Tom Wolfe liked to match. When I saw him on the cross trainer at the gym in Southampton, pumping away, vigorously chewing a chiclet, his head bent over his Ichabod Crane frame, tall but exceedingly lank, his blonde bob partially covering his right eye, he was wearing dark blue cotton matching sweat pants and sweat shirt; you know, the kind they wore when they were throwing the medicine ball around back at The Yale Cub in the ’50s. The place where Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway usually “took dinner” and where Wolf’s own Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities has a “craving to go and get a steam bath and lie down on one of those leather topped tables and get a good hot hammering massage,” after his bond deal died dead on its feet, like the club fighter Benny Paret, when Emile Griffith beat him to death standing, in 1962, hitting him with eighteen right hands in a row, in three or four seconds, according to Norman Mailer who was sitting in the second row. The same type of dark blue cotton sweat suit Wolfe might have used when he, himself, did laps around the perimeter of the Polo Grounds to get warmed up for a tryout as a pitcher for the New York Giants, but missed the cut because of his lack of a fastball, though he had perfect control; all this happening long before the day I met him back in February of ’96. Then, gym clothing de rigueur made you look like you were in the Gotti crew before the Dapper Don went down for the count. Wolfe was a classicist, a chronicler of, not a man of his times.
It was close to closing time; Gerry Cooney, Long Island’s own Great White Hope was finishing his boxing class in the adjoining room, and looked pretty good since retiring after having his head hammered by Michael Spinks and then said head handed to him to hold by George Foreman; fucking dude had a touch of class though, for a heavyweight, not your typical Long Island motor mouth asshole.
I waited until Wolfe got off the machine, watching Gentleman Gerry playing around, feinting and jabbing with two fawning middle age women, peroxide blondes, who had come for lessons. Gerry was wearing velour, a bright blue velour track suit with a matching velour newsboy cap. Timing it to give him three or four seconds to wipe the sweat off his face with the white towel which had hung around his neck, I walked up to Wolfe; I mean I hated doing this, but I didn’t see how I had much choice, and I just said, Hey Tom what are you reading?
He deflected the question and instead hit me back with what I was reading. I shrugged, nothing really (which was true, reading just made me feel guilty for not writing.) I mean I teach English down the road at the high school. I’m using Therese Raquin with my classes, I mean it’s lurid enough. This got his attention. Zola, the Greatest Novelist of the 19th Century, he exclaimed, which I supposed was saying The Greatest period. The Champ. It was just a blind luck shot. I didn’t know shit about Zola, except it was grotesque enough to hold the nit-wits’ I taught attention.
Cooney had dropped to the mat and was doing some one armed “peacock pushups” to impress the blondes, one gloved hand resting on his lower back. Telling Wolfe I was teaching high school made me feel like an idiot; watching Cooney made me feel like a cry baby for feeling like an idiot.
Wolfe looked over Cooney with an astute eye: the young man could punch, but he couldn’t fight, he said. I nodded, Yeah I said, I know the feeling. Like Cooney, I could take a lot more punishment than I could dish out, laying out a lot of blows that didn’t land.
Make them read Germinal, chapter five. Bataille, the white pit pony singed black after living for ten years in a coal mine, near blind, his head ducking to miss the familiar blows of overhanging objects invisible to him. Zola reaches into his head and we see Bataille looking for his memory of the sun.
One thing the lithe, genteel, effete Wolfe and the heavyweight, testosteroned Gentleman Gerry had, besides manners, in common, was that they were both pasty white, as white as Bataille, when they brought him down to the coal mine.
I didn’t know what to say to Wolfe, so I just shrugged and said well he knocked out Ken Norton in 54 seconds, there’s something to be said for that.
The young man could punch, a left hook like Jerry Quarry, he replied.
Jerry, “Irish” Quarry, the White Hope of the ’70s.
Quarry trained for five months before he fought Ali, and he still lost, I said. And Ali hadn’t fought in three and a half years.
Zola spent six months interviewing the coal miners before writing Germinal, not contemplating his navel like this Foster Wallace.
It was Don King that fucking shyster that started that Great White Hope bullshit, not Cooney’s people.
I was there, Ali – Quarry 1, Wolfe said, an avalanche of purple Cadillacs, more plumed peacock feathers in hats than on the peacocks guarding Hunter’s ranch. Coretta Scott King, sitting next to Jesse Jackson, sitting next to Bill Cosby, ringside.
I was in high school, I told him, still listening to my old Bill Cosby records. I read about it the next morning in Newsday. Quarry led with his chin, but he was game.
Wolfe said to me, You pass by 7-11 on the way to work, those Mexicans gathering out by the No Groupos sign, are the young people going to Southampton High School?
Yeah, I said. I noticed we were talking in circles.
He nodded, like he was making a mental note of it, and put another chiclet in his mouth.
Again with the high school. It wasn’t that I felt I was too good to teach high school, it’s just that I was a fraud. As one particular young man put it, after nine months of making a study of me, and stroking his three stringy chin hairs: “Yo, you aint no teacher.” As if blinded by the sun, the shades had now come down and he could now see me clearly, and he rose up and leaned across the desk accusingly: “You aint no teacher; you just some really smart guy who know all about this stuff.” Well he was right about the first part. I always felt like I was in the Witness Protection Program. Back in ’82, when Cooney lost in 13 rounds sustaining a viscous beat down from Larry Holmes at least he got a 10-million-dollar payday when he left Las Vegas. When I got on a bus out of New York City, I bought a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Yeah, I said to Wolfe, come to the school, listen to the kids, they’re talking smack, but mostly in Spanish. Wolfe stroked his chin, Maybe I will. He excused himself: I start writing at 9 AM, 12 hours from now, ten pages, triple spaced, about twelve hundred, thirteen hundred words on an Olivettti Underwood. It’s like being a boxer, a writer that is. I don’t mean a stooge like Norman, not a writer acting like a boxer, I mean a writer training like a boxer.
Well it must be a cool feeling, looking across your living room at a shelf full of your books, with your name on them, I said.
“Winning aint even fun anymore.” That’s what Cassius, Muhammed Ali rather, said to me. “It’s just showmanship.”
Well then showmanship must be fun, winning some money must be fun, writing a book with your name on it must be fun, I said.
We walked out of the closing gym together, me, Gerry and Tom Wolfe, the two peroxide blondes, into the Southampton frigid February frost. The gym shared a space with a terminal for luxury buses going to New York City. They went their way and I went mine.