“I gotta a Golden Gloves thing I’m puttin’ on that weekend,” he said. “You could see that.”
We’d been looking for a third story to fill up a trip to Pittsburgh that I was going to take, and one of “Only A Game’s” producers, Karen Given, found Jimmy Cvetic. Now Jimmy was telling me he was our guy. Story one was the Duquesne men’s basketball team, which was in the course of putting together an unexpectedly successful season after five players had been shot at the beginning of the year. Story two was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were looking forward to a new arena, which the city might or might not be in any position to help fund, although a lot of other cities have not let that get in the way. Jimmy and his tournament were story three.
“And I gotta Russian kid, a heavyweight, who’ll be working out at my gym. You could see him,” Jimmy said. “And this guy who’s been in prison half his life. Chisholm. He’s about 65, and he comes down here to hold the mitts for some of the fighters.”
Jimmy himself is a retired police detective, which is why he said that what I’d see if I made it to Pittsburgh was “the ex-commie, the ex-con, and the ex-cop.”
“And the mayor,” he said. “The mayor comes in here a lot. And a card girl if you want.”
This was beginning to sound like a long story, especially for the radio. I’d met several fighters, and also some mayors, but I’d never met any card girls, who are the girls who strut around the ring in high heels and not much else with a big card that tells everybody what round is coming up next, in case they have not been paying attention.
“I’ll tell her to dress like she’s going to work,” Jimmy said.
So that was settled and he hung up the phone.
About mid-day on a Sunday a couple of weeks later I landed in Pittsburgh, and the idea was that I’d go see Jimmy first, because the Golden Gloves thing was that night. He’d told me to call him from the airport.
“Jimmy,” I said when he answered the phone, “it’s Bill Littlefield.”
“Who?” he said.
“Bill Littlefield,” I said. “I’m the guy from public radio. We talked a couple of weeks ago. I’m here for that Golden Gloves thing tonight.”
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, I had to cancel that. They were givin’ me a hard time about the lights in the room there in the hotel where it was supposed to be, the chandeliers, that they were afraid it might get broken if somebody threw something, I don’t know.”
“So there’s no fights tonight?”
“There might be,” he said. “There’s a lot of fights.”
“But none that you’re promoting?”
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m at the airport,” I said. “You said I should call you when I got to the airport.”
“Okay,” he said. “Come on over to the gym.”
“Where is it?”
“Third and Ross,” he said.
“Third and Ross,” said the cab driver. “What’s at Third and Ross?”
“Jimmy Cvetic’s gym,” I said.
“Not that I know of,” he said.
The intersection of Third and Ross was quiet on that Sunday afternoon. There was an office building that looked empty, and a couple of stores that looked just as empty, and nothing that looked like a gym. I know, because I got out of the cab and looked carefully at each corner of the intersection. I was about to get back in the cab and ask the driver to take me to the hotel where I’d be staying, when a guy who looked like maybe he was a retired police detective came out of a building on the corner called the Third Street Café, and he was waving his arm at me, which I knew because there was nobody else to wave at in the intersection of Third and Ross.
I walked toward him. “Jimmy Cvetic?” I asked.
“Come on in and get a sandwich,” he said.
I got my bag out of the cab and paid the driver, who shrugged, perhaps because you learn something every day, and that day he learned that there was a gym at Third and Ross, or at least there was Jimmy Cvetic.
Jimmy led me up a concrete ramp, which meant you could get into the Third Street Café in a wheelchair, should anybody have to do that. Inside there was a young man painting the ceiling, and another young man was behind the counter.
“What kind of sandwich you want?” Jimmy asked.
“How about ham and cheese, sourdough bread, lettuce and tomato, mayo and mustard?”
Jimmy nodded at the young man behind the counter. While I was waiting for my sandwich, he showed me around the Third Street Café, which was one room with a few tables. The walls were covered with photographs, mostly of boxers, but one big frame had headshots of thirty Pittsburgh police officers who’d died on the job.
“I knew a lot of them,” Jimmy said.
Lots of the photographs of boxers were signed. Jimmy had stories to tell about some of them. We stopped in front of the photo of Roberto Duran, who is infamous for saying “No mas,” in what would otherwise have been the middle of a fight with Ray Leonard, but instead it was the end. That wasn’t the story Jimmy wanted to tell.
“This guy knocked out Pedro Mendoza’s wife,” he said.
I hadn’t heard about that, and I must have looked it.
“1975,” Jimmy said. “Duran knocked out Mendoza two minutes into the fight, which was in Nicaragua, where Mendoza was a hero. ‘El Toro,’ they called him, but not that night. After he went down, his wife come over the ropes screaming, ‘Duran!’ and he turns around and he cold-cocks her. So then everybody starts screaming and throwing stuff, and Duran leaves the ring with his hands over his head, and I think he flew out of there the same night, to Costa Rica or some place. Neutral territory. Didn’t even go back to his hotel. Or that’s the way I heard it.”
A couple of photos down the wall there was a picture of Charles Bukowski.
“This guy isn’t a fighter,” I said. “He’s a poet.”
Jimmy’s face lit up. “You know Bukowski?” he asked.
“I know his poems.”
This would matter, but not right then, because the kid who’d been making my sandwich was finished. It was a good sandwich, too, though I learned later from Jimmy that the kid who made it was no more a sandwich maker than the kid who was painting the ceiling of the Third Street Café was a ceiling painter. They were both young guys who’d come to Jimmy at some point and said they wanted to learn to fight, and he’d taken them on. The one who was painting the ceiling had been married briefly to a woman who took off with somebody else and left him with a baby, whom he was presently supporting by painting Jimmy’s ceiling.
“He’s a good kid,” Jimmy told me later. “He’s trying to do it right.”
We made it the rest of the way around the room, and Jimmy said if I was finished with my sandwich, we could go down to the gym, which we got to by going outside and then down some steps beside the café. If you didn’t know it was there, you would walk right by it, which I say on behalf of the cab driver, who should not feel bad.
The gym was full of old equipment and a Russian fighter who certainly looked like a heavyweight to me, but who could not have told me so himself unless I knew the Russian word for “heavyweight.” Jimmy and I watched the Russian bounce around in the ring for a while, and after a time the ex-con, Chisholm, showed up with two guys, one to hold his coat while he climbed into the ring with the Russian, and the other guy in case something else might come up. The ex-con, who told me that he had, in fact spent about half his life in jail, put on the mitts trainers use to catch their fighters’ punches and the Russian guy wailed away at him for a time.
While we were watching, Jimmy pointed to the ex-con and said, “He could have been a cop, and I could have been a crook. He’s not so dumb, and I’m not so smart, but it worked out the other way.”
“How did you get into the boxing business?” I asked.
“One day when I was just starting out, way before I got to be a detective, I caught a little kid stealing the radios out of cars,” Jimmy said. “He was about twelve, thirteen. And I brought him in, and he went to juvenile court, and I guess he went away somewhere that wasn’t any good for anybody, and I was thinking, even then, I wish there was somewhere else I could take him. But there wasn’t, because I didn’t have the gym, and a couple years later he was dead of a drug overdose. So after a while, I thought, no kid ever picked up a crack pipe with boxing gloves. I started this place, and anybody who wants to come in and learn to box, they can do it.”
Other people came in to the gym, too, just as Jimmy Cvetic had promised they would. The card girl was among them, and you could not mistake her for anything other than a card girl, unless maybe you thought she was on her way to the beach where there was no boardwalk where she might catch a heel. Jimmy took a picture of me with the ex-con and the ex-commie, but I told him I’d pass on one with the card girl, which is why you can look all you like on the internet and you won’t find one.
Eventually I told Jimmy I ought to get over to my hotel, and he said he’d give me a ride. As I was getting out of the car, he asked if I had plans for dinner, which I didn’t.
“I’ll pick you up at 6:30,” he said. “We’ll get some Chinese food, and I got nobody here to talk about poetry with, so we can talk about poetry.”
Over dinner, which Jimmy ate with chopsticks and I didn’t, we did talk some about poetry, and not just Charles Bukowski, because Jimmy writes poetry of his own.” Thousands of poems,” he told me. In a poem about a fellow officer who became addicted to the drugs he was supposed to be getting off the street and who died in jail, Jimmy wrote “Youth is usually chained to ambition/ And we strutted the chains cool like immortality,” which seemed to me a pretty good line at the time, and also after we had finished dinner..
Jimmy talked about the theater pieces he produces from time to time, productions in which he sometimes uses the boxers from his gym.
“And the card girls,” Jimmy said. “Because the people enjoy looking at them, even if they are not saying anything much, or anything at all.”
Sometimes the smartest thing to do when you are talking with somebody like Jimmy Cvetic is not to say anything, because then he will realize that what he has just finished saying isn’t finished after all, and he will say the rest of it.
“One of the card girls, her name was Stacy or Tracy or something, and she was excellent at standing there, and also at being a card girl. And then one night after she’d been working at the fights – and this is after I’d been employing her for quite a while – she said, ‘Jimmy, what are those numbers on the cards for?’”
Besides running the little gym under the Third Street Café and keeping various boxers and card girls off the streets, Jimmy Cvetic is a trainer of sorts, and he is not without a claim to championship credentials in that respect, although the claim is a little tarnished.
His champion is a not-so-young-anymore fellow named Paul Spadafora, who was known as “The Pittsburgh Kid,” I suppose because that sounded better than “The McKees Rocks Kid,” which is where he was born. Although a guy I know named Carlo who is smarter about boxing than I am told me Paul Spadafora lacked a knockout punch, that didn’t stop him from claiming the World Lightweight Championship, at least according to one of the many competing federations and authorities and gangsters who hand out such distinctions. Jimmy Cvetic worked with Paul Spadafora for a time, and stood up for him when he was arrested for urinating on a public thoroughfare, which is not something they put you in jail for if you are the World Lightweight Champion, although they do put you in jail for shooting your girlfriend, and that’s what they did to Paul Spadafora after he did that.
“I convinced him to turn himself in,” Jimmy told me. He also told me that the girlfriend recovered, and she visited Paul Spadafora in prison, where there was a thick plastic wall between them.
“And that was a good thing,” Jimmy said. “Because she had to tell him that the pit bull he’d left with her had torn up the other pit bull he’d left with her, which was stuffed.”
“A stuffed pit bull?” I asked.
That evening Jimmy took me on a tour of Pittsburgh. He drove up to a point where we could look down on where the three rivers come together, which lots of people have seen, and then we drove back downtown and into a neighborhood called Hazlewood, which not so many people have seen, at least on purpose. Jimmy pointed out an old shack with some outside steps that led to an upper story and said that a cop had been shot there by a man who felt the police should let domestic disputes play out without interference.
“Guy come out the door of the apartment and banged away with an assault rifle,” Jimmy said. “Got my guy in the chest. He was halfway up those stairs. Coleman McDonough was my guy’s name. It was the last call on his shift, and he could have said he was off duty already, but he went on the call. Last thing he said was, ‘Son, put the rifle down.’ McDonough, his picture’s on my wall, there.”
We pulled away from the building and Jimmy said, “Guy shot himself, too.”
Jimmy is not one for e-mail, although he says his girlfriend ,Gloria, takes care of that for him, and maybe she does, but not so as I would notice. So if I want to know how he’s doing, I call Jimmy. A couple of years ago when I did that, he told me he’d had some problems with his heart, and I wondered if maybe it was too big, but that wasn’t it. Then more recently I called to tell him my students had enjoyed some of his poems. He was glad to hear that, and he said things were pretty good with him.
“I had a hip replacement, and I was on one of those walkers for a while, but now I’m okay. I just have to stop and rest sometimes.”
I did not ask Jimmy about Paul Spadafora, because I’d read that he’d been arrested recently for driving drunk, which is not as bad as shooting your girlfriend, but which is also not so good if you are a boxer in your mid-thirties who is still trying to convince somebody that you can be a contender.
I did ask Jimmy about Chisholm, the ex-con, and also about the ex-commie, and the news was not so good there, either.
“The ex-con has got hepatitis A,B,C, and D,” Jimmy said. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“What about the heavyweight?”
“He got deported,” Jimmy said.
“What for?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Jimmy said. “It’s easy to get deported. But now I got a Czech guy in the gym, and his name’s Attila.”
“Good name for a fighter,” I said.
“Absolutely,” Jimmy said. “And we got a new ring in there, too.”
“How’d you manage that?” I asked him.
“Well,” Jimmy said, “they were filming this movie, part of it anyway, here in Pittsburgh, called The Warrior. You seen it?”
“No,” I said.
“Nick Nolte’s in it, and he and I got to know each other. He’s a good guy, and we’re talkin’ one day and he says, ‘You should be in the movie.’ The next thing I know the director says so, too. And I told him, ‘I don’t want to be in your movie,’ but then Nolte says it’s gonna be easy, and they’d pay me. I told him I don’t need you to do that, but for about five thousand dollars you can put a new ring in my gym for Attila and these other guys. So they did that, and now, you go see The Warrior, you can see me in it.”
So the ex-cop who is a community organizer and a trainer of sorts is also in the movies now, which is something he did for other people, pretty much as he has done everything else, including getting the ceiling painted in the Third Street Café. And of course he is still a poet, and in one of his poems, “Porkchop Didn’t Shoot Everybody,” he tells the story of a guy who one night shot everybody he could see in a bar and also some people he couldn’t see, but not everybody. The shooter is called Porkchop for reasons that are not explained, and during cross examination of the state’s star witnesses, one Silas Jones, Porkchop’s attorney attempts to clarify the situation by asking if his client was “just shooting at random?”
Silas said, “No, he wasn’t’ shootin’ at Random,
Random wasn’t even there.”
The judge hit the gavel,
“With that last statement, we’ll take a ten minute break.”
You could see it coming, but it makes me smile every time anyway, so when it was time to get off the phone, I said, “Well, keep writing poems.”
“I will,” Jimmy Cvetic said. “I got thousands of ‘em. You keep readin’ ‘em.”
And I suppose I will.