a short story by Frank Diamond
As the taxi pulls away from the bus depot we almost hit a jogger. I mean, this close. I can smell the burning rubber while the car’s still rocking. And you know what? This guy stops, jabs his fist at us a few times and then runs on.
“Fake,” I says.
“I didn’t even see him,” the driver says.
“It wasn’t your fault. He came out of nowhere.”
The cabbie sits there shaking his head. I don’t mind. The meter isn’t running. After about 20 seconds, he flips the lever and we’re off again.
“Seems like half the country’s working out and the other half’s in the kitchen,” he says, patting his belly.
I laugh but I don’t have much of a belly to pat. Never had.
My name’s Marty O’Dowd and if you’re an ancient of ancients, you might remember me as “The Fishtown Fury.” I was the World Welter Weight Champ from April 1940 until November 1941, a little more than a year and a half. Jim Cage came after me, holding the crown for nearly seven years. (He defended the title during leaves of absence from the Army.) Between us, that bum Satchelson reigned an astounding two months.
It was an upset when Satchelson put me away in Atlantic City. He wasn’t good and he wasn’t lucky. The guy in his corner made sure a few “techniques” were used on me.
My own trainer was pie-eyed drunk by the fifth round. A guilt load. But by the time I got out of the hospital and started looking for him, the war had begun and I had lost all my backing. He had disappeared anyway.
That was true of me too, in a sense. I disappeared from the fight game but not from fighting. Remember, there was this big rumble in Europe that I couldn’t wait to get into.
Much, much later I nearly fell over my trainer. He was lying on a vent on Market Street around Christmas. I slipped him a fin. If I had caught him 40 years earlier, I would have punished him. But something else – life or love or age – had already put a number on him.
I’ve often thought about an O’Dowd-Cage matchup. He was nasty even for a fighter. They nicknamed him the “Angel of Death” after he killed a man at the old Cronin Club on Frankford Avenue.
When he retired, he dropped from view completely. There were rumors. Some said he went to Europe. Others claimed he was hit by a train while hoboing cross-country.
He died just recently and the papers gave the true story. Turns out that he had changed his name, became a minister, and moved to Harlem. He started soup kitchens and organized a hospice for the homeless.
“Where you coming from?” the cabbie asked.
“Saying goodbye to an old friend.”
I just had to go to his funeral. I was never close to him. I never got too close to anyone I might have had to fight. But I wanted to find out what could make a person change so much.
The Cage I remember was a violent, brutal man. When I was champ, I watched him quickly climb the ranks. In my mind, he was “the” challenger and I was gearing myself to fight him when I trained to take on other guys. All I had to do was put Satchelson away and then face the fight of my life.
If anyone knew about the “reverend’s” boxing past, it wasn’t mentioned at the cemetery that day. One man I spoke about it with said it just showed that good can take root anywhere.
“Just like sometimes you see flowers growing through cracks in sidewalks,” he said. “How do you think that happens?”
I danced around that one. I may have lost a few steps but I can still dodge a sermon like it’s a lazy right hook.
I took the bus from New York back to Philadelphia and then the cab to my apartment.
After we saw the jogger, the driver talked about today’s athletes for the rest of the ride.
He used all the words: “coddled,” “spoiled,” “overpaid.” And fighting?
“Forget it! Every time I get pay-per-view, it’s a ripoff.”
I didn’t say a word.
But he must have touched a nerve because, instead of being tired, I was feeling a little restless by the time I got home. I decided to walk to Chalkie’s gym. To get to this place, you have to know which alleyway to turn into. It’s not one of those social clubs girls advertise on the television.
I could smell snow on the wind as I walked up Girard Avenue. It was the afternoon, and some of the kids were running home from school.
There was a sparring match going on at Chalkie’s that day under Eddie Brinkman’s direction. When I was fighting, Brinkman’s old man used to hold my bit for me once in a while. Eddie took a shot at the pros but Korea ended his chances.
In the mid-’50s, he made a name for himself as a trainer. Then he got out of the game and helped organize the unions in the railroad. He’s retired with a nice pension but likes to make a little on the side doing what he calls “consulting” work for some of the young, neighborhood roughnecks. This consists of yelling at them and pointing out that they’d not stand a snowball’s chance against a real fighter.
“You’re lunging again!” he was shouting that day. “There’s no place to run. Let him come to you. What do you say Marty?”
“No one here’s looking good.”
I took a seat by the rink.
“OK, I’ve seen enough,” Eddie called. “Take five.”
Eddie pulled his stool next to mine.
“I don’t know what they’re paying me for,” he said. “Did you read about Jim Cage?”
“Just come from the funeral.”
“In New York? Oh, yeah. You and him fought once, right?”
“Never. If I had, I would have beaten him.”
“Beaten him? You would have killed him,” Eddie said. “Didn’t Cage do time for armed robbery?”
“Not according to the write-up.”
“I just heard, is what I’m saying.”
“Cage was one of those fellows there always seemed to be rumors about,” I said.
“That was a hell of a nickname. ‘The Angel of Death.’”
“That was true, you know. He really did kill someone down at the Cronin. He was mean in his fighting days. He was nasty.”
“He was champ,” Eddie said.
“So was I and I had a hell of a temper. But I could be civil once in a while.”
“How’re you feeling, Marty?”
“None too good,” I said. “I guess when you’re my age, you’re lucky just to be kicking. But the heart’s no good.”
“That’s the last thing I’d ever expect to go on you, Marty. Maybe the legs, not the heart.”
“The legs aren’t doing too good either,” I said and laughed. “How about here. Any phenom?”
“One kid has all the talent. He’s quick. He’s strong. He’s got instinct.”
“Give it up,” I said. “You can’t teach that.”
Basics never change. A kid has to love fighting more than eating if he hopes to compete. And to turn pro, he has to be a little crazy. A guy could fight a whole career for nothing but loose change. And I don’t have to tell you what happens when you get punched in the noggin too often.
It’s snowing by the time I head for home that evening and the thin coat makes walking a little treacherous. But the air is cold and clean as the big wet flakes tumble against my face.
I look around several times for a bus but nothing. I just keep on walking. Snow shadowboxes in the glow of the overhead lights. And when a mother calls to her child on one of the side streets, it reminds me of when I was a boy.