The car is not moving, and neither is Muhammad Ali. His head tilts down, his breathing is loud and his eyelids droop lower and lower.
Ali grumbles something quietly, something the person next to him cannot understand. What did you say, he is asked.
“I’m slee-eepy,” he says, the words barely making it out of his mouth. “I want to go back to the hotel and sleep.”
Then he pretends to snore before peeking over to his side with a light laugh.
Soon, his longtime friend and personal photographer, Howard Bingham, is back in the front seat, chatting amiably with the visitor, and Ali sinks back into silence and shrinks back into his corner of the car.
Minutes later, as the car moves through traffic toward a three-hour book-signing session in Century City, Bingham asks about somebody he used to know.
That person left boxing, Bingham is told. He was tired of boxing, glad to get out.
“Me, to-o-o-o,” Ali says in a woozy whisper. “Me, too.”
Oh, yes, Ali is slower now.
“It’s sad,” says George Foreman, one of Ali’s great heavyweight rivals. “But maybe this is what it is — he was so special for a time, had so much energy and life about him, his batteries just went dead.
“You do all the things he did in a short time, and you’d probably be tired, too.”
He’s slower, but crowds are still drawn to Ali — about 1,000 lined up to get signed copies of Bingham’s arresting new book of photographs. Now, though, they tiptoe up to Ali and speak in hushed tones.
At this appearance, at least, they treat him with reverence and respect, like a frozen piece of the past grown immeasurably dignified by the passage of time.
The pictures in Bingham’s book — “Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey” — can only add to the mood.
For the most part, of the thousands and thousands of pictures Bingham took of Ali through the years, the ones he chose for this book document the historic heft of Ali’s life. Photos with Malcolm X. With the Beatles. With Elvis.
Photos of a great man in chaotic times, and Bingham snapping away as the world looked in.
The world is still looking.
“Oh, yeah, everybody loves him — young, middle-aged, everybody,” Bingham says. “He’s one of a kind. I’ve been all over the world with him, and it’s amazing seeing him at the airports. . . . Once they see him, they go to the duty-free shops to get a camera. Eastman Kodak and these little photo shops have made a lot of money off of Ali all these years.”
Ali cannot help that his health problems — he has Parkinson’s disease — have stolen most of his energy, but to get the crowd to laugh, he performs dozens of card and magic tricks throughout the evening.
“His mind is sharp, his motor skills are just slower,” Bingham says. “Ali’s hard-headed. He doesn’t take his medicine like he should. And Ali is lazy. I tell everybody, he’s lazy. He doesn’t talk sometimes because he doesn’t want to answer.
“But if I tell Ali, ‘This guy over there doesn’t think you can move that fast,’ he will do the shuffle and do the boxing pose . . . and everybody’s just amazed. They think he’s dead or something. And he’s not.”
Ali kisses every baby brought to him and signs each book with a twitching hand. But the only time his face exhibits any real emotion is when a young girl is tugged toward him, crying because a store employee has taken away a stuffed animal she wanted Ali to sign.
Ali stands, looks deeply disturbed and motions for the stuffed animal to be brought back. He signs it, then hugs the girl, who is still crying.
He looks sleepy no more.
“He’s happy,” says his daughter, May-May. “He’s just slower. But he’s fine. It’s other people who don’t accept it.
“He loves people. He feels he’s giving back. I never once saw him turn down an autograph unless he was two seconds late for a plane or something like that.
“Matter of fact, if you tell him he can’t sign, he’ll get mad at you. ‘These people made me,’ he says, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Bingham says: “People are just happy to be around him, happy to see him, happy to hear, happy to touch. (Releasing the book) is wonderful. You’re just giving people a part of Ali.”
Ali lives in Berrien Springs, Mich., with his fourth wife, Lonnie, on a farm. He travels almost constantly — usually with Bingham at his side.
“He was here before me, and I hope he will be here when I am gone,” Lonnie Ali writes of Bingham in a foreword for the book. “And I don’t think Muhammad or I would have it any other way.”
Ali’s daughter, who says she considers Bingham an uncle, says she would love to see Bingham come out with a second volume of photos, this time focusing more on the private moments that Bingham, alone, could have captured on film.
“I don’t think those photos (in the book) are that good,” Bingham says sheepishly, before admitting: “Some of them are extra nice, I admit.
“Here I am in history with Ali, one of the most famous faces on earth. And I am his friend, and I’m with him, and it’s wonderful. It’s a hell of a feeling.
“All the time, people walk up and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Bingham, thank you for being there for us all those years.’ ”
Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 26, 1993.