“I was young; part of the reason I have so many tattoos.”
I’ve come to know a few great boxers. All with interesting stories and background. Even past Olympic champions and pro-contenders, and at the gym where I taught cycling, there was one that always grabbed my attention. His name was Chris. At sixty years of age, he was not only lean, in condition, and a man of great character; he walked with the humility of Job. Now don’t get too hung up on Chris. We were very familiar with each other, and for that reason, he was exempt from my stranger meeting challenge. However, he did, in a vicarious way, introduce me to a man I never knew.
So there I was. Relaxing and mentally preparing for the list of things I had to get done that day. It was a moment of peace as I found a calm zone, reviewing notes for the day on my iPad. Sitting in the only chair in front of the gym space was wholly mine. Lost in thought I was when Chris’s voice merged into my thoughts. In signature form, and with his uniquely calm and vibrant accent, he was giving boxing council to one of the club’s patrons. With ring fighting a sport so far from my camp, I was taken in. Like a fly in a spider’s web, I felt trapped to hear their word. Their volume and enthusiasm were just that overwhelming. So I respectfully listened. Perhaps there were hints I could adapt to my training, yet the talk was not about exercise, it was about psychology and strategy. I was fascinated.
I did my best to give them their privacy, but I could not take my ears and eyes away from them. The conversation fast and precise, their exact words were mostly blurred by their body position. Like a seasoned coach Chris was deeply focused as, what seemed to be his student, intently took his advice. I caught myself leaning forward to hear more as their discussion started to go way over my head. Perhaps, if they were talking about endurance or cycling, I would have been on the same page. But as their topics were out of my league, I shifted to visual mode.
What struck me at first was the mass and intensity of Chris’s boxing friend. The guy was in incredible condition, and as he focused on absorbing Chris’ input, I could not help but profile. Thinking that if I approached him, I would definitely get a story on the world of prizefighting.
Their session ended. The image of the moment burned into my imagination, I simply could not let go of it. So much so, that after they separated, I searched the weight room to find that mountain of a man. Readers, please meet John.
Admittedly, I had assumed John was a professional fighter, a notion that was far from the case. He sparred for conditioning as he informed me, “At fifty I have to be careful.” I had no idea the dude was fifty. A point that further inspired me as to what can be physically accomplished with dedicated training.
Like myself, John was a photographer, but his subject matter was polar opposite to that of mine. His specialty: Adult films.
We talked about lighting and camera technique as I shared a few tips with him. Then he dropped his walls, told me, “This is not the only photography that I want to do, but I’m in the network and making a living.”
You see, John’s roots were deep in adult film, a past performer he spoke of transferable skill sets. The reason he had taken up photography? Honest and open about his past he slumped a little as he revealed a vulnerable self, “I was young; part of the reason I have so many tattoos.”
My heart was touched as his eyes watered ever so slightly. An emotion that was heartwarming had entered our interaction, and at the center of it was my new friend for the day, John.
Once again I was being instructed. Not about boxing. Nowhere near athletic consultation, stripped of judgment, and most profoundly distant from that of perceived perception of another person. For at that moment, the human connection was all so pure. I had met a man with a beating feeling human heart, and a person who had true empathy for the world around him.
Our time was very short, his girlfriend a little anxious to stay on time with their day. What I did take away was this: John was a man of emotional maturity.
He talked of accountability and not blaming others for our paths. With the clarity and articulation of an MBA, he shared thoughts of career and life. Even though he had spent many of his years in an industry that is dark to many, he did not recriminate himself and looked forward to new horizons. “I’m growing with photography and videography and am striving to expand the work I do to other areas of the profession.”
I showed John’s girlfriend some of the previous stories I had published. She was straight forward and to the point as I gave her the pitch, “For one year I am photographing one stranger a day and blogging the experience.” She skeptically asked, “Why do you want to do that?” I paused; then responded, “I’ve been in advertising for thirty years. This is a way for me to get outside of what I do and explore the world.” I went on, “and after fifty-eight days it has become part of my life. I’m not sure where it is going, but it’s attached to me. It is sort of giving back to its readers and I have to finish it.” She seemed content with the answer and was reaffirmed to my commitment to her challenge.
In parting, John shared his words of council in the form of a self-question, “Is the world a better place because I was in it?
It’s been years since I interviewed John, yet his story is one that I have held deep in my heart. Namely his parting council, “Is the world a better place because I was in it? His answer to an outward question that I asked, and continue to ask, all I interview: “Looking ahead one to hundreds of years. As far or near as you wish to look. What do you think we should be doing today for the future ahead.”
“Is the world a better place because I was in it? His answer was, and revealing it is.
I’ll never know of John’s real inner demons or his deepest joys, but what I do know is this. John was a very good person. A man who some might reason had gotten into a questionable trade. But this is my take on it. In all we do, opportunity to uplift, even save our co-human is in front of us. So here is my fantasy. John was in the right place, at the right time, with the right perspective.
Let me elaborate. In a later story, I will be introducing an amazing woman who is in the trenches of the fight against human trafficking—an industry that sells the virtue and lives of many a child, teen, and youth into prostitution and pornography. I’m even choking a deep breath as I write this paragraph, my stomach turning at the fact.
I close my eyes, imagining (no a nightmare) of a moment where an innocent child is, against their will, being placed on a pornography set. Forced to do things that break her or him to a product to be exploited, used, destroyed, and discarded. Yet on set is a savior of sorts; a man who has the mass and heart to do something about it; to do something good, something noble, and something all so very redeeming.
“Is the world a better place because I was in it?
I sort of have a feeling that John might be the very man who saves a child that day. I tear up as I write this, thinking of the abused children and shattered families broken by a most evil trade. A multi-billion-dollar blemish prospering via the selling of human lives and souls.
For as I reflect upon the spirit of John, and per his internalized answer to an outward question, I saw a man who had baggage and triumph just as all of us do. A man who perhaps, was working in the right place at the right time. In absolute sincerity and soberness, he revealed the person who I feel he truly was. Again, “Is the world a better place because I was in it?”