For 25 years, I’ve been telling the story of how I spent a day with Muhammad Ali when I worked at Barnes & Noble back in 1996. Not only have I told it, but I’ve written it down.
It was one of the most profound days of my life. I had only been working at the B&N in Mishawaka, IN for a couple of months when I found out Ali was going to do a signing at the store. I was supposed to close the evening of the signing, but I volunteered to work the event and come back later and close out my department.
I barely slept the night before, I was so full of anticipation.
My assignment: to sit next to Ali as the people in line moved along to get a signed photo. I was essentially playing the role of his “body man.” It was my job to make sure no one got too unruly or demanding when they got their moment with The Greatest of All Time.
At the end of the event, Ali stayed for a bit to take photos with the staff. His Parkinson’s was pretty far along at that point – hindering both his speech and his motor skills. Still, he stuck around to meet with us even though he was exhausted from all the human interaction. The event ran two hours over because so many people came to see him, and he would not leave until the last hand was shook and the last photo taken.
Even though I had been sitting by him all day, I didn’t get much of an opportunity to connect with him due to all of the human traffic. Finally, the moment came when it was my turn for my photo. I sat down, and he looked over at me and in a low whispery voice said, “You look like Earnie Shavers.” Then he reached up to touch my bald head. The photographer caught him in mid-reach and me in the largest smile my face could muster.
I took that photo home with me and put it in one of those “special” places where one believes without a doubt that they won’t forget where they laid it because the chosen spot is so unique. But then I moved. And then I moved again. And again. And one more time after that. Along the way, the whereabouts of this precious memento became unknown to me. It’s bothered me many a day over the last quarter of a century. I had truly given up all hope in finding it.
Recently, my wife and I decided it was time to finally clear out the crawl space of all those things you either think you will need one day (paint, tools, extra floor tiles, etc.), or items you are for whatever reason not yet willing to part with (old trophies, magazines, comic books and the like). I’d had a slow water leak a few years ago and many items got ruined and went straight into recycling or the trash.
Opening boxes to confirm what was in them proved to be tedious, as I checked for damage and assessed if an item had any remaining value. I then carried each box up a flight of stairs and made four piles: donation, recycle, trash, sell. I was almost done when I came across one lonely cardboard box tucked in the back corner behind a large plastic tub.
What could be in here?
As I pulled the dingy brown top off the box and looked inside, what did I see staring back at me? There is was, 25 years later – a somewhat faded and slightly curved photo of myself and Muhammad Ali sitting across from each other and him reaching out for my bald dome.
I blinked multiple times before slowly picking it up with my hands. “Precious cargo,” I thought.
Memories are funny things. They can fade just like a photograph. When enough time passes, they can almost start to feel like the echoes of something that happened to someone else. Even in the case of a story you’ve recounted multiple times. I’ve less interest in mementos than I do experiences these days, but that photo is a memento of an experience – a truly extraordinary one.
It’s not often you sit next to a man who is not only the most significant athlete in history, but one of the singular figures in both American and world history.
This time I won’t lose track of the photo. Never again.
There’s an old song by a punk rocker named Johnny Thunders called “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory.”
“You can’t put your arms around a memory. Don’t try, don’t try,” the song goes.
I know that to be true. But over the weekend, for a brief moment, I was able to hold one in my hand. In a way it was like viewing proof of life. It is evidence. This really happened. I was there.
Now I can do more than tell you. I can show you.