It’s not often you get to meet your childhood hero. In fact, it is usually never. You dream about the day alot while swinging from a tire hanging from a tree on your grandparents farm in a sleepy little river town in Kentucky. Or at least I did. There is how you imagined it, then there is how it happened. Here is how it happened:
4 days shy of fifteen years ago (7-21-91 for the math whizzes) my life was altered by complete accident. This day found me working at a Kinko’s on the campus of the University of Louisville, where I managed to salvage a scholoarship by debating for them two years later than planned. I was also trying to get my act back together after West Point had it’s way with me. July 21st, 1991. I’m quick to say it is one of those days that I’ll never forget, but fear that trite phrase doesn’t hold the weight needed for what I’m about to tell you. I’m not sure what else to say, however, so we’ll leave it alone.
So I’m a Kinkoid, as they were known. Those guys and gals you see behind the counter wearing a silly blue apron and asking you if you want that on 20 pound paper and would you like it collated and stapled. That’s how I remembered it at least. The copiers are humming as I have jobs from last night still running for Humana. These guys probably use up a third of the damned rainforest in just their shit – not kidding. I have a piece of shit Kodak running that job and my favorite Xerox box running the day to day stuff.
I would sometimes make believe I was producing something really important or counterfeiting money – you know, Walter Mitty type daydreams to pass the time and make you forget that you are doing an incredibly mundane job for incredibly low pay. Maybe that is the reason for his visit that day: To remind me that no matter what we are doing or where we are at, we are all an important part of this race of people known as human beings. Or, hell, maybe he just wanted some copies.
Standing with my back to the front as Kinkoids always do, I hear the door open and what sounds like two or three people walk in. I also felt them walk in…or felt something walk in. I had a very real sense that I could feel them walk in. It was as if their walking in put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m here.” Like we copycats behind the counter also often do, I ignored them.
Knee deep in that Humana absolutely-must-get-out-the-door-today job, I can sense that my newest customers are at the counter and it sounds to me like they have begun a patient wait. Humana Benefits Declaration Part A, Section 3, 4 tabbed and 3 whole punched, sort…reset…Copy. You get lost in the machine noise and the flow. I was lost in it at the point that I heard it. A faint talking sound. It sounded as if someone had taken someone hostage and was holding their hand over a mouth that was trying to speak. They were obviously NOT a hostage, because this person was speaking quite normally – at a normal volume, pace, and emotion. But the hand was there I was sure. I could not make out what they were saying.
What the fuck? That was my first thought. My next thought was “Humana Benefits Declaration Part A, Section 4, 4 tabbed and 3 whole punched, sort…reset…Copy”.
It was louder this time, and more forceful. Shit. Is there really someone who has been taken hostage in my store? Son of a…
Then I turn around
And in that instant
There standing before me at my counter at a Kinko’s in Louiville, Kentucky is Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad motherfucking Ali
The words kept repeating like a jackhammer in my head
“it’s fucking Muhammad Ali”
“The Greatest of All Time is in my store”
“oh my god, fucking Muhammad Ali”
I had never really known what it felt like to be starstruck and never consider myself the type to fall victim to it. Yet there I stood. Full on startstuck mode. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I had to remind myself how to walk – I mean literally say to myself: “Eric, put your left foot right there. Then put your right foot right here. That is walking…remember?”
I had remembered my daydreams on the tree swing down in Brandenburg. It was much different than this. I had had more time then. Ali’s people had called my people. We set up a meeting. He invited me ringside to the Foreman fight. We had dinner late. There seemed to be so much more time to think how I would react and what I could say.
Now there was no time. Ali is standing right fucking there! It did not seem fair. Once I figured out how to walk again, it seemed as though the universal clock was moving once again and life slowly came back to normal like when film is accidentally stuck in a projector and it ever so slowly returns to normal speed and sound.
“Can I help you?”
It’s the hostage! The hostage was a Parkinson’s riddled Muhammad Ali. I could not understand a word of it. God damned Parkinsons. Parkinsons was fucking up my childhood dream. First the short notice and now THIS! This was one of my first real moments in understanding how little I controlled what happened and how much dealing with moments i would have to endure. You don’t plan, you live. One precious moment after another. I could not understand one single solitary word my hero was saying to me. Not ONE!
Time to think fast. Okay, the obvious: “You want some copies?” [of course he does you idiot – shit!]
Ali shakes his head yes and pulls out a 4 page single sided document from his briefcase. His briefcase was brown and tattered and very ordinary looking. Again, I had him with a stainless steel polished briefcase back on the tire swing. You know, the one he pulled the agent contract out of for me to sign. This one was brown, beat up, well used, but with as much character as the greatest now filled the store with.
You hear stories of how the charismatic can fill a room with their presense. Ali’s shit was spilling out into the streets and heading up to Unitas Towers as we spoke.
How many copies?
100 copies. Single sided. Collated. Stapled upper left. I’m on it.
I turn and walk away from Ali thinking I would turn back and he’d be gone. This was a Walter Mitty moment. Had to be. There is no fucking way on this planet that Muhammad “I’m the fuckin’ man” Ali would:
A. NEED copies
B. Get his own copies
C. Go to a Kinko’s ; or
D. Be right here in my store this very minute!!!
I peak behind me just to make sure and he’s there alright. Smiling. Cheeks puffed out a bit from the treatments, but Ali through and through. He looks like he could go 15 right here, right now. I’m sure his spirit could have.
I kick a copy job that has now become completely meaningless off the Xerox and fire up the Ali document. I wondered what it said and why he would need 100 copies of it. That is another dirty little not-so-secret thing about Kinko’s. What you copy full serve gets read. Plus if you order 100 copies? Plan on 101 getting made, one going to the staff. It’s just the way things were.
While listening to the whir of machine and acting like I’m completely into my work and doing my best fake busy, I peak down at the Ali document that is coming off the Xerox in collated fashion. I can only catch bits and pieces.
Shit. OK. I will have to pull one off and act like I’m proofing, which usually works. I begin to read:
THE REAL CAUSE OF MAN’S DISTRESS”
Gentlemen, these are the basic realities underlying the scheme and system of this world and the rest of the Universe. And none of us exists independently of this world; indeed each of us lives in it as a part of the machine and system. For everyone of us, therefore, these realities are as fundamental as they are for the world as a whole.
“Whoa, heavy shit”, I think. This must be part of some speech he is about to give. Speech? Fuck man. I can’t even figure out how many copies he wants. How would he give a speech? Hmmm.
The last of the copies are coming off as I continue to peak at the document:
Today, all of us are baffled and perplexed by the question why human life has been deprived of peace and security. Why are we being visited perpetually by various kinds of troubles and hardships? Why has the scheme of our line gone away? We find nations falling foul of one another, country struggling against country, men tearing one another to bits like wolves.
This was, looking back, the beginning of a spiritual and political journey that I remain on today. It didn’t happen right away, and surely didn’t happen how Ali himself could have thought. But these were the roots of it there is no doubt in any part of me.
The Xerox cycles down and I pull the freshly minted 4 page manifestos off the output tray and into a Kinko’s emblazoned cardboard box. I pause just slightly before heading up to the counter to gather myself again and to also take in fully the experience of meeting my childhood hero. It dawns on me what a once in a lifetime moment this is.
I hand the box to Ali and his nephew who had driven him here hands me some money. I consider waving it off and calling this one on the house, but decide it best to play it straight. $7.48…out of ten?
I hand the change back and then make my move.
“So why do you get copies of this?”
The next several nervous minutes are spent by me trying to decipher what Muhammad Ali is trying to say to me. He is obviously glad that I asked and very animated in his responses. What I gather from it is that he carries these 4 page documents around to sign for people instead of a meaningless napkin or envelope. His intent is for them to read the words and get something out of it in trade for his signature.
“Will you sign one for me?”
Surely he will. He signs it “To Eric From Muhammad Ali 7-21-91”.
I read it just after the greatest of all time left my store and I saw the brown Lincoln pull away. It was not how I imagined it, but it was probably more powerful than I could have hoped. I read it again from time to time and think about the day my childhood hero came into my life for a brief moment and changed it forever.