This recollection – not a certifiable certainly but imaginably possible – came to mind as I was recently strolling along the beach path and an inordinately tall, fit, bald (or shaven headed) black man came into view walking a tiny little dog. (The dog has nothing to do with the story. The tableau looked incongruously humorous to me so I just thought I would pass it along.)
FLASH BACK TO:
It is the summer of 1966. (Yes, I am extremely old.) I have just graduated from the University of Toronto, and for the first time, instead of going to camp for the summer, I would be traveling to far-off UCLA, to attend an eight-week Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop, where I would audition to participate in productions written by a man I never heard of. (Delivering a speech from Inherit The Wind, I wound up being cast in three of the four plays they were presenting. Thass right. I kicked ass as “Henry Drummond.”)
Okay, so I fly to Los Angeles, and I proceed to UCLA, where I am assigned to the top floor of Dykstra Hall, an eight-story student housing high-rise – in L.A., you do not want to be higher than eight stories when the tectonic plates start moving around.
Dykstra Hall is located on the western edge of the UCLA campus. Our theater classes, it turned out, were on the eastern edge of the UCLA campus. But there were no dorms along the eastern edge, so it was “western edge” housing, or you slept on the street. Albeit considerably closer to the theater.
I had a roommate in my dorm room. Our narrow pallets lay side by side, less than twelve inches apart. Another foot and we’d be sharing the same bed. My roommate was an engineering student, whose classes began at eight A.M. I would regularly return from rehearsals and performances around midnight.
As a result, after our initial conversation, despite our nocturnal proximity, we did not speak to each other for the rest of the summer. When I woke up, he was gone. And when I returned to the dorm room, he was asleep.
Dykstra Hall’s Ground Floor housed the dormitory cafeteria. I ate breakfast there in the mornings, and, as my classes were on the other side of the campus, I used the available provender – sandwich meat, Wonder Bread and a banana – to make lunches that I carried to class in a paper bag.
I need to take a moment to admire my first-ever use of the word “provender.”
Okay, I’m done.
The problem was the weekends. Conforming to a truncated “Summer Schedule” – because there were considerably fewer enrolled students in the summer – on both Saturdays and Sundays, the cafeteria was fermee, meaning there was no available food on the weekends, with the exception of strategically situated vending machines, where, with the correct change, one could avail oneself of a diminutive can of tinned spaghetti.
And then figure out how to open it.
And then scrape off the tomato sauce because I do not like tomatoes.
For the summer students at UCLA, weekends for food were a truly sorry state of affairs.
My Los Angeles classmates went home for the weekends. Others, with access to cars, frequented nearby eateries, like the Hamburger Hamlet and a variety of pizza joints. Sometimes, they took me along, and then I could eat.
But sometimes, they forgot. And I was alone and virtually foodless for two days.
We are now building to my shameful confession.
Mixed with celebrity cachet.
I am aware that this is… what do they call it?... oh, yeah, “Circumstantial Evidence.” But on Law & Order, such evidence has been frequently known to obtain convictions.
So here we go.
On the other end of our floor, there were a handful of very tall, prodigiously fit, young black… I would guess them to be… student athletes, identifiable as students because they were living in a college dormitory, and identifiable as athletes because… I mean, look at them!
My assumption, based on their height, was that they were members of the UCLA Bruins basketball team, which at the time, was the greatest college basketball team in the country. Under “Wizard of Westwood” coach John Wooden, in the twelve years between 1964 and 1975, the UCLA Bruins won the National Championship ten times.
Now between 1966 and 1968, the Bruins’ acknowledged greatest player was Lew Alcindor. Who later changed his name to…
The chronology fits. And I think I remember him.
I am, in fact, almost certain that for, I don’t know, “Summer Practice”, the incomparable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was housing…
In my dorm.
Every weekend, the Eighth Floor of Dykstra Hall was virtually deserted, except for the student basketball players and me.
There was a communal “Men’s” Bathroom. (This was before the era of coed dorms.) And in that bathroom, there were these large trashcans.
Visible in those trashcans – especially on weekends – were numerous discarded pizza boxes. And inside some of those discarded pizza boxes…
There were uneaten slivers of pizza crust.
How do I know that?
Because, after frequenting that “Men’s” Bathroom, following a tumultuous internal struggle…
And once or twice, being overwhelmingly hungry…
I ate some.
Now before you throw up, consider the logic here:
There was nobody on our floor on weekends except me and the student athletes. I did not order the pizza. Ipso facto, the student athletes did.
One of those student athletes almost certainly being…
The “Men’s” Bathroom trashcans contained the discarded portions of that pizza.
Did we “break bread” together? Not in the literal sense.
But it is quite possible – bordering on “likely” – that Kareem partook of that pizza…
And I partook of his crust.
I am ashamed.
But a little bit proud.
Although preponderantly more ashamed.