I’ve been to Louisville, Kentucky twice in my life. The first was for two friends’ wedding about ten years ago. I wasn’t during a great time in my life. Things were going on, but being that those things aren’t pertinent to our story I won’t go into them. I’m just mentioning it to set the mood. Mood is important. And the mood at a wedding tends to, hopefully, be a joyous one. As this one was. Sadly, I was on the other side of the mood spectrum. I was depressed. And when I’m depressed the absolute worst place for me to be is surrounded by happy people. The little voice inside my head uses their happiness to make me feel even more unworthy. It’s not a good recipe.
And the worst possible thing I can do in this situation is drink. So I snuck out of the wedding and found a dive bar to sit and stew. I’m not smart.
The bartender, a middle-aged black woman, brought me whiskey and was nice enough to start talking me up. I probably looked like I needed someone to talk to, and bartenders remain the therapists of lost souls and the uninsured. She asked me where I was from. I told her either San Francisco or Philadelphia, depending on my mood. Neither is a lie. I refuse to lie to a bartender. I asked her if she was from Louisville. She said yes. She told me stories of Louisville. Serving drinks to fat cats, regular folks, and jockeys — who apparently drink more than their size would lead you to believe.
“Oh, and I had Muhammad Ali at the bar once!”
“You did not!”
She fishes her wallet out from her purse, pulls out a photo and hands it to me. It’s a photo of a young Muhammad Ali, looking old enough that he’d already beat Liston at least once. He had his arm arm around a young woman.
“Muhammad Ali told me I was pretty.”
I smiled. She poured me another drink. I gave her back the photo.
“He wasn’t wrong.”
I went back to the wedding.
The next day we flew back home. When we landed, the plane took longer than usual to empty out. I got irritated. As I finally got out to the gate I noticed a group of people congregating off to the side. And there he was. Muhammad Ali. Along with his wife Lonnie. And a group of people getting photos with him. He was frail enough that he needed a walker. That’s why we took longer deplaning. Because Muhammad Ali was slowly making his way off the same flight using a walker. And my irritation, and my depression, and my hopelessness at spending time around happy people, all turned to tears. And I stood there crying like a mess.
The second time I went to Louisville was last week. I didn’t go back to the bar. I walked to Cave Hill Cemetery. Between my first and second visit to Louisville, the world lost Ali. I wanted to see where he rested.
Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.
That’s what it says on his gravestone. Service to others.