I've always been interested in people on park benches and bus stop seats. You never know who you'll run into. Once, when I was coming home from my volunteer job at Primary Children's Medical Center when it was still on D Street in Salt Lake City, I sat next to a man who asked to hold my hand as the trolly went by because the sound reminded him of watching his mother chop his sister's head off! True story. I mean the part about him asking to hold my hand. I don't know if his tale of watching family slaughter was real or imagined. This was the same man, who, at one point, leaned over and kissed my hip.
Now you might think such an encounter would actually put me off people in park benches and bus stop seats. Not so. The fact that I survived that weird meeting relatively unscathed and with an interesting memory to boot, has only encouraged my interest. If he'd pulled a knife or punched me, well... That didn't happen.
Today I was walking along Washington Lane and passed by this man pictured above. I tipped my NY cap at him and walked by. Then I heard some kind of vocal noise and turned slightly to see him waving me toward him.
"Hey, hey, come here for a second." I stop and turn to face him. "Let me ask you something." He pauses and straightens up as if to pronounce something of grave importance. "Who would you say, in your opinion now..." Another pause. "Who would you say is the greatest boxer to ever live?"
I smile. "That's easy. Mohammad Ali, of course."
Like a flash of revelation his countenance immediately changes from stern to ecstatic. It is apparent I've nailed the answer he was looking for.
"Now let me just say. Let me just say thank god for you!" He goes on and on about Mr. Ali. "The press badgered him before the fight with George Foreman. Ali was a good ten years older than his opponent. And what did Mohammad say?" Again a pause. I do not attempt an answer. "He said - 'why I'll knock him out!' And ain't that the truth." He laughs and laughs. I laugh with him.
"You know I met him." I drop this little tidbit and wait.
His face goes stern again. He gives me a look of both reverence and perhaps envy. In all the world, I can think of three people who would cause my face to react this way if you told me you'd spent time with them. All of their names start with M. One is a fictional M, but that's a story for another day.
My park-bench friend opens his mouth again to speak. "Now isn't that something. What? Where?"
"I was about fifteen years old. I volunteered at a hospital he visited. I shook his hand and said hello. He signed a gold book about Islam and gave it to me."
He goes on about it for a bit. Then I reach my hand out and say, "I'm Jason."
He smiles. "I'm George." After we shake, he puts his hand on his hat and turns his head a bit, then looks back at me. "You know, Jason, you've restored my faith. I've never heard a person of your.... your..."
"My skin tone...?" I guess the end of his sentence.
"Yes, your skin tone. I've never heard a person of your skin tone answer like that."
"Can I take your picture?" I'm already putting the camera up to my face. He positions himself a bit and smiles. "Now give me your fiercest George."
He points at me and says, "Ali!" I snap the shutter.
"Nice to meet you George. Take care of yourself."
"You too, Jason. God bless you."
Later I texted one of the M's about the encounter. "That's me," I joked. "Doing my part for... uh... 'skin tone' relations, one park bench at a time."