The Boxer (and the Writer)
Someone, I believe it was Steve Imber, began roasting a dinner roll over the candle at the center of the table. Others took up the challenge, jabbing their forks into rolls and holding them over the single flame. Before the roll experiment, we sat awkwardly, six boys in sports coats and slacks who had nothing in common except being invited there by me. Now a bit of mischief united us. Suddenly the volume was turned up on my bar mitzvah dinner.
While the adults sat eating dessert and drinking coffee, we snuck away and descended on the site of that bar mitzvah celebration, Kansas City’s new Alameda Plaza Hotel. Steve Imber led the way again. With the same enterprise it took to produce the roasted dinner roll, Steve waded into the down escalator and began running up. Everyone followed. A long period of backward escalator riding ensued.
We we’re running down the up escalator when Mark Pelofsky pointed him out loitering on the bottom floor near the dinner: “It’s the Paper Lion! It’s the Paper Lion!”
George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review, inventor of “participatory journalism,” with his tall, thin frame and Anglo face made recognizable by his TV specials, was making his celebrity visible just beyond the escalators.
Six boys high-tailed down the escalator and surrounded Plimpton.
“What are you doing here?” one of us asked.
“I’m here to interview Muhammad Ali for Sports Illustrated,” Plimpton responded in his New England yankee accent.
“Where is he?! Where is he?!” we began shouting. “Where’s Ali? Is he in the hotel?”
“No, no. He’s not in the hotel,” Plimpton averred, realizing he had said too much.
Not fooled by Plimpton’s feeble attempt at misdirection, we split up into groups and set out searching the hotel for the heavyweight champion of the world.
I teamed up with Mark and Steve. We tried to analyze the situation; but finding one boxer, no matter how big, in a large hotel required powers beyond logic. Then Steve noticed something unusual. Black people were entering the hotel in small parties and getting into the elevators. We observed the elevator stop for each group at the same floor. Like junior sleuths in dress pants, the three of us slipped into the next open car and pressed the number for the critical floor.
We stepped out of the elevator, turned right and were met by a middle-aged man standing in the doorway of his room holding a drink in his hand.
“Do you boys want to meet the Champ?” he asked, as if he had been waiting for us all night.
After we responded emphatically “yes,” he beckoned us to follow him down the hallway. He asked us why we were at the hotel, and Mark and Steve told him it was my bar mitzvah. At the end of the hall we came to a room labeled “Presidential Suite.” The man with the drink in his hand knocked on the door. A large black man cautiously opened the door. We could hear the din of a party.
“It’s this boy’s bar mitzvah,” the man with the drink announced, “and they’d all like to meet the Champ.”
“Just a minute,” the large man replied.
After a period of time that seemed excessive, he returned with the decision.
“OK, but just the bar mitzvah boy.”
Steve and Mark, standing on either side of me, cheered my good fortune like runners-up in the Miss America pageant.
The large man escorted me to a bedroom where I waited. After a few minutes a tall man, well over six feet, with massive, broad shoulders, wearing a red plaid shirt and exuding serenity, appeared in front of me. It was Muhammed Ali.
Too awestruck to say anything, I mutely handed him my place card from the dinner, with George Plimpton’s autograph on the backside of my name. Ali signed the remaining blank space on the card and silently handed it back to me.
The large man ushered me back to the door – to the cheers of Mark, Steve and the guy with the drink in his hand. Smiling, I returned to the dinner to tell the story.
There were four of us and we were about to pile into a Volkswagen Beetle. Tim Stalder, a mustachioed politico from South Dakota, drove. Tara McKelvey, a precocious, driven 15-year-old would-be journalist, sat next to Tim. Steve Dwork and I, representing the Jewish people, sat in the back seat. On the way up to Iowa Tim kept joking that we were violating the Mann Act by transporting Tara across the state line.
We took off at night from the parking lot of Cook’s discount store, in Roeland Park, Kan. A few hours later we arrived in Des Moines. There we met the sponsor of our excursion, a gay man named Michael. Michael planned to persuade registered voters to go the caucuses to vote for Ted Kennedy, who Michael believed was the most pro-gay of any presidential candidate. To the rest of us, however, the modest operation presented a chance to be in the political thicket – to wander in the midst of one of the two or three most important political events of any presidential election year.
The first night in Iowa someone bought a truckload of alcohol and brought it back to our motel room where we proceeded to get drunk. Without warning, Michael began chasing me with a can of shaving cream. I ran out of the room and into the hallway where I almost knocked over a middle-aged man, who said, “Be careful or I’ll write something bad about you.” We all followed him into his room.
His name was Jon Margolis. He was a national political reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I told him the rabbi of my synagogue was named Margolies. There hadn’t been any rabbis in his family for generations, he said.
So we had landed a real one. Packed into his single room, we ticked off every major news event of the last 20 year and asked him if he had covered them. He obliged us with anecdotes: for instance, how he had become so shaken at a tense moment covering the Attica riots that his notes became a blur. We asked him his opinion of our favorite political writers, such as Hunter Thompson: “That liquor you have in your room – he would drink all of that just to get warmed up … As a writer he’ll give you a couple of pages of good writing, then pages and pages of crap.”
We spent the next night, Monday, the night before the caucuses, at the hotel where all the big Democrats were staying, saving the Republicans’ hotel for election night because the only real race being fought was in the GOP between George Bush and Ronald Reagan. (On the Democratic side, polls showed that Kennedy, a.k.a. Our Ticket to the Iowa Caucuses, and Jerry Brown would be soundly thrashed by President Jimmy Carter.)
Steve and I took a stroll around the first floor of the hotel. We wandered into an unmarked, mostly empty area and sat down on a bench. At the other end of the room we saw someone sitting at a desk. “Hey, that’s Frank Reynolds,” Steve said. We got up and started walking over to say hello to the anchor of ABC World News. As we approached his desk, Frank, in his deep, authoritative evening news voice, now sounding a little peeved, said, “Who are these people?” At that point we were told to leave the set.
A little while later I found myself standing next to Robert Strauss, a longtime Democratic Party operative. I asked him some questions, acting in my role, not as political tourist, but as reporter for my high school newspaper. Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell was there, too. He walked out of the hotel with some others, and I followed, hoping to ask him a question or two. But as I watched them walk down the street, I lost my nerve.
The next night, election night, Tim went off to find a certain caucus site where it was rumored Bush would be campaigning. Steve, Tara and I settled in at the Republicans’ hotel, which seemed the most logical place to be for those looking for action.
The three of us scoped out the first floor trying to meet anyone of importance. Someone, most likely Tara, chanced upon a rather newsworthy personage at the moment – Jeb Bush, son of the Iowa Republican front-runner – who was in Des Moines campaigning for his father. Although we weren’t eligible to vote in Iowa or old enough to be members of the press corps, Bush let us interview him.
We secreted ourselves in an unused room where he entertained our questions for the better part of an hour. Afterward Steve and Tara scolded me for bombarding young Jeb with leftist questions about the Iranian Revolution. Later that night Tim returned, bragging that he met George Bush.
Iowa was over. Bush beat Reagan. But, of course, Reagan won in the end.
Later that year Tim joined the Air Force Office of Special Investigation where he served for 20 years and participated in Operation Desert Storm.
Tara went on to a career in journalism, primarily as a reporter for the American Prospect magazine, and wrote a book about the torture of female prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Steve and I, raised as secular Jews, both became Orthodox. Steve lives in Baltimore where he has worked as a high school English teacher for many years. He is married with four children.
Frank Reynolds died in a horrific killer bee attack (Just kidding.).
Jeb Bush was elected governor of Florida. He is currently exploring a bid for the presidency.
The Basketball Players
I was finally finished with finals. Most students had already cleared out of the University of Kansas for winter break. I wouldn’t have a ride home for another day, so I walked over to Robinson Center, which was across from my dorm, to play basketball.
I sat down on the side of a court to wait for a chance to play. Hardly anybody was there. I looked over at the game in front of me and – “Oh s***!” – running up and down the court were Kansas standouts Darnell Valentine and David Magley and former Jayhawks and Boston Celtics star Jo Jo White, now a KU assistant coach. They looked like they were playing in Jo Jo’s driveway, just having some laughs during down time.
Every time his team had the ball White would dribble up court, stop at the half-court line – it was a “side” court, not full length – and launch his odd, almost double-clutch, jump shot (just as I remembered it from TV) and swish it. Darnell went up high and hard for layups. Magley was being his cool, loose, skinny self.
Someone else waiting to play asked me if I wanted to be in the next game, and before I could realize what was happening, I was playing basketball with Darnell Valentine, David Magley and Jo Jo White!
Even though we were on the same court, the dudes weren’t exactly playing with me. The game seemed to be going on way above me, as if I were playing on a lower floor. I never touched the ball, nor did I care to.
I was guarding another Caucasian, under-conditioned KU student. My team scored and he ran down to my end of the court where I was waiting for him. We high-fived and exchanged knowing smiles, delighted that our departures for winter break were a little delayed.
The Rock Star
Sometime Between 1989 and 1991
The evening Maariv service had ended and I was waiting outside 770 for friends. I watched the men exit the large basement synagogue in waves and walk up the stairs to the street. Suddenly, two people materialized at the top of the steps who I immediately recognized: Meir Rhodes and his sometimes Shabbos guest Bob Dylan. Meir wore a kapota, the traditional Prince Albert frock coat worn by married Lubavitcher men on Shabbos. Dylan sported a gray sweatshirt with the hood over his head.
As Meir and Bob turned right toward Kingston Ave., a young guy also waiting outside the synagogue shouted, “Hey, it’s Bob Dylan!” Dylan turned around and smiled, looking pleased to be recognized. But Rhodes was not happy. Assuming his role as Bob Dylan Protector, Meir whipped around and barked, “Cool it, kid!”
Seeing Bob Dylan was like seeing a part of my life. He had been a hero of mine since junior high. I’d spent many hours harmonizing with him on his albums and memorizing those endless verses of individualist expression.
I trailed Bob and Meir up Kingston Ave. They turned left on President St., and I continued following. I suddenly heard a sound I wasn’t expecting – Bob Dylan laughing. Spasms of familiar sounding laughter rolled across the warm Shabbos night. Meir Rhodes was a very funny guy. I turned around and walked to where Friday night Kiddush was waiting.