He smoked profusely and had yellow fingers and teeth to prove it. His hair, which was slicked back with enough grease to lather a cookie sheet, had flecks of ash in it. Veins bulged from his brown leathery arms. His clothes were two sizes too big for him and appeared as though they had been pulled from a thrift store bargain bin. He spoke with a thick New York accent and his words came out in a cadence that made even the nicest compliment sound like a derogatory slur. He sold insurance. Not door-to-door, but close. He drove a brown 1986 Chevy Nova, with two dents on the hood and one on the back bumper for good measure. Backing it up was an act of faith due to the mounds of insurance paperwork, old newspapers, fast food bags, empty soda cans and dirty laundry that were piled up to the roof in the back seat. He was standing so close to me I could smell the pungent fumes and taste the bitter nicotine of his last Marlboro 100. He said his father had been a professional featherweight boxer and had drawn a ring in white chalk on the floor of their basement below their 2 bedroom home in the Bronx. That’s where he learned to box he said, wearing shorts and winter mittens, dancing beneath an exposed light-bulb hanging from a water pipe. He had been a student of the “sweet science” since he was age six. He pointed at his own crooked, bulbous nose and asked me how I thought he got a nose like that. I didn’t guess. He said the only thing he knew better than insurance was boxing. He had wanted to speak to me for a long time he said. For years, he had wanted to come to the Community Center. He said he felt called by God to serve the youth here. Then he said it.
“I want to volunteer.”
He wanted to volunteer?
“I want to teach boxin’ to them little knuckleheads that show up here.”
I stammered for a second.
I felt as though I needed a cigarette to fight off my nerves.
“Well,” I finally choked out, “there is some paperwork you will have to fill out and we’ll have to run your fingerprints.” Maybe this would scare him away. Don’t most boxers have criminal records?
He seemed undaunted. He smiled.
Oh please, don’t smile I thought. I can’t bear to look at your teeth. I could almost here each one screaming in unison from behind his lips, “Get me out of here!” I turned quickly toward the filing cabinet behind me and pulled out the volunteer forms. I handed them to him reluctantly.
He shook my hand vigorously, said he’d be back and then strolled out the front door of the Community Center. I smelled my hand. Yuck.
About a week later, as promised, he strolled back in - different clothes, but same smoky smell and ashtray smile. He had his forms all filled out and proof that despite his dirty hands, his fingerprints were clean. He wanted to know if there was anything else he needed to do.
Yeah, I thought.
Iron your clothes.
Take a shower.
Ease up on the hair grease.
Clean out your car.
Talk more quietly.
Go sell insurance.
Thankfully, the “smoke” of my own arrogance was cleared by a nudge from the Holy Spirit. Does God only use perfect people to reach out in love? Can only the beautiful ones serve Him? Who was I to stand in the way of this man’s mission? God asks only that we be willing. This man is willing.
It is now five years later, and Rocky is one of the best boxing coaches that has ever volunteered at the Community Center. He helped four youth become Golden Gloves boxing champions. He has never missed a training session or a tournament. He has bought uniforms with his own money for kids who couldn't afford one. He ensures every one of his students get a Christmas present. He checks report cards. He ties boxing boots. He wraps hands. He loves each child unconditionally. Yes, he still chain smokes Marlboro 100’s. His Nova is still a four-wheeled trash mobile. His clothes are still clown-sized and his hair still a grease pit. He hasn’t changed one bit. But as it turns out, I was the one who needed to change anyway.
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