Jonathan Ames: Everybody Dies in Memphis

Written by Jonathan Ames on . Posted in A Trip Through the Archives, Arts & Film, Books.


About two hours after the Tyson-Lewis fight, after the arena had cleared out, after the final press conference, after 20,000 people had collectively shot some kind of cathartic wad of soul-semen and soul-pussy-juice, I found an exit and walked alone across a large, desolate parking lot and up a steep grass embankment. As usual I had fucked up. This was no way to leave the Pyramid arena. To get back to the world, which was a dangerous dark road underneath a highway, I had to climb a high metal fence. I could have turned back, found a proper exit, but naturally I didn’t. I was too lazy to retrace my steps, but not too lazy to climb a fence. In other words, I’m an idiot.

So at the top of the 15-foot fence, as I swung my leg over, my pants, right in the crotch area, got caught in the sharp, rusted wire, which wasn’t razor wire, but just as effective.

Oh no, Ames, I said to myself, don’t fucking rip up your dick, not at 1 a.m. in Memphis.

I couldn’t get leverage to unhook my crotch, because I couldn’t put my hands down on the wire to push off–it would have sliced me up immediately. My fists were in the last safe rung of fencing, and my feet were in holes on either side.

So I was stuck up there, legs straddled, dick near-pierced, feet starting to slip, when a subnormal man in thick glasses and a dirty baseball cap came limping along, carrying a stack of the just-printed limited edition of the local paper, with the headline, “Lewis KO’s Tyson in 8.” He was some kind of Southern homeless man, face contorted and weird from retardation, but the eyes behind the thick glasses were kind and gentle–the disposition of all the Memphians I had met.

“What are you doing on that fence? Are you lost?” he asked.

“I’m stuck,” I said, and looked at him in the silvery light cast by the parking lot below.

“Did you go to the fight?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m going to sell these papers!” he said, wanting praise and affirmation from me in his childlike retarded way. He was still searching, as most of us are, retarded or not, for a father to pat him on the back. He looked to be about 50.

“That’s good,” I said, and my feet slipped some more. I could feel the loser in me wanting to just let go, give up, get a tetanus gash in my dick or scrotum, and then fall to the ground and break a wrist. But there was the possibility of the dick getting ripped off and me falling to the ground without it and even the loser in me didn’t want to see my penis left behind on some rusty wire.

So there I was on the precipice of castrating injury, and not too far away, Denzel Washington was probably doing lines of coke, and the scores of NBA stars who had come to the fight were probably having their impossibly long dicks sucked by some of the thousands of whores who had descended on Memphis, and David Remnick, The New Yorker editor, who had come as the thinking-man’s observer of the fight, was probably having a nice late dinner and talking to someone intelligent, before getting his own dick sucked by one of those thousands of whores. Wait a second, I take that back. I spoke to Remnick briefly. He seemed classy. So he probably wouldn’t get his dick sucked, which is my way of saying I hope I get published in The New Yorker someday, Mr. Remnick, should you happen to read this. New York Press is great, I love it to death, but I have to think of my rent–The New Yorker pays the big bucks.

Anyway, back to the fence. The subnormal man said, “You want to buy one of my papers?”

“I’ve got to get down first,” I shouted at him.

And then somehow, I did it. I got my leverage toe in a hole, pushed off, the crotch unsnagged and I shakily scaled down the other side. I bought a paper from the man for two dollars and he staggered away underneath the highway into oblivion, heading in the direction of the beautiful brown Mississippi, which bisects our country like the world’s largest septic line. Why the subnormal was going in that direction, away from town where he could sell his papers, I have no idea.

So I, the less retarded of the two of us, though not by much, crossed the road, got out from underneath the highway and went into the first bar I came across, even though I don’t drink anymore. But I was thirsty from my exertions and craved a club soda. The bar was simply a door in the back of a building. There was nothing else around. I was in some urban dead-zone next to the highway. Over the door was a sign that saidDiscretions and there was a neon beer bottle in a window. I sensed something perverted about the place. I have a good nose for these things. I went in and walked down a hall. At the end of the hall, a little shiny-faced fellow sat on a stool.

“Five-dollar cover,” he said.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay five bucks to get into what looked like a dive just to order a club soda, and the shiny fellow saw me hesitate. “Normally it’s $40,” he said, to lure me, going into his sales pitch, “but because of the fight, we’re offering a discount, five dollars, and with that you can become a member of Discretions. You know this is a swingers’ club, right?”

“No, I didn’t know,” I said. “What do you mean by a swingers’ club?”

So I was right, the place was perverted. But I was unsure if swinger meant the same thing in Memphis as it did in New York. Swingers’ clubs in New York, like Plato’s Retreat, have long since expired. Could they possibly still be alive in Tennessee?

Then again, my whole experience for three days in Memphis had left me feeling like I had traveled back in time, as if Elvis’ death had permanently frozen the city in the year 1977. So I shouldn’t have been shocked to come upon a swingers’ club.

“It’s a bar for couples to meet, and singles, too,” the little man on the stool said. “Alternative lifestyles.”

So, sure enough, the definition was the same in Memphis as in New York, and while not a swinger, I could definitely fall under the heading of alternative, so I paid my five dollars and went into the swingers’ club to swing my dick, to celebrate it not having been severed on that terrible fence…

Well, that was the start of my last night in Tennessee, and I promise I’ll return the story to Discretions, to that lovely club, but I’d like to go back to the very beginning of my trip to Memphis, a journey I had taken so I could see a fight, to see something violent and terrible–I hoped–and then to be able to say, “I was there.” So, in a way, it was an ego trip, which is always the worst kind of trip to take. It’s that old hubris problem. The gods don’t like ego, you show too much of it and they stick you on fences and threaten to remove your genitals, metaphorically or otherwise.

But let me go back to the beginning, when I first came to Memphis, to this town where Mike Tyson was beaten to a bloody pulp, where Elvis lived and died, where Martin Luther King was shot dead, where the blues were born and where so much of lurid America seems to have come down the Mississippi and washed up on the banks.

Thursday, June 6, 11 a.m.

I take a taxi from the airport and go directly to the Cook Convention Center to pick up my credentials and attend the weigh-ins of the fighters–Lewis at noon, Tyson at 3. I plan to check into my sleazy hotel later.

The lobby of the convention center is loaded with cops in riot gear. I give my name and passport and get some kind of wristband. Then a cop frisks me and waves his bomb-detector wand in my armpits and up my ass. No bombs there, except for my sporadic explosive episodes of irritable bowel syndrome.

After being frisked, I go to a room where I get my temporary credentials and have my picture taken for my permanent credentials, which I’ll get the next day. Then I head up some stairs to the media center where I pick up all sorts of folders and press releases. There are dozens of journalists typing at their laptops, and radio guys with miniature broadcast stations are talking into microphones. Mounted tv’s blast ESPN. I’m in sports-journalist heaven and feel kind of giddy. I can’t believe I’ve pulled this off: press credentials for the Tyson-Lewis fight! A weirdo writer like me. But also I’m a mad closet sports fan. I see Remnick. I see recently deposed New York Post columnist Wallace Matthews. I’m with the big boys.

I go up another flight of stairs to an enormous hangar-like space, capable of holding rock concerts, political rallies. There are 200 chairs set up and a stage with a white scale that looks like a cross.

I grab a seat right in the front row. I look around–Leroy Neiman is at the other end of my row. He’s drawing a picture of the scale. He has a Dali mustache and is wearing elaborate white and black shoes. An old man with white hair stands next to him, leaning on a cane.

Journalists from all over the world are filling up the chairs. Behind us is another stage with dozens of high-powered cameras with black cannon-like lenses pointing at the scale. So much attention for two men fighting. We’ve got whole countries fighting. There are huge problems to solve. But I’ve long since accepted that the world is sick, unbalanced and lunatic. So while we live with the constant specter of terror, while chunks of polar icecaps are breaking off, while the Mideast self-immolates, I and thousands of others are gathered in Memphis to see two black men attack each other.

I ask the British photographer sitting next to me, “Excuse me, but do you know who the guy with the white hair and the cane is?”

“That’s Budd Schulberg,” says the Brit.

Schulberg wrote On the Waterfront. He penned the line, “I coulda been a contender.” No wonder he’s at the fight. “I’m going to try to talk to him and Neiman,” I say to the photog.

“Don’t bother with Neiman. He’s just here to sell paintings. A prostitute.”

Suddenly, Neiman does look a little whorish to me. That mustache. Those shoes. I’m very impressionable. I go over to Schulberg. I hear him say to another reporter, “It could be Shakespearean.”

The reporter leaves. “Mr. Schulberg, excuse me,” I say, “but did I hear you say you thought the fight could be Shakespearean?”

“I think something out of Shakespeare could happen to Tyson,” he says. “There’s this violence inside him. I worry that something terrible will happen and he’ll come to a terrible end.” Schulberg speaks in the sweet, halting tones of an older man.

“Do you think something bad could happen in this fight?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Who do you think is going to win?”

“It’s a tough fight to call. Such a mental game. Lewis has to take the fight away from Tyson right away, like Holyfield did. But Tyson doesn’t have the jab he used to. He might be naked in there.”

I can’t think of any more boxing questions, so I say, “I read once about your cross-country trip with F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

“Yes, I wrote about that in The Disenchanted.”

“The two of you got drunk on a plane and then went to the Winter Carnival at Dartmouth, right?”

“Yes, Scott started out sober. But my father ordered Mumm’s champagne for the flight, and nobody warned me about Scott’s problem. Once he started with the champagne that was it.”

“What was Fitzgerald like?”

“He was immensely appealing, awfully likable. He was interested in you, would really listen. He was interested in people.”

I love hearing about Fitzgerald, but then two policemen on motorcycles come roaring into the hangar, followed by a police car and two white SUVs. Lewis has arrived! Schulberg and I stop speaking. Lewis emerges from his car–tall, sunglasses, sweatsuit, a Rastafarian hat. He’s a physically beautiful human being and I wonder if I’m watching a dead man walking. Lewis is the superior boxer, but Tyson has a lethal punch. If he can land it maybe Lewis dies. That’s why we’re all here.

Lewis gets on the stage; he’s surrounded by his team, his bodyguards–about 20 large black men in powder-blue sweatsuits. SWAT team cops with guns and clubs and biceps line the front of the stage. Lewis’ trainer, Emanuel Steward, undresses Lewis–helps him remove his pants. I once had an amateur fight and my trainer would be intimate like that with me–removing my clothes, rubbing me down. Trainers are like mothers; they’re kind to you, sweet, gentle.

Lewis steps onto the scale, just wearing a pair of gray briefs. He’s 6-foot-5 and powerfully built; his hands and arms are enormous; his hair is in braids. I’m not gay, I’m more straight than gay, though I’ve been known to be crooked, and so I notice the prodigious outline of Lewis’ drooping trunk-like cock. How embarrassing for him. Or rather how embarrassing for all us normal-to-underendowed men. Lewis raises his arms in the traditional boxer’s pose. White stuff is in his armpits. Cameras flash repeatedly. The announcer calls out, “Two hundred and forty-nine pounds and a quarter.”

Lewis steps off the scale. One of his handlers helps him to dress.

1 p.m.

After a free lunch provided for the media–pulled pork, coleslaw and beans–I leave the convention center to get some fresh air. At the front of the center, there are six Tyson protesters–four lesbians and two gay men. They’re holding signs that say, “Tyson Opposes Homophobia, Thanks Mike!” and “Thanks Mike for Saying Gay is OK!” I figure their signs are a joke, ironic. I approach one of the lesbians, an overweight girl with nose piercings and very pretty blue eyes.

“Your sign is a joke, right?” I say.

“Oh no,” she says. “Mike hugged that fellow over there”–she points to a little swishy blond fellow–”and said, these are his exact words, ‘I oppose all antigay discrimination.’ Everyone is quick to judge him, to give him bad press, so it’s important to give him good press when he does something appropriate.”

I go to the next lesbian, a waifish girl, cute, also with nose piercings. I’d like to ask her for a date.

“What group are you guys all with?” I ask.

“Some of us are Memphis Area Gay Youth, but also Equality Tennessee, and that man”–she points to a skinny, scary, Edgar Allan Poe type–”is with OutRage!, an organization in London. We just want to support Mike for making a step in the direction of tolerance.”

“Have you heard any rumors that Mike Tyson might be bisexual?” I ask. I’m dying to imply that his prison time may account for his pro-gay sentiments, but I don’t want to be rude.

The girl hesitates. Then she says, “Well, from past comments it seems like he is very caught up with anal sex. Some people say he’s repressed.”

I go over to the little blond boy who created this whole stir.

“How did Tyson come to hug you?” I ask.

“Well, we were protesting at his training camp, trying to raise consciousness about homophobia in sports, and he came out of his car and just hugged me and he said, ‘I oppose all–’”

“I know,” I say. “So what was it like to be hugged by him?”

This guy is clearly jazzed by the encounter. He’s all lit up from within, kind of like Cinderella before midnight. Television cameras are on him, pictures are being snapped.

“I was shocked,” he says. “But I wasn’t scared. I had to smile and hug him back, being an activist, you know.”

If I wasn’t such a pansy myself, I’d ask him if he got a hard-on when Tyson’s arms went around him–I’m sure he would have happily been Tyson’s girl in the pen–but I’m too much of a wimp to be rude to people.

“Are you going to root for him to win?” I ask, which is my polite way of saying, Are you in love with him now that he held you?

“I’m opposed to boxing,” he says. “I’m a nonviolent person. I just hope neither gets hurt. We’re here to raise consciousness. Using antigay words in sports, you know, like homo,fag”–he whispers them–”is just as bad as racist words, like the N-word.”

“Come on, you’re not going to root for him? He hugged you!”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t get hurt.”

What the hell, he’s a sweet kid, and I leave him to be pounced on by 10 other eager journalists. It’s his big day. Belle of the ball.

3 p.m.

Three motorcycle cops, four police cars and five SUVs–Tyson’s entrance is more grand than Lewis’. He comes onto the stage and strips himself. His bodyguards, unlike Lewis’, are ragtag, no uniformity of outfit. Tyson’s smiling, chewing gum. He throws some punches. He looks to be in good shape. He has enormous breasts, which must further endear him to the gay community. He jumps onto the scale. He’s wearing shorts; you can’t tell if his cock is as big as Lewis’. He weighs in at 234 and a half.

I had been looking forward to this moment of seeing Tyson in person. But it’s a let-down. I read some article recently–don’t remember where–that said scientists have proven that Americans think they have more friends than they actually have because they watch so much tv. Our primitive brains, still using Stone Age operating systems, are designed to think that a face we see often is a friendly face, so if we watch a lot of tv we come to think that these faces, these tv people, these celebrities, are our friends. And that’s what I experience when I see Tyson. My brain tells me that I know him already, that he’s an old pal. Hence, the let-down. I think that maybe if I could touch him or smell him or be hit by him that would be exciting, but there’s no chance I’ll get close enough.

A woman journalist behind me, looking at Tyson on the scale, says in a Southern drawl, “He’s quite a specimen.” There’s a sexy hint of desire in her voice. I think of Sylvia Plath’s line, “Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute…”

3:40 p.m.

Press conference with Tyson’s handlers. Stacey McKinley, one of his longtime trainers, is asked, “Why do you think there’s such a fascination with Mike Tyson in this country?”

Trainer Stacey McKinley (L) watches Tyson (R) working a speed bag.

“Not just this country,” McKinley says. “All over the world. People in England slept outside his hotel. When he was on the street they followed him. He had to run to a police station. Can you imagine Mike Tyson running to the po-lice? And here in America we’re a violent race of people. We like to be entertained with violence. People like hockey. People like Mike Tyson. He can break jaws, fracture skulls, break bones. You’ll see, the South is going to rise again. Mike Tyson is going to rise it. I like Memphis. Good catfish. Collard greens. Stars are here. Mike Tyson is putting Memphis on the map. Feeding people in Tennessee.”

7 p.m.

After checking into my hotel on the outskirts, I come back to downtown Memphis and attend a Minor League baseball game. I’ve been given free tickets because I’m media, and I get a free meal: hotdogs, beans, coleslaw. The local team is the Redbirds, Triple-A affiliate to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The stadium is beautiful, brand new: a cross between Camden Yards and Fenway Park. The game is enjoyable. I’m really in America. A balmy night. Baseball. Families. Children. Toxic food. Beer.

John Rocker comes in to pitch for the other team, the Redhawks, affiliate to the Texas Rangers. He’d been demoted to the minors. He’s bigger than the other players, very muscular, his legs like a ballet dancer’s. He throws the ball extremely hard–98 mph. But he gets hit and is visibly frustrated. The guy is all will and force. Destined to fail.

The Redbirds have glorious young cheerleaders, a couple of white girls and a couple of black girls. They wear red miniskirts and red bra-tops. They stand on the Redbirds dugout and incite the crowd, waving their suggestive pompoms, like they’ve pulled out a handful of hair from their beautiful young muffs.

9:30 p.m.

I’m on Beale St., four blocks of blues clubs, neon signs, blaring music, street musicians, Gang Unit police, thousands of people, beer flowing. It’s the only street that is alive in Memphis. Everything else is empty 1970s storefronts, abandoned, forgotten.

I don’t go into any of the clubs. They’re too crowded and there’s plenty of free music on the street. I listen to a good blues band playing in a little park. Then I go into a hamburger joint. Sit at the counter. Four sexy young white-trash girls are at a table. I kind of eye them. This one girl in a halter top keeps lifting her arms over her head, like she’s stretching. When she does it she looks at me, flashing me her oddly super-white, beautiful shaved armpits and sweet breasts.

I order a club soda and french fries. The girl with the pits comes over to me.

“Hi, I’m Jennifer,” she says in her Southern twang.

“I’m Jonathan.”

“Are you drinking?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Trying not to.”

One of her girlfriends joins her, the other two stay at the table.

“Even though you don’t drink, can you buy me and my girlfriend a drink? My sister died.”

She looks right at me. I can’t tell if she’s lying. “I’m sorry about your sister. When did she die?”

“A week ago. I’m out partying to forget, but I tell everybody first thing we meet.”

“How’d she die?”

“Car accident. Tractor trailer drove her car off the road… Can you buy us drinks?”

I order drinks for her and her girlfriend. Vodka and cranberry juice. Good for urinary-tract infections and getting wasted. The drinks come in big plastic to-go cups. Eight bucks. I’m on a tight budget.

“What religion are you?” she asks me.

“No religion,” I lie. I’m afraid to tell her I’m Jewish. I’m in the South, after all.

“I thought maybe you were Catholic,” she says.

“Why?”

“Jonathan’s a Catholic name… Well, see you.” She and her girlfriend suddenly leave me, their drinks in hand. I’ve been conned. They go out of the restaurant, onto the street. Her two other friends get up to leave. I call one of them over.

“Did your friend’s sister die?”

The girl looks a little startled. But she catches on quick, that her girlfriend must have pulled a con. “Yeah, she died.”

“How?”

“She was on drugs.” She leaves me. I don’t know what to believe. Doesn’t matter. Those armpits were worth the eight bucks.

10:30 p.m.

I go to the Peabody, which is Memphis’ most famous hotel. It’s a grand old thing, and the lobby, which is a big bar, is packed with an unholy throng of white-trash and black-trash, all gathered for the fight. It’s like spring break for adults. About 1000 people are jammed into a space the size of a basketball court. The women are all wearing incredibly revealing dresses; the men are either costumed like gangsters or wearing professional sports-team tops and baggy pants.

I’m trying to spot prostitutes, but it’s hard to tell the difference between the regular women and the pros. Maybe they’re all pros. I do make eye contact with this one lovely woman, who is definitely on the job. She gives me a sweet smile and there’s that fake shy look in her eye, as if she and I are in on the same cute joke. But it’s not a cute joke. For money, she’ll put her legs on my shoulders, we’ll pretend to make love and we’ll both feel like hell afterward. Well, at least I will; I can’t speak for her. But she is gorgeous–light brown skin and a figure like a mountain pass in the Tour de France. Then I see her make those same eyes at a pro basketball player whose name I don’t know. He walks over to her, they exchange a few words and he punches her number into his cellphone. She walks off. The basketball player is then surrounded by four white girls in skimpy dresses.

“You’re beautiful!” this one girl says to him. She puts her high-heeled foot next to his. “Your feet are huge!”

Friday, June 7, 11 a.m.

I go to Graceland. It’s situated on a dreary four-lane highway–Elvis Presley Blvd.–of fried chicken places and gas stations. It must have just been a country road when he bought the house in the 50s.

On line for the tour, several sports journalists nod at me. It’s like we’re all in Memphis for a long wedding: you get to know people, feel friendly.

Elvis’ house blows me away. I never was a huge fan before but now I am. The guy was incredible. Weird. Alive. Driven. Beautiful. I kind of feel like crying. The whole place is one big mausoleum, a wake. He tried so hard for so long–thousands of concerts, thousands of hours in recording studios and on movie sets–no way would he have wanted to die on a toilet at age 42 from an overdose of pills.

In a museum across from the house, right at the entrance, there’s a plaque that says Elvis’ heroes were Rudolph Valentino and Captain Marvel, followed by this wild statement: “Everyone shares a common element with Elvis. He encompasses the daring, the familiar, the spiritual, the sexual, the masculine, the androgynous, the eccentric, the traditional, the God-like, the God-fearing, the liberal and the conservative in all of us.”

On another plaque, there’s a list of Elvis’ posthumous accomplishments; here’s one of them: “Guinness World Record–First Live Tour Starring a Performer Who is no Longer Living.” For the last four years, video concerts of Elvis have been touring around the world to sold-out crowds. When I look at some pictures of Elvis from his Vegas years, it occurs to me that among the many dreams for himself he made come true, he got to be, at the end of his life–when he’d wear his crazy, sparkling capes–his childhood hero: Captain Marvel.

2:30 p.m.

I eat lunch at the Yellow Rose Cafe, which is on deserted N. Main St. A trolley car runs up and down the street, but there are no businesses, just a few ancient cafes like the Yellow Rose. I order the catfish special, which comes with spaghetti, corn on the cob, green beans and coleslaw. The decor of the place is circa 1972. My waitress is defeated and ancient–no top teeth. But she’s sweet and the food is good. Memphis reminds me of my trip a few years ago to Havana–a place stuck in time.

4 p.m.

I’m walking around and I spot the basketball players Charles Oakley and Derrick Coleman. They’re drinking beer out of plastic cups with a bunch of Memphis street people. I approach Oakley, whom I followed for years when he was with the Knicks. The guy is so damn tall it’s supernatural. I don’t know if I should call him Mr. Oakley or Charles. Is it rude to call him by his first name when I don’t know him?

Oakley is talking to a homeless guy whose mouth looks like it has exploded. “What the hell happened to your lip?” Oakley asks the man.

“I had a seizure,” says the man.

“A seizure. Damn. That’s nasty. Get that shit fixed.”

The man with the exploded lip walks off. “Excuse me, Mr. Oakley,” I say, “can I ask you a few questions? I’m with a New York paper.”

He peers down at me from far away. My head comes up to his nipples and I’m nearly 6 feet tall. “What do you want to know?” he says.

“Who do you think is going to win, Tyson or Lewis?”

“Don’t want to answer no questions about the fight. Here to have a good time.” Coleman is by his side. They’re both staring at me and sipping from their beer.

“How about the Nets/Lakers then?” I ask.

“Lakers in four.”

“Even with Jason Kidd?”

“I like Kidd but David Stern doesn’t.” David Stern is the commissioner of the NBA. This seems a curious thing to say.

“How does David Stern not like Jason Kidd?” I ask.

Oakley scowls at me. “No more questions. You better watch out, man. You’re the only white person around here. Get out of here.” He steps toward me and so does Coleman. “Yeah, get out of here,” Coleman says. Their hostility feels completely uncalled for and strange. I slink off. White and humiliated.

10 p.m.

I go to another baseball game and then stagger around the steaming hot town. Memphis is in complete frenzy now. Everyone is running around trying to spot someone famous. You hear shrieks and screams up and down the streets when a celebrity like Dikembe Mutombo or Magic Johnson or a rap star is seen. I come upon 20 black girls all dressed exactly alike–blue terry-cloth mini-shorts and mini-tops. I ask one of the girls, “Are you some kind of group or team?”

“No.”

“You just all dress alike?”

“Yeah, we’re all friends. We came down from Milwaukee to party.”

“Who are you rooting for?”

“Mike Tyson.”

Most everyone I ask is rooting for Tyson and predicts he will win. It’s the best storyline. People want him to have a second chance. It’s projection: we all want second chances. At everything. We all want to prove Fitzgerald wrong that there are no second acts in American life. Larry Merchant, an HBO announcer, said to me earlier in the day, “Tyson’s trying to redeem his whole life with this one fight.”

I go to the Peabody and it’s more packed tonight than last. I’m hitting that point when you’re traveling by yourself and the despair kicks in and you start craving to be with a friend. But it’s nearly impossible to make a friend when you’re on the road; hell, it’s practically impossible to make friends with my own friends when I’m home in New York City.

Saturday, June 8, 11 a.m.

I’m in the lobby of my hotel drinking the bad coffee and waiting for a taxi. A thick, heavyset man with a bald head is also drinking coffee.

“You here for the fight?” he asks me.

“Yes,” I say.

“Who do you like?”

“I can’t imagine that Tyson can do it. But maybe, he’s got that punch.”

“Nah, he won’t do it. He’s only fought tomato cans the last few years… You need tickets?”

“No, I’m covering it for a newspaper.”

“What paper?”

“A New York weekly, New York Press.”

“I’m from New York, too,” he says. “Long Island… So, listen, I got a problem. You know anybody that wants tickets?”

“No,” I say.

“Yeah, well, I got $10,000 worth in my pocket that I have to sell. I was on the streets last night. The Peabody. But nobody with big money is out there. You should write about that. White corporate America didn’t come. Three reasons. Turned off by boxing in general. Didn’t know if Tyson would do something. And the town. It’s a black town.”

It hits me that this guy is Mafia. He asks me if he can borrow my cellphone. I give it to him.

“Anthony, no luck,” he says into my phone. “I’m going to the airports, hit people when they come off the planes. Then I’ll go to the casinos, then the stadium… Right. I’ll call you.”

He gives me back my phone. “Listen,” he says to me. “You’re a writer, right? I have this idea for a sports cartoon. I want to sell it. I called the YES network but they blew me off, fucking bastards.”

He tells me the idea; it’s actually really good. “So you want to roll up your sleeves,” he says after spelling out the concept, “and get to work with me on this? I need a writer for the dialogue.”

A Mafia guy is proposing I work with him. I tell him I have no experience with cartoons. He looks at me disappointed.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” I say. “But it’s a really good idea.”

His taxi comes. We shake hands goodbye.

2 p.m.

I go to the National Civil Rights Museum, which has been built out of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot April 4, 1968. Like Elvis’ house, the place has been preserved just as it was–two late-60s cars rest in the parking lot, the original motel sign still stands and you can look up at the second-floor railing where King was killed. Strange: two Kings died in this town. No wonder it has the blues.

There’s a modern addition built onto the motel’s structure and after walking through galleries that portray the history of civil rights, you come to the room where King spent his last night, which you can look at through a glass partition. His bed is left unmade.

Martin Luther King was only 39 when he was murdered. I’m struck by how young he was. Throughout the museum you can hear tapes of his rich, beautiful voice–the speeches and sermons he gave.

There’s a plaque outside the motel, beneath his room, like a gravestone. It reads: ”They said one to another, behold, here cometh the dreamer… Let us slay him… And we shall see what becomes of his dreams.”–Genesis 37:19-20

9:45 p.m.

I walk around the floor of the arena. I see Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, George Foreman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Matt Dillon, Samuel Jackson, Joe Frazier, Montel Williams, Laila Ali (very beautiful), Morgan Freeman, Val Kilmer, David Hasselhoff, to name a few. But it’s like they’re all my friends, so I get no thrill out of spotting them. I do get Vince McMahon’s autograph for my son, which is nice. Then I approach David Remnick.

“Excuse me, Mr. Remnick,” I say. “Can I ask you a few questions? I’m with New York Press.”

“Oh, sure.”

“Who do you like?”

“Do you want the rationalist answer or the Nietzschean? The rationalist says Lewis. Tyson hasn’t had a good fight in years, and Lewis has sufficient skill to keep Tyson away. But he can’t afford to make mistakes the way Tyson can, which you can do when you have a punch like Tyson’s.”

“And the Nietzschean?”

“Tyson.”

“Why? Because he’s beyond good and evil?”

“Yes, he’s crazy.”

10:15 p.m.

I’ve snuck down from my $1400 seat to the $2500 seats. I’m about 100 feet from the ring. Tyson enters the arena. The crowd is on its feet and screaming primal bloody murder. It feels like a massive gang rape is about to take place and we’re all the rapists and the victims at the same time. I’ve smoked crack: the energy in the arena is like five really good hits in a row. My heart is ready to ejaculate itself out of my chest. The place is seething, gladiatorial, rabid.

Lewis comes into the arena and then climbs into the ring. He and Tyson are separated by a phalanx of yellow-shirted security guards; there won’t be the traditional touching of gloves. All precautions have been taken so that Tyson doesn’t do anything to cost everyone millions of dollars–like throw a punch before the first bell is struck.

Then the first bell is struck. Tyson comes out swinging. Charging like a bull, his squat body launching these missiles that are his arms. Lewis evades and wraps Tyson up, but gets hit a few times. We’re all scared. There’s mayhem before our eyes. But Lewis is formidable, he lands a few shots, slows Tyson down. He holds Tyson around the neck, which will tire him out. That happened in my little amateur fight. Three minutes race by. The first round is over. Tyson has won the round, but Lewis is not dead. This seems a triumph.

But that round, it turns out, is all Mike Tyson has in him. After that Lewis repeatedly smashes him in the face with his left jab. Tyson’s head keeps snapping back violently like something out of a Rocky movie. By the third round, I begin to feel quite sorry for him. His face and brain are getting pummeled. He absorbs almost every punch Lewis throws. Every now and then he unleashes a flurry of punches, some life in him wanting to emerge, but by the fifth round he stops punching and just takes a beating. His face is battered, disfigured.

© Jeff Haynes—AFP/Getty Images

In the eighth round he takes a shot to the head that sends his Brooklyn-born brain flying hard against the inside of his own skull. He crumples. Concussed. But he’s half-standing. Lewis gives him a shove down to the canvas, so he won’t have to hit Tyson any more. Tyson lies there, and puts his hand to his face, like a child covering a wound, ashamed and injured and overwhelmed.

Several minutes later he is standing and being interviewed with Lewis. He reaches up and wipes his own blood off of Lewis’ face. It’s his best punch of the night: a tender gesture.

1:15 a.m.

I’m in Discretions watching a sexy middle-aged black couple dance. All of the other couples, about five, are unattractive white people in their 50s. Two women who look like the kind of ladies you see playing bingo are playfully pinching each other’s nipples and laughing. They have their feet in their men’s crotches. Every other place in Memphis is packed to the gills, but this joint is nearly empty, except for these aging swingers. What the hell have I stumbled into? There’s a sign that says, “No Sex on the Premises.”

The black lady on the dancefloor hikes up her orange skirt and her man gets behind her and rubs against her beautiful ass. I sip my club soda. They finish their dance. The man comes up to me, “Would you like to dance with my girlfriend?”

“Yes,” I say, shocked.

She gives me the same treatment. Lifts that orange skirt. She’s in her late 40s but hot. She’s wearing a thong and has an ass like two halves of a bowling ball. Life is good sometimes. I figure her boyfriend likes to watch. She treats me very nicely. I do worry that I dance like a white boy. But I am a white boy. The dance comes to an end. I thank her and buy the two of them drinks. There’s no invitation to come home with them, but I’m not hurt. I get the hell out of there. I have to find a taxi, get to the motel, pack up and catch a 5:30 a.m. plane.

I walk for two hours: no taxis are free. Plenty of hookers on the street are free, but not really free. Finally I get a cab. The driver says to me, “I’ve been working 24 hours and I’m not stopping. We may never see something like this again in Memphis.”

“I think you’re right,” I say, and I look out the window to the black morning sky, but if I was being poetic, I’d say it was dark blue.

Tags: , ,

Trackback from your site.

..