At hotels here, you can gamble while you eat scrambled eggs. Keno's the game. It's like bingo, with numbers flashed on boards on the restaurant walls. You use a blue crayon to mark numbers on the pink keno slip. Sometimes, if you don't have a pen and paper, you put the crayon and keno slip in front of Muhammad Ali and say, "Champ, you got a 9-year-old fan in Cleveland. Make it 'To Ian.' He'll treasure this his whole life."
Some stories are fun. You laugh at the way the words come out. This one isn't fun. Some stories are just real. You write them down the way you see them. You see people hand blue crayons to Muhammad Ali, who was a hero, who was an athlete of grace and courage beyond knowing, who said you don't have to like me but I'm gonna make it anyway. Martin Luther King said it one way, Ali said it his way, and we're better because they both said it some way.
This story is just real, the way you saw it happen. For 15 years, you'd seen Ali four or five times a year. Now it had been 17 months. The last time was in December of '81 when he lost his last fight on a scruffy island in a ring set at second base of a kid's ball field. They borrowed a cow's bell for the ring bell.
"Ali, you look good," you say on the hotel steps, lying. He is a puffball of maybe 260 pounds. "What have you been doing lately?" "Come on," he says.
You cross a casino gaming room, through a cigar-stinking haze, and people call out, "Hi, Champ," and Ali stops behind a woman to click his fingers beside her ear, moving away before she identifies the noise but, as she turns, Ali looks back so she'll know it was the champ.
"I am dedicating myself to promoting world peace," he says. You're in a coffee shop, under the keno boards, and now, hearing a sentence, you know it's worse than before. His voice is a mumble. It is as if the voice were an attic with all the words lost in the dust of time. You want him to sparkle. You want him to be fun. You want him to be what he was before a thousand punches hit him.
Ali tells a flunky to get the paper on the United Nations plan. A crude drawing of an airplane is over the words, "Children's Journey for Peace." The plan, Ali says, is to have 50 children from 50 countries meet with the world's presidents, kings and sheiks.
"I've been offered deals to do boxing promotions, to speak, to make business deals. I've turned them all down to promote world peace. We'll be making the announcement of the journey in six to eight weeks at the U.N. It's going to cost $2.5 million. Sheiks of Arabia will donate money, certain people will donate the airplane. It's going to be something, man. Beautiful. Powerful. Boxing was Allah's way of getting me fame to do something bigger. This is 10 times bigger than boxing. Powerful."
You tell him it is wonderful, lying again. You've heard it before. It never happens. You've heard about great mosques for Islam, apartment buildings for the needy. You've seen nothing. He made a couple movies, neither good, and a series of college lectures, none memorable. Marilyn Monroe couldn't be Marilyn forever, and now Muhammad Ali is not Ali anymore, but what is he?
He can get money, if he wants money. He's here now to negotiate for "A Tribute to Muhammad Ali," a show that might go on in a hotel here in September. His name is money. But you see Ali for the first time since his last fight and you know money isn't it. He wants ultimate, eternal, undeniable fame, even if it comes in little clicks of his fingers behind a woman's ear.
Larry Holmes comes by. "I hear you're being ugly about me," shouts Holmes, once Ali's sparring partner, later the champion who pulled punches rather than hurt the friend he idolized. "You want to do it, Champ? Let's make a comeback."
Ali smiles, his voice booming, "I wannnnnnttttt Hooooolmmmes."
"Ali's making a comeback," Holmes shouts, and the restaurant customers with their crayon autographs applaud.
"This nigger's craaaaazy," Ali says, and Holmes drops his voice to say, "One champ to another champ, you'll always be the greatest, I'm just the latest."
Upstairs now, Ali asks if you have heard his lecture on the meaning of life.
No, you say, though you've heard it three times. "Islamic evangelist, that's what I want to do," he says. He has photographs of himself with Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, Reagan, Ford, Carter and Brezhnev. "The world listens to me."
Now the lecture comes from a music box he sits on the floor in the middle of the room, so eight people there can hear it. You notice that his left arm, resting on his chair, trembles. The thumb twitches. The taped voice is flat, lifeless and stumbling, the voice of a schoolboy reading a difficult book. Fame plus faith, Ali believes, will make him the Billy Graham of Islam. His lecture is soporific and simplistic, but you hear someone say, "So wise, Champ," and he says, "Thanks. Powerful."
Ali's taped voice says we can never repay Allah except by being good. A man brings a blond woman past the music box, whispering to Ali, "This is the Marilyn Monroe look-alike."
Marilyn Monroe Look-Alike kneels next to Muhammad Ali for a photo, and Ali, ignoring her, says, "This lecture is one of 47 I've done. We're having 100,000 copies made."
He says he wants to hold a spiritual revival in Egypt, Africa and Arab countries, and you say you'd like to hear more but you have to be going, it was nice to see you again, Ali. Before the door closes, you hear him say to the people still listening, "This next lecture . . . "