I spent most of the summer of 1996 nocturnal. Even though I couldn’t tell you much about those days, the nights seemed hotter and more humid than average.
This was Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, a place where winter cold gets more press than the deceptive heat of summer. I was 16. It was my first summer with a driver’s license, which I used to deliver pizzas for a bar and restaurant in Eveleth.
This was my first job, and the last where food preparation was anything but a recreational pursuit. They say everyone should get a job in food service just to know what it’s like. This has nothing to do with food. It has everything to do with people. Mostly I remember the churning blend of extreme stress with the achingly slow ticks of the clock during lulls.
Every shift was an exercise in keeping a flame lit, sometimes battling the wind and sometimes the lack of fuel.
This was the summer where I learned that working with your mind isn’t just sitting at a desk. Sometimes you have to think through an unpredictable situation without losing your boss’s money or your own skin. You learn to read people, remember pitfalls.
The pizza guy is always the supporting character in a thousand dramas and comedies. To the tall black man in the third floor attic apartment where you feed hundreds of baby birds with a tiny rubber dropper, here’s your pizza. To the tired dancer going through the motions on the midday shift at the Gladiator strip joint in Gilbert, here are your chicken wings.
The disabled guy up the street was the only one who was allowed to order beer for delivery and you got the sense you were the only person he talked to some days. Hotels meant naked people or business people. Always, I was the stranger. The fella just passing through. I’d take a tip and some eye contact, but really the tip would suffice.
It was one moment the night of July 19, 1996, that I decided I would not be a pizza driver for long. An order had come in from a relative of the rowdy young cook. He said I should go. We got along well and he promised they’d tip well because they were too drunk to count their money. He told the truth.
When the door opened they cheered, always a good sign. Upon handing over the pizzas and retrieving the cash, the man said: “Dude, you wanna come in? The Olympics are on.”
It was the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. And while I had learned quite early on not to accept such invitations, the jovial crowd and shoestring relationship to the cook eased my mind. What’s a few extra minutes, or 20? I took an open spot on the couch, politely declining a slice of the pizza I had just delivered.
The ceremony carried on, until at once a familiar face appeared on the screen. It was Muhammad Ali, the retired boxer and activist, holding the Olympic torch.
“Muhammad Ali!” yelled one of the men. “Look at him, it’s Ali!”
It became apparent right away that Ali was suffering the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, he struggled to hold the torch steady as he moved to light the Olympic cauldron.
“You ever see Ali in his prime?” a man asked the room. “He was amazing.”
“You don’t think he’s going to drop that torch, do you? He’s awfully shaky.”
“Come on, Ali! You can do it!”
Then we assembled strangers watched Ali lower the torch to the wick, igniting the flame that would lead up to the top of the stadium. They cheered in Atlanta, I’m told, but I couldn’t hear. The cheers in Gilbert were deafening.
Ali died last Friday, June 3, at a hospital in Phoenix. I don’t know about boxing. I don’t know about being black. But I know about wanting more out of life. I’d like to think I’d endure the way Ali did, long after his health declined, long after the flame was supposed to burn out.
Bob Dylan, another product of the Iron Range, penned an eloquent remembrance:
“If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest,” wrote Dylan on his website. “In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men.”
In the summer of 1996, Ali gladdened many hearts in an Iron Range living room, where the pizza delivery boy decided he wanted a speaking role in this thing called life.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 12, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.