They told me he had guts as nobody since has had guts. They said you had to fight him or jump out of the ring or curl up in a ball and get killed.
They told me that the bell would ring and he would be throwing punches as soon as he stepped out of his corner, before he even got near the center of the ring. They said they saw him break his knee, crumple, stagger up onto his other leg and hop after his opponent, wincing horribly, still throwing punches.
They told me it was wartime then, and the only light during Friday-night air-raid blackouts in New York was the orange glow from the vacuum-tube radios that people huddled around, listening to his fights. They said he sold out Madison Square Garden more times than any man in history—attracted the largest live boxing gate ever, $35 million, and ended up without a penny, on his knees, shining men's shoes.
They told me these things in a way that made me think he was dead. People like that don't ever seem to be alive.
One day not long ago, I walked up a stairway into the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. Four decades of fighters had spilled their body fluids there. It was hot and close in the room, and you could smell every drop of those juices. In the ring, something strange was happening. Three large men were taking turns beating up a fourth.
"Throw punches! Throw punches! You don't throw punches, you gonna get hit! Throw punches! Oh my god, have mercy, throw punches! Next! Your turn! Throw punches! Stop huggin' that man like he's your wife, goddam! Throw the left hook! Now! Oh, maaaaaan. Oh my god! Throw punches! Get out! Next! Throw punches!" The words poured from a small, coffee-colored man standing on the apron of the ring.
The victim's arms sagged from exhaustion, uncovering his head. His jaw fell slack from the blows. "Get out!" the coffee-colored man shouted again. "Next!" The aggressor turned away, and one of the other two fighters, refreshed, stepped in and continued the beating.
"If you can't stand this, you're nothin'!" the small man roared at the helpless one. "You gotta get in shape if you wanna fight. Throw punches! Teach him a lesson! Throw it-throw it-throw it! Get out of that cover-up! Goddawg, throw punches! Throw punches!"
I licked the dry roof of my mouth. "What the hell is . . . ?"
A bystander pointed to the boxer getting beaten on. "He's training for a fight this weekend in Vegas," he said.
The man nodded toward the small blinking man on the apron, whose lips were drawn back to show his toothless gums, whose wrist veins bulged as thick and as taut as the ropes he was clutching. "And that," he said, as if it explained everything, "is Mr. Beau Jack."
So he wasn't dead. He was managing the Fifth Street Gym. My eyes left the men in the ring and fixed on him. He had wide, flaring Indian cheekbones, eyes wrapped in hoods of thick scar tissue and magnified by soda-pop-bottle lenses, sitting crooked on his flattened nose. His head and shoulders bobbed with the action; now and then he threw two short, vicious uppercuts at the air, grunting with them: "Ah . . . ah!" The bell rang. Beau Jack screamed at the fighters to continue: He was working inside his own space and time.
I heard the helpless one get clubbed again, turned and saw him stumble against one of the other fighters who awaited his turn. And then I remembered: Hadn't they told me Beau Jack got his start fighting in battle royals—an old tradition in which a group of five to 10 teenage blacks, for the amusement of southern gentlemen, were blindfolded and sent into a ring en masse for a free-for-all. I had read an account of one in Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man:
. . . now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin. . . .
I wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before. But the blindfold was tight as a thick skin-puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, "Oh, no you don't, black bastard! Leave that alone!"
. . . And I heard the bell clang and the sound of feet scuffling forward. A glove smacked against my head. I pivoted, striking out stiffly as someone went past, and felt the jar ripple along the length of my arm to my shoulder. Then it seemed as though all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once. Blows pounded me from all sides while I struck out as best I could. So many blows landed upon me that I wondered if I were not the only blindfolded fighter in the ring. . . .
Blindfolded, I could no longer control my motions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man. . . . A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor. Streaks of blue light filled the black world behind the blindfold. I lay prone, pretending that I was knocked out, but felt myself seized by hands and yanked to my feet. "Get going, black boy! Mix it up!" . . . Pushed this way and that by the legs milling around me, I finally pulled erect and discovered that I could see the black, sweat-washed forms weaving in the smoky-blue atmosphere like drunken dancers weaving to the rapid drum-like thuds of blows. . . .
In one corner I glimpsed a boy violently punching the air and heard him scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post. For a second I saw him bent over holding his hand, then going down as a blow caught his unprotected head. . . . The smoke was agonizing and there were no rounds, no bells at three minute intervals to relieve our exhaustion. The room spun round me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from both nose and mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest.
The men kept yelling, "Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!"
I watched Beau Jack climb down from the ring apron and move in a half-trot across the floor, shoulders swaying with his rolling gait, right leg dipping to accommodate old pain. I approached him. "You fought in battle royals, didn't you?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," he said, eyeing me.
"How did it feel?"
"They should still have them," he said. "They'd be a lot of fun for people who ain't seen them. But they can't. Guys ain't tough enough anymore."
"I'd like to write a story about you," I said.
"All right, sir," he said quietly. A maroon cap hid most of his balding head with its white stubble of hair, and a T-shirt with the words FORWARD MOTION covered his still-muscular chest. "They think they can tire me out," he said, as if he had been one of the men in the ring. "They can't. I can outlast them all. They try to kill me, and I be relaxin'. I know how to breathe and how to throw punches. You're not in condition, you're gonna get your brains scattered to the wrong part of your head. Can't never quit in a ring. All that crap about defense—take it and put it up your butt. Conditioning." He threw a combination at a heavy bag and walked over to two women lying on tables, doing leg lifts. "Everybody gets sick when they first come here," he warned one. "It'll go away. Tomorrow I'm gonna murder you."
His tone turned gentle now, as if he were an old man telling his assembled grandchildren a story before bed. I moved closer to hear. "You know, if you didn't get your ticket before Friday when I fought," he said, "forget about it. They was none left. I had 2,000 ladies came to see me. They'd yell, 'Uh-oh, here comes that tiger again.' And anyplace I go now I hear people say these same words: 'We been watchin' and we been lookin', tryin' to find another Beau Jack, but we ain't never seen another one. How did you keep throwing punches from one end of the bell to the other, Beau Jack?'
"Well, you have to love people to do that. They kept screamin' 'Beau Jack, Beau Jack,' "—his fists began to punch the air—"so I loved 'em and had to fight harder and harder and harder. Didn't want no people talkin' about me like I was a dog. I had to do good for my guests. I love every human being God put on this earth. We're here for one reason—to attract each other. I fought that way, for love."
Pools of[dropcaps] dusk had begun to form in the corners of the gym; in ones and twos the boxers toweled their sweat, called goodbye to Beau Jack and departed. "That bone tried to jump up and get away, but I chased it down and caught it, and I ain't even got no teeth, that's how good that chicken was you cooked for me," he said to one of the two women he was conditioning. "You comin' back to work out tomorrow, aren't you?"
When she was gone, I asked if I could accompany him home. I wanted to meet his wife and the 15 children that people said he had fathered. "No need for that," he said. "We disbanded. Sometimes it's best to just disband yourself."
"Who do you live with?"
"One-room place, few blocks from here. Don't need nothin' else."
I asked what he did alone at night.
"I play blackjack against a dead man's hand," he said. "When I win, I put the cards on my side. He wins, I put 'em on his side. Funny, 99 times out of a hundred, the dead man wins."
Carefully he reached under a desk in his shabby corner cubicle, pulled out his boxing plaques and awards, and tucked them into a black bag. He placed it on his shoulder, locked up the gym and headed home. A block away, he paused. At the night air, he threw a pair of punches.
[dropcaps]Most of the newspaper stories about Beau Jack were yellowed and smelled like your grandfather's attic. Gingerly I held them under a light, to learn how a life starts that ends this way.
He was born in 1921 on a Georgia farm where the roosters scratched at dust and the breeze banged the doors. His mother and father gave up trying to love when he was trying to crawl, so his grandma, Evie Mixom, raised him. She called him Beau Jack instead of Sidney Walker, and did there have to be a reason? Evie told people that Beau would be a fighter or a preacher. She knew what most smart folks didn't, that furthest opposites were the closest kind of kin.
By the time he was eight, Beau would awake at five each morning so he could walk the 3½ miles to Augusta and be the first at Ninth and Broad, the best shoeshine corner spot because the cotton farmers entered the city there. The money he earned made him a target, and one day he came home in tears. Five boys had threatened him into surrendering the three dollars he had earned, he sobbed to his grandmother. Evie took off all his clothes and beat him. "You better fight till the blood runs out your shoes," she said. "No Walker is supposed to be runnin' nowhere."
She also told him she preferred that he be a preacher.
A week later a gang demanded a tip he had earned. Beau Jack attacked the leader, smashed his head against the concrete and kept the coin.
Not long after that came the battle royals. The winner got to keep all the coins that the amused southern gentlemen tossed into the ring. Invariably Beau Jack, the littlest one in there, would win, and the gentlemen cheered.
Once, one man got so excited watching Beau Jack punch, he handed him a $100 bill. Anything a kid like Beau Jack got in life beyond the necessities made him vulnerable; another boy skulked up and snatched the bill away. Beau Jack spun and knocked him out, too.
Funny thing about fighting blind. Made a guy feel scared, but took a weight off him, too. If a guy couldn't see what he did, there weren't any complications. A guy couldn't see, how could any of the responsibility be his?
One day, Beau Jack's grandma called him to her, told him to be a good boy and go fetch her a bowl of soup. When he came back, she was dead.
By 15, he was married and making his own children: He loved the feel of their little arms around his neck. He had a job shining shoes at Augusta National, the golf club where the Masters is played, and there he made the sportsmen stand and holler each time they staged a battle royal. A group of them, including the famous golfer who started the club, Bobby Jones, pitched in $50 each to send Beau Jack north and start his boxing career.
For the first few years, he fought in a converted gasoline storage tank in Holyoke, Mass. "People called it boxing, I called it fighting," he told a reporter. "He had no pity," said a sparring partner. "A jungle cat," a writer called him. "A bum . . . not nothing . . . never will be nothing," his trainer, Sid Bell, kept sneering at him. "Your best ain't good enough. Rip their mouths out." Twelve straight uppercuts, left hook, right cross, bolo punch, uppercutuppercutuppercut. . . . A man who never stopped attacking was never vulnerable. A man who never stopped attacking was blind.
It was wartime, and the men who stayed home needed to see some violence. Soon Private Beau Jack was fighting main events at Madison Square Garden, and the house was SRO with love. He beat Henry Armstrong in front of 19,986. Twice he was lightweight champion of the world. In 1944, to see him fight Bob Montgomery, people had to buy U.S. war bonds. The gate was $35,864,900. Each fighter was paid one dollar. In 1944 Beau Jack sold out the Garden three times in a single month.
Now he was 66. He passed his nights in the tiny efficiency, his days a few blocks away in the dying gym. I headed there the next day, noticing all the tattoos on the transients in his neighborhood, all the missed belt loops of old people who had no one to let them know.
Near the doorway of the gym, a drifter stood. He had the sunken cheeks and dazed eyes of a man nudged awake all night by a cop's shoe. The building housing the gym seemed deserted at this early hour, a good place to sleep. The drifter wandered inside and curled up at the foot of the stairway. I stepped over him and headed up the steps.
"Youuuuuuuu! Get out of my building!" The scream pierced the stairwell. I looked up and saw Beau Jack, legs spread and braced, fists taut, eyes burning. He pounded down the steps and stood above the drifter.
Groggily the man rose. Now you could see and smell all of his loneliness. It drove Beau Jack berserk.
"Get the f---- out of my building! Get your ass out of my building before I put you through the wall!"
"I'm a man," said the drifter, "just like you. Don't talk to me like a dog."
"You ain't no man! Prove it, prove it, prove it!" Beau Jack ripped off his glasses, raised his fists, thrust out his jaw. His chest grew large and small, large and small, like a bellows. "This don't belong to you! It belongs to me! I'll put you through the wall!"
The drifter's eyes focused. He looked at Beau Jack and saw what it meant to him. He shook his head and walked away.
I accept fate. I began as a shoeshine boy and I'm resigned to end as one. All the good things that happened to me in between have been a blessing. Lovingly he swept the gym after evicting the drifter, while I sat to the side of the ring reading photocopies of the old newspaper stories. This last comment, he made to a writer in 1980.
Every now and then after he had retired in 1955, reporters came upon Beau Jack bent over a man's shoes in a Miami Beach hotel—sometimes at the Fontainebleau, other times at the Doral—and wrote stories steeped in pathos about the sorry fate of the former champion. Cameramen and documentary makers came too. Beau Jack became the stereotype of the penniless ex-fighter, exploited by his managers.
I waited for Beau Jack and asked him how he felt about being robbed so cruelly. He paused, grinned and said, "Mistah, sah, ain't no use bothering about what they done with that money. I don't grieve no more. That being world champion was worth all I done and all they done to me. Mistah, sah, that was just the greatest."
That's what one man wrote. And another:
Business is slow, but Beau Jack the Boxing Champion still has to eat. and that means he must wait in a hard-backed chair and pray for a chance to drop to his knees and scrape out his living. . . . This is where Beau Jack works 14 hours a day, sometimes more, where he barely makes enough money to catch the 1 a.m. bus back downtown to his little house on the mean streets. . . .
He laid aside the broom and took a few punches at a heavy bag, watching it sway from the corner of his eye as he bounced away. "Sometimes," a man there told me, "he punches himself in the guts, to see if he can take it." Beau Jack passed me, gave my knee an affectionate squeeze and smiled.
With his gums Beau gnawed at something chunky from a take-out bowl of oxtail soup. He had tried false teeth once and didn't like them, so he had gnawed and winced until he had turned his own softness hard.
"You know, sir," he said, pulling out a Bible and a pamphlet about Jesus, "I don't have no control of me. God have all of it. If there ain't no God, what about the night, the cool, the hot? How they be, sir? If I go, I don't need anything else in life but what I got now. I got friends I don't even know about. Rocky Marciano would never come this way without saying hello to me. Frank Sinatra, he still hugs me every time he sees me and says, 'This is my Beau Jack.' He was there that night I broke my knee. You see, I'd broken it three months before that night, during training. My trainer didn't want me to fight so soon, sir, but I sure wanted to.
"Fourth round, I threw a left hook at Tony Janiro. My foot got caught on something loose in the canvas. My body went with the punch but my leg didn't move. My knee made a terrible pop, split like it was sawed in half. Busted in five places, doctor told me. I could put my fist in the hole in my knee. I said, 'I'm all right.' I tried to push it back together. I got up and kept hoppin' on one knee, throwin' punches. But the referee, he made me stop. I tried to push him out of the way. I felt ashamed to lose that way. They took me off in a stretcher."
His career essentially ended that night; he fought on but could no longer be the blind attacking dervish who had filled the Garden with violence and love. "Frank Sinatra walked into the dressing room, looked at me and started cryin'," he continued. "If that man needed me any hour, any day, I'd go to him. Not walkin'. Runnin'. After I'm gone, I'm gonna remember him. When he came to Miami he would try to give me his shoes when I shined 'em, but they was so small I couldn't get two toes in. He was always worried that I didn't have money."
"How do you get by, Beau? You don't make much here, do you?"
"I get by."
"Don't you worry. There's a famous man sends me a check every month, enough to live on."
"Who? How much?"
He looked down and fidgeted with something inside a desk drawer. "I promised I'd never tell that. Shouldn't even told you what I did."
I asked him for the names of his friends. "Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. Jackie Gleason was a friend," he said. "Rocky Marciano was a friend."
"I mean, ones you see more often."
Abruptly, as if he'd just remembered something, he headed toward the cubicle door.
"Who . . . ?"
He stopped. "If you see me, I'll be by myself. I travel alone. If I'm with someone, I'm responsible for someone. If I'm alone, I'm only responsible for myself"
I asked about the two women he had married. "You can't outargue no lady," he said. "They can blast their mouths off 99 billion times, all day, all night, same voice, same words, and you get tired. I just walked out. Don't like the way the pot's boilin', turn the fire out."
I asked him for the names of his 15 children. "Georgianna . . . Shanita . . . Michael . . . Jonathan." He peered out the door, toward the ring.
"And the others?"
"That's enough." He walked out and turned back. "No need for you to come home with me after work tonight," he said.
Someone who slept next to a man like that, I thought—they could tell you things. The next afternoon his daughter came up the steps to pass him a message from her mother. "Where is she?" I asked. "In the car outside," the daughter said. I ran down and asked if I could come talk to her one afternoon.
Back in my hotel I started calling people who knew Beau Jack. Maybe they could help me understand him.
"His manager," one man said, "I heard he'd dump a big bag of one-dollar bills on Beau's bed after a fight—five thousand of them!—and Beau would get so excited he wouldn't realize he was supposed to get $10,000. I hear sometimes they'd have him practice writing his name on blank checks. Robbed the poor guy blind."
"Gave half the money away," claimed another man. " 'Hey, Mr. Beau Jack, I'm hungry, I need a drink,' people would say to him, and he'd give them hundreds and fifties and tens. Awful lot of people crossed that man."
Kept pictures of fat ladies on his walls, claimed one man.
Always talking about Jesus Christ, said another.
Never much for nightclubbing, an old sparring partner said. Didn't drink. Stayed to himself.
The homeless boy who was so used to poverty discovered the fun of buying fancy clothes, nightclubs and entertaining a gang of friends. . . . Beau Jack's chief interest in life out of boxing . . . became the sleek beauties of Harlem who were only too pleased to entertain the champion. So said a 1955 story in Ring Digest.
"Carries his plaques back and forth from his apartment to the gym every day," said Roosevelt Ivory, the man who hired Beau Jack a year ago to run the gym. "Lot of times I try to give him his paycheck and he says to give it to the fighters, he doesn't need it."
Ain't worth a quarter!" Punch. "Ain't worth a dime!" Punch. "Goddammit, look at you!" Punch. "My grandfather got more." Punch. "I know what you done with it." Punch. "You're hidin' it out on the river!" Punch. "You've given it to the girls!" Punch. Beau Jack was wearing flat, padded mitts when I got to the Fifth Street Gym the next day, catching the punches of a young man who was reeling from exhaustion.
"What's wrong with you?" he screamed at the boxer.
"I'd burn up in the fields, 184 degrees, it didn't stop me! Lord have mercy! The old man's got you!"
The young man bent in half with his gloves on his knees, panting, crimson. Beau Jack staggered around him like a drunk man, cackling, triumphant.
I stared and shook my head. How could someone so vulnerable cackle? How does a man who fought so frantically to fill the Garden with love, who surrounded himself with 15 children, end up without. . . .
The phone rang in his cubicle and Beau Jack bounced away. I waited a little while, then went in to find out. I stopped short. Beau Jack turned his eyes toward the window behind his desk. I came a step closer. He corkscrewed in his chair, legs still pointing forward but his torso and head twisted backward. What's out that window? I wondered, moving next to him. And then I could see. He was trying not to cry.
Something wrong with your dad?"
"No, not that I know of."
"Nothing wrong in the family?"
"No, everything's fine. Why?"
"He seemed upset yesterday."
Beau's son Jonathan is 24 and lives in Miami. He shrugged. "He gets in moods."
"Tell me," I said. "Did you ever see your father fight?"
"On tape. I thought he was crazy when I saw it. But I have seen him train guys. Ninety-eight percent of them are gone after a few months. I've seen him swing a stick under their legs, making them jump, and when they can't pick up their legs anymore, he's hitting their legs with the stick. They'll say, 'You're stupid, you're trying to hurt me.' He says, 'That's right. They're gonna try to kill you in the ring.' Funny thing, my dad never even spanked us."
"Must have been pretty rough growing up," I said. "Moneywise, I mean."
"Not really. My dad didn't need to shine shoes. He just went back to what he knew before boxing. Five of us were in private school while he was shining shoes. He must have a hundred suits in his closet at my mother's house. Never wears them, but he's got them. We could get anything from my dad—all we had to do was ask. I tested him once. I asked him to buy me a DeLorean. He looked at me for two minutes. 'Are you a good son?' he asked. I said, 'I guess so.' He said, 'Listen to your mom, and I'll get it for you.' I started feeling guilty. I said, 'No, that's O.K., Dad.' So he bought me a Mustang instead.
"His manager ripped him off, but not everything. He's got land in Georgia, some investments. And he doesn't spend money, lives real simple. I've begged him to move out of that place where he lives; that's not a good area. But he told me, 'Son, always play broke. Don't let people know you have a cent.' "
I lingered near his door again, looking into his cubicle. In the day that had passed, it seemed he hadn't stirred. His body was still contorted in the chair, twisted back so he could stare out the window and not show his face. "Beau," I called. He didn't move or reply. I left, bewildered.
I waited another day, then returned the next morning. He was staring out a window near the ring. Then he noticed me. He sprang from his seat, gesturing wildly to the few other people in the gym. "Don't talk to him!" he screamed.
I looked around. Me. He was screaming about me.
"I'm finished with you! No more! I gave you everything you need to know!"
He waved me inside his cubicle and turned on me. "My wife called the other day—told me you'd talked to her!"
"I haven't talked to her yet. I only arranged to meet her."
"Makes no difference. I told you everything; you got no reason to talk to her. I got nothing more to say to you."
"Beau. . . ."
His body was braced. His chest grew large and small, large and small, like a bellows. I looked at him and saw what it meant to him and walked away. Perhaps he was right. Now that he was used to fighting with a blindfold, what right had I to tug it off?
I walked the streets full of tattoos and missed belt loops, and wondered how a judge would score Beau Jack's life. At the beginning of the fight they didn't let him see, then took advantage of his money and his feelings. But he fooled them all. Now, near the end, he had his dignity, more money than people realized and was free from people who might hurt him. I guess that meant he had won.