I wrote this long ago and post it here as boxing great Muhammad Ali celebrates turning 70 on Tuesday.
It was a blistering July, and I was not happy to be spending any part of it wandering the streets of Miami Beach. Still sad over my grandfather’s death only two weeks before, I had been appointed to accompany my mother and grandmother on their quest for suitable lodgings for the new widow. While it seemed too soon for her to make such a move, just hours after her husband’s funeral Grandma had begun complaining about her plight, lamenting, “He should rest in peace, he’s dead already, but what about me, I’m all alone now!” Clamoring to get out of “that hell-hole” formerly known as her home for thirty years, Grandma was determined to spend what time she had left playing canasta on the beach with her friends who had already moved there.
With me at the wheel and my mother riding shotgun, Grandma chased her dream in a rented Buick. At first each apartment sounded perfect, but then we’d get there and Grandma would claim it was too close to the beach, or too far from the beach, or too hot, or too small or too noisy, or too quiet. By late afternoon we’d return to the hotel, have an early dinner, and then go to a movie or watch TV. At night, kept awake by my mother’s crying in the next bed, I’d carefully plot my grandmother’s untimely demise. The next morning, after perusing the classifieds at breakfast, off we’d go to view that day’s rejects, a dog-eared city map serving as our only guide.
Finally, after a week of searching, we found it--an apartment Grandma liked! It was close to her friends, on a low floor, with a nice breeze and an ocean view. We signed the lease and planned a celebratory farewell dinner that night at Wolfies’—after all, what’s not to like about pastrami on rye and a stroll down Collins Avenue when you’re happy? Arriving back at our hotel, the venerable Fontainebleau, we were just crossing the lobby when Grandma stopped walking and said, “What am I going to do here all by myself, stuck in Florida? It’s so hot here, and I’ve never been a beach person. I’m a New Yorker, after all. I think I’ll go back home with you.”
Right there, my mother lost it. It was not surprising--she and her father had been very close, and there had been little time to register his death before embarking on this trip. Her emotions spilled out, and she screamed, “I hate you, I’ve always hated you! Why couldn’t you have died instead?” My grandmother, kicking it up a notch, clutched her bosom as if she were having a heart attack, wailing, “Oy vay, I should only drop dead, how a daughter can say such things to a mother!” Everyone within earshot stood stock still. Being only 22, I had no idea what to do. I prayed I would simply melt into the floor.
Suddenly a handsome young black man in a white suit approached us. He was smiling and saying, “Ladies, ladies, calm down. What’s the problem?” As he got nearer, we recognized him as Cassius Clay—even though by then he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali—still in his prime. Reaching us, he put his arm around my grandmother and said, “Now, what’s all the fuss about?” Grandma, a world class bigot—to her, if you weren’t Jewish or at the very least white, you were nothing--looked up at him, stroked his cheek, and said, “Oy, you’re such a doll! You know, I hate all schvartzes, but you I love.” He seemed to find this comment acceptable, and the two trotted off together in the direction of the lobby bar.
The hotel physician gave my mother a strong sedative; she slept until the next afternoon. The next morning, I drove Grandma—still in fine spirits from her “date” with Ali the night before--to the airport for her flight to Baltimore, where my uncle would be waiting. (I figured, it’s his mother, let him worry about her.)
Ever since then, regardless of his wins or losses, I’ve considered Ali to be The Greatest.