Here’s how I saw De Quincey High then: stained bathroom walls; pregnant girls; boys with knives and guns and bandanas; teachers with fear so engrained that it folded into their faces in wrinkles; a gym that could have been a prison; a cafeteria that was one; cheap lipstick and cheaper condoms; a dirt track; fences.
The first day people left me alone. I was deemed to be a weirdo from another land, just stopping in. But by the third week, I’d been propositioned, forced to buy heroin, beaten up twice, and had stumbled to the designer-shod feet of the gang lord of the school. His name is Ramoncito. You laugh, but you wouldn’t if you knew him.
By the end of the first quarter, I was learning to keep my head down. My grades were suddenly like everyone else’s: C minuses, Ds; my clothes had gotten darker and looser; and I was letting my hair get longer, planning to get dreds on my birthday. The transformation wasn’t startling—no sociologist would be surprised. Take a boy who wants to be a man and put him in a different place and he’ll give up whatever he has to just to be cool, to roll with the new crowd, to have status, to mean something in the new life. I’m nothing special, whatever my parents would say. I just thought meeting somebody like Grabinski was the next step in assimilation.
Because, at De Quincey that year, something was in vogue that hadn’t probably been seen since the 50s. Instead of the knife-fights so popular in the 80s, or the commonplace shootings of the 90s, De Quincey went in for what was aptly called “fisting.” It was just classic man-to-man pummeling, no gloves, lots of bone, lots of pain. A few people knew martial arts, plenty had experience with playground tussles, but one afternoon, there under the dead bleachers, watching two boys stumble, I realized that boxing was a lost art.
I found Grabinski by accident. My afternoons after school, freed from prior concerns about homework, were spent wandering in the city. Whatever anyone says, Chicago is beautiful. And I’m not just talking about the Loop or the Magnificent Mile. The real Chicago—the one of neighborhoods and people yelling at each other in Spanish or Polish or Chinese or Irish slang—that Chicago is beautiful. And if you have an El card, it’s all open range. Get on the red line in White Sox territory, and a few minutes later, the doors open at Wrigley Field in a different world. It’s spectacle.
The afternoon that I started thinking about boxing, I had also been thinking about going to Jackowo for the first time. I didn’t know anything about Polish people and I’m less sure I do now. But I got off the blue line near Addison and started to walk around. After a few hours, the sun was setting, and I would have to put in an appearance at home. But I noticed all these men walking in a stream along the street, all in the same direction. So I followed.
Their destination was apparently through a seedy little side door in a rundown building. They didn’t show signs of recognizing each other, so I just got in line, hoping that my skin wouldn’t be sign enough that I didn’t belong.
Inside, of course, was the ring. How I can tell you now, after these three long years, what it was then? I think I saw it this way: two men first, their red gloves dancing like a flame and its reflection; bodies lit in sweat; the sound of moving feet muffled under the cries of old men who care so much that they strain their eyes to follow the punches as they fly. Then there were the cigar smokers, standing aloof, their faces clouded. Then, two greyhounds, one chasing the other in pied brown flashes. And then the small man who saw all of this, his hairy arms pressed in against his chest, his feet outturned as if he were waiting for an uppercut.
He saw me and nodded, binding my gaze to his for a flickering moment. He smiled, only with his eyes—as if he were saying, “Welcome, kid. You have no fucking idea what you’ve just gotten yourself into.” But anything was better than smoking joints and getting beaten up under the bleachers, so I nodded back.
After the bell, the masses of giant, fair-skinned men swept out around me, dispersing to the winter. The champ had stumbled under the ropes, bleeding; the other was in his corner, also bleeding, the small man with him, speaking with him in Polish quietly. They both suddenly turned to look at me and I met them as best I could. But what were my eyes then? Black points edging a void; the abyss stealing up to take in shadow. The defeated’s eyes were not dejected; they smoldered. And small man’s eyes were green.
“You want to box,” he said. It was not a question. “You think what you want is the boxing.” The green eyes deepened. “You don’t really want that.” I couldn’t have wanted anything more. “But I will teach you, anyway.” The room was empty except for the three of us. “Come here.” I obeyed. For there was order.
“This is Kasper.” The smoldering eyes sparked. “I am Grabinski,” said the man with green eyes. I could have sworn the name echoed even as he said it in half-whisper, as if it had touched some resonance in the building’s anatomy. “And who, youth, are you?”
I stood in the ring, my hands shoved in the pockets of my hoodie, wondering how I’d put words to the truth. I’m sixteen years old. I used to wear polo-shirts and go to dances with pretty white girls. I used to get good grades. I liked history. I liked the blandness of the neighborhood where I used to live. But I hate my parents now. I hate school. I hate everything right now, actually. Except for the city. I like the Chicago. And I want to box. But all of that conflated to a word, a nonsense word I’ve been attaching to myself since I could speak.
“Yes,” said Grabinski. “You would be. Come on, fists up. We’ll soon see what you’ve got.”
And then Kasper was hitting me, and I had fallen. They spoke in Polish. Finally, they stopped, and I looked up through half-opened eyelids at Grabinski’s outline against the lights.
“You think you want to box, but you want something else. I will teach you both. Come back in a week. Earlier.”
The second week, Grabinski took me to the back room.
“This is what you want, but you don’t know it yet.”
Twelve boys, more or less my age, but all dressed in shirts and ties, sat two at a table, each with a notebook and a pen, some yelling at each other, and as I soon learned, trading insults.
“Only the mute say actions speak louder than words,” Grabinski said.
Then, to one of the preppies:
“Grigor, you son of a bitch, hit me.” Grigor smirked and replied with a thread of profanities that would make De Quincey High’s Varsity cussing squad blush for their very innocence.
“Mmm-hmm,” considered Grabinski. “Not on pitch yet. But better than last week.” Grigor nodded, chastened.
And that was three years ago. I’ve been going every week since to see the small man with green eyes who sees everything. The boxing came quickly. Every week, I’d learn a single punch and I’d practice it over and over, my eyes shut: on the El, in parks, in my room, in front of a mirror I wouldn’t see, shadowboxing. Hooks, jabs, cuts, then the illegal punches, then the punches in Thai boxing, then kicks. I wasn’t talented, but I was trained. De Quincey, with its crackhead shufflers, stopped being an issue. But that was just the boxing.
The more mysterious learning was kept in the back room. Grabinski has a set of directives for arguing that he disseminates one by one, and lovingly to his acolytes. And in the three years, he still hasn’t told me all of them. We seem to be going more and more slowly. At first, I would learn a precept each week with the weekly punch. So, for example, I associate his rule, “use different meanings of your opponent’s words” with a left uppercut. A right jab means “try to bluff your opponent,” just as a right cross will always be “hide your conclusion…until the end.” But there were so many feints and punches that I learned without rules. Grabinski has been holding out on me.