Saturday, 23 July 2011

George Kimball

George Kimball had a glass eye. Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first thing you noticed when he’d barrel through the door of The Bells of Hell. It was more that the general mirth and sense of anticipation rose a notch or two.

His journalist friends used to guffaw about the day in Fenway Park when an acquaintance asked him to keep an eye on his seat while he hit the bathroom. George popped out the glass eye, placed it on the bench, and said, “Sure.”

He passed away last week. Among the many caps George wore effortlessly was columnist for the Irish Times. He was as at ease in Dublin as in Lawrence, Kansas where he once ran for sheriff against a one-armed establishment figure under the slogan, "Lawrence needs a two-fisted sheriff with an eye on the future!"

I’m sure his spirit is drifting between a host of extinct bars today, including The Bells and The Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village, as well as sports emporiums the like of Fenway and Madison Square Garden.

For George liked to take the pulse of a city after he had sent in his reports to the Boston Herald or the Phoenix on the Red Sox and whatever boxing match he was covering. I don’t know about his baseball reporting but could he cover a fight.

He didn’t just report on the blows struck or the usual surface minutiae; he saw the world in all its hepped-up craziness reflected in the “sweet science.” There wasn’t a boxer of note, and many not of, that he wasn’t on familiar terms with. He appreciated them all – the losers as much the winners.

To George sports was life at hyper-speed, the way he often lived it. And all of the fighters, their managers, trainers, cut-men and gofers were worth ink because they were real, unaware and on the money, no matter how close to penury.

He understood the game of music too, the players, their problems and the pain they would face when they slid from the spotlight. He knew age would catch up with them too.

He loved Paul Simon’s song, The Boxer, for it nailed the New York City of the late 60’s that he loved. He appreciated that the writer and song would mature even as the city shed much of its seedy glamour.

Life, sports, music, books, broads, booze and the big city – they were all one big exciting cocktail to George and his circle.

It was into this milieu that I stumbled back in the 70’s. It was centered on the Lion’s Head with outposts in the Bells, Jimmy Days, and a couple of uptown joints.

George was often down from Boston to cover the Sox or a fight. There were Hamills and McCourts too and an array of other colorful characters. Almost to a man – and the occasional woman – they cast a cold eye on the Vietnam War.

They were inspiring: their casual disdain for Nixon and his ilk was far more devastating than the ideological vitriol abroad in the East Village.

In time they shook their heads about the folly of Iraq. Had the clowns learned nothing? Waterboarding was beneath contempt, for to these hardboiled romantics America was the perennial good guy and didn’t engage in torture.

Bars close, times change and I lost sight of George. Then a couple of years back I ran into him – you guessed it, in a bar though he had quit the sauce. There was no distance; it was as if we’d been carousing the night before at the Bells.

I just wish I’d spent more time with him; there were so much I wanted to know about legends like Stanley Ketchel and Billy Conn, and friends of his like Muhammad Ali and Hunter Thompson.

But more than anything, I had a couple of questions about life. He probably didn’t have the answers, but the time spent in his company would have been, as ever, illuminating, irreverent and unforgettable – just like the man himself.

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