Debi warned me not to bring just any shoes to her shoemaker, as he has been known to deny service to footwear he considers gauche. I waited until I had two pairs of vintage heels from Ethan's 90-year-old piano teacher Sophia.
The heels had been given to Sophia by her friend Sita Devi, the Maharani of Baroda, a mysterious Indian noblewoman who used to cavort with the Paris jet set. The Maharani gave Sophia a lot of gifts, including a collection of 107 saris.
The shoemaker was a beetle-browed Russian who operated out of a storefront on Montague Street next to Connecticut Muffin. He examined the pumps silently. One pair was gold with a rhinestone teardrop over the toe; the other was lavender silk. They were so old that the bottoms of the heels had crumbled away.
"Nice shoes," he said at last.
I swelled with pride. "They belonged to a princess."
"I know," he said.
After he fixed them I wore them a few times. They made me think of the Little Mermaid. Not the Disney version, the Andersen original, where the witch tells the little mermaid, "you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw."
After that, I went back to my local guy, an Italian man who never judged me for buying cheap shoes that needed to be resoled constantly because I walk weird. But then one day his store was closed down, and I heard from the neighbors that something awful had happened to him. And I had one pair of boots - gray suede with stacked heels that I bought in Genoa with my mom - that had proven beyond the Italian's power to mend. So today I returned to Debi's guy with three pairs of shoes that had survived our apartment fire.
Things were subtly changed. The Connecticut Muffin was now defunct. There was a row of old shoes for sale next to the register. The Russian greeted me eagerly and showed not the slightest scorn for the pair of Chinese Laundry peep-toe booties that I had bought at TJ Maxx with Cousin Nikki for $30, ten dollars cheaper than what he now demanded for resoling.
Although that seemed outlandish, the shoes were surprisingly versatile. I'd worn the stilettos down to the metal core, creating a terrible sensation when I walked on pavement, like the shoe equivalent of tinfoil on fillings.
"I don't know if you can even fix these," I said, demonstrating the loose heel on the gray boots that the Italian had only worsened. The Russian disappeared into the back with them, then returned a moment later.
"I can fix," he said.
He turned my baby blue Donald Pliner cowboy boots over in his hands. They didn't even really need new soles, I realized. I had brought them in to elevate the collection.
"These are well made," he said.
My stepmom had bought them for me in Houston after we'd buried my dad. I thought about telling the Russian that, but I was afraid he'd say, "I know."
He added up some figures in his head and announced the repairs would cost $165.
This was a staggering figure, but we lost so much in the fire that I've taken a sort of nihilistic attitude to financial transactions. I let a car service driver charge me $20 for a ride today that should have cost $8, and the other day I bought a $30 pair of panties.
"You pay full amount in cash now," said the Russian.
I only had $75, so he told me to come back with the rest tomorrow. I told him I wasn't sure I'd have time.
"Come soon. Bring cash. Rent is expensive here."
He pointed sadly to the row of old shoes for sale and told me they had been left behind by former customers.
I asked his name, and he said it was Vitaly.
"Like Vitaly Klitschko," I said.
"No!" he cried.
He launched into a long diatribe about Vitaly's venal approach to Ukrainian politics. I'm seeing Wladimir fight this Saturday at the Garden, before any of the shoes will be ready. I should have taken notes.
My husband really gets into it about jazz drumming and race over at Do the Math.
Tonight he plays in the solo piano showcase at the Village Vanguard, part of an exciting week of programming coordinated by Jason Moran to celebrate the 80th anniversary of that hallowed dive. I used to be scared to go to the Vanguard because the owner was so mean. Now it's my favorite place to hear music. I guess it wouldn't be a treasure if it didn't have a dragon.
Thanks to everyone for your support about the fire. Still no progress on our place, and we've got crash pads lined up through April.
When I walk in the door of the boxing gym, I always feel better. I never know what kind of questions the young people will ask me. I've got a poetry student, a meditation buddy, an aspiring essayist, a kid slogging through pre-calculus, and yesterday Donovan brought in some linear equations. Meanwhile, our elite fighters continue to kick ass in the Golden Gloves. Last night Chiquito made it to the finals at the Barclays Center. Shu Shu is in, too. Tonight Africa, Big Black, and Omar fight.
As Ray Arcel told Thomas Hauser, "The important part of boxing is not that youngsters realize their dreams, but that they can dream. Every day in the gym they're somebody special. They're a fighter."
If I've been cranky lately, it's because we're still living out of suitcases. After piling all our belongings in heaps in garbage bags and demolishing the ceilings, the workmen have now taken a mysterious six week break. Some kind of delaying tactic by the insurance companies. There is no end in sight, and, as tenants, we have no say.
My initial burst of smugness about being a bohemian who does not care about material possessions has faded and now I just want to go home, put on a pretty dress, and drink coffee out of the mugs I bought in London that look like Penguin paperbacks. We should have put our stuff in storage right away, because by now most of our furniture is ruined.
The workmen stacked the toilet plunger on top of my boxing gloves – who does that? – and I'm pretty sure they took some of my author's copies of Penthouse Forum. I don't know where the medicine cabinet is, which sucks because I still had one Percocet left from my kidney donation and I want it. Everything smells like a burning tire.
I started taking Spanish to make myself feel better by leaning new things. When I told that to one of my boxers, he told me that when he was homeless and living in a shelter, he used the time to get his GED. This made me feel worse, because how can I complain when so many wonderful friends have opened their homes to us?
Upon reflection, I have decided to complain into the Internet, because that is the modern way. And just in case you can't get enough of my dirty laundry, here's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me.
It started in our upstairs neighbors' place, probably due to some old wiring. When the firemen finally let us back in, the back half of our apartment was pretty much destroyed. It coulda been much worse. Our bedroom furniture was all crappy anyway.
Catbus survived unscathed, as did Battling Siki, Nauga, The Real Gargamel, Plush Godzilla, Gunther Schuller, Ray Bradbury, Iggy Fats, Park Madmore, The Argon Collection, and the rest of our imaginary friends. Also, no humans were harmed.
Everyone has been incredibly kind, and my dear friend Lisa gave us her apartment for the week. Soft landing!
One thing that kept me in good spirits was following the action at the USA Boxing Nationals, where many of my favorite fighters claimed titles, including Atlas Cops and Kids' tiny lion Christopher Colbert. I was also happy to see Mikaela Mayer take the lightweight slot. With Queen Underwood and Rashida Ellis moving up in weight, the road to Rio looks wide open for this beautiful boxer.
Speaking of the open road, what better time for a vacation than while our ceilings are being demolished? Thursday I head to Cartagena, Columbia to visit my spiritual big sister, Raquel Ruiz, she of the redoubtable research skills and four-inch heels. Viva!
All press is good press, and so I was happy to see the Atlantic paying attention to my grimy, girly corner of the sporting world. Kate Jenkins's sympathetic piece looks at the pressure on women fighters to market themselves as sex symbols, yet there is an odd way in which the piece is itself evidence of the problem it decries. If we want people to take our sport seriously, we need to get the details right. Here's a list of the errors I saw, beginning with the two most obvious, the rankings.
"Tori Nelson, ranked #1 in the US and #2 in the world"
WBAN has Nelson #2 in the US and #4 in the world; Boxrec has her #1 in the US and #3 in the world
On Tyreishia Douglas: "Currently, she’s the #1 ranked female bantamweight in the world"
Douglas is a flyweight not a bantamweight. WBAN does not rank her, and Boxrec has her at #18 in the world.
The rest of these points are debatable, but I still see them as inaccurate:
"She estimated that the winnings for equivalent male fighters start off between $20,000 and $30,000."
Tori is a 13-0 welterweight. It's hard to find "equivalent male fighters," because at 13-0 most male welterweights won't yet be fighting for titles, but this figure seems too high as a starting point. Local promoter Felipe Gomez of New Legends Boxing estimates that a man with that record could pull $4,000 for an 8-rounder on the cheap end, $6,000-$12,000 if TV is involved. Al Haymon guys, Olympians would be pulling much more.
"Then she added, referring to the men, “Maybe I gotta fight them to make that.” I don’t doubt she’d do it. Nelson, like nearly all female boxers, began training by sparring almost exclusively with men. There are still so few women in the sport that the training gyms pair men and women out of necessity."
Boxing is one of the most strength-intensive sports. Pee wee boxers might spar members of the opposite sex but competitive adult women are generally paired with men for technical sparring only. When elite women are paired with men for open sparring, there will be a weight advantage accorded the woman. Women don't need to be able to beat men to be serious athletes.
"The trainers, in turn, know what the promoters are looking for and are likely to select their fighters with that knowledge in mind...Because of a perceived lack of interest in women’s boxing, trainers, managers, promoters, and sponsors are all reluctant to work with women."
True of the business-side people, not of the trainers. All the trainers I know (including myself) love training women. Most trainers these days make their money off white collar clients anyway, and women are good for business. I called Gleason's Gym, where pro Kiesher "Fire" McLeod-Wells told me they have approximately 80 trainers, nearly all of whom have female clients. Church Street Gym reported eight trainers on staff, plus independent contractors, none of whom discriminate against women.
On Douglas's loss to Esparza at the 2012 Olympic Trials: "White believes Douglas is a stronger fighter than Esparza, but she told me Douglas’s managers couldn’t raise enough money to make her an appealing candidate. (In cases like Douglas’s where there is no knockout, the winner is determined based on the judges' assessment.) Many of the people I spoke with implied that for the cash-strapped Olympic team, a boxer with financial backing is an asset."
Esparza beat Douglas 32-17 in the Olympic Trials. As I reported from ringside, the lopsided score did not reflect the strength of Douglas's performance, but Esparza was still the clear victor. This decision had nothing to do with sponsorships and everything to do with Esparza's superior ring generalship and conditioning. This was a double-elimination tournament, and Douglas's first loss had come earlier to Christina Cruz of New York, a fighter who moonlighted as a waitress to make ends meet. The winners of the other two divisions, Queen Underwood and Claressa Shields, were also cash-strapped.
"The media has disarmed Esparza, reducing her from a skilled athlete to just another frivolous female celebrity."
Jenkins does to Esparza precisely what she criticizes others for. There is no mention of Esparza's recent gold at the Women's World Championships in Korea, nor is Esparza interviewed in this piece, despite being the most thoughtful and quotable of boxers. Moreover, not all media have taken the reductive approach: Sue Jaye Johnson at WNYC, independent journalist Raquel Ruiz, and Girlboxing's Malissa Smith have all written about Esparza's achievements from a pure boxing perspective.
"Even for the rare sex symbol like Esparza, it’s hard to sustain a lucky streak. Once Esparza leaves the Olympics to go pro, Nelson speculates that her sponsors will drop her."
Esparza's bone structure may be due to luck, but nothing else about her career is, and why should we believe Nelson's mildly embittered speculations about Esparza's sponsors? As Mikaela Mayer - a technically excellent and physically beautiful boxer sponsored by Dr. Pepper - once told me, it's hard work to close these deals and to maintain your performance under the added pressure of corporate patronage. Dealing with suits takes a certain decorum and reliability in short supply in boxing gyms. Why didn't Jenkins interview some of the A-siders who could have spoken from the inside about the devil's bargain of sexing up yourself to sell?
"The addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic lineup ultimately means little if the boxers still can’t expect to make a living as professional athletes afterwards."
The addition of women's boxing to the Olympic lineup means everything in the world to those of us who care about the sport. Christy Halbert, whose advocacy helped secure the Olympic inclusion, told me, "Not every woman boxer wants to turn pro. The fact that women can now be Olympic boxers has changed their lives. There are women in other countries who have money they wouldn't have if they hadn't won a medal. It can be a life-changer, not only for the boxer but for her whole family."
Claressa Shields, reigning Olympic and World Champion, came to visit my gym yesterday!
Bottom row (Left to Right): Nyisha "Siyah" Goodluck, Me, Little Nick Scaturchio, Claressa "T-Rex" Shields, Chris "BHopp" Colbert
Top Row: Tara Ciccone, Mo, Hamza Alhumaidi, Reshat "The Albanian Bear" Mati, Coach Aureliano Sosa, Richardson "Africa" Hitchins, Bruce "Shu Shu" Carrington, Jr, Akil "That Guy" Auguste, Coach Hilergio "Quiro" Bracero, Derrel "Bro Man" Williams
I was so happy watching Claressa shadowbox in the ring while the kids gathered around asking about her fights and her training. I consider this Darshan for my boxers. Claressa is the best woman in the world at what she does, perhaps the best woman boxer ever. Seeing that can change you.
It's been a rough fall. Over at our gym blog, I've posted a tribute to a young man who was shot to death in Brownsville.
I haven't been doing much writing, but I have essays coming out soon in Penthouse Forum and the Threepenny Review. Here's hoping Claressa was Darshan for me, too.
The motto on the kerchief I bought at the MacDowell Colony gift shop - "To once again be enfolded in the warm embrace of your tender shelter" – pretty much sums it up. This retreat was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I spent the first week finishing up a long profile of Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields and the other four weeks on a new novel about a girl boxer.
I couldn't get enough of Sprague Smith, my little cabin in the woods. It had the best desk I've ever seen, a comfy chair, and a Steinway baby grand. Tombstones on the wall bore the signatures of past occupants, including friends like Fred Hersch, Darcy James Argue, and Louisa Thomas. I made myself coffee every morning and didn't do anthing else until I'd written at least 1000 words. Sometimes that took all day. Deer came by my window and a flock of 20 wild turkeys, and once a fat, magnificent skunk. A Boddhisatvic man named Blake delivered lunch in a picnic basket every day.
Dinner was communal, at long tables in Colony Hall, and the food was lovingly prepared. My fear that everyone would be the annoying academic type who only talks about awards proved unfounded. I met brilliant and kind people whose spirits made their way into my manuscript. Some of the friends I met – like the great performance artist Penny Arcade, whom I'd seen perform 20 years before, or novelist Amity Gaige, with whom I'd taken acting class my very first semester at Brown –gave me the feeling of circling back to an earlier version of myself.
Re-entry has been a little rocky. My first day back at the boxing gym, I saw what appeared to be a dead cat on the road in front of the gym. I got closer. It was indeed a dead cat. There's a whole family of feral cats outside the gym. A few months ago I got one of our families to take a kitten home. It was a high quality kitten, born for the good life.
Anyway, a man on a motorcycle was cursing the car driver who had apparently just driven off without stopping after hitting the cat. The father of one of our pee wee boxers watched impassively as the motorcycle driver grabbed a plastic bag from the trash and dragged the dead cat by the tail off to the side of the road, where it is probably still rotting.
Inside the gym, the odor was unbearable. I soon discovered that the trash had leaked garbage juice across the entryway and the boys' bathroom smelled like the kids had basically been pissing on the floor. I mopped and burned incense, and just when the place started to be bearable this huge, sweaty Belarusian coach took off his shirt and everything smelled awful again.
I'm calling it quits for the summer before I head to MacDowell for five weeks.
Please read my open letter to Gennady Golovkin over at Stiff Jab; he might be my new favorite fighter.
Saturday I headed to Atlantic City with these Russians to see light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev knock out Blake Caparello in two. My report is here. Lovely to see Sparkle Lee making the right calls. It was the only time I've seen a woman ref such a high profile bout.
This is the new Wonder Woman costume. Pretty sure I hate it, although I'd also like to own it. For Wonder Woman's roots as a symbol of "feminist bondage utopia" check out Philip Sandifer's fascinating critical history.
Here's one of Debi Cornwall's shots of Atlas Cops and Kids cleaning up at the New York tournament. We took home the Best Team Trophy and a well-deserved Best Coach Award for Aureliano Sosa.