Saturday, March 03, 2007
Man of the Century
Sometimes people have a way of coming into your life just when you need them the most.
This is extremely rare, I know, and in my experience it's always been the exact opposite scenario, as in, oh, no, haven't I got enough problems without have to deal with this card-carrying douche bag on top of it all?
Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, the tattoo and signed the movie deal.
But today was different. I actually met somebody worth knowing and worth remembering.
I've been feeling like crap for the last 10 days or so, with a sinus-stomach-psychotic espisode that's got me using the little strength I have to crawl the walls and curse the fates.
I stayed in last night, even though it was Friday, even though I had two events I could have attended. I just went the hell home, got some chicken and rice soup, and watched The Fifth Element on TV---dumb flick, but it's got some great visuals.
This morning I went out in search of a George Foreman grill, or a new one, I should say, as I already have one. The problem with mine, though, is that it's not mine, it's Mary's, my late father's aid.
Since my father died--I still can't believe it--Mary doesn't come around anymore, for obvious reasons, and among the things she left behind was the grill.
I love that thing. My doctor told me a while ago that my cholesterol was a little high, and I suspect that might have been the result of Mary's cooking for my dad. Delicious food, but she made a lot of fried dishes.
At some point she brought the grill over and I've been making use of it. I don't do anything elaborate--just chicken breast or the occassional turkey burger. But I save money by cooking my own meal and I get a little feeling of accomplishment by doing things myself.
Then Mary calls me this week and tells me she wants the thing back. Mary is diabetic and she had a TIA, a seizure that is similar to a stroke only there is no lasting damage. She fainted, hit the floor, and had to go to the hospital.
Her doctor laid down the law: no more fried food, no more cigarettes (she has to be told this?!), so she's got to go back to George Foreman. This is upsetting because most of my father's troubles started with a TIA. Please, Mary, take care of yourself.
So I've got to buy my own grill. I could get one at a place near my office, but I don't feel like lugging one of these things around on the subway. That means buying one on Saturday, which means a 20-block walk or subway ride to the shopping strip on 86th Street.
Normally, I wouldn't care, but, as I said, I felt like crap and didn't feel like hiking anywhere.
I figured I'd check Thriftee, a local discount store that has just about everything but the Rosetta Stone on its shelves. I've been going there most of my life, usually as a last resort when I couldn't find what I was looking for anywhere else, and, of course, it's Christmas Decorations Central.
The owner's a bit of a character and has been known to break out in song without any warning. I joke with the young guy at the cash register that I'm going to get him a set of ear plugs.
Anyway, they didn't have the George Foreman grill, and I was picking up a new toothbrush when I heard the owner talking with a woman about another customer.
"He chases after younger women in their 90's," he said.
Good for him, whoever he is. I went to the cash register and told the kid to ring me up before the owner started singing "Danny Boy." Then the owner comes walking out with this old man to next to him.
"See this man?" he asked me. "He's going to be 102 years old next week."
I looked at this man: he was short, with a wrinkled face, and these huge shoulders. His eyes were bright and he knew exactly what was going on.
"Squeeze his fist," Mr. Thriftee said to me. "Go ahead."
This felt like some old medicine show routine, but I decided to play along. The old man made a fist, I put my hand around his knuckles and it was like squeezing a rock.
It turns out the old man, whose name was Dundee (I think his first name was Ray, but I'm not sure. Can I get a "duh"?), was a professional fighter for many years.
"I've fought all over the country," he told me. "I fought all the great fighters..."
He ticked off a list of boxers from the Golden Age and the only one I recognized was Benny Leonard, whom one of my uncles sparred with back in the day.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Dundee had a low of opinion of today's boxers and after naming a few of them, he said he could have taken them all in his prime. I laughed at his bravado, but I didn't argue.
"Sometimes the young kids in the neighborhood tease you," he said. "They see the white hair and they call you 'old man.' Then I go into my stance."
Mr. Dundee glided into a perfect boxing stance, like a ballroom dancer, and put up his fists. Then he shifted his feet and eased into another position, leading with his right.
"Or I'll do southpaw," he said. "They don't know what to do when they see that."
It occurs to me now that I should have asked him for some pointers about my jab, which could use some work, frankly.
I noticed he had a cap adorned with military medals and he said he had been a gunnery sergeant in the Marines and had fought in Guadalcanal. He told me he stopped boxing after he lost some of the vision in his left eye and was unable to see his opponents' jabs.
I introduced myself and shook hands with Mr. Dundee. He had a strong grip, but he wasn't showing off.
"Nice meeting you," he said and he squeezed my hand again in an affectionate way that told me he meant it.
He told me his brother was once the welterweight champion and after a net search, I came up with the name Johnny Dundee, who real name was Giuseppe Carrora. He was called the "Scottish Wop"--this was a while ago--and he won the junior lightweight championship in 1921.
I found a listing for a fighter named Ray Dundee, who fought in the Twenties, but his bio says he was born in St. Paul, Minn. and the man I met today said he was from Baltimore. Oy, some reporter I'd make.
I got my George Foreman grill at an electronics place a block away from Thriftee, but I couldn't forget about the other fighter I had met today. I wish I had gotten his phone number. He must have great stories to tell, between the boxing, the war, and living beyond the century mark.
I'm just glad I met him. I've been feeling so down lately and the fact that I'm going to turn 50 in May isn't helping. I'm not feeling well, but I'm not doing enough out of this rut, and, I'm making it worse by getting angry and miserable. Meeting something like Mr. Dundee perked me up.
I watched my father die at 85 and he was in terrible shape at the end. Here's a man who had 17 years on my dad who is in remarkably good shape. A lot of that is fate, of course, and genetics. Boxers aren't known for their longevity or their mental capacity, but Mr. Dundee has both.
"You should be in his kind of shape when you're 85," Mr. Thriftee said to me.
Here's hoping. I held the door open for Mr. Dundee as he left the store and walked out behind him. I'm kicking myself for not getting some contact information, but I'm praying I'll run into him again.
"Take care of yourself," he said, as we went our separate ways.
"You, too, champ," I said.