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Do you remember how you ranted that night at the restaurant in Catskill, Mike, how your face became pinched and your eyes burned when you spoke of the way white men in this country have treated blacks? As an oddity, as a black manager and trainer of boxers in the 1940s, Mr. Futch knew about that better than most. All those years of driving thousands of miles because the local promoter wouldn't pay a colored fighter half what he might pay a white, of flopping in rickety rooming houses and eating at YMCAs, of taping his fighters' fists in segregated dressing rooms and cradling his fighters' heads in anger at referees' decisions. But all those years, he never let the poison spread to his heart or his eyes; he stored it down deeper and turned it, when he was weariest, into a kind of fuel, and then turned it, when he had reached his goal, into the milk of a smiling old man's story.
He folds his arms, half closes his eyes, and it's as if he's back there, 1948, alone, in darkness, eyelids sagging from want of sleep, driving from a fight in Youngstown to one in Chicago, skirting Lake Michigan in the heart of winter, sagging, sagging.... My god, he needed sleep or coffee, he needed it now! He pulled off the road and tried to nap, but the moment he turned the engine off he was trembling from the cold. He drove on, spotted a diner, went in and ordered a cup of coffee, black with no sugar.
"Sure," said the waiter. "But you have to drink it in the kitchen."
He glared at the white man, walked away, got back in the car and drove on, muttering to himself, muttering, muttering.... And then, screaming to himself at the wheel: Wake up man, you're on the wrong side of the road!
He pulled off and tried to doze again, froze up and tried to drive again, saw another diner and tried once more for coffee. "Coffee?" said the waiter. "Only if you drink it outside."
No! He walked back to the car, squeezed the wheel and, shaking with cold and anger, steered back onto the road. Rage would be his caffeine, he told himself, but within minutes his head was dropping and his car was weaving as tractor trailers blew by. He thought: This is it. I'm going to kill myself and take one of them with me. I'm going to die in a heap for a principle, but better that than to slurp down coffee in a kitchen like some dog, better that than....
Up ahead, a tearoom. He had to try. "No, no coffee to sell you, this is a tearoom," said the lady. "But I do keep a coffeepot around for myself, and you can sit and drink a whole potful if you're willing to wait for it to percolate." He drank two cups. He made it to Chicago. But the best part of the story, Mike, the part you've got to hear, the reason why you need this old man, comes now, four decades later, when he pulls off his glasses, rubs his eyes, looks off at nothing and says, "And you know, it's funny. Of the people who turned me down that night I remember nothing, not a single thing; they're gone. But of the woman who helped me, I remember every single line on her face, every feature. I can conjure her before my eyes right now; she's right there...a human being!"
How? Are you wondering too, Mike? How does a man sup at a banquet of flesh peddlers for 56 years and keep hold of his soul? Scum—that was your word for them, Mike. You stared into a plateful of shellfish in that restaurant and said it as if it were growing right there on your mussels. "My business attracts scum," you said. "All my life, I've been dealing with scum."
Think, Mike—must it be that way? There he is, Mike, right in front of you, the filter for the scum. A master of the half smile and the occasional "ummm-hmmm," so that the vermin would think he was listening—ha!—and possibly even agreeing to their propositions, when he was really a million miles away. A practitioner of the polite hello and goodbye, a man rarely seen lingering in the hotel lobbies and coffee shops where the other fight people gathered and gabbed. When his work was done, he would return to his room, listen to Tchaikovsky or Count Basie or Broadway show tunes, update his files on fighters, and type letters to family and friends on the electric typewriter he carried everywhere, or he would lie on his bed and read from a collection of poetry and essays he had assembled. Now and then fight people would see him in a restaurant or an airplane with his lifelong traveling companion—a leather-bound volume of Persian verse, The Kasidah, its face more scarred and weathered than his—and they would look down at the title, look up at him and say.... Hell, what could they say? A moment in which he wasn't improving himself or his fighters, Mr. Futch believed, was a moment down the drain.
Of course, it didn't pay to shout about that side of himself, might make folks nervous. Men worked beside Mr. Futch for years and never had a clue. They spoke of him in the same way that Emmanuel Steward, trainer at Detroit's Kronk Gym, recently did: "Never heard a bad word spoken about the man, and in a business like this, that's something."