In the bathroom of the Greyhound bus station in New Orleans, a homeless woman with a gash in her forehead was combing her bangs down over her wound. I scooted into the farthest stall. A moment later, another homeless woman entered the stall next to mine and began singing. Periodically she interrupted her song to comment on how great it felt to pee.
It was a three-hour ride to Mobile, Alabama, where USA Boxing was holding their Junior Olympic Nationals, the tournament for the best 15- and 16-year-old fighters in the country. On the way I ate a chocolate chip cookie, called various relatives, and WhatsApped Raquel Ruiz, who reminded me that the media conference call with future Olympian Queen Underwood was about to begin. Queen had just gotten the word that she'd been tipped to go to London.
Photo: Sue Jaye Johnson
It was one of those weird teleconference things run by a robot. The festivities began with a canned speech from USA Boxing’s Executive Director Anthony Bartkowski, and then you could queue up to ask Queen questions. I got in the queue, accidentally got out of the queue, and then got in again. When my turn came I asked Queen (1) how her bull mastiff King was reacting to the good news, (2) what she thought about Katie Taylor and Sofya Ochigava, who seemed to me the two strongest competitors at her weight, and (3) what kind of sparring she'd been doing to prepare. I also (4) girded up my loins and asked Julie Goldsticker, house publicist, when we could expect an announcement about the Olympic head coach.
The answers were as follows:
(1) "King has been through it." He is being boarded right now and is behaving himself.
(2) "I'm strong, too! I saw their match in China. They have similar styles. It was a very slow pace, a chess match."
(3) She has not been sparring, just doing conditioning at a local fitness gym. When I asked if she'd do anything special to prepare for the southpaw Ochigava, I got, "Everybody knows how to fight a southpaw."
(4) "We will make that announcement when the determination has been made."
I quelled the wave of hatred that response number 4 aroused in me by eating the rest of my chocolate chip cookie. I’d known Julie would never give a straight answer, but I wanted her to know that there are people out there who are not fooled by silly conference calls over a tripartite selection when we still don't have a Head Coach 36 days before the Games.
My bus stopped in a place called Gulfport, Mississippi where I got out to stretch my legs. A toothless old lady and her two grandchildren were waiting on the side of the road. They looked sun-bleached, like a Walker Evans portrait. They might have been waiting there forever. The tiny girl had blonde pigtails and a bright green smock dress.
“Daddy’s coming!” she yelled, trembling with excitement. “Daddy!”
I couldn’t figure out who Daddy was. All the passengers were off the bus, so I assumed it must be the bus driver, until the little blonde girl broke into a sprint and hugged a middle-aged black man who resembled Floyd Patterson. She wouldn’t let him go but kept hugging his leg like the trunk of a tree, murmuring,“Daddy.” Her brother and grandmother stood a few paces off, smiling.
The Mobile bus stop was even worse than the New Orleans one. I wheeled my bag straight out to the taxis, where I was herded into a broken SUV.
“Ah was just stacking coins,” said my driver.
I had no idea what he was talking about until I saw the pennies piled in little columns on his dashboard. At home, I throw out pennies, which makes my husband mad. The driver removed the packs of Newports and dirty laundry from the backseat to make room for me. The seat belt was broken, but I figured (correctly) that he would drive very carefully to protect the pennies.
The driver had the deepest Southern accent I’d ever heard. He spoke so slowly - and his vehicle was so hot - that I felt my whole body drop into a state of deep relaxation.
When I got to the Holiday Inn, I spent some time chatting with the lovely Jessica Robinson from NPR for her piece on Queen. Then I texted Sosa to check in. Aureliano Sosa is a superb boxing trainer who works at my gym, Atlas Cops and Kids. Like so many trainers, Sosa had great skills as a boxer and even represented Mexico in the Pan-American Games. He radiates love of the game, drawing the young boxing talent like killer bees to honey.
I’d missed the afternoon bouts, and Sosa told me Alban the Albanian had already lost. I was very sad for Alban Kazui, a handsome kid who trains hard under the approving eye of his devoted father. Apparently Alban had pigged out at Sosa’s birthday barbeque and was forced to drop five pounds right before the bout.
“The weight killed him,” Sosa said. “But Kike won easy.”
Christian Bermudez is a sweet Puerto Rican 125-pounder who, according to his trainer Benny, was a terror in his neighborhood until the squared circle taught him poise and self-control. His nickname is pronounced “KEE-kay.” One of the most amusing conversations I ever had at my gym was when I explained that Kike, when pronounced differently, was an ethnic slur against my people. I’m always trying to edify the youth.
Speaking of Kikes, as I walked through the blistering Mobile afternoon to the Save-A-Lot to stock my minifrig with healthy snacks, I passed the following plaque.
I looked around in confusion for said historic house of worship, until I realized that it was a Hardee's.
I went inside and asked the cashier if the restaurant offered any special menu items in honor of the Jewish people. He said no, but seemed to like the idea.
In the evening fights, Edgar Berlanga won handily, making use of his excellent height at 132 lbs, and a boy from our region named Kevin Rodrigues lost. I learned that I was from Region 1, which comprises New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There’s five boys here from Atlas Cops and Kids, but we have a big team from the region, and there’s a nice camaraderie among the troops.
After dinner I joined the boys in the fitness room of the Hampton Inn, where Coach Robert Jiles, Sr. AKA Sergeant Slaughter AKA Mr. Miyagi was working pads with Bruce Carrington, Jr. AKA Shu Shu AKA The Mongoose. The 101-pound Shu Shu might be the best fighter at my gym. Peep his handspeed and balance in this short clip. He’s a natural leader who trains with the seriousness of a grown man, and his darling parents are always on the scene.
Christopher “B Hopp” Colbert asked me for a rubdown, and so did Kike, whose back was hurting after his match. I took them through some Thai yoga stretches and massaged their sore deltoids. It’s gratifying to feel the kids relax as I work on them. Some of these boys’ bodies are so tense, as though they’re continually braced against a blow.
I’m not entirely unconflicted about sending fifteen-year-olds into the ring to hit each other in the face, but the only thing worse than boxing is not boxing.