[This weekend] the great Muhammed Ali died at the age of 74. He was one of my heroes, inspiring the following essay years ago. I offer it again here for the stray reader who hasn’t read it.
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 tagged to accompany my mother and grandmother on a 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 lobbying for 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 the past 30 years, Grandma ached to spend what time she had left playing canasta on the beach with her friends who had already moved there. Making matters worse, we had to take the train from New York to Miami because Grandma wouldn’t fly. Twenty-four hours of her complaining about the broken air-conditioning and the bad food and how she couldn’t sleep a wink on the Amtrak Special, with my mother huddled in a corner quietly sobbing into a wad of tissues, primed me for what was coming.
Once there, I was put in charge of it all. With me at the wheel and my mother riding shotgun, Grandma chased her dream in a rented Buick. At first, going through the classifieds, 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 sobbing, 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 probable rejects, a dogeared city map serving as our only guide.
Finally, after a week of searching — glory, hallelujah — we found it! A one-bedroom unit with a dining alcove, not too expensive, it was close to her friends, on a low floor, with a nice breeze and an ocean view. Grandma took one look and said, “What’s not to love?” We signed the lease and planned a celebratory farewell dinner that night at Wolfies’—after all, who wouldn’t celebrate such a thing with corned beef on rye and a lovely stroll down Collins Avenue? My mother was finally happy, mentally counting the moments until she could literally kiss off her mother for good.
Arriving back at our hotel, the venerable Fontainebleau, we were just crossing the lobby when Grandma stopped walking and said, “What do I know from Florida? It’s so hot here. And the beach — feh! What, I’m going surfing all of a sudden? I’m a New Yorker. Maybe 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 exploded out of her, and she screamed, “I hate you, I’ve always hated you! You should have died instead!” My grandmother, kicking it up a notch, clutched her bosom as if she were having a heart attack, wailing, “Oy vey, I should only drop dead this minute, 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 for salvation.
Suddenly a handsome young black man in a blazing 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 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, I’ve considered Ali to be The Greatest.
— Andrea Rouda
Andrea Rouda blogs at The Daily Droid.