an hour or so.
The ring was in the center of the gym, elevated several feet above the floor, with an area around its entire perimeter that was perfect for viewing the action. The gym’s wooden floor was heavily worn gray, but had plenty of bounce left in it, adding an element of authenticity. The two middleweights were getting ready at opposite ends of the gym by reeling off combinations at the flat target mitts worn by their handlers, punches that were popping like fireworks at a Mardi Gras parade. They both looked to be in shape, with great hand speed and concentration. Steve saw me watching intensely and poked me and said “You heard about ring wars in the gym? Guys care more about winning these sparring session battles than some of the fights they take. It’s about gym bragging rights, pride, and ultimately--respect. You don’t get anywhere in the fight game without proving yourself here first. You’re going to enjoy this-”
Steve was right. I don’t know if it was the smell of the gym, the old warehouse atmosphere, or Steve himself that had me amped up for this fight, but I was. At the many fights I had paid for and watched in local arenas, I could tell it was all about the money. Plastic cups filled with draft beer were $10 and cigar girls in leotards, balancing themselves atop four inch stiletto heels, worked the floor carrying wooden boxes filled with cigars that hung off wide suspenders and rested just above their waists, not blocking any of the goods, north or south of the border. The cigars cost $12 each, but the girls prepared the stogies by inserting them in their mouths and rotating them several times, making sure to get them nice and wet, their eye contact on the paying customer only. The girls took their time, making sure each customer got his money’s worth, before snipping one end and lighting up. Once lit, they took several long drags, cheeks puckered, lips wrapped tightly around the cigar, finishing by exhaling smoke laced with a heavy dose of sexual innuendo. Each presentation was an adult show, encouraging the next guy to ante up. It was a lap dance without the lap. At one fight my friend bought three cigars. I watched while I sipped my $10 draft beer, careful not to collapse the plastic cup…
In Russo’s gym there were no $10 draft beers or $12 cigars, and when it came to sparring sessions, it was definitely all about the fighters.