Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 265 from May 18, 1978. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
I waited until I was sure the Muhammad Ali party was well off the plane and up the ramp before I finally stood and moved up the aisle, fixing the stewardess at the door with a blind stare from behind two mirror lenses so dark that I could barely see to walk — but not so dark that I failed to notice a touch of mockery in her smile as I nodded and stepped past her. “Goodbye, sir,” she chirped. “I hope you got an interesting story.”
You nasty little bitch! I hope your next flight crashes in a cannibal country…. But I kept this thought to myself as I laughed bitterly and stomped up the empty tunnel to a bank of pay phones in the concourse. It was New York’s La Guardia airport, around eight-thirty on a warm Sunday night in the first week of March, and I had just flown in from Chicago — supposedly “with the Muhammad Ali party.” But things had not worked out that way and my temper was hovering dangerously on the far edge of control as I listened to the sound of nobody answering the phone in Hal Conrad’s West Side apartment…. That swine! That treacherous lying bastard!
We were almost to the ten-ring limit, that point where I knew I’d start pounding on things unless I hung up very quickly before we got to eleven … when suddenly a voice sounding almost as angry as I felt came booming over the line. “Yeah, yeah, what is it?” Conrad snapped. “I’m in a hell of a hurry. Jesus! I was just about into the elevator when I had to come back and answer this goddamn — “
“You Crazy Bastard!” I screamed, cutting into his gravelly mumbling as I slammed my hand down on the tin counter and saw a woman using the phone next to me jump like a rat had just run up her leg.
“It’s me, Harold!” I shouted. “I’m out here at La Guardia and my whole story’s fucked and just as soon as I find all my baggage I’m going to get a cab and track you down and slit your goddamn throat!”
“Wait a minute!” he said. “What the hell is wrong? Where’s Ali? Not with you?”
“Are you kidding?” I snarled. “That crazy bastard didn’t even know who I was when I met him in Chicago. I made a GODDAMN FOOL OF MYSELF, Harold! He looked at me like I was some kind of autograph hound!”
“No!” said Conrad. “I told him all about you — that you were a good friend of mine and you’d be on the flight with him from Chicago. He was expecting you.”
“Bullshit!” I yelled. “You told me he’d be traveling alone, too…. So I stayed up all night and busted my ass to get a first-class seat on that Continental flight that I knew he’d be catching at O’Hare; then I got everything arranged with the flight crew between Denver and Chicago, making sure they blocked off the first two seats so we could sit together…. Jesus, Harold,” I muttered, suddenly feeling very tired, “what kind of sick instinct would cause you to do a thing like this to me?”
“Where the hell is Ali?” Conrad shouted, ignoring my question. “I sent a car out to pick you up, both of you!”
“You mean all of us,” I said. “His wife was with him, along with Pat Patterson and maybe a few others — I couldn’t tell, but it wouldn’t have made any difference; they all looked at me like I was weird; some kind of psycho trying to muscle into the act, babbling about sitting in Veronica’s seat….”
“That’s impossible,” Conrad snapped. “He knew — “
“Well, I guess he forgot!” I shouted, feeling my temper roving out on the edge again. “Are we talking about brain damage, Harold? Are you saying he has no memory?”
He hesitated just long enough to let me smile for the first time all day. “This could be an ugly story, Harold,” I said. “Ali is so punch-drunk that his memory’s all scrambled? Maybe they should lift his license, eh? ‘Yeah, let’s croak all this talk about ‘comebacks, Dumbo. Your memory’s fucked, you’re on queer street — and by the way, Champ, what are your job prospects?’ “
“You son of a bitch,” Conrad muttered. “Okay. To hell with all this bullshit. Just get a cab and meet us at the Plaza. I should have been there a half-hour ago.”
“I thought you had us all booked into the Park Lane,” I said.
“Get moving and don’t worry about it,” he croaked. “I’ll meet you at the Plaza. Don’t waste any time.”
“WHAT?” I screamed. “What am I doing right now? I have a Friday deadline, Harold, and this is Sunday! You call me in the middle of the goddamn night in Colorado and tell me to get on the first plane to Chicago because Muhammad Ali has all of a sudden decided he wants to talk to me — after all that lame bullshit in Vegas — so I take the insane risk of dumping my whole story in a parachute bag and flying off on a 2000-mile freakout right in the middle of a deadline crunch to meet a man in Chicago who treats me like a wino when I finally get there…. And now you’re talking to me, you pigfucker, about WASTING TIME?”
I was raving at the top of my lungs now, drawing stares from every direction — so I tried to calm down; no need to get busted for public madness in the airport, I thought; but I was also in New York with no story and no place to work and only five days away from a clearly impossible deadline, and now Conrad was telling me that my long-overdue talk with Ali had once again “gone wrong.”
“Just get in a cab and meet me at the Plaza,” he was saying. “I’ll pull this mess together, don’t worry….”
“Well …” I said. “I’m already here in New York and I definitely want to see you, Harold — so yeah, I’ll be there. But — ” I paused for a moment, fascinated by a scene that was suddenly running very vividly behind my eyeballs as I stood there at the pay phone in the concourse ” — let me tell you what I’m going to do at noon tomorrow, if you don’t pull this mess together.”
“Not now,” he said. “I have to get going — “
“Listen!” I yelled. “I want you to understand this, Harold, because it could do serious things to your image.”
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