When did my heart harden? How did empathy slip away? Dr. Lindelson pondered these questions in the spacious office where she had practiced psychotherapy for forty years, since she completed he... [+]
The black man who approached from the rear of the gathering at my father's burial looked to be one hundred years old. He was frail, but not bent. He walked haltingly, supported by two black teenagers, one on either side of him. As my family members and my father's friends watched, puzzled, the man and his young escorts continued around the edge of the group of mourners toward my father's casket that lay beside the dug hole and the cemetery workers ready to lower it into the ground. Through my grief-fogged brain, I saw a much younger face superimposed over the face of the old man so determined to reach my father.
"Tiger," I said. "That’s Baby Tiger."
I moved forward to embrace the man who had been a near mythic figure in my childhood. As I walked toward him, a large black-suited employee of the funeral home that had arranged the burial put his arm across my chest and stopped me.
"The ceremony is about to start," he said. “The grounds crew has other burials to tend to."
I should have shoved him aside, screamed, "fuck off," kicked him in the groin. Instead, diminished by sorrow, I stood in place, a weakness that has haunted me over the decades. Tiger never knew I saw him. The two young men brought him to my father's casket. He draped himself on top of it and sobbed loudly, a heart wrenching sound that mingled with the distant wailing that could be heard from other parts of the cemetery.
Before I was born in 1948, Baby Tiger, James Tiguere, was the trainer in the boxing gym owned by my father on Washington Street in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The gym was a bare bones place, nothing like the posh health clubs of today. A regulation boxing ring occupied the center of a large room, surrounded by light and heavy leather punching bags hanging from the ceiling. There was just enough space for the boxers to skip rope around the edges. The smell of sweat and old leather permeated the air and never left. The locker room was equally spare, some benches, lockers, four shower stalls and three latrines. When my father married my mother, he quit the boxing game, and Tiger took over the gym.
We lived in a three decker in Dorchester, an easy trip to Roxbury. My father visited Tiger at the gym regularly and would sometimes take me along. Tiger was a dark-skinned black man with a broad smile and an imposing presence. He would put up his fists and say to me, “you going to be a boxer like your father was?” When he saw that I was frightened, he would pick me up and hug me, while his booming warm laughter reassured me that I was safe. I remember the ease with which Tiger and my father spoke to one another, a kind of bond that awed my young self.
My dad would regale me of stories about Tiger at the gym after he took it over. One stuck especially in my memory. Tiger had told a white fighter known as Big Jack to spar with a black boxer named Tyrone. Big Jack got the name because of his bulging muscles. Jack was very proud of those muscles. He oiled his torso before he went to the gym, which gave him an odd golden color and a scent like he had just come from the beach. He might have been mistaken for a surfer dude except for the permanent snarl chiseled into his face. Tyrone was wiry with a physique that gained no second looks.
“C’mon,” Jack said. “I don’t want to hurt the boy.”
“Careful how you talk, Jack,” Tiger said.” There are no boys here, only men. Just fight.”
Tyrone had never stopped smiling. He knew Big Jack had more brawn than skill. After two rounds of getting pasted with Tyrone’s jab, and flopping around like a fish in a boat when he tried to hit Tyrone, Big Jack took out his frustration with a low blow so hard, the thud drew the stares of everyone in the gym. Jack and Tyrone got into it, jawed face to face, insulted their manhood and their mothers’ virtue, when Jack spat the word, “nigger.” Tiger ran into the ring and stared Big Jack down until he hung his head.
"Get out of here, Jack, and don't you ever come back."
A week later, Big Jack was back in the gym as if nothing had happened.
With my six-year-old innocence, I asked my father, "how come Tiger let him come back?"
"Tiger’s anger was terrifying," my father said. “No one stood up to Tiger when he was mad, but he always said that anger had to be tempered with forgiveness."
Tiger trained many Tyrones, hard working men, mostly black, who mastered the art of boxing. He was as good a boxing trainer as there ever was. He had only four rules for the fighters in his gym. Tiger made sure to lay them out whenever he took on a new man.
“You will treat everyone in this place with respect,” he would say. “That’s rule number one. You’ve got to believe you can be a champion. You need to work your ass off. And lastly, no whining. I don’t care if you got laid off, if your kids are sick, if you are going hungry. You are responsible for your success or failure.”
Tiger did care. Any fighter who could not afford the modest gym fees, trained for free. A hungry fighter got a meal, and Tiger sent food packages home to any family struggling to put meals on the table. No one ever figured out how Tiger could afford his generosity. As time went on, tensions between blacks and whites in Boston worsened. White fighters stopped going to Baby Tiger’s gym until it was frequented by black boxers only.
By the mid-1940s, after the war ended. Tiger’s stable of black fighters had developed a reputation in local boxing circles as tough and skilled. A couple had true championship talent. When Tiger worked to get his fighters good money fights, which meant fights against white boxers, he ran into the racial realities of the times. The white boxing promoters faced a dilemma. A white on black boxing match would draw a large paying crowd. They knew that any one of Tiger’s black fighters might beat their own, who would then face the shame of having lost to a black man. The promoters chose their bigotry over their pocketbooks. Tiger’s boxers put on great shows against other talented and anonymous black fighters, and their careers went nowhere. After years of failing to get any of his fighters a single big payday, Tiger quit the boxing game in disgust. He lived in the gym building and was known on the streets of Roxbury as a self-ordained preacher, who redeemed souls and fed the hungry.
Around the time I was twelve years old, we moved from Dorchester to the suburbs of Newton. My father had become chair of a university department. Trips to the gym became fewer, and eventually my father and Baby Tiger lost touch with one another. He always told me that he had to get back to the gym to see how Tiger was faring. Years went by, and the reunion never took place before my father’s death.
Could Tiger have advanced his black fighters' careers more successfully with more anger and less forgiveness? I can never know. I know only that my father told me that Baby Tiger was a great man, with a heart so big, he could not imagine how it got so big. "I loved him," he said.When white men still trained at the gym, and Tiger's white and black fighters squared off, they beat the hell out of each other, sometimes with deep and primal anger borne of grievance, real or imagined. After every fight or sparring session, they embraced.