WHEN former contender Tony Pellone found out that my last paycheck was withheld, he turned to his friend and said, “Lefty, let’s go get this kid his money.” It was the spring of 1988 and there was nothing but lint and a few dollars in my pant’s pockets. My father had just passed away and I took a 9-to-5 unloading trucks for $3.50 per hour. Three months into the job, I got fired for keeping my mouth shut.
Pellone, Lefty, and I were not doing much of anything, but we dropped it, and headed north under the elevated tracks to collect my paycheck – me in front, the two of them trailing slightly behind like bodyguards. We’re right behind you, they reassured me. That triangle formation might have looked formidable in their youth when the boxer’s clothes fit better and Lefty did not use a cane, but, that year, people were not exactly clearing a path for us. If it had been anyone other than the stocky old welterweight with the dented nose, I would have respectfully turned down their offer to help. Instead, I remembered what Lefty once said about Tony Pellone: “Not only does he know all the wise guys, they all know him.”
I first heard of Pellone through my father. When I was young, we watched boxing together and my dad spoke about the boxers from his youth, described their styles and fights, including those of Pellone, who, it turned out, lived only three train stops away.
Born in Baltimore, Pellone came to New York when he was young and settled with his family on Thompson Street, where the Greenwich Village Crew operated. Vinny “The Chin” Gigante was a childhood friend and two blocks north was the coffee shop where Tommy Eboli – his boxing manager and future boss of the Genovese family – ran his operations. On one of his strolls through the neighbourhood, Eboli saw Pellone fighting in the streets. Eboli was a former amateur who, according to one local legend, was called “Tommy Ryan” after the former champ because he too broke ribs with his fists. He liked the way Pellone handled himself and told him he could make more money with those hands in a boxing ring than he ever could polishing leather on the streets. A few months later, Pellone, whose real name was Jerry, used his brother’s identification and turned pro at age 15. As World War II ended, still only 17, the sad-eyed kid with the long lashes had gone from polishing gangsters’ shoes on the streets of Little Italy, to being, after Tony Canzoneri, the second youngest boxer to headline at Madison Square Garden.
Pellone kept busy after his ring career operating a pizzeria in Coney Island across the street from Nathan’s Famous franks and guiding the early stages of singer Bobby Milano’s career. His friends got him a job shaking hands on the East River docks and, for many years, he owned a night club in Newkirk Plaza where Tony Bennett regularly performed. He and Eboli co-managed a ranked middleweight in the 1950s and remained friends until 1972, when Eboli was killed a few blocks from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo. “Vinny The Chin killed him,” Lefty told me.
“Hey, you don’t know that for sure,” Pellone interrupted.
“Because of The Godfather film,” Lefty continued. “Joe Colombo and his son edited that film. Pellone knew Colombo.”
“I knew all those guys,” he replied.
“Not only did he know them, they all knew him.”
The year before Eboli was killed, Pellone was at the Italian Unity Rally with Joe Colombo when three bullets from close range left Columbo in a coma for several years. It was time to leave the old neighbourhood. He moved to Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from his friend Rocky Graziano. “He moved us out of the neighbourhood to get away from all of that,” his youngest son told me.
When I first visited Pellone, he was living in the ground floor apartment of his brother’s building in Gravesend. He answered the door in his underwear. His voice was gruff, his shoulders broad, and his face, filled with dents, dings, scars, and wrinkles, looked like a crumbled sheet of paper. I told him the old prizefighter with the missing teeth told me to look him up. “The one who feeds the birds on the boardwalk,” I explained.
“I’m retired,” he replied. “Tell him I closed that gym a while ago,” he said of the Ave Maria Youth Club. He was done with boxing and, except for Mike Tyson and Roberto Duran, he had stopped watching. I was about to say goodbye when he looked me in the eyes and asked, “What’s your father say about you boxing?”
I told him his burial plot in Long Island was not yet covered in grass. “Give me a sec,” he said and closed the door. It opened a minute later, and Pellone, wearing pants, invited me in. He lived alone, sharing the dark one-bedroom apartment with a transistor radio and a couple of empty beer cans, which he quickly gathered and placed in the sink. I could tell the windows had not been opened in weeks. He rubbed the stubble on his face and lit a cigarette.
“My father smoked that brand,” I told him.
“What’d he go of?”
He put his cigarette out.
A few days later, I took him to the gym by the beach. “I thought I’d never see the inside of one of these again,” he said. The older trainers stopped what they were doing when they saw him and gave him the star treatment. He showed us how he used his elbow to block Kid Gavilan’s bolo punch. Sandy Saddler, who he sparred with frequently and called Joe, hit him harder than Ike Williams did, he said, and Billy Graham’s mom made the “best corned beef” he ever had. “He invited me to his home the night I beat him. Next fight we had, I invited him over.”
Throughout the months that followed, we went to tournaments and fights together, and ate pasta and gravy on Sundays. Jake LaMotta came over once and we ate meatball subs while Jake joked that Graziano, who was a horrible mechanic according to them, was the greatest middleweight in the welterweight division.
One Saturday morning, before going to the beach for roadwork, a group of Jehovah Witnesses knocked on Pellone’s door. “Are you gonna answer?” I asked. “Yes, they’re people too,” he said. After speaking with them for about thirty minutes, he looked at me and said, “nothing like a little prayer in the morning.” That afternoon, we stepped into a bar. He had a beer, and I had a soda. Someone who had too much to drink recognised him and wanted to flex his whiskey muscles. “Com’on Tony. Let’s see what ya got – just don’t call your goons on me OK?”
“I’m not Tony. I’m Jerry,” Pellone said, leaving the guy even more dazed with that comment than he might have with his punches.
My time with Pellone would soon come to an end. “I don’t have the same energy that I used to,” he told me. He knees burned after short walks and the frequent headaches kept him home. I missed the sight of his battered nose and the smell of his breath when he gave me instructions between rounds. Having him in your corner was as reassuring as being under fire in the trenches next to a Green Beret. I kept boxing for a while but the absence of Pellone along with the stories he shared – like the one of pre-fight meals that suddenly left you without sensation in your legs – had me thinking the Army was a better option. After I was discharged, I went to see him a few times. Lefty was no longer around and Pellone walked with a slight limp. A few times, he did not answer the door. I should have gone upstairs and asked his brother, Anthony, or his nephews, if he was fine. Instead, I found out too late that he had been in a coma in Coney Island Hospital and later died. That was April 1996. I wish I could have thanked him one more time for that favour he did for me a few years earlier.
★ ★ ★
Rumour was that it was not just toys that were being unloaded from the trucks at work. My boss there, a seventy-year-old who liked boxing, gold jewellry, and porno films, asked if I had noticed anything suspicious. I did not tell him that I saw cars with tinted windows dropping off envelopes and picking up duffle heavy bags that sounded like they were filled with tools. Instead, I kept my mouth shut.
“They can’t do that,” Pellone said when I told him they withheld my last paycheck. “How’ya fixed?” That was Pellone’s way of asking if you had enough cash.
“Lefty, let’s go get this kid his money.”
As one, the three of us rose from our seats. “He always did want to meet you,” I said.
“Geez, I wish I’d known. I woulda wore a tie today.”
I led the way, not sure what to expect. “What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to reason with him,” he replied. “He’s a businessman, he’s gotta be reasonable.”
As soon as I opened the door, my former boss looked our way. He was wearing dark shades, but I could tell from the arc in his eyebrows that he was shocked. He walked towards us the way one would in the dark when checking on a loud sound, his complexion turning the same shade of white as his hair. “I know who you are,” he said to Pellone. “I’m a big fan.” He stretched out his hand and asked what brought us there.
Pellone asked, “What kind of operation are you running here?” My former boss mumbled. Pellone looked our way and said, “Give us a minute.” They took a step back and spoke briefly, my ex-boss doing most of the talking. While he copped his plea, I began to realise that I had gotten more than lessons in boxing from Pellone. Like a diplomat, Pellone listened patiently. When the explaining was done, he looked my old boss in the eye and said, “You look like someone who can fix things around here.” His shoulders sagged when Pellone said that. A few seconds later, I had a paycheck and an apology. We were halfway out the door when he called out. “Wait. You’re Tony Pellone, right?”
“No. He’s my brother.”
We walked home, in a triangle formation. This time, I was in the back, trying to keep up