The S.B. Questionnaire: Joshua Schneyer

Talking Tenacity and Pomposity with the Owner of the State Street Boxing Club

Josh Schneyer | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

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“Boxing is the most comprehensive workout there is,” says Joshua Schneyer.  “It requires that you gain coordination. It requires lots of focus. It requires courage, tenacity, and discipline.”   

Schneyer is the owner of the State Street Boxing Club, located right where our main drag dips below 101. Though there is training for contact boxing at SSBC, the majority of the members come to exercise and participate in the intense conditioning classes.   

“Boxing as a fitness workout, instead of fighting, has developed in the past 20 years,” explains Schneyer, who is also the head coach at at SSBC. “No other single workout develops functional strength, endurance, coordination, and flexibility.”

A former chef, opera singer, and English professor, Schneyer is a truly fascinating and multi-faceted man. As we eat breakfast together at Dawn Patrol, which is next door to his gym, I’m captivated by the twists and turns of his story.  

Born in Buffalo, New York, Schneyer as a kid to D.C., where his family’s home was a way station for protesters and radicals. “I had a checkered high school career and quit,” he discloses, noting that he boxed informally and did some martial arts.  

In 1976, he drove Route 40 west and wound up in San Francisco. “I had $40 in my pocket,” says Schneyer, who got a job washing dishes at Capurro’s Restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf. That’s where he met a line cook named George Peters, who became a mentor. “He was a Virgil to my Dante,” reflects Schneyer. “He looked after me and guided me.”  

Peters took him to Newman’s Gym, he met a skeptical coach named Marvin Moore. “He owned the legendary cynicism of boxing coaches who grow to have no faith in anybody who tells you they want to be a boxer,” says Schneyer, who began training five days a week there and competing in amateur bouts. “He taught me a solid foundation. I still teach the things he taught me.” 

In 1978, Peters suddenly committed suicide, and Schneyer, then just 20 years old, was so disturbed that he moved to Mendocino. A friend suggested that if he joined the Army, they’d pay him to box, so Schneyer did, getting stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey and boxing for their team. “All I did was boxing and reading,” he explains. “There was little military duty.”

After four years, he moved back to Mendocino to work as a sous chef at the Heritage House, where he met a busboy who was studying at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies. In 1987, without a diploma and 29 years old, Schneyer was accepted to this special UCSB school. 

“One of the best things that happened to me,” he affirms. “It was a seminal experience. They gave me the tools to think for myself, both personally and intellectually.” It’s at UCSB that he was introduced to classical music and opera, so he decided to train as a singer.  

Next he earned a graduate degree in poetry and fiction from Boston University in 1993, and came back to Santa Barbara. He started teaching basic English, composition, and creative writing at Santa Barbara City College, and began singing for Opera Santa Barbara. Throughout the 1990s, Schneyer was teaching, singing with the opera and San Roque Catholic Church, and coaching at the gym.

In 1999, he bought State Street Boxing Club. “Originally, I had a couple of partners,” he acknowledges with a smile. “They put in the money. I put in the sweat. Now it’s all mine. It’s not a mom-and-pop operation — it’s just pop.”

Two decades later, Schneyer’s opinion is well formed. “A lot of my favorite people are not fighters, or the best at it,” he says. “I mostly like people who work hard.”

Joshua Schneyer answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I like what Freud said, that happiness is an episodic phenomenon. 

Given that, there are any number of possible episodes of, if not exactly perfect happiness (is there even such a thing?), then relative and satisfying happiness: a stay at The Peninsula Hotel with my wife with several days of vacation behind and in front of us (which almost never happens, which shows just how episodic happiness is); being smack in the middle of a hotly contested boxing match; sitting on my couch reading Raymond Chandler while listening to Mozart’s Clarinet concerto in A major or Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debbie (I know that sounds insufferably pretentious, but it’s true). It could even be sweating my ass off training myself or someone else.  

Anything that momentarily divorces me from care and obligation, that state of complete absorption in a task or activity that either lifts me out of or seats me more thoroughly in myself, I’m not sure which, but, whichever it is, that is happiness.

What do you like most about your job?
That I get to boss people around with absolute impunity. I’m kidding, mostly. To be serious, when I push, prod, cajole, mock, whatever it takes, and see people begin to get it, that is, surprisingly to an old curmudgeon like myself, very rewarding. But the bossing people is good, too. And being my own boss so I get to boss myself. And, of course, getting paid.  

What is your most marked characteristic?
Probably determination or consistency, but it could be pomposity, depending on who you ask. It’s a close race.

What is your greatest fear?
Death. Or Gertrude Stein.

Who do you most admire?
My sister, who is smart without being condescending, talented without being pretentious, principled without being boring, and who managed to not only survive the asylum of our family growing up, but to put together a tremendous family and productive life and has unfailingly been a beacon of sanity and reason and has never once stinted her support of me, her bad brother, whenever I’ve needed it, which, especially when I was younger, was rather often.

What is your greatest extravagance?
On an ongoing basis, no contest: whisky. I love whisky, and I particularly love very good whisky, which, sadly, is stupidly expensive. But, for a single preposterous purchase, my hifi system. Or my car. Or possibly my shoes. Tough question.

What is your current state of mind?
After answering that last question, a little abashed and alarmed at my lack of thrift.

What is the quality you most like in people?
Hopelessly banal as it sounds, honesty, humility, generosity, and a good sense of humor. I can live without the sense of humor, but it helps.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Pettiness, malice, and parsimony, which often go hand in hand. In such cases, even a sense of humor won’t help.

What do you most value in friends?
All the qualities that I like in people generally, plus the self-possession, wherewithal, self-reliance, independence, call it what you will, to not get all butt-hurt if I don’t respond to a text or email right away and to be able to go days, weeks, months, without contact and then be able to pick up again without sulks or recrimination.  

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I’m very conscious of and annoyed by verbal ticks, so I don’t really have specific single words I overuse, like totally, literally, absolutely, situation, etc.  What I do have is a tendency toward polysyllabic words and protracted sentences with multiple parenthetical clauses, which, to one’s interlocutor, is its own special brand of annoying (see pompous above).

Which talent would you most like to have?
To be able to sing like Eberhard Wächter or Jussi Bjoerling or, barring that, Janis Joplin.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be less pompous.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Marrying Jenn Brodt, without question. Best wife ever.

Where would you most like to live?
New York, but my wife wants to live in Paris, so I suppose we’ll just have to buy a home in both and fly back and forth in our private jet. (Did I list that under extravagances?)

What is your most treasured possession?
A pair of boxing gloves given to me by my first coach.

Who makes you laugh the most?
My wife.

What is your motto?
I have no mottos.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Samuel Johnson. 

Obviously, he was significantly smarter and more talented than I, and he had a far greater impact on the world. So to say I identify with him is a bit grandiose, but he was irritable and irascible and sometimes curmudgeonly, and his friends loved him in spite of that, and maybe even because of it at times. I am all of those things and hope my friends love me as well. He could also be terrifically kind and generous, even when he was being grumpy, and those, too, are attributes I at least aspire to.  

Also, we share the horror of dying. I’m sure, had she been alive then, he would’ve been afraid of Gertrude Stein, too.

On what occasion do you lie?
I cannot tell a lie.

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