- Friday Night Fights with Mom
I was three weeks old when my mother saw Johnny Saxton beat Kid Gavilan for the world welterweight boxing title on television. Later that night, she would complain to my father that Gavilan got jobbed because Saxton ran away the entire fight. We were living in Detroit at the time, and my father had missed the fight because he was out of town on business for his job as a sales rep for Scott Paper Company. He laughed at my mother's outrage and said that Saxton could've run out of the arena and still won because the fight was fixed. How did he know, my mother asked, growing suspicious that my father's access to this inside dope had to involve money they didn't own, and my father, a mocking tease in his voice, asked her who had refereed the bout? Petey Pantaleo, my mother answered. And was one of the judges Jimmy Mina? He had taught my mother that such information was more important than the weight and reach of a fighter. My mother affirmed that Mina, a local Philadelphia garage owner, had indeed been one of the judges. Pantaleo and Mina, my father repeated patiently. They're so deep in Blinky Palermo's pockets they use his trouser lint for pillows. Blinky Palermo was a Philly fight boss with connections to the Mob, and there was no way he would let one of his fighters lose on his own turf. Thanks to Blinky's behind-the-scenes machinations, my father had won $500 on the fight, not exactly chump change in 1954, when he was just starting out in the business world and had a wife and three children under the age of four to support. Before my mother could chastise him for risking so much money on a boxing match—crooked or straight—my father told her now they could afford the down payment on their first house, with enough left over for a nice bottle of champagne to celebrate. "Your mother, God rest her soul, was as prim as they come and purer than holy water," my father said with a proud grin, "but she wasn't above overlooking the fine print on easy money like that." [End Page 21]
I was nearing 50 years old, my father 80, when he told me this story for the first time. My mother's ashes, which my father recently had removed from the columbarium in Detroit, where she died 18 years ago, were resting on the top shelf of my father's bedroom closet in North Carolina, an unsettling reminder that Mom was not available to confirm or refute this story of her initiation into the underworld of professional boxing. How my father, the son of a U.S. attorney, later federal judge, and a lace-curtain Irish mother from Greenwich Village, came to associate with the Petey Pantaleos and Blinky Palermos of the world was never explained. Despite his comfortable background—spacious house in Rockaway, Xavier Prep School, Fordham College—as a native New Yorker, my father liked to let on that an intimate knowledge of the fight scene was simply part and parcel of any city boy's natural education.
My father has always taken great pride in his ability to tell a story, fancying himself part Irish seanchi, part barroom raconteur, but recently, as the years of solitude and his decreasing mobility leave him with smaller and smaller space to evade the fact of his own mortality, his stories have taken on an increasingly exaggerated heroic quality with himself as the protagonist. These stories are not exaggerated in the sense of being fantastical or improbable, for my father is a disciple of the realist school of literature, grounding all of his tales in the kind of precise and gritty detail employed by a crime beat reporter, right down to verbatim dialogue, always recited in the appropriate accent. Any one story taken alone sounds reasonably credible, but collectively they portray an inordinately wise young man of the world who employs an arsenal of bluff bravado, street smarts, sharp wit, command of language from the grimiest...