"A small obsession for a magician."

Norman Mailer in Zaire: Saturday, October 26th, 1974 — "Conceivably he had first to observe himself. That night, after drinking with King, Norman found himself on the balcony of his room. Maybe it was in the original design, or perhaps the railings had gone up in price before the Inter-Continental was done, but every room had an architectural conceit — its balcony was without a railing. Call it not a balcony but a shelf. One could get on it by sliding open the big window in the room. The shelf ran for the width of the room, twelve feet wide more or less, and stuck out three feet from the window to the lip. From the unprotected lip, you could look down into a fall of seven stories.

"On each side of the shelf was a partitioning wall of concrete flush with the shelf; it was also three feet in width but ran from floor to ceiling. Perhaps its function was to restrain a prowler from walking along the shelf to a stranger's window.

"Of course, it had not taken long to realize that the partition might be not more than an ideological restraint. One could step around that side wall onto the next shelf. It would be necessary to lean out as you did it, and there would be nothing to hold onto for that moment but both sides of the partition. Those sides were six inches apart, palm to palm, which is to say, six inches thick. Holding on that way, you could conceivably rear backward, lose your grip, and fall. It was not likely, of course. You would have to lean out very far before your hands (pressed firmly, we may be certain, to both sides of the wall) would fail to hold. Probably no physical feat was involved. Nonetheless, the chance to whirl around that wall over to the next balcony offered vertigo. How ridiculous a way to get yourself killed. A reverberation of Hemingway's end shivered its echo. Once Norman had climbed up a ladder in the studio of a man who had died the season before. His heart beating ridiculously on that folding ladder, he mounted from the penultimate rung to the top. There, on the top rung, his body quivered back and forth like a tuning fork. He was caught in a current which had nothing to do with him. He had climbed the mast into a squall of magical forces. With what trembling he climbed down. He had reason to fear. Once, a little earlier in that same period of his life, while covering the second Ali-Liston fight, then scheduled for Boston, he had been miserable for days before forcing himself to take a short walk on a parapet. The parapet was a foot wide and required no exceptional sense of balance. Still it was fifteen steps along the edge of a roof of a high old building in Beacon Hill. He had been sick for days with the imperative to do it. Finally, he did it. One hour later, Ali's groin muscles tore. The fight was called off for months. How could you ever know with clarity whether the walk on the roof had been connected or absolutely unconnected to Ali's rupture? A small obsession for a magician.

"Now, these last few days, he had been passing through similar temptations. A Heavyweight Championship was a vortex; not surprising to get into the whirl. But for years he had been trying to avoid stunts. They were too removed from the daily ability to live with a reasonable balance between one's courage and one's fear; these private capers were out of measure. He knew he could slip around the partition. But what if he were visited by the involuntary trembling he felt on top of the ladder that summer day a decade ago? So he kept the possibility of going around the wall to the next balcony as a possibility he was simply not going to entertain. On the consequence of this thought he felt disloyal to Ali. He knew Muhammad's chances would be greater if he did it than if he didn't. And was furious at the vanity. Ali did not need his paltry magic — 'Ali motivates even the dead.' Of course, considering Foreman, Ali might need all the help he could get.

"On this Saturday night, long after the weigh-in, not dead drunk, but good and drunk, his mind clear, his limbs functioning as neatly as one can drive a car neatly when deep in drink, he came back to the room, opened his window without ado, stepped out on the balcony — it was 4 A.M. Sunday morning — put his hands on each side of the partition, worked around to the next balcony, nodded, swung back to his own balcony, performed much the same crossing to the balcony on the other side, nodded again, came back, climbed through the window, got into bed, and before falling asleep, had time to say to himself, 'It was so fucking easy.'"

A.J. Liebling: The Morest

Opening excerpt from A.J. Liebling's 1962 essay, published in the New Yorker — The city of Chicago is like a friend of mine who often complains about the service he gets in restaurants. Over the last thirty years, I have seldom seen him when he has had no tale to recount of indignity, inconvenience, or what he considers sheer larceny suffered. He orders clams Posilipo and the waiter brings him calf’s liver, or a small steak and the waiter brings him a large one—which my friend, a hearty eater, devours rapturously, congratulating himself on having found a restaurant with such generous ideas of smallness. The waiter then charges him for a large steak, now irretrievable. My friend says, “I ordered a small steak,” and litigation looms. Another waiter, deeming his pourboire inadequate, will say “Thank,” instead of “Thanks,” and my friend, sensitive to such shades, will slowly simmer for days. “I gave him fifteen and three-eighths per cent,” he will say. “X gave him fourteen per cent, and he said ‘Thank you, sir.’ ” The odd thing is that my friend does not hallucinate these disasters. They happen before witnesses. If four or five of us have a drink together, everybody except this unfortunate man will get what he ordered, but if my friend has asked for an Old-Fashioned without fruit, the waiter will bring him a Rob Roy with an olive in it. If a waiter—even one who has never seen him before—drops soup, it will be in his lap. His faith in catastrophe is justified so continually that if he were a betting man he could have by this time parlayed a nickel into a large fortune simply by saying to his table companions at every meal, “I’ll bet that my spaghetti will be overcooked,” or “I’ll bet that there will be fruit flies in my wine,” or “I’ll bet that they will have just run out of the kind of cheese I want. Name your cheese from the bill of fare, and I will lay seven to five that if I order it they haven’t got it.”

"Chicago suffers from the same kind of magnetic or inductive pessimism. On my next-to-most-recent visit there, in 1953, Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion of the world, was defending his title against Jersey Joe Walcott, from whom he had won it in Philadelphia nine months earlier in a battle that ranks with Mons and Spotsylvania for sanguinary obstination."