By Eric Boyd
The sun is diving into the Pittsburgh skyline — it’s about 5:30 p.m. but still 85 degrees with humidity you can smell — and I’m standing by the corner of Ross Street and Third Avenue, waiting for Jimmy to show up. The night before we were at Hemingway’s Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall college joint within University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus neighborhood. There, Jimmy’s been hosting poetry readings out in the back for over 30 years. Toward the end of the night, I approach him and say I want to do a piece on him. He asks if I’ll be making any money out of it. I say I might. He nods approvingly and says to meet him at the gym the next day.
The Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League (“WPAL”), or just the Third Ave. Gym, is a basement-level place; the stairs leading down, tucked between a Subway and a Crazy Mocha coffee shop, display about a dozen sun-bleached trophies inside a window sill case. At a quarter till 6 a young, fit boy with dreadlocks comes up and wrangles at a key ring until he finds the one that unlocks the door to the gym. I ask if I can follow and, halfway in, he doesn’t say anything, but holds the door open a crack for me. We descend.
Subway bread is in the air, which isn’t as unpleasant as some gyms can smell. At the bottom of the steps are three old leather chairs; the tallest, oxblood with brass rivets, is so worn out at the arms that boxing ring canvas has been sewn onto the corners. The man who let me in goes into the changing room and I watch him sitting on a wooden bench, looking deeply into the cement floor; after a few moments he beelines toward a wall of mirrors and begins a timed routine of shadowboxing and jump ropes.
Soon a few more fighters come in. A girl with a compression wrap around her right forearm walks by. Then a small child playing with a cellphone. Finally, at 6:30, Jimmy Cvetic comes down the steps. He looks at me. “I’ll be right with ya.”
Jimmy Cvetic is a bona fide Pittsburgh legend — that is to say, if you mention his name to someone, there’s a fair chance they’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, I know who that guy is.’ And that isn’t so surprising when you consider all the things Cvetic has done in the area over the last few decades.
Cvetic, also known as “the Dog”, is an ex-police detective, working countless cases in the Pittsburgh area for over 40 years; he began training boxers in the 1970s before officially founding the Police Athletic League in the early 2000s. He now has eight WPAL gyms in the region and guesses he’s probably seen hundreds of fighters, mostly street-kids who needed to be turned around. Nearly any fight in the area is bound to pass through him at some point.
His gyms are not-for-profit — every dollar made at local events goes back into the program — and he’s well-known for his work in the community. He’s provided technical help and young talent for two boxing films made in the area: “Warrior”— starring Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte, the latter becoming a fan and friend of Jimmy’s — and the upcoming “Southpaw”, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Additionally, last year the Esquire Network filmed Cvetic as part of their TV show, “White Collar Brawlers.”
But what makes Cvetic even more different that the usual ex-cop/boxing trainer (if there is one of those), is that he is a prolific poet with published collections and pieces often running in the independent weekly, the Pittsburgh City Paper. Cvetic writes poems containing heavy narratives and memorable characters with voices all their own. Joan Bauer, who co-curates the summer reading series at the Hemingway’s Cafe with Cvetic, says his poems “are often a mixture of humor and deep tragedy. People sometimes compare his work to that of Bukowski, but honestly I think Jimmy is a far more thoughtful and interesting poet, as his focus is on the world around him, and in his life.”
Michael McSorley, a close friend of Jimmy’s and a fellow trainer, knows where his poems come from. “The police work,” he offers, “experience fuels much of his writing.” In one poem, “Warning to the Young Officers”, from his first book, Secret Society of Dog (2010, Lascaux Editions), Cvetic begins by describing the need one has for writing a poem, comparing it to a fix, perhaps to distract from the ugliness police work so often illuminates. He goes on, wishing to urge the new recruits:
run away fast
run to the mountains
hide in a cave
live on berries and nuts
awake with the morning song of sun.
Hurry before it’s too late
He speaks of the brokenness surrounding the justice system, the inescapable darkness the new cops will see. But of course Cvetic knows these officers, knows they will stay. He then writes:
Years will turn and tatter
but in time perhaps you will come to terms with honor.
But the rub,
you’ve been warned, and the choice was yours,
the irony of the lie to call it fate.
As for the broken pieces that you have gathered,
keep them, they belong to you.
It is the dimmest of lights, but Cvetic often ends his poems with some hope, sometimes even a joke, to lessen the pain of everything preceding it. Bill O’Driscoll, arts editor for the Pittsburgh City Paper, says, “Jimmy is always searching for the redeeming humanity in a story despite his extensive experience with the dark side of human nature.”
“This is what I do every night: sweep the streets and keep kids out of trouble.”
I watch Jimmy give some of the younger kids pointers, and after ten minutes he says, “C’mon, follow me.” We go back up the steps and move into the heavy and hot air outside. Jimmy is carrying a broom and dustpan. “They give me a break on the rent if I do this,” he says with a straight face, pushing cigarette butts into the dustpan. “This is what I do every night: sweep the streets and keep kids out of trouble.”
I ask basic questions as we walk all along the sidewalk and the curb. Jimmy is glib at first, giving short answers. Sometimes he just nods with a grunt or groan, but always his eyes appear focused, as if he’s warming up, like the kids downstairs. He finishes with the sweeping, dumps the contents in a city trash-can around the corner, and we re-enter the gym.
Sitting on the beaten chairs, Jimmy in the oxblood one, I ask about his time as a cop for over 40 years, the kinds of cases he handled. “You name it, I worked it,” he says. “I was in uniform, I went to detective division, undercover, all of it.” He describes the case that brought him to becoming a boxing trainer in the early 70s: a young man he arrested early on in his career, who died less than two years later. Like millions of other kids across the country, Jimmy knew that young man could have succeeded with the right kind of discipline.
Jimmy wants to talk about his fighters, not about himself, but I try steering him back and bring up the movies he’s worked on. Jimmy lets out a sigh and says he only really helps with the films to put money back into the gym, maybe a little in the fighter’s pockets. Going off that, I ask where he discovers his fighters, and he says they have always found him.
“I want them to be versed in everything…I want them to become champions of their own lives.”
It occurs to me that, with so many of these kids, needing to get themselves turned around from the streets, they must make the first step for Jimmy to take them on. Once he begins training a new boxer, Jimmy prides himself on how hard they work, both in and out of the ring; the smallest of smiles forms every time he mentions their successes, no matter where they come from. “I want them to be versed in everything. Boxing, of course, but I want them to go to college, to be great accountants or entrepreneurs … I want them to become champions of their own lives,” he says. “When you watch the growth of young people, everyone has their own path. If you want to look at Robert Frost, you could say we’ve ‘taken the road less traveled.’ That’s made all the difference.”
I ask what kinds of kids he typically sees, and Jimmy becomes defensive. “They’re all good men; all in perfect health. Many of them are high-honor students or on the dean’s list. None of them drink,” he says sternly. He then holds out his arm and points to different fighters across the gym, asking if they drink. Everyone says they do not; many of them look at me like I’m the cynic in the gym. One of Jimmy’s other trainers senses this as well and breaks it up. “They don’t drink, but when I’m with you,” he says to Cvetic, “I drink, and I get drunk!” He laughs. Everyone laughs.
While as matter-of-fact as ever, there is a small, personal pride obvious when Jimmy tells me he’s written over four thousand poems. But he never loses a grounded sense of humility that one can see is not done as any kind of show, like we are so used to seeing with famous athletes and actors. “I guess, by accident, some of them get to be good,” he says. Joan Bauer says that kind of boastfulness just isn’t in him. “He’s really not a big ego-guy,” she says simply. “It’s just not about Jimmy.”
When he talks about his writing, Cvetic get excited. “It’s like magic,” he says, holding up his hands and spreading his fingers slightly. “When I write, this energy comes through. It’s unbelievable; I’ve never been without it my entire life … Whenever you write a decent poem it’s like landing a good left hook.”
But Jimmy doesn’t spend too long talking about himself. As he is illuminating the artistic relationship between boxing and poetry, Jimmy suddenly darts up and walks over to the ring in the center of the gym. Two young men are inside sparring, and one of the kids, with his own trainer, is from a different gym. I look up at Jimmy as he watches the two kids sparring. The kid from the other gym is goddamn obnoxious; every time he gets touched he goes, “Woo!” It’s loud and, if it’s supposed to get in the other fighter’s head, it isn’t working. Jimmy’s kid is quiet, lines up shots well but isn’t afraid to work inside, and would win on points any day of the week. He almost appears stoic in the ring, and I immediately see where he got it from.
While the sparring is going on, I chat it up with the trainer who made the drinking joke. Darren Dolby, aka “Coach D,” a former amateur and pro boxer, has been with Jimmy for over ten years and appeared on the Esquire Network TV show with him. Originally Darren had only come down to the gym on Third Avenue to help out a friend of his. That day Jimmy, seeing Darren’s training skill, recruited him right away. Darren was unsure at first, but Cvetic wouldn’t hear it. “Jimmy asks me, ‘How many kids you got?’ I say, ‘Four’, and he goes, ‘Well, now you got a thousand. Come in Monday.’” Darren grins: “He been driving me crazy ever since.”
A couple weeks later I call Jimmy — I need a poem for the piece — but he’s unavailable. It’s a big day: Mike Tyson is in town promoting a fight with a few of Jimmy’s fighters; the whole thing is being held at the Consol Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’m kind of hoping Jimmy will get me in because tickets are $60 minimum and up to $1000 ringside. When I finally get Jimmy on the phone, he’s busy and tells me to call back the next day.
Less than 24 hours later, he’s hooked me up ringside at another fight in the Strip District, a beloved area near downtown with many small shops and food markets. We’re across the street from a Primanti Bros. and not far from Wholey’s Fish Market; the air is thick with rot and sweat. Jimmy is all over the place, but always returning to the front judge’s table, along with the ring announcer.
At one point Jimmy stops the DJ from playing Kanye West. “We might be allowed to curse, but nothing in the music,” he says with a wry smile. He allows two little girls, ages seven and nine, to hold the round number cards. He recruits me to step up to the ring and hold the ropes up for the girls as they enter and exit. In all, I watch thirteen 3-round contests, mostly won on points. A couple are stopped by the ref.
After the seventh fight, one of the ring girls turns to me and says, “I know jiu jitsu.” She then runs off to see her father and the second girl begins musing on ringside coaching. “I don’t get it,” she says. “I mean, if your coach yelled at you to, like, uppercut the other guy, wouldn’t the other guy just move his head?” I nod sardonically, but in truth, I had been thinking the exact same thing while watching some of the trainers.
I only see Jimmy in the corner for one bout, but suddenly I remember him with the kids sparring. He says the same thing to his man in the ring: “Fight your fight, son.” He says little else during the match. Compared to many of the other trainers — one had to be held back when an audience member was heckling his man — that’s a good thing.
After the fights are all over, Jimmy sits next to me. “How’s the article coming?” he asks. I tell him it’s going well, but I am lying. Truthfully I am finding it hard to piece everything together. There’s just too much. One man shouldn’t be able to do so many things. I ask him how he does it. “It’s all connected,” Jimmy grins. “I am a child of the 60s.”
The next day I am at the gym again, getting a poem I need from him. Instead of one, Jimmy gives me an autographed book of his work — even featuring a little doodle of himself that says “DOG” — and wishes me luck. I think of what drives a man to keep doing what he does, at an age when most are fishing and drinking beer at the VFW, planning trips to Florida or Las Vegas in the winter. Certainly not working with kids in a gym that smells of chemical bread or sweeping up cigarette butts off the sidewalk.
Looking at the hundreds of kids he’s helped — both as a cop and a boxing trainer — plus the thousands of poems, it’s hard to disagree that Jimmy must love what he does, if for no other reason than because hard work, they say, is often its own reward. That’s a quiet happiness few people know, a joy from realizing you’ve pushed yourself as hard as possible, on the city streets, the ring, the page. “Jimmy has an amazing work ethic,” Joan Bauer beams. “That’s a quality you see in many Pittsburghers, but Jimmy is special. He just doesn’t give up; he keeps planning and dreaming.”
Thinking of all that, just before leaving the gym, I finally ask Jimmy if he ever gets tired. “Yeah I get tired,” he admits. “But can’t you feel the energy here? Can’t you see the poem?”
Eric Boyd is a Pittsburgh, PA-based writer. His blog is can be viewed here: EricBoydblog.tumblr.com
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