By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Patrick “Concrete” Pierre, 35, earned his nickname in Brooklyn, where he grew up playing handball, steadily ascending in the Golden Gloves amateur boxing ranks and driving a cement truck for Stillwell Ready Mix into some of the toughest, cash-on-the-barrel construction sites on the planet – or at least in the Five Boroughs of New York.
His one-time boxing trainer in New York, Hector Roca, told him he had “manos de piedra” – “hands of stone.” But that nickname already was taken by world welterweight champion Roberto Duran untilDuran became famous in New Orleans in 1980 for quitting in the Superdome ring against Sugar Ray Leonard, turning “manos de piedra” into “no mas.”
“No, I’ve never said, ‘No mas! No mas!’” said Pierre, who at 178 pounds has split his four career professional bouts. “Normally, it’s the other guy who makes excuses.”
Pierre owns the “interim” light heavyweight title for an organization called the WBB – the World Boxing Bureau. He knows that, and five bucks, will get him across the Causeway.
“It’s one of the lowest titles you can get, but I dare you to introduce me to another WBB titleholder out here,” Pierre said. “Some guys have never taken off their amateur headgear. I did.”
Pierre’s parents were natives of Haiti. His dad, who died in 2000, got to the U.S. by making a cameo stop in Puerto Rico. His mother washed floors in Washington, D.C. Pierre was born in Brooklyn.
“My family was very poor,” Pierre said. “I’m not ashamed of it. It is what it is. My father was more successful, but he slept in the streets.”
Pierre attended Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Bensonhurst, a mostly Italian enclave in Brooklyn.
“I never had a problem, and I got along with everybody,” Pierre said. “It was awesome. I had an incredibly diverse group of friends. In New York, there’s a bunch of different train lines, and there’s lines you don’t cross. You don’t go over there. They don’t go over here. But because I was playing sports, I didn’t care. I crossed the line, but I went by myself. You don’t go with a crew.”
Pierre was introduced to handball as a young boy. Brooklyn is full of handball courts because they don’t require a lot of space – just a cement court and a cement wall.
“It’s a lot like boxing – move, strike, move, strike,” he said. “And you try to set them up to get them going. That’s the name of the game.”
Pierre was a smart kid, but he felt trapped between two worlds.
“Blacks would say, ‘You sound like a white boy,’ and I would have to fight them,” Pierre said. “White guys who don’t know me would say, ‘What you doing over here?’ and I would have to fight them. So, I was fighting since I was 12 years old. In New York, we were bare-knuckle fighters. Neighborhoods versus neighborhoods.”
Mornings usually didn’t start with a glorious sunrise but with a footrace. “You’d see a crack dealer run by, and then the second thing you’d see was a cop run by, and that’s how you’d start your day,” Pierre said. “Good morning!”
Pierre’s job as a cement truck driver required his full Haitian-Brooklyn arsenal – street smarts and muscle.
“Being a hard worker, it changes things,” Pierre said. “Everybody likes you when you’re a hard worker, consistently, not just today and then tomorrow you don’t show up. I work hard all the time and I treat everybody with a lot of respect, not because I’m afraid of you and not because I can beat you up, but it’s because I remember when I wasn’t so strong or so fast.”
The ‘New York nudge’
Pierre would pull up to the Manhattan job site with his load of cement and wait for the barbs.
“They’re just feeling you out,” he said. “But the traffic, oh, man, that was something else. You got to fight in the ring, and you got to fight on the road. It’s called the New York nudge – you just nudge right in.”
When Pierre arrived in New Orleans in late 2014, on the advice of boxing friend, he began driving heavy-duty tow trucks and continued to scratch his boxing itch with regular workouts.
“My momma said, “You be careful down there. That’s a voodoo town,’” Pierre said. “Well, everything is coming my way.”
Pierre’s late father was Catholic, as was his mother, who later in life became a Baptist, in part because when she was little and poor in Haiti, a priest made the family carry a casket of a deceased family member down the hill rather than go up the hill himself to offer a blessing.
Pierre had been baptized as a Catholic by his father but had not practiced much of any religion in his life. He did not care for what he considered the peer pressure in his mother’s Baptist church to come to services only in his Sunday best and to tithe an expected amount each week.
“It felt like she was bringing me there to show me off,” Pierre said. “But I wanted to go between me and God. The Catholic Church opened the door to me – wear what you want to wear. I go to church with my mom, it’s a mandatory suit. And it’s mandatory that I have to give this much. The Catholic Church, there’s no rules. It’s give what you can.”
Suddenly on the map
He was driving past Transfiguration of the Lord Church on Elysian Fields Avenue last year, close to where he lives, when he noticed the church and decided to drop in. At Mass one Sunday, he heard an announcement for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). He spoke with Deacon Lloyd Huck and made arrangements to come to classes the following week, but he never made it.
The following Sunday, Pierre came to class, not sure what Deacon Huck’s response would be.
“This is how I am – if I give you a chance to come by and you don’t come, right then and there I’m going to think, ‘Oh, this guy is full of it; he’s a waste of my time; forget about it,’” Pierre said. “But Deacon Lloyd said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Come next week.’ Deacon Lloyd is super forgiving, nothing like me. I tell people now, if they do something I don’t like, ‘Go see Deacon Lloyd, and this guy will forgive you over and over again.’ It was only one time, but I never missed a class again. I feel like I’m so protected and so blessed. I have no fears, the way they opened the doors to me, the way nobody had any questions about my history.”
Pierre said he was astounded when he, along with hundreds of other catechumens and candidates, walked up the aisle of St. Joseph Church in February to greet Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was exhorting each of “the elect” to continue on the path to full communion at the Easter Vigil.
Floored meeting archbishop
“You would figure with the archbishop they would say, ‘Don’t cross this line – he’s going to be over here, and there’s going to be two security guards.’ No. It was just, ‘I trust you. Come shake my hand. Embrace me,’” Pierre said. “That’s what the church has been like for me on Elysian Fields. They opened right up to me. Nobody clenches their purse. Nobody picks up their phone and goes to the front worrying that I’m sitting next to them. You’ve got to understand that that is not what I’m used to coming from New York and I’m in the South, where they told me they were racist, they’re not going to like you, they’re not going to accept you. It’s been completely the opposite.”
Pierre dearly loves his mom but wishes she would better understand him. She never attended his amateur fights. She told him he would get pummeled. She never came to watch him complete a personal milestone by running in the New York City Marathon, warning him he probably wouldn’t finish and might embarrass himself.
“It made me tear up a little bit,” Pierre said. “That hurt me bad.”
There is such power in the open arms of a church community. At the Easter Vigil on March 31 at Transfiguration of the Lord Church, Pierre, surrounded by a community of friends, will be confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.
In his hands of stone.
“I really believe more blessings are coming on me,” Pierre said. “I’ve always had faith. I always pray. But I’ve learned to not lean on my own understandings and to trust in the church.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.