2017-05-30 07:58:03
Footsteps: In California, Finding ‘Fat City’ With the Man Who Wrote It

Most people will have you believe that a city starts at its outskirts. You get there by landing at an airport or exiting a freeway ramp, following directional signs in plain highway green and white. A city’s boundaries are clearly drawn; cross a line, and you’re there. You’ll probably have to fight your way through a ring of big box architecture and layers of residential sprawl, but eventually you’ll find the heart of it: an old downtown full of ornate, once-magnificent buildings.

But I came to Stockton, Calif., a different way. For me, it will always be a place that I first entered through the pages of a book. “He lived in the Hotel Coma,” states the first line of “Fat City,” Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel. A dissipated boxer named Billy Tully surveys the view:

“From his window he looked out on the stunted skyline of Stockton — a city of eighty thousand surrounded by the sloughs, rivers and fertile fields of the San Joaquin River delta — a view of business buildings, church spires, chimneys, water towers, gas tanks and the low roofs of residences rising among leafless trees between absolutely flat streets.”

The real Stockton is at the northern end of California’s Central Valley, about 90 minutes east of San Francisco; its population in recent decades has ballooned to over 300,000. These days it’s infamous for being the second-largest American city after Detroit to go bankrupt following the economic meltdown of 2007. The city filed for Chapter 9 municipal protection in 2012 with over $700 million in debt, and emerged in 2015 after cost-cutting and reorganization. The indie-rock band Pavement came from here, as did the alt-country crooner Chris Isaak. It’s home to the University of the Pacific, whose music department produced the jazz musician Dave Brubeck. A revamped section downtown has a gleaming sports arena (completed in 2005) and a mall.

The real Stockton is nice enough. But the Stockton of “Fat City” is lurid and legendary. It’s where guys with flasks in their pockets line up on street corners at 4 a.m. to ride rattletrap buses into agricultural fields to pick tomatoes or top onions. Downtown is rife with greasy diners, fleabag hotels and steamy dive bars. Drunks take cover from the rain in incinerator silos. Boxers bust each other’s noses in basement gyms. Dissolute men pine for wives who have ditched them, and dissolute women carp at no-good boyfriends. It’s not pretty, yet somehow, through the honesty of its grime and the earnest way its inhabitants try to scrape and spar their way out of it, it becomes beautiful. “Fat City” is an Edward Hopper painting, a Robert Frank photograph, a midnight-choir Tom Waits operetta plunked on an out-of-tune piano.

I’ve never particularly wanted to go to Stockton, but after I read the book, I really, really wanted to go to “Fat City.” The book spawned the 1972 John Huston film that starred Stacy Keach and a young Jeff Bridges. Last year New York Review Books Classics reissued a handsome paperback version.

I decide to hunt for “Fat City,” and Mr. Gardner, now 83 and living in Marin County, has agreed to hunt with me. We spend a weekend cruising the streets of Stockton, looking for extant landmarks and relics. The weather is unpleasant, drizzly and unseasonably cold. His car, an older-model Toyota Camry sedan, seems to come from central casting. Its windshield wipers flap arrhythmically, and its doors creak and groan when we open them.

Mr. Gardner has an old-fashioned grandeur. He wears a corduroy jacket; V-neck sweater; cuffed, rumpled trousers; and dress shoes. His light brown hair has a sheen of silver. When he adds a fedora to the ensemble, he’s positively Sinatra-esque. His spoken syntax is flawless. It’s rare that he starts a sentence with one idea and abandons it midway through for another. He’s unerringly polite but not falsely modest. When I ask him about the N.Y.R.B. edition and how it feels to talk about a book he wrote almost 50 years ago, he says, “It’s a little like magical thinking came true, to have it still respected the way it is.”

He warns me that most of the Stockton that inspired “Fat City” is long gone. “Everybody in town called it Skid Row,” he says. “There would be editorials in the newspaper: ‘We’ve got to clean up Skid Row.’” When Huston and his crew arrived to shoot the film, a tear-down was in effect. “One hotel that we used in the opening of the movie was torn down the day after it was shot,” Mr. Gardner says. “The film company must have made a deal, like, ‘Don’t knock it down until we shoot there.’”

Leonard Gardner was born and raised in Stockton. His father, originally from Texas, was a postal inspector with an office in a stately, muraled federal building downtown. His mother, an Englishwoman, was a homemaker who was proper, religious and artistic. When Mr. Gardner was 7 or 8, he and his older sister caught rheumatic fever, and he missed two years of school. To help him recover, his father, a boxing enthusiast and former amateur, bought him a pair of gloves and hung a speed bag in the garage. “I got so that every day I’d be out there, 10 rounds on the bag,” Mr. Gardner says. “He wanted me to build myself up. And it did make me strong and healthy.”

The father’s passion became the son’s. “He talked a lot about boxing,” Mr. Gardner says. “I’d spar with him when I was 12 or 14 and he was in his 50s. He was slick and clever and hard to hit.” Soon the young man could outbox his neighborhood buddies. “I made myself go to the Lido Gym, which was full of professionals and amateurs,” Mr. Gardner says. “Rough, tough guys. Some of them could really rattle your brain.” He only lasted at the Lido for a couple of months. “I got my nose broken in my first bout,” he says. “The doctor told me, ‘Don’t put gloves on for a couple of months.’ It didn’t mean anything to my manager. He was phoning me: ‘Forget about that, come on down, work out.’ But I didn’t.”

By that time he had developed another interest, writing. He got a job as an attendant in a Skid Row gas station. “Almost everyone I knew in Stockton would never set foot in Skid Row,” he says. “But I think I was just inclined to be a writer. I got acquainted with the local winos, and some of them were nice guys. I wrote a piece for my high school English class, ‘The Life of a Wino.’ The teacher read it in class, and people told me it was better than the essays or stories in our textbook.”

He left Stockton at 19, lived for a time in Mexico City and wound up in San Francisco. The passion for boxing stayed with him. “I wanted to write a novel about a guy struggling in Skid Row with a poverty-stricken life,” he says. “And I also knew I wanted to write about boxers. And somewhere along the line I got the idea to put the two together.” Stockton stayed with him, too. “It never occurred to me to write a boxing novel set anywhere else,” he says.

I peer out the window as Mr. Gardner drives. We crisscross Miner, San Joaquin, California and El Dorado. Much of downtown seems boarded up.

I feel echoes of the past, ghosts of those who flowed in and out of canneries and machine shops. Mr. Gardner, for his part, seems to have his eyes on invisible scenery, things he can see only in his memory. He pulls up in front of a low-slung building with bricked-in garage bays on the ground floor and a row of shaded windows upstairs. A thick iron gate shields the entrance. It has touches of former elegance: Corinthian columns, a toothed cornice. “Here’s the Oxford Hotel,” he says.

“After a steak dinner with Ruben and a stroll along El Dorado Street, Billy Tully went back to the Oxford Hotel, where he had been sleeping, sober and alone, for the past week.”

Mr. Gardner wrote “Fat City” over four years in San Francisco, but occasionally took a bus back to Stockton for research. “I was living on peanuts,” he says. “Sometimes I came down and stayed in a crummy cheap hotel. That sign on a wall in the book, ‘If you smoke in bed, let us know where to send your ashes,’ that was on the wall in a room I rented in this hotel.”

Back in the car, Mr. Gardner threads his way toward the old business district. We pass aged barrooms with out-of-work neon beer steins and the original branch of the Bank of Stockton, a seven-story Beaux-Arts building, once Stockton’s tallest.

He stops in front of Xochimilco, a Mexican cafe. Dusk is falling. In the novel, a climactic bout takes place between Billy Tully, an aging contender making another stab at the big time, and a Mexican fighter named Lucero. Overweight and also over the hill, Lucero arrives in Stockton by bus, checks into a hotel and proceeds to a Mexican restaurant downtown called El Tecolote.

“‘Coca-Cola,’ he said, mounting the stool. His last night in this city he had spent here drinking. The bar had been full until closing time, the jukebox blaring and strangers embracing him.”

Inside it is boisterous and bright. We worm through the crowd to an empty Formica table and order guacamole. “This is one of the few of the old places that’s left,” Mr. Gardner says. “You used to be able to sit at a bar.” I ask if he has any particular memories of the place, and he furrows his brow. “I remember being here a number of times, but I don’t remember any incident,” he says. “If I were a good subject for an interview, I’d make something up.”

Nighttime cruising. Mr. Gardner pulls up on North Wilson Way. He climbs out, cuts across the parking lot of the Smart & Final supermarket and stops at a barbed wire fence. The lights of the parking lot cast a perversely garish gloom on the crumbling brick side of the building next door. Colorful reflections blur in the black pavement.

“This is the Lido Hotel,” he says.

“The Lido Gym was in the basement of a three-story brick hotel with a facade of Moorish arches, columns and brightly colored tile. Behind the hotel several cars, one tireless and up on blocks, rested among dry nettles and wild oats. In a long, narrow, open-end shed of weathered boards and corrugated steel, a group of elderly men were playing bocce ball with their hats on and arguing in Italian.”

“Boo!” shouts a man who pops up from behind the fence. We stumble backward with surprise; the man grins and laughs in a friendly way. “Hey, how you doing?” he asks. “Can I help you?”

Mr. Gardner recovers his poise immediately. “I used to work out in the Lido Gym many years ago,” he says.

“Oh, really?” the man says. “They had a gym here?”

“We’re trying to see if the old back door is still there,” Mr. Gardner says. “Do you have any idea what goes on in the basement now? That’s where the gym was.”

“It’s completely cleared out,” the man says.

“I’ll be darned,” Mr. Gardner says. “Tell me, what goes on there now?”

“Nothing,” the man says.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing whatsoever.”

The next day Mr. Gardner takes me to the Fat City Boxing Club, run by his old friend Yaqui Lopez, a former light-heavyweight title contender and member of the World Boxing Hall of Fame. They met around the time of the Huston film — Mr. Lopez played Jeff Bridges’s sparring partner — and stayed friends.

The gym, inside a former car dealership, is deafening. The sound of pounding speed bags mixes with Mexican music blaring over a sound system. Two young boxers in face guards and body padding spar in an elevated ring. Mr. Lopez, 65, tall and incredibly fit, has fists the size of my head. The walls are covered with framed posters from his bouts in places like Atlantic City, Copenhagen and Rome.

Mr. Lopez started the gym a few years ago to give underprivileged Stockton youth a place to channel their energy. We watch the two fighters in the ring. “They’re punching each other around pretty well,” Mr. Gardner says.

“I can hear the punches,” I say.

“It’s all part of training,” he says. “The idea is, you get used to punches coming at you, and if they hit you, you don’t flinch. You’re not even supposed to blink, because you might get hit with another one that you wouldn’t see coming. You’re supposed to take a punch with your eyes open. And maybe look for your opening to counter with a punch of your own. If you didn’t box very much, you might be punch-shy and flinch.”

“Which of these guys is better?” I ask.

“They’re both doing well,” he says. “The bigger guy might have more ability, but the skinny guy is coping with the problems pretty well. The skinny guy gets hit, and he instantly shoots a punch back. He’s not getting intimidated. Slick foot work.”

Back in the car, we move across town and wind up at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, a Greek Revival structure built in 1925 with two golden bears flanking the entrance. This is where Tully and Lucero had their climactic bout. The vast, antique interior has a giant stage beneath an elaborate proscenium arch. Purple and gold banners drape from the ceiling. Bass-heavy disco pounds through a rack of speakers.

Behind the banners we can see the old scoreboard and balcony seats. Mr. Gardner swivels his neck. “They’d have the ring right here in the center,” he says. “And a whole lot of, I guess, folding chairs.

“I went to a lot of fights here in the old days,” Mr. Gardner says. “I saw Yaqui Lopez fight here.”

He continues to search in the recesses of the ceiling beyond the drapes. “I’m looking for the tassel,” he says. “When Billy Tully gets knocked down, he’s looking at a big tassel hanging down from the center of the building.”

“He looked up at the lights and the brown and blue gathered drapery way up at the apex of the ceiling where a giant gold tassel hung, the whole scene shattered by a zigzag diagonal line, like a crack in a window. He did not remember rising, or how he got through the round.”

All we could see was a thick, bare cable. “They got rid of the tassel,” Mr. Gardner says.

After the “Fat City” film came out, Mr. Gardner adapted one of his short stories, “Christ Has Returned to Earth and Preaches Here Nightly,” into a screenplay called “Valentino Returns.” The film was briefly released in 1989. He wrote and worked as a producer for the TV show “NYPD Blue.” “Sweeter Than Sugar,” a piece of boxing journalism about the first matchup between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, is in the 2011 Modern Library anthology “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing.”

“Why didn’t you want to write another novel?” I ask at one point.

“I’m sure I wanted to,” he says gruffly.

Later, he says, “ I never did just pour it out. I was frequently getting involved in writing something. But for all the years that went by, it should have became a bigger pile of stuff.”

And even later, he grouses about people always asking him why he never wrote another novel.

But revisiting Stockton seemed to be having a subterranean effect. “I do have a dream,” he says. “I don’t want to go on at length talking about my next novel because it’s a long way off and who knows if I’ll ever do it. But a lot of it would be set here. So I need to stay in touch with the old town.”

We decide to take another crack at the Lido Gym. Those Moorish columns along the front are intact, if weathered and chipped. Up a flight of steps we stop at a front desk behind thick plexiglass. A group of men, sitting around talking, stop and stare. After intense negotiations and promises not to sue, a manager agrees to take us to the basement.

“In a ring under a ceiling of exposed joists, wiring, water and sewage pipes, a Negro was shadowboxing in the light of fluorescent tubes. Three men in street clothes, one bald, one with deeply furrowed cheeks, the third wearing a houndstooth-check hat with a narrow upturned brim, all turned their faces toward the door.”

The ceiling is low, a maze of beams, pipes and wires. The concrete floor is stained with water. The walls are bare, except for some graffiti. A carbon monoxide detector beeps. Just as we had been forewarned, there’s nothing here. Nothing whatsoever.

We walk around and our footsteps echo, tracking the water across dry spots. “The ring was in the center,” Mr. Gardner says. “The speed bags were against the wall. I think the shower room was there under the sidewalk. To get to the lockers, you went through the shower room, and the drain was always faulty and so you were sort of wading through an inch or two of water, walking on our heels with the front part of our shoes out of the water.”

His voice is subdued, maybe a little pained. “I would have thought there would at least be an old punching bag in the corner, or something,” he says.

As barren and empty as the room is, I can see it all. The men, the lights, the damp and the thump of glove on skin. Or is it just the powerful imprint of the novel? As I stand here, it occurs to me that this is the essence of fiction: the liminal space between the tangible world outside and the inner layout of the mind, the antechambers of reality that usher us into the imagination. This is “Fat City.” I’ve made it.

I turn to say something to Mr. Gardner, but he is preoccupied. He stands with his head bent, leaning slightly on one foot and his fedora cocked forward on his head. He is holding a pocket notebook that I didn’t even know he was carrying, and he is writing.