Friday, September 17, 2010

A Man of Character, Who Knocked Me on my Ass

I stood in a boxing ring for the very first time. I was wearing a plastic mouthpiece, headgear that made me feel like a pilot in a jet plane and big, pillowy gloves, inside of which were a pair of shaking hands wrapped in gauze and tape. The guy on the other side of the ring, wearing no headgear but the same big sparring gloves, asked me if I was ready. I nodded my head and he said, in a much louder voice, “Time!” And we started our dance.
Although the next short bit of time seemed like an eternity, I’m pretty certain that only about 60 seconds elapsed. The man kept telling me to jab, jab, jab. I jab, jab, jabbed, connecting with his bobbing head a few times, eliciting a “nice shot” response once or twice. He jabbed back, connecting more frequently, eliciting only grunts from me, and a few wild jabs back in self-defense. When one of my wild jabs connected pretty good, he turned up the heat and in a few seconds a shot to my solar plexus had me on the canvas, sucking wind and wondering, humorously, if death was around the corner. Time!, the voice said again. A minute later, once I had regained my wind, a gloved hand reached down and helped me to my feet, where I was wobbly but no worse for the wear.
“Nice job, “ said Floyd Patterson, who only a year and a half earlier had retired from his own boxing career after losing for the second time to Muhammad Ali, and who had just knocked me down. “I laid it on you a little to see if you’d turn away but you hung in there. There’s hope…” he said, laughing a little.
And so my boxing career began, and I faithfully visited Floyd’s house and gym almost every day for about a year, until a cyst in my wrist became too large and painful, and I stopped.
Floyd Patterson was one of those rare human beings who dragged himself up from a bad childhood and made himself, through sheer willpower, into a two time heavyweight champion, although he was the size of a light heavyweight. After his retirement, he opened up his training center (a three story barn on his property in New Paltz, NY, 12 miles from my house) to local kids, where he let them come every weekday and train, work out and spar, often with him. The charge for all of this expertise and experience: 20 bucks a month to help heat the barn. Countless young people came through Floyd’s barn, and many of them went on to have respectable careers in the pugilistic world, while others continued their own paths. I can say that, good or bad, their experience at Floyd’s was only beneficial. Life is all about choices, and Floyd Patterson equipped many young people with the skills and character that they needed to be able to make good choices.
As brutal and as savage as the idea of beating people up is, there is a certain dignity, decorum and class to boxing that mixed martial arts will never have. Floyd Patterson personified all three of those qualities, and it was an honor to be knocked down and later trained by him. Many, many years later, I stopped by his house, after not having seen him in 20 plus years (and I didn’t delude myself that he even knew my name---just called me “kid” back then) to get an autograph for a friend. It was 11AM and Floyd answered the door himself. It had been rumored that he was slipping mentally, but he invited me in, asked me right away how my wrist was, and signed a photo for my friend, a standard boxing pose. When I thanked him, he said, “You want one too?” He rummaged through his briefcase, found a great shot of himself landing a flying hook on the great Ali back in 1975, and said, “This is my last one.” And signed it, without ever asking my name, “To Jim Abbott, from your friend, Floyd Patterson.”

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lying For A living

The date was November, 2001. It was roughly two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and I was going to do something I had never done before: I was going to audition for something. I was gonna try to get into a class on the art of acting.
The class was to be called “Lying For a Living” and was to be conducted in Los Angeles by the late and great Marlon Brando. The name of the class echoed what Brando had referred to his profession in an interview years earlier. Auditions for the classes, which were free, and which would feature guest instructors, big names from the film world, had been announced in a small item in the New York Daily News that same morning. They were being held at an off-off Broadway theater in lower Manhattan. I was visiting friends in Brooklyn, so it was only a 30 minute subway ride into the city.
It was a cold and wet day, the kind of cold and damp that penetrates to the bone. When I arrived the line went nearly around the block, with all sizes and shapes of future thespian hopefuls talking acting techniques and practicing soliloquies. It was interesting watching them all, since I had no experience at all in any kind of performance, except for a chorale gig as a small kid in school, where I soloed on “Edelweis” in front of a hall full of patient parents. As I stood quietly, I began to lose patience, and body heat. I Was not alone and after a while the recitations stopped and the slightly annoyed tones of voice began to get more annoyed. The doors were supposed to open at 11AM but it was nearing noon when the first applicants were allowed in. Once inside, we were obliged to fill out several pages of short autobiographical info, given a number and made to wait. As we were only allowed in three at a time, and were kept inside of a lobby, it was a mystery as to what was going on beyond the door that, one at a time, we were herded like lambs to an uncertain future.
I entered the door. Bright lights glared, and the unmistakable sounds of an audience were present through the lights and the nerves. I was also aware that a video camera was mounted on a tripod and pointed in my general direction, and that there was a man behind it. The more interesting man, though, was sitting in a cheap lawn chair, decked out with full beard and turban and looking for all the world like Osama Bin Laden, complete with a small American flag poking out of his turban. Two months post-9/11, I should have been offended but due to nerves was more confused than angry. I stared at him.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, in a British accent. I stammered some kind of dumb remark, which he ignored. He shook my hand, introduced himself to me as Tony Kaye, (director of the classic film American History X) and we were off. He asked me what special talents I possessed. I told him I played guitar, and within seconds a cheap Yamaha acoustic guitar was in my hands. Kaye told me that he wanted me to play a song. I thought, “This is gonna be easy,” since I am proficient on the guitar, until he said, and the lyrics to the song are, “Marlon Brando ate my car.” Those were the only words. My frozen hands weren’t as limber as they usually are but I began to fingerpick a folksy sounding pattern, and started singing the one line that he had provided me, changing the melody for each line, until he finally told me to stop. From the darkness there was a loud burst of applause from about 30 people who were sitting watching, unseen. Thirty seconds later I was out the door and back out on the street, shellshocked.
In the end, Brando didn’t use anyone from the auditions for his classes. He picked random passerby off the streets and that was that. Kaye’s video of the auditions and the classes is tied up in legal wrangling and might never see the light of day.
Weirdest day of my life, and one of the most fun.