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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Feb 10, 2008
Eiji Yoshikawa

Nothing was too difficult, in terms of living in the Big Apple, for the boxer who had come from the Big Tempura, except the Tempura-paint-like temperature in the summer time.

The summer heat smashed against the old building of the West side YMCA until steam rose into the sky from the over-baked brick walls. No one could stay in their rooms in the daytime -- or even at night. If you had an extra budget of sixty dollars per week, they would have an air-conditioner installed in your window.

At midnight in July and August, I had to go downstairs to the lobby to cool down, where a dozen other youngsters from all over the world were doing the same thing, gathered around ice cream and coke vending machines that never worked properly. If you fed your coins into those machines, ninety percent of the time they would never dispense anything, so you ended up donating for nothing. Everyone hated those machines that showed beautiful photos of ice cream and soft drinks, shining among ice cubes and splashing water drops.

We would just stare at those pictures, with our sleepy eyes, and talk about nothing important, since all our thoughts were occupied by worries such as, “Can I go to work or to school tomorrow after not sleeping at all?”

When I was a boxer back in Tokyo, I couldn’t sleep at night when I had to lose twenty pounds for upcoming fights. After all the extra flesh was burnt up, I would try to reduce some of the water in my body, until there would be no more saliva left in my mouth. You can’t sleep with your mouth feeling like a Nevada Desert and your body feeling like a dried up flower with very dry skin.

Compared to that, it was fine that I was drinking water, and was not a human dried flower.

In the lobby of the YMCA, whenever Frankie, Vinnie and I ran into each other, we would always go out to take a walk in the slightly cooler air outside.

Frank Renzulli had come from Boston. He played a Mafia hit man in Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose”, and played gangster roles in other films like “Hidden”, “The Last Dragon” and so on. Twenty years later he wrote a number of scripts for the TV series, “The Sopranos”.

Vinnie was his buddy from Queens, NY.

Frankie would take us to a small eatery around 69th Street and Broadway, where a Greek chef with a big thick mustache stood in the middle of a circular counter. We would all walk into the shop and Frankie would order all kinds of food like bean soup, fried chicken wings, sandwiches and so on.  There was no one else in the shop after midnight. Vinnie loved the soup with crackers, and he would keep eating the dipped crackers. Frankie wouldn’t eat very much, since he was talking fast all the time, as if he was a disc jockey.

While Frankie was talking, with his hands flying all over the place, Vinnie would just keep eating the crackers, looking as if he were a turtle, with his back shaped like a tortoise. The Greek chef had these powerful eyes that didn’t seem to blink at all. He didn’t smile or show any emotion, and just kept making food for us.

Since I couldn’t keep up with more than half of Frankie’s machine gun talk that was filled with slang and idiom, I enjoyed observing the three men around me more than listening.

An “explosion” would take place about every two minutes. The two listeners -- Turtle Soup Vinnie and the Greek Chef with no expression -- didn’t even seem to be listening, since they were concentrating on what they were doing while Frankie the DJ was talking, but every two minutes, Frankie would say some magic key word, and they would explode with the greatest laughter in the world, jumping around and banging the floor very hard many times with their shoes, and splashing soup and cream and milk and whatever the chef was working on, all over the place.

The explosion would last about ten seconds, and then it would quiet down and everything would go back to normal with Turtle Vinnie and the Busy Chef -- until the next eruption.

I would laugh for a few seconds after these eruptions, since I enjoyed checking up on how the two men laughed. These midnight “talk and laugh sessions” would last a couple of hours each time.

When we would finally get up from the red-colored stools, I would try to pay, but Frankie would turn around and show me his right hand, wide open, and say, “No, Eiji.”

The mustache chef would work on the bill, looking serious, with his eyebrows knitted, and would write up a long list of the food we had just eaten. Then the bill would be placed in Frankie’s hand, who by this time would be standing and waiting. At the bottom of the bill, which had listed on it the names of every possible food there was, there would be written, “$1”, every time. We would then go home with our stomachs happy, and hit the sack in the early morning air.

I sometimes showed Frankie how to punch the sandbag in the boxing gym at the YMCA. One day in the gym, Frankie said to me that his brother was coming back, and he would like me to teach his brother boxing. I asked Frankie where his brother was from, and Frankie said, “From jail.”

A few weeks after meeting his brother -- a big fellow with long hair -- in the gym, Frankie looked like he was wondering about something. I asked him, “What happened?”

Frankie said, “He went back to jail.”

Another time, I saw Vinnie sitting on the steps to the entrance of the building, looking really depressed.

“What’s up, Vinnie?”

Vinnie looked up, and with spiritless eyes he asked, “Eiji, do you know what ‘suicide’ is?”

“Yes”, I said.

“That’s what my brother committed”, said Vinnie.

In this town, people were suffering and struggling, and yet trying to find a way out.

They probably felt the need to feed this young boxer from Japan, so they took me here and there, where explosions of laughter were waiting that would lighten anyone’s heart, regardless of  race or any other differences with each person.

They had the great strength to sense that someone needed help; someone who had a hole in his heart. They helped fill that gap, so that that someone could jump up to the next stage, with the unspoken support of his buddies.

Frankie went to Hollywood a few years later to be a screenplay writer.

Eiji Yoshikawa is a retired Pro Boxer who majored inFrench literature and did his thesis on Jean Cocteau and Cinematography. He founded the "Peacemakers", Japan's first neighborhood watch, and spends much of his time visiting schools and communities teaching children about non-violence. In 2004, Japan Inc. Magazine called him the "Compassionate Pugilist". We are proud to offer "Letters from the Compassionate Pugilist" as our first guestcolumnist. Contact Eiji at www.eiji.tv or via email.

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