Boxers and Transsexuals in Times Square
Jonathan Ames is a writer, boxer, storyteller and, most recently, the creator of the HBO series, "Bored to Death." His books include "The Extra Man" and "Wake Up Sir" and the collection of essays, "The Double Life is Twice as Good." Ames is a frequent performer at the storytelling group, The Moth and has appeared in boxing tournaments as "The Herring Wonder." A graduate of Princeton and Columbia Universities, he lives in Brooklyn.
Question: When did you take up boxing?
Jonathan Ames: I first did a little bit of boxing in the fall of 1992. My first novel had been out for three years, but I was really struggling to write a second novel and I went back to school. I moved to New York and went to Columbia University and I took this three-day seminar with the writer, Richard Price. He said a few things to me that were very important. I had told him I was struggling to write a second book and he had talked about how he struggled to write a second or third book and he had forced one out and he realized he should never do that, but he had been under the mindset that good dog when published, bad dog when not published. And so he wanted to be a good dog but wrote a book just to publish a book and that’s the state of mind I had been in for three years.
He went on in this seminar and in a private conversation, I’ll mix the two, but he said, “I realized that I could only write about something I loved and that when you write a book you have to be in love.” He also said, “Writers hang out.” He must have said that in the class and then I followed him down the street, down Broadway, after the class and I said, “I totally identified with what you said, ‘good dog, bad dog’ and I’m really struggling to write a second book.” And he said, “Are you into cops?” And I said, “Well, sort of. My father had been an Auxiliary Policeman.” What had turned around Richard Price’s writing career was, for a movie assignment or something, he went and hung out with cops in Jersey City, and he just loved the dialogue and the stories and this is where he fell in love with this and he was just hanging out. These two principles, being in love and hang out.
So, he gave me a number of a detective in Jersey City that I could call whom I could possibly hang out with. I didn’t call the guy, but I was like, “all right, I’ve got to hang out. I’ve got to find things I’m in love with.” And I realized that I’ve always loved boxing. So, I found a gym in Times Square area, back when there were boxing gyms still in Times Square, and peep shows, and I started boxing. And I also realized I had a fascination, I translate the word “love” as fascination obsessed by, haunted by with transsexuals. So, I would box at Kings Way Boxing Gym on 40th and 8th Avenue and then I would walk up three blocks to 43rd of between 8th and 7th and go to this Transsexual bar called Sallie’s. I was in these two very different worlds and eventually I stopped boxing and just was going to Sallie’s and then found something else that I was in love with, which was this mad older roommate I had moved in with and all that world of going to Sallie’s and living with this older gentleman as a roommate, that became the basis of my second novel, The Extra Man. So, the first little bit of boxing, was in 1992.
Question: What do you think of Times Square today?
Jonathan Ames: I don’t think too much of Times Square. I mean I don’t think little of it. I mean, it’s a spectacle when you go there at night with all the lights and it certainly is very cleaned up. I mean, I was of two minds back when it was much more hard-core. On one hand, I’ve always been drawn to the gutter and so I liked that whole seedy world. On the other hand, as a New Yorker, I did feel some embarrassment for the tourists that would come to Times Square and 42nd Street, the center of the city, and it was just sex and people hawking things. And now I guess it’s the same thing, but just very glossy. I don’t know, it’s not very sexy though, but a lot of hawking. But the lights are spectacular, so that’s a spectacle.
Question: What is the appeal of boxing for you?
Jonathan Ames: The appeal of boxing, I like to test myself, I like to take risks. I also think I would like to be free and adventurous, but it’s very hard to be free in life. The boxing ring is this chance to be a hero, or to engage in probably primal aspects of the mind and the body that you wouldn’t tap into and there’s a lot of myth and romance coming through those ropes. It would be like getting to play center field for the Yankees.
So, I think for me, it’s a lot of the metaphors of it, the romance of it, the chance to test myself, to test my courage. At the same time, it hurts a lot. I don’t necessarily want to hurt anyone else. Though I like the idea, as in any sport to see how you can score. It’s not a very good left hook, but I’m limited here with the camera. So, those aspects of it I don’t like and the part of hurting your brain or hurting someone else’s brain is not pleasant.
Question: What was your greatest moment in boxing?
Jonathan Ames: My greatest moment in boxing was – and I’m the rankest of rank amateurs, you know, so my great moment is not like I am a wonderful practitioner of the Queensbury Rules. I had two bazaar amateur fights, so I’m no great boxer. But my greatest moment was at the end of my second fight that I had survived and that I hadn’t gotten hurt. And that I had won. But I hadn’t humiliated my opponent, but it was just a good match. And just to survive it, it’s so hard to be in the ring. You get so exhausted; you’re so frightened. And I was injured going into it. My jaw was all out of line and I was really concerned that I was going to mess up my jaw and why am I doing this, I’m a writer. I don’t think I had health insurance at the time. What am I doing putting myself at such risk.
But to have survived was glorious and it was over and I didn’t have train anymore and I didn’t have this pressure that I was going to go into a match and maybe injured. And my girlfriend rose up to the ropes and we had this kiss after the fight and it was photographed, but at the moment, it was just very glorious. And when I stepped into the ring, a lot of my fans were there, and I fight as the Herring Wonder. And the cheers I received were really warm. I almost made me cry actually. It was kind of like, all my years of writing and performing in New York, I got a huge “thank you” in the sound of the cheers as I entered the ring.
Recorded on: November 4, 2009
Sometimes the most valuable thing you can do as a writer is to just "hang out" with what you love. For Jonathan Ames, this meant many long nights in Midtown with boxers and transsexuals.
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