And like his old man, he learned to cuss, chew tobacco and appreciate his union, the Bricklayers and Masons International. Technically, the sport was still illegal in New York, but the state’s 1896 Horton Law created a loophole for private “athletic associations” to stage “exhibitions” of “sparring.” In practice, outfits like the Coney Island Athletic Club charged spectators admission fees (temporary “membership” dues), gamblers bet on the outcomes, and combatants were paid under the table.He also learned to drink beer with the older “brickies” after work — which was emphatically unlike his old man, a near-teetotaler. Teenagers such as Kennedy fought on the warm-up undercards.
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To avoid detection, “land stowaways” like Kennedy often spent a whole trip “riding the rods” — hanging on to the brake rods or beams underneath freight or passenger cars, just above the wheels.
If this seems like courting disaster, it was: In the two decades around the turn of the century, at least 32,000 hobos or tramps were killed on American railroads, whether by falls, encounters with railroad “bulls” (private security officers) or other misfortunes.
Wearing a cloth cap on his head and a button-down shirt and tie under his work overalls, he would stoop over to pick up a brick from its pile, place it on the mortar bed, and tap it into place, then stoop to pick up a new brick, over and over, hundreds of times a day.
The young Kennedy learned how to build walls, staircases, chimneys and walkways. At age fourteen, Kennedy began moonlighting as a prizefighter.
Finally, when Bill was seventeen or eighteen, he and Joe, two years younger, hopped a freight train bound for the West.