I was sitting in a hospital chair by the mechanical bed of Muhammad Ali’s ex-bodyguard, Alexander Pridgen. After years of lavishing in limelight as well as dealing with the dark, violent flipside to fame, Pridgen was a patient at Rivington House, a residence on New York’s Lower East Side for people with AIDS and HIV. It was pouring outside. There were lines of Buddha statues on his windowsill, a Fez and cafeteria trays holding plastic applesauce containers on his nightstand.
Royal: What was it like working with Muhammad Ali?
Pridgen: I ate swell hanging out with Muhammad Ali. His cook could make vegetables taste like meat. It was mesmerizing. There was always something happening. Bruce Lee liked him. He showed Bruce Lee some stuff. Muhammad Ali saved a lot of guys from being beat up by his Japanese Sensei Professor Duncan. My Sensei was Master Moses Powell, broad shoulders, big hazel eyes. They called him an extremist, but he taught me because anything that happens to Muhammad is gonna happen to me. If he dies, I die. Killing someone is easy, not killing someone is hard.
Royal: Did Ali like being famous?
Pridgen: Oh yeah, cause he had an ego. He was prettier than the average woman when he was younger. Why would God make a man bigger than a building and prettier than his wife? Most celebrities you just have to keep women off them.
Royal: What do you think about fame?
Pridgen: Fame is good. But a bodyguard taught by Shaolin monks in Japan told me if you live a simple life, others will simply live. Enjoy your power, don’t find power in the things you enjoy. Muhammad Ali wasn’t like that.
Royal: When do you think fame turns bad?
Pridgen: People be hating you. My brother managed the Barrio Boys and then had to hire security to protect himself. They were so fly, talented, young and handsome. Women used to bum rush the stage and all their men be carrying razors, knives, guns.
Royal: Do you want to be famous?
Pridgen: I am famous.
Royal: How does it feel?
Pridgen: It feels good.
Royal: Why are you famous?
Pridgen: Because of all the things I’ve survived. I’ve had dangerous gangsters ask me ‘You’re not afraid to go in there?’ My friend in the Columbian Mafia—crazy motherfucker—told me you only die once. His woman left and took everything, even screwed out the light bulbs. Columbian Mafia—they kill your whole family and leave you to die a thousand times.
Royal: Why do people want to be famous?
Pridgen: All people have an ego, sometimes the Id. They want to be known. Women with mink coats have holes in their panties. People always seeking fame. Dumb motherfuckers show me their apartment full of millions of dollars, apartments full of guns, always showing me something they think is power. We should try to seek fame with God. The highest attribute you can achieve is the slave.
Royal: Who’s your favorite famous person?
Pridgen: It’s between Betty Shabazz and my mother.
Pridgen’s phone rings. He pushes his wheelchair out of the way and picks up.
Pridgen: Hello? This is he. What? Did you know there’s a recession going on and I got you a job? You want me to pay you too punk? I’ll call you back, I’m being interviewed.
He hangs up. There are gauze bandages taped to his arms, one hand is immobile and twisted in on itself. He looks at me past bifocals, out of his better eye.
Pridgen: As famous as you are, all life that is born must die. You’re going to make me immortal. As long as people talk about you, you’ll always be alive. Heaven is a place of peace.