Bert Randolph Sugar, boxing’s greatest historian, insisted that I try a true New York delicacy: a pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli. He actually wanted to show me where a picture of him was hanging on the wall. We sat down practically beneath it.
I’d met Bert when he was upstate sometime at the end of the last century, hanging out at Graziano’s in Canastota after some ceremony at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. My friend Anne and I had come out to hear my new boyfriend, Dave Chu, play electric guitar with the Diamonds. Bert was holding court from a seat near the stage. We had noticed this old dude who everyone wanted to talk to. Well, mostly we noticed the green pants with blue whales on them. Plus the Panama hat, cigar and glass of scotch.
Watching the parade of people going up to him, Anne finally couldn’t wait any longer and did the same, asking, “Are you someone famous I should know?” And Bert replied, “If I were so effin’ famous, you’d know who I was!”
Bert had this amazing way of being self-deprecating and absolutely sure of himself at the same time.
So when I was in New York for a few days – had a presentation to do at a conference – we met up at Runyon’s on 2nd for a memorable steak dinner and later he got me into some shindig where everyone, including yours truly, was meeting Don King. I wasn’t terribly impressed. All the way up to the Carnegie Deli, Bert was grumbling about him.
So Bert ordered these two humongous sandwiches. Enough meat for a family of five packed into two slices of bread. Well, when it came time to pay up, don’t you know Bert’s forgotten that the Carnegie doesn’t take credit cards. He tried everything to get them to take his, even pointed to his picture on the wall and said he’d be back to pay the bill. But they weren’t having any of it. So with the cash he had, we were twenty bucks short, which was fine because I had plenty of cash on me.
Well, Bert didn’t feel right about that and assured me he’d get me my twenty bucks back. But I went back to Syracuse and though we talked on the phone a couple times in the ensuing years, he actually still owes me that 20-spot.
But wouldn’t you know, he passed away last March and didn’t tell me.
God bless you Bert, you were a gentleman and a great raconteur. You even signed that book we gave to Dave’s brother. You advised me how to handle a boxer who was in need of English lessons. And you made me think that every ol’ dude wearing a fedora or Panama hat (in the proper season) must be you.
You keep the twenty bucks. I got my money’s worth in memories.