By Spencer Schwartz
Childhood is full of fears both real and imagined, and mine was no different than anyone else’s. Besides the bullies in school during the day and goblins under the bed at night there were a host of terrors just waiting to spring into action brought on by a boy’s overactive imagination, and one of my worst demons was a man who occasionally passed by my house when I was about the age of nine or ten. The world was a very different place then with a war raging acrossEuropeand the Pacific, there was no TV, and everyone was white while no professional sport except boxing was racially integrated. The only “negroes” ever seen were in the movies and then merely appearing as maids or servants, and though we kids heard of Harlem it could have been across the country as far as we were concerned though our Brooklyn neighborhood was a mere ten miles away.
Like every other block we had a variety of heroes and villains but our main champion was a young boxer who lived around the corner, a very good middleweight named Artie Levine who I would see from time to time doing roadwork along the cracked and uneven sidewalks of my street, and how he never tripped or twisted an ankle is beyond me. Since this was in the city there were no dirt roads or smooth foot paths where he could jog so we’d often watch in adulation as he ran past, sometimes with his dog (a purebred boxer) but most often with his sparring partner, a beat up black guy who scared the daylights out of me due to his grotesque appearance, being the very antithesis of the handsome young fighter who we all admired for his courage and sculptured physique. The sparring partner was also muscular and obviously in excellent condition for he kept pace with Artie no matter how long they ran without ever seeming to tire, but the oddest thing was that when he walked he could only stagger as though drunk while constantly tripping over the cracks in the pavement. He never actually fell but “punch drunk stumble bum” was a perfect description and whenever we saw him hobbling along by himself we always froze in fright, afraid he’d chase and beat us up for some unknown reason. The guy was pathetic looking and the old women would turn away in disgust whenever he passed by.
One winter day my friends and I were heavily involved in a snowball fight when the pug-ugly came stumbling along and we all stood statue-like as usual in the hopes he’d pass without incident, but when he came within a few feet of me he stopped, bent down to pick up a handful of snow, and then pretended to throw it at us while a big toothless grin cut across his mangled face. I just stood in disbelief for rather than trying to cause us harm he merely wanted to join in our fun. Being so close I could clearly see scar tissue in his yellowed eyes and realized that not only was his brain messed up but he was almost blind. What shocked me the most however was the recognition that this facially deformed ogre who had been so badly disfigured in a most brutal sport somehow managed to retain his childlike playfulness along with the gentleness to ensure that he didn’t hurt us in any way. How was that possible? He than slowly continued on his way and while he and I never spoke, in that instant we sort of bonded nonetheless. I don’t remember ever seeing him again but that incident remains indelibly etched in my memory.
Artie Levine went on to fight Sugar Ray Robinson, actually knocking him out in the 4th round though Robinson was saved by the bell and eventually came back to win the bout, later becoming pound for pound the greatest fighter in ring history. Artie never did get a shot at the title but years afterwards became a ringside judge for the New York State Boxing Commission, and as I recently discovered died on January 13, 2012 a few days shy of his 86th birthday. His sparring partner of course faded into oblivion, a tragic phantom whose name I never even knew.