Sometimes visiting a new neighborhood can change your life. While scouting locations for a fashion shoot, filmmaker Naomi Yang happened upon a boxing gym in East Boston. The modest second-generation family business, with its sparring ring and wall of framed black-and-white photographs depicting local boxers, seemed like a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the gym’s owner and head coach, Sal Bartolo, Jr., disagreed, citing aprevious photo shoot that had gone badly, with high heels destroying his mats. There would be no fashion shoots in his gym. Instead, he gave Yang his pitch to all visitors, telling her to come back for a free boxing lesson. In voiceover, Yang confides to us that she did not take the offer seriously and didn’t plan to return. And yet, a few weeks later, she did. Part of her was holding out hope that Bartolo would change his mind. But another part felt drawn to boxing, and Bartolo’s gym would soon become the center of her life. Yang’s documentary tells the story of how this chance meeting at a boxing gym brought her into a deeper understanding of herself, and of the ways bullying forces can leave their mark on places as well as people.
I tucked my hands into the pockets of my cardigan and pulled it around me in a hug as I set out for my walk. The sun was low in the west, the air nippy. I wandered into Central Square just as the City Hall clock above me struck seven. Crossing the street, past the noisy tavern on the left of the sidewalk, and people enjoying conversations and dinner al fresco on the right, I arrived at Rodney’s. The bookstore is an institution in Cambridge, MA. It sells used and rare books with a fast-changing inventory. I made a beeline for the New to Rodney’s table in the center of the store.
I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.
Every morning I sat on the terrace and waited for him. Night would fade to gray dawn, the sun’s first rays struck the kilometer-high spire of Burj Khalifa,and then the sculler would appear. No other craft plied Dubai Creek at that hour, no working dhows or party cruises. River belonged to sculler and sculler to his boat, and I would sit with my coffee and envy him.
Somewhere in the attic I have letters from Bud, typed on a real typewriter and sent to me when I was in high school and college. The letters chronicle the adventures of his terrier and on occasion were written in the dog’s voice. The dog used to wait for his chance—when the man was sleeping or when he took up his guitar in a corner of a room with a bottle and some cigarettes, maybe the beginnings of a tune. Then the dog would leap to the typewriter and start tapping the keys with small white paws.
Two weeks ago today, I woke up reading an email that Watertown was closed. The Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown police departments had sealed a perimeter. No entrance, no exit. The office was closed. I had started working for a landscape architecture practice in Watertown that Monday, the morning of the Marathon. After three months on the city’s outskirts, writing full-time, at last I had started traveling around Boston and Cambridge. The Lockdown froze the city in its novelty for me.
I recollect at last those first few weeks
on Beacon Street: broke newlyweds, we hid
our finite riches in a little room,
a basement studio whose cost seemed gruesome.
Fresh from Corpus Christi, you learned to speak
a northern language, talk of “quarters” wide-
mouthed like a Chowdahead’s wicked idiom.
Townieis a book about fighting and writing. But it’s mostly about fighting: wanting to fight, learning to fight, training to fight, getting in fights. In the end, it’s about learning not to fight. (I’m not giving much away: a whole lot happens in the middle, and the final scene in which Dubus peels himself away from the urge to fight is lovely and stirring.)
Andre Dubus III spends his boyhood getting beat up a lot. Still scrawny at fourteen, he tells himself:
“I don’t care if you get your face beat in, I don’t care if you get kicked in the head or stabbed or even shot, I will never allow you not to fight back ever again. You hear me?”