The Boxer – Simon & Garfunkle

The Boxer

The Lyrics:

I am just a poor boy.
Though my story’s seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

When I left my home
And my family,
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station,
Running scared,
Laying low,
Seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go,
Looking for the places
Only they would know.

Lie-la-lie…

Asking only workman’s wages
I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers,
Just a come-on from the whores
On Seventh Avenue
I do declare,
There were times when I was so
lonesome
I took some comfort there.

Lie-la-lie…

Then I’m laying out my winter clothes
And wishing I was gone,
Going home
Where the New York City winters
Aren’t bleeding me,
Leading me,
Going home.

In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
“I am leaving, I am leaving.”
But the fighter still remains

This is a song about Cleveland Ohio and the 4 years I lived there…3 years in college and 1 year working after that. I know that things have changed since then but so far as I was concerned at the time, Cleveland was known for:

  1. It was cold as hell
  2. The steel mills in “the Flats” burned off excess gas inside the city limits
  3. The Cuyahoga river that ran thru the city caught fire and burned
  4. It was the “Armpit of the World”
  5. It was the home of the Cleveland Browns and especially one Jim Brown, maybe the best fullback who ever played the game.

In other words, I really, really did not like living there. I landed there because I enrolled in Case Institute of Technology. So with apologies to the current residents…here goes.

No I was not a boxer. In fact I don’t think I ever even put on a set of boxing gloves.

“I am just a poor boy”…yes I was a poor fellow. I made it into Case only because I got a partial scholarship and was able to float loans to pay my tuition etc. The only reason I had money to eat was due to a government grant…see, my father dies on active duty in the occupation forces in Japan in 1951. Not a glamorous event…the best we ever knew, it was due to an accident related to his drug addiction, which was the only reason he was back in the Army in the first place. The law provided funding for his surviving children to go to college and that was my food and spending money.

Besides not having much money for food, I had not a stitch of winter clothing when I flew into town from Miami, Florida. I was rather acclimated to hot weather and have remained so during my life and have always also really disliked the cold. I have no memory of warm clothes or coats…really not sure now how I got by, except to be cold.

This coat was the best I ever had and this came as a gift of being in the Army. have no idea what I wore earlier but I sure remember being cold all the time:

Cleveland - JFL

Cleveland at the time was an ugly town. There was a major section of the city given over to steel mills located inside the city in an area known as “The Flats”.  On a subway ride from downtown out to the campus area, you could see the area as shown in this picture I took on a visit back there when I was in the Army…

Cleveland FlatsYou can’t see the flames coming from those stacks but they were there.

The town gained eternal fame from the fact that it’s river caught fire from all the pollution and garbage that was dumped into it. I did not see the fire myself as I was back home in Miami after being discharged from the Army…but here’s a picture:

Cleveland - FireAnd a link to a decent writeup of the event:

Burn, River, Burn

But, enough of bad mouthing poor ole’ Cleveland. I understand that all of this has been cleaned up…but I’ve never been back. It was a tough place to be poor.

I do recall going to one of the Cleveland Brown games with my fraternity brothers (Sigma Chi) and getting toasted. I still have a distinct memory of watching, from those cheap end-zone seats when Jim Brown ran some 80 yards from the other end of the field to our end. In one of the scrapbooks is a picture taken that day as we are leaving the game.

Now about those “whores on Seventh Avenue”….

Whenever I hear this song, I substitute “55th” for “Seventh” Avenue. And here’s the story.

In the summer of my Sophomore year I got to frequenting a local pub/bar where I consumed copious quantities of 3.2% beer. In Ohio, you had to be 21 to drink real/regular beer but at age 18 you could drink the watered down version known as 3.2% beer. It took its name from the fact that the alcohol content was never more than 3.2%. Regular beer was 2-3 times as strong. They had a dance floor and I love to dance then as I do now. I’d never danced much before that but I did a lot of dancing then and I rather liked it. After 4 years in a Benedictine Monastery and two concentrated years of study, this was the time when I discoverewd “Wine, Women and Song”….the first was to be my undoing.

Some evening there I met a young lady, who for her sake, shall remain nameless. We got to dancing, met there a few times and then dating and eventually got engaged. She even came to Miami to meet my folks and I spent many weekends at her home in West Cleveland. The best thing that girl ever did for herself was to dump me when I was in the Army as I was a really lousy boyfriend under those circumstances.

The problem with visiting her was that the only way there and back was a bus ride from central Cleveland to Bedford, her suburb. To get there, I would ride the subway train from East Cleveland where I was living into downtown and catch the bus. Getting back was the problem. The schedule for the return was such that I was supposed to be able to ride the bus back to downtown and catch the last bus out to the college campus area. The subway did not run very late so the bus was the only option.

This is a view of Public Square, the center of downtown:

Clevenald - Public Square

Problem was, that the bus almost always ran late and I got dumped off downtown in Public Square at 2:00 AM (might have been 3:00 AM) with no way home other than to walk. The main drag, Euclid Avenue ran straight out 110 blocks from the bus stop to the Fraternity house. No foolin’…110 blocks.

At the time the city was divided into distinct neighborhood sections:

  • From downtown to 55th Ave was the business district, prosperous to not so
  • From 55th Ave to about 90th was the ghetto, known as ” the Hough area”.
  • From maybe 90th to 105 was the Italian district
  • Campus and fraternity house were at 110th Ave.

Now when I say Ghetto, I mean GHETTO, in bold capital letters. If you don’t believe me, check it out and you’ll find that east Cleveland is still a disaster area. In my Freshman year, I did a tour of the area as part of a program looking for tutors for the kids there….scared me too much to join up and help…I remember the terrible housing, bare light bulbs in sockets.

So I walked that stretch I don’t know how many times, but it certainly was in the dozens. I recall, maybe a faulty memory here, that at 55th there was a railroad overpass. Not only was it the start of the ghetto but it was a favorite hangout for the prostitutes who frequented the area. The first few time I went thru there it was a bit awkward…”Maam, I ain’t got any money…sorry, just walking home from seeing my girlfriend”. Interestingly enough, that area was never scary or frightening. I never found myself afraid and never had any problems. The regulars even got to recognize me and stopped seeking business (a polite way of putting this) from me.

So, while I never took any comfort there, I sure do remember the place, the times and the ladies of the night.

One last note…my fraternity had a cook who was also a pimp…and I could not even take advantage of his “discount rates”…LOL

In my last year there, I was out of school…their “request” and was pretty down and out. Lived in a 1 room, really just a bedroom, place that I rented from a family. Bed was a mattress on the floor, no furniture, certainly no phone. A girl next store gave me my only case of, well…we’ll leave that out.

So the song is always a bit of a melancholy trip down memory lane to a time when things were pretty rough…the toughest I’d had to endure since the orphanage. But, on the bright side…if I could make it thru all that, I could survive just about anything. And Marge, if you are out there somewhere, thank your lucky stars that you broke up the engagement and I’m truly sorry for all the heartache I caused you.

 

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