Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Tom Ward

GET UPDATES FROM Tom Ward
 

How I Tricked My Way Into Meeting Muhammad Ali

Posted: 27/11/2012 00:00

'Step forward' the man said. His uniform made him look like a cop, but then, everyone looked like cops.

'Tam,' he said as he flipped open my passport. My name's Tom but I let it go. I was pretty sure he wasn't a cop but still, I wasn't going to argue.

'Tam,' he said again and he looked me up and down with eyes that seemed to be searching out the edges of a mask that hid my real face.

'What's your occupation Tam?'

'Erm...' I said and I looked from side to side as though someone would be holding up a cue-card to tell me. There was no one there, so I had to wing it.

'I'm a writer.' I said and I felt hot waves of pretentiousness wash over me.

'Unemployed.' I added to try and balance it out. It was the wrong thing to say. The man in uniform closed my passport and looked me dead in the eyes.

'So who's paying for your trip, Tam?'

'Erm... GQ magazine. I've...I won a writing competition.'

'Have a nice day Tam.' He said as he handed me back my passport. It sounded like more of a command than a pleasantry. That was it, no further questions or comments; I had made it into the U.S of A.

It was true, I was there because I had won a competition. GQ had paid for the trip. The prize was the GQ Norman Mailer Student Writing Award 2012 and now I was in New York to collect the award at a ceremony featuring Muhammad Ali. I had no idea how I'd ended up in this situation. I had submitted my short piece, 'Four Night Stand' to GQ at the end of university. It was meant to get nowhere, like all the other pieces I'd submitted to various magazines, websites and newspapers. The piece was just too stubborn though, and now here I was.

I had been in Berlin when I got the email from GQ. 'It's strange they're emailing me to say I haven't won the competition', I thought as I checked my inbox. After a few days the email had not gone away. I hadn't told anyone about it yet; acknowledging it might have made it disappear, there was still a fragile possibility it might suddenly be gone, like ice held in your hand.

After a week of doubt GQ called and the whole thing became slightly more real. It was as though before this I'd heard about this Yeti I was out looking for, but now the mist had cleared and there was a footprint. A series of footprints, leading off into the trees.

It still did not feel real that first night, standing jet-lagged in Times Square. I had fallen into a Scorsese film. Here was New York City. The city that never sleeps. The city where dreams come true and there was me, in New York, on a trip paid for by a magazine. Paid for because something I had written had impressed people with a far better idea about these things than I had. Here I was in New York, the day before I was about to accept an award in front of Muhammed Ali.

The jet lagged first night inevitably and inescapably merged into the morning of the day of the awards. A day of sightseeing and traipsing from Brooklyn to the Empire State Building could not halt the approach of that evening. The scent of the Yeti was upon the wind and my palms were clammy around my rifle.

I had a bath, rehearsing my speech over and over. When I got out I was sweating and couldn't stop. I stared at myself in the mirror and brushed my teeth. How long should you brush your teeth for before you meet Muhammed Ali? I had eaten a taco earlier in the day. What a fool I had been. A young fool full of the naivety of New York. What would happen if I did a taco burp as I was introduced to Muhammed Ali? It did not bear thinking about.

There could be no delaying the inevitable and so I took a cab to the venue beside Central Park, rehearsing my speech all the while. I arrived. I took the elevator up to the 36th floor. The doors opened. I was stepping into the Yeti's den. I stood there like an ill thought-out part of the furniture that clashes with the rest of the room for a second until one of the organisers, a man called Pete with an outstanding beard came and rescued me. Pete was a woodworker and lived in Brooklyn. I imagined that we would form a bond, us two outsiders; him a Brooklyn bohemian and me who'd probably been invited there by mistake, but alas, Pete was strictly business.

'Tam.' He said, 'I'll take you to meet Muhammed Ali' and just like that I found myself sat beside the most famous athlete in the history of sport as cameras flashed and those waiting outside the room peered anxiously in, waiting for their turn beside The Champ.

Then I was off, being introduced to a roomful of people I never, ever thought I would meet. Journalists, actors, film directors; it was truly mind-blowing to be in a room full of people I had admired since I discovered I love stories and trying to write them. I met the representatives from GQ and they took me under their wing. I had imagined them all to be too cool for school, but they were all lovely and soon I felt slightly at ease.

Finally the moment was upon me and I stepped up onto the stage. I lost the nerve for the whole speech which is, of course, overlong and flabby with waffle in hindsight. Instead I cut straight to the point and said how much of a huge deal it was for a recent graduate, or indeed, a student to win a prize such as this.

The Norman Mailer Centre are doing an extremely admirable thing by encouraging young writers and helping to develop their talent. I am thrilled they feel my writing is worth their investment. GQ also had a tremendous part to play by getting involved in the competition and bringing it to British universities. It's a tremendously encouraging feeling and a huge honour to have your work recognised by everyone you've respected for many years. Or words to that effect.

And that was it. I thanked my parents and an English teacher who had told me I have a sick imagination (in the best possible way) and walked off stage. There had been nothing to it. On the way back to my seat a film director sat me down and questioned me about my writing.
'Here's my card' he said and I walked back to my own table on numb legs and with my heart racing.

The next day in Central Park, with the sun shining and a harpist playing as couples rowed across the green water of the lake, I wondered why I had ever been so nervous. No one had found me out to be the fraud I secretly feared I was. I finally realised I had won such a prestigious award, and maybe my writing wasn't so bad. Later that afternoon I boarded the plane and headed back to London in search of more mythical beasts.

 

Follow Tom Ward on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RenegadeViper

FOLLOW UK STUDENTS