The Passover Pugilist

By Allan Wasserman

Spring break meant Easter vacation for the Catholics, Pesach for the Jews. For Ian Greengrass, April of 1967 was fraught with anxiety. He had emerged successful from three street fights in a week, one of which he started. But his last fight on the Number 13 bus returning from Castle Hill Junior High School, JHS 127, had created a vendetta.
In the midst of punching the daylights out of Paulie Pizzaro for kicking his saxophone case, he had inadvertently elbowed Eddie Torrio in the nose, which caused Torrio to bleed all over his brand new velour pullover. This was a fatal error. Torrio was connected to the Gallucci brothers of Arthur Avenue, and rumored to be the grandson of the famous gangster Johnny Torrio, who helped Capone become a criminal giant.
Ian tried to apologize to Eddie, but the bleeding Abruzzi descendant only responded with, “You’re fuckin’ dead, Greengrass.”
The walk home from the bus stop to Matthews Avenue seemed like a gallows march. Impending doom seemed to be on Ian’s horizon, causing his pals Turk and Bussky to try and cheer him up.
“Ah, that faggot is all talk … nuthin’ to worry about,” Turk declared.
Bussky was silent, making Ian feel even more scared.
“Meet you on the corner tomorrow night. 6:30,” Turk bellowed as he turned on Wallace to his apartment building.
There was a Bronx House dance at 7 PM. Ian had to go or he’d lose face and be considered a punk, which would give every pompadour-posing, black leather jacket hitter license to pick on him for all of eternity.
Bussky mumbled, “See ya tomorrow,” as he hung a left to his second-floor walk-up.
Ian trudged to his red brick post-war fortress, which he thought he should probably never leave for the next three years.
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” his nephew chirped at the seder table, after Ian had sung the Hebrew.
In his head, Ian answered, “Because tomorrow, I’m fuckin’ dead.” The prayers and singing neglected to raise Ian’s spirits. Even the ten-spot Uncle Harry slipped to him during coffee and macaroons barely brought him out of his daze.
“Ian darling,” Aunt Dorothy chirped, “want anything else?” She helped her sisters clear the table.
“Yeah, a cigarette and a blindfold,” Ian mumbled low.
“What, baby?”
“Nuthin’, Aunt Dot. I’m good,” Ian answered politely, after several adults at the table shot him “the look.”
Ian got in bed after the company left and watched Don Rickles kibbitz with Johnny on the black and white Emerson he had gotten for his Bar Mitzvah. Even world-class comics could not get Ian Greengrass to crack a small grin.
Ian’s cat Tuffy nestled into the crook of his arm and Ian made a decision to seek counsel from “the Wolf” in the morning.
Wolfe Marucci was the personification of a brick shithouse. Five feet ten, two hundred seventy solid pounds, a former navy boxer and gymnast who had fallen in love with his Sicilia and her ziti, in that order.
Wolfe ran the gym at Bronx House and taught tumbling, boxing, weightlifting and parallel bars. At the ripe old age of forty, the man was a one-man phys-ed department. He turned kids into rope climbers, point guards, volleyball spikers. You name it, he taught it, and taught it well.
Wolfe’s gift was the ability to instill confidence in any boy or girl willing to try. For Wolfie, everybody gave a hundred percent. As scary and menacing as he looked, when he smiled, the gym radiated with sunshine. His voice was gravelly but always encouraging. His eyes always seemed to twinkle and then disappear into a grin that made him look like a happy Italian Buddha.
“Greengrass,” Wolfe bellowed with pleasure, as Ian was the first to enter the gym Saturday morning. Wolfe always greeted Ian as if he hadn’t seen him for years, which usually made Ian smile. Ian’s blank expression caused Wolfe to squint over his clipboard of events.
Ian shifted with discomfort as Wolfe scrutinized the sourpuss. On one of his favorites, Wolfe had a sixth sense, and could read a kid like an open book. He put his clipboard under his arm, put a massive meat-mitt on Ian’s shoulder and said low, “My office.”
Wolfe and Ian settled in squeaky chairs on both sides of Wolfe’s oak teacher’s desk. Wolfe let a few seconds of silence elapse as he drummed the desk with his hairy-knuckled simian digits. After he could take no more, he leaned in slightly and instructed in a low growl, “Talk to me.”
“I g-g-g-got a problem,” Ian managed to squeak.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Wolfe responded, shocking Ian, who rarely heard “the Wolf” use foul language. But this was mano-a-mano.
“The guard at the Pelham Parkway Blind Home could see that,” Wolfe said with a small, twisted grin. “Give,” Wolfe demanded.
Ian proceeded to describe the rumble he had partaken in on the Number 13 bus. Wolfe listened intently and burst out laughing when Ian got to the part of his story where his elbow popped Eddie in the nose.
“Two for one!! Pizzaro and Torrio!! Byoodifull.” Wolfe howled like a real wolf.
“But he’ll be at the dance tonight … and he is really pissed … I mean angry … and has sworn to kill me,” Ian stated, a bit too dramatically.
“I can make a call,” Wolfe offered.
“Nah, I gotta deal with this,” Ian said.
Wolfe Marucci leaned back in his desk chair, causing it to creak in agony, put two tree-trunk arms behind his head and declared authoritatively, “You need JDH.”
“Wh-wh-what’s that, Mister Marucci?” Ian inquired.
“Jab, duck, hook!! Follow me, Greengrass.” The Wolf barked like a top sergeant and flew out of his chair like a two hundred seventy-pound ballerina. He was light on his feet, like Jackie Gleason, as he yanked Ian by the upper arm to the heavy bag. In a matter of minutes, Ian’s hands were taped, the gloves were on, and Wolfe was holding the heavy bag and instructing combos that would have made Archie Moore stay in his corner.
As the second hand of the Bronx House gym clock ticked around its faded white face, and the young gym-rats started to show up, Ian Greengrass pounded out combos and felt his sweaty fifteen-year old physique swell with newfound courage.
Matteo and Rose Torrio lived in the apartment that Rose’s parents moved into as immigrants. It was a claustrophobic one bedroom on Unionport Road. The only saving grace was Bronx Park and Trojan Field across the street. Eddie’s bedroom was the foyer of the apartment. As a result, he grew up with little privacy and few possessions. A Castro Convertible served as his bed.
Matteo Torrio was a lifetime postal worker who rarely spoke. Born in Italy, raised in the Bronx, he had a soft palate problem that made his speech a target for teasing. Growing up around Morris Park, his lovely bride Rose D’arrigo had episodes with depression that she medicated with compulsive overeating, and now had blown up to two hundred and eighty pounds. She rarely left the apartment.
Eddie suffered from deep embarrassment of his parents and tended to express himself with volcanic anger. Most of the time, Eddie was quiet and sullen.
Despite his family’s bad luck, Eddie was blessed with extraordinary good looks. His father’s northern Italian heritage bestowed blond hair and blue eyes on him that made the Italian and Jewish girls melt at first sight.
Eddie Torrio knew Greengrass had clocked him by accident, but his swollen nose and bloodstained velour had to be avenged. He knew in his heart of hearts this was all bullshit, but the only worthwhile possession Eddie had in life was his rep, and he would do anything to preserve and protect it.
After forty-five minutes in front of the bathroom mirror Saturday morning spent applying ice to his nose and Brillcream to his perfectly round blonde pompadour, Eddie slipped on his white leather waist-length jacket, opened three buttons on his shirt and bolted down the stairs to catch the number 12 bus to Arthur Avenue. He was third cousins to the Gallucci brothers, Gaetano and Tino, and hoped they would advise him on how to properly seek revenge on that elbow-swinging Jew.
“The Five to One Odds” were playing at the Bronx House dance, which meant a huge crowd. They were popular, and could cover all the Motown hits. The lead singer was a hot brunette with a great voice and ass, and if that wasn’t enough, Louie Bonifati was on organ. Kids would travel from Fordham, Pelham Bay, the Edenwald Projects, and even snotty Riverdale to hear the band.
Ian was aware of the multitudes traversing his beloved borough and it made him nervous. If he was going to participate in a face-off with Eddie, the notion of an audience brought a lot of pressure.
Ian contemplated staying home and feigning the flu, but a voice deep inside growled, “No,” in a low, defiant rasp. He had done time being bullied and being scared. “I’m through with that shit,” he said to his cat Tuffy, who turned his head to one side, hoping for a treat.
Mike Anderson held his new purchase up to the light and smiled. A brand new gravity knife with an illegally long blade. Anything more than four fingers of any cop’s hand was a seizure of the weapon and a trip to juvie. Mike’s Ma was gone, addicted to H and turning tricks in Lower Manhattan. His old man drove a soda truck when he wasn’t passed-out drunk or beating on his only son.
Mike carefully made the blade retract and placed the knife in the inside breast pocket of his black leather hitter jacket. He grabbed his keys and some cash and headed out the door to catch the Number 12 bus from City Island to the Bronx House dance.
Black suede desert boots, black sweat socks, black chinos pressed with a razor-sharp crease, a crisp brand-new dark blue workshirt and a knitted tie. No tie, no admission to the dance. Ian checked himself in the full-length mirror, flattened his hair with an Ace comb, petted Tuffy, took a deep breath and headed out of the house while mumbling, “Bye,” to his folks. They shot a few questions after him, which he pretended not to hear.
Striding to the corner, he ducked into a driveway and practiced a few “jab, duck, hooks” in the air, scaring a few pigeons in the process.
Turk and Bussky were waiting on the corner, solemn expressions on their mugs.
Ian broke the ice with, “Did you see Marina De Luca in band today?”
Bussky grinned and responded with, “Think her skirt was tight enough?”
Turk cackled with laughter.
“Her ass looks like two Volkswagens racing on the Bronx River Parkway,” Ian declared, lightening the mood, and making his boys break up. The trio headed towards Pelham Parkway South. Crowds of kids walking to Bronx House were already visible on the horizon.
As the sun set over the projects, Eddie and his crew waited patiently in front of Bronx House, sucking on Marlboros and trying to look bad. Mike Anderson was with them. They didn’t particularly care for Mike. The consensus was he was a fuckin’ psycho. They let him hang.
Hidden behind venetian blinds on the second floor and peering down like an Indian scout, Wolfe eyeballed Torrio’s crew and bit his lip with tension. He checked the crowd for his middleweight, and surprised himself when he murmured the kid’s name out loud like an inquiry. “Greengrass?” Wolfe Marucci uttered in a worried tone in the empty office. Like magic, Ian and his boys turned to make the approach to the entrance.
Eddie and his crew spread out as they recognized their Jew enemy coming up the sidewalk.
Ian’s heart was pounding like the drum solo in “Wipeout.” Bussky leaned in and whispered so only Ian could hear, “You can take this guy.”
Ian heard the encouragement and seemed to stand taller and look bigger, like a fighter swelling up from his corner man’s coaching. He walked straight up to Eddie, nose to nose, and said simply, “What?”
Eddie was more than a little surprised. Eddie was unsure of himself. The Gallucci brothers looked at each other quizzically, wondering if their douche-bag cousin was losing his nerve.
“Your elbow action fucked up my velour,” Eddie hissed.
“Tough shit,” Ian growled back.
The whole crowd went, “Oooooohhh” in unison, like a Greek chorus.
“Your boy kicked my sax case. You should have stayed out of the way,” Ian said in a voice deeper than he knew he was capable of.
“He kicked your case, and now I’m gonna kick your ass,” Eddie stated defiantly.
“Out there.“ Tino Gallucci nodded towards the street, and the two opponents and crowd merged to the middle of Pelham Parkway.
The crowd formed a circle on the grassy field, creating a human arena. Eddie and Ian circled each other, waiting for the other guy to start. The kids watching cheered for their favorite, and as the spectators raised their voices to a crescendo, Eddie danced forward and planed a full-force jab square in the middle of Ian’s face. Then another. And another. Ian was stunned.
Wolfe hotfooted his way towards the crowd. He resisted the urge to break up the fight. “C’mon, Greengrass,” he uttered under his breath, and stayed in the shadow of a maple tree.
Bam! Eddie’s fist attacked again. Ian half-heartedly tried to keep his hands up protectively in front of his face. He showed no signs of jab, duck or hook. Shock seemed to be his whole persona.
Torrio’s fifth, sixth and seventh jabs flew like missiles into Ian’s profusely bleeding nose and mouth.
When Eddie’s seventh jab landed, Ian felt something ignite deep in his chest. There was a low rumbling in his gut and arms. His body temperature was rising, face throbbing, mouth wet with blood. The sensation grew inside him. He breathed in large gulps of air that seemed to feed a rage he had never before experienced. The oxygen fed the fire, and Ian felt he was about to explode. Ian’s brain lost all conception of fear and pain and lunged forward, growling like a mad animal.
Ian grabbed Eddie by the lapels of his leather jacket and threw Eddie on the ground. Eddie’s eyes bugged out like a cartoon character.
Ian’s face was covered with red blood as he pounced down on Eddie and pinned Eddie’s chest with his right arm and commenced pummeling his stomach with his left fist. He hammered away at Eddie. Ten punches, twenty, thirty!! The crowd was roaring.
Like a rag doll being attacked by a dog, Eddie’s arms and legs thrashed around and around. Ian pounded out forty punches into Eddie’s stomach as Eddie’s eyes fluttered and he went unconscious.
Ian slowly stood up, wiping blood and mud off his shirt, and wondered where he was for a moment. He felt bad. He never jabbed, ducked or hooked.
The Gallucci brothers shook their heads in disgust. They could not believe their chooch of a cousin got knocked cold.
Mike Anderson reached for the knife in his pocket and pressed the button that made the blade shoot open.
He felt hate for Ian, hate for all those fuckin’ smart Jews, and moved towards Ian in a slow, stalking approach. Mike looked at Ian, but could only see the face of his father. A red, bloated mask that he despised.
The blade caught the reflection of the streetlight and shined for a second. Before Mike could strike, Wolfe appeared out of the shadows and in a flash, pried the blade out of the sick boy’s hand. Mike screeched from Wolfe’s power grip on the back of his neck as he dragged him away from the crowd. Mike Anderson would be back in juvie again. He’d been there before. No big deal.
A green and white RMP pulled up and two patrolmen from the Forty-Third Precinct emerged. Their presence was enough to disperse the crowd.
The Gallucci brothers carried their half-conscious cousin away, and Bussky and Turk escorted a bleeding Ian across the street to Bronx House.
Wolfe and the cops pushed Mike into the back seat of the patrol car as Ian and his sidekicks headed to the boy’s washroom in the Bronx House gym.
“The Five to One Odds” were finishing their sound check as Ian washed the blood from his nose and mouth with brown institutional paper towels. Bussky worked on Ian’s shirt in another sink. Turk reached down and wiped the mud off the knees of Ian’s pant legs.
“Don’t get excited,” Turk cackled in a tease.
Bussky laughed and turned to Ian and gave him the once over.
“Well, Champ,” Bussky declared with a smirk, “you look like shit!”
The three friends all guffawed hard at this.
Ian’s swollen face tried to smile, making his compadres laugh harder.
The band broke into “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.” The crowd was entering the gym. This was a signal for the boys to do some last minute primping. Ace combs appeared in their palms as they got busy. In a few moments, the Marlboro bathroom smokers would be in the boy’s room lighting up.
The trio exited the boy’s room before the smoking lamp was lit. As they entered the gym, half the neighborhood was waiting, at least the Jewish half, and broke into cheers and choruses of “Greengrass, Greengrass, Greengrass,” like a bleacher crowd at Yankee Stadium.
Ian couldn’t believe his eyes. All his hoodsies were there, back-patting him and slapping five with him. The girls showed concern for his face and took turns dabbing his wounds with balled-up tissues. He hadn’t got this much attention since his Bar Mitzvah.
The band transitioned into “Mustang Sally” and Ian did something he never did before. He asked a girl to dance. A fast dance.