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In Russo’s Gym There Were No $12 Beers or $15 Cigars...

Recession-Proof: Chapter One

“Sometimes it's the smallest decisions that can change your life forever.” - Keri Russell 

After receiving my pink slip and becoming an unemployed history teacher, I immediately began looking for another teaching job. After coming up empty, a month later I found myself standing in a long line outside the unemployment office with others who like me, had their jobs eliminated by the recession (2008). It was while I was in line making small talk and fast friends, that a stranger told me about a security company in Providence that was hiring. I took the number and called when I got home. They wanted to see me the following Tuesday at 4:00 pm.  

The office was in an older strip plaza outside the city limits, in the back of Sal’s Cleaners, where the receiving area in the front as well as the pressing area in the back, was staffed by Asian workers who smiled a lot but didn’t speak fluent English. In the way back, behind where the cleaning business operated, was the boss's office.

Salvatore DeLuca is a big man, taller than six feet and not much less than 300 pounds, with a round face permanently creased with concern and thinning black hair. If I had to guess, he’s chasing 60, and at a slower pace than he chased 50. On this day he was wearing an off-white button-front shirt, the kind with a two-inch hem around the waist that’s not meant to be tucked in. The air around him was heavily scented with cheap cologne, but his dark gray dress pants and black tie shoes completed what was a credible wardrobe. His introduction was brief and his eye contact never wavered. Looking directly at me over his thick black reading glasses, his huge hands folded in front of him on the only part of his desktop that was uncluttered, and with a thick Rhode Island accent, he explained the job. He’s a very intimidating character and I listened carefully to what he was saying.

The job involved surveillance, something I had never done before, and paid better than I expected. My mortgage payment was late, the refrigerator light had an uninterrupted path into the kitchen, and with three young children and a wife that didn’t let up, I immediately accepted the job. “The work is all in Rhode Island, mostly the downtown Providence area”, Salvatore said.

I started two weeks later, and on Monday, just after 8:00 am on my first day, I was seated in the back of a large four-door gas-guzzling, light-brown Buick LeSabre, behind the driver, with two other men who sat square and looked straight ahead. One is my direct boss, he was sitting shotgun. I was handed a glossy black and white of the man we'd be watching, an earpiece for communication, and a gun. An American Derringer .38 special double shot with rosewood grips, not the kind of gun I expected, not that I expected to be carrying a gun. It's the same kind of pistol used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Derringers, or “hide-aways” as they were called,  are small and easily concealed and were the old west riverboat gamblers weapon of choice, their short barrels and inadequate grips limiting them to close range personal protection, about the width of a card table. Because they’re not revolvers, the number of barrels indicates the number of rounds. This one had two vertically aligned barrels. I was told to be careful, that it was loaded...

We parked the Buick in an underground garage, where, with just a slight nod, we pulled in, not needing to stop or even pause for the lot attendant, screeching our way into the first available spot. Without the slightest hesitation, the four of us got out and began walking with intention, several city blocks to our assigned locations.

My job was to stand unnoticed in front of a municipal building, watching for our guy. As he approached my location, my heart started pounding. The boss's voice was calming in my earpiece as he instructed me to look away and let him walk by. He alerted me that the Feds were right behind him. I watched as three men in suits wearing dark sunglasses apprehended him; violently cuffing his hands behind his back, looking around for witnesses as they escorted him away. They eyeballed me, but I was under the impression I still looked like a high school history teacher, an unemployed one, and so I remained calm and looked away…

We met back at the car where I was told I did well, didn't panic. In the car, I attempted to give back the Derringer, but the boss told me to keep it. The rest of the day was spent behind the cleaners, in a small, dimly lit room that had no windows. There was an old refrigerator, a coffee maker, a large microwave oven, and some accouterments on a narrow table against the far wall. Everyone had a seat at the round wooden table in the middle of the room, a total of eight, including myself. We drank hot coffee, Chock Full of Nuts brand, ate sandwiches from the deli next door and shared the local rag, which was required reading. I took my turn. 

At quitting time one of the guys pulled the plug on the coffee maker and poured the remains down the bathroom sink, which hung crooked on the concrete block wall next to the hopper.

On my way home that afternoon, alone in my black Ford Escort, listening to some heated banter on sports talk radio about the P-Bruins Calder Cup chances, I began thinking about my new job and the guy in the unemployment line who had given me Sal’s number… Then it hit me like a two-ton wrecking ball on aging brick-- I’d been carefully recruited. I wasn’t working for a security company; I was working for the MOB!

“Nobody can think straight who does not work. Idleness warps the mind.” – Henry Ford

Tuesday morning came quickly and I was thankful. Being unemployed through the first part of September when I was normally two weeks into my history curriculum, had me on edge, and my wife too. I’d been pulling my own weight since I was 15 when my father disappeared, my mother died and I began living in my uncle’s unfinished basement, sharing the space with his two untamed dogs. It was at that time that I asked people not to call me “Junior”. I was an angry kid who didn’t need a daily reminder. Sharing his name was bad enough…

Along the way, I had plenty of jobs before becoming a teacher. I worked as a body shop apprentice, delivered packages, reconditioned used cars, landscaped, was a construction laborer, sold life insurance, and eventually worked as a bartender while I finished up at URI. I got my first teaching job just two days before my 27th birthday, ten years ago. I take great pride in doing whatever it takes. If I’m nothing else, I am a survivor…

On Tuesday morning we gathered around the table, spilling sugar and non-dairy creamer on the cheap blue plastic tablecloth while pouring our coffee. The plan had changed. I was going with Steve Chalupa for the day, my direct boss. We had some pick-ups to do. He headed over to a blue, late model Crown Victoria parked out front. I followed. Then tossing the keys to me he said “Nick, you’re driving”. The car was big and plush inside and handled like a dream.

Steve is 6 foot 2 with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, a confident gait, movie star good looks, and brutal charisma. His thick dark hair was heavily gelled, combed straight back, and hid the touch of gray beneath that hinted he was no young kid. When he talked he made eye contact, but his eyes were black or at least very dark brown, and it was hard to see his pupils or get a read on his mood. His long, smooth forehead and dark eyebrows added to his intimidating features. As I drove, he told me that normally we’d be sharing the driving, but today the job was all mine. I had the feeling that if it worked out, this arrangement would be permanent. 

At the first stop I waited in the “Vic” while Steve went inside a small meatpacking plant. He came out twenty minutes later all smiles and told me we were heading to Russo’s Gym, about a half-hour ride. I’m a fight fan and I knew a few local boxers who trained there several years ago.

The gym, located in Coventry on the Pawtuxet River, was in an old brick-and-beam warehouse that was once part of a textile mill that flourished in the latter part of the 19th century. Occupying two floors, the space had exposed rough cut chestnut beams and columns, brick exterior walls, large arched windows that provided natural lighting, and high ceilings. I knew exactly where it was. I didn’t know that Steve had been a Silver Mittens Champion, Golden Gloves Champion, and a promising light heavyweight before a shoulder injury ended his career some fifteen years ago.

Gabriel Rossi. Getty Images.

Before the door closed behind us, everyone in the gym acknowledged Steve’s arrival. He was a celebrity in there. Pictures on the wall showed him in his younger days, body ripped, gloved hands up in the traditional pose, and those dark eyes looking much younger but every bit as intimidating. He told me to lay low while he changed up.

He came out of the locker room in medium length, black satin boxing shorts and a plain white tank top, stopping to sit and lace up his faded black leather boxing shoes, which showed considerable wear. Steve looked real comfortable laced-up and in the gym.

He warmed up by skipping rope, which did little to distract his attention or steal his wind. He continued talking, asking me if I worked out. I told him I did, careful not to mention the words treadmill or elliptical. In there it was all raw. Sweat-soaked bodies, heavy bags popping, speed bags humming, ropes whistling, and medicine balls thumping. 

After five minutes of skipping rope without a miss and breaking a light sweat, Steve headed over to one of several speed bags mounted on the rear wall, by the fire escape. His concentration was up a notch, but he still carried on a conversation with me. Without looking away or breaking his rhythm, he told me he bought this gym ten years ago for a song, and that Eddie, the heavy-set guy who was standing by the ring apron, ran the place for him. He said there were several promising fighters in the gym’s stable and in an hour or so we’d get to see a highly anticipated sparring session between two up and coming middleweights.

The ring was in the center of the gym, elevated several feet above the floor, with an area around its entire perimeter that was perfect for viewing the action. The gym’s wooden floor was heavily worn and graying, but had plenty of bounce left in it. The two middleweights were getting ready at opposite ends of the gym by reeling off combinations at the flat target mitts worn by their handlers, punches that were popping like fireworks at a Mardi Gras parade. They both looked to be in shape, with great hand speed and concentration. Steve saw me watching intensely and poked me and said “You heard about ring wars in the gym? Guys care more about winning these sparring sessions than some of the fights they take. It’s about gym bragging rights, pride, and ultimately--respect. You don’t get anywhere in the fight game without proving yourself here first. You’re going to enjoy this-”

Shutterstock Images.

Steve was right. I didn’t know if it was the smell of the gym, the old warehouse atmosphere, or Steve himself that had me amped up for this fight, but I was. At the many fights I had paid for and watched in local arenas, I could tell it was all about the money. Plastic cups filled with draft beer were $12 and cigar girls in leotards, balancing themselves on four-inch stiletto heels, worked the floor carrying wooden boxes filled with cigars that hung off wide suspenders and rested just above their waists, not blocking any of the goods, north or south of the border. The cigars cost $15 each, but the girls prepared the stogies by inserting them in their mouths and rotating them several times, making sure to get them nice and wet, their eyes on the paying customer. The girls took their time, making sure each customer got his money’s worth, before snipping one end and lighting up. Once lit, they took several long drags, cheeks puckered, lips wrapped tightly around the cigar, finishing by exhaling smoke laced with a heavy dose of sexual innuendo. Each presentation was an adult show, encouraging the next guy to ante up. It was a lap dance without the lap. At one fight my friend bought three cigars. I watched while I sipped my $12 beer, careful not to collapse the plastic cup…

In Russo’s Gym, there were no $12 beers or $15 cigars, and when it came to sparring sessions, it was definitely all about respect.