Travels with Johnny Tapia

BY Robert Ecksel ON July 05, 2005
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We all know Johnny Tapia. He’s a five-time world boxing champion and future hall of famer with two of the speediest fists in history, but he’s also this troubled soul with this troubled life and his story is the stuff of tabloids.

I first saw Johnny Tapia in the flesh in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. He was challenging featherweight champion Manuel Medina for the featherweight title. Although a close-fought bout that could have gone either way, with the edge probably going to Medina, the judges gave the decision to Tapia.

The next day I got an email I wasn’t expecting.

Dear Mr. Ecksel,
Johnny and I are huge fans of your writing. We have the perfect project for you. If you’re interested please call.
Teresa Tapia


She included two phone numbers.

I knew the outline of Tapia’s story. Dead-end Albuquerque slums, father unknown, mother kidnapped, raped and murdered when Johnny was eight. There were the boxing triumphs, the drug defeats, the bipolar condition and suicide attempts. Johnny Tapia had a great story to tell, and I was eager to tell it, so I picked up the phone.

After a few rings, a woman got on the line and told me I’d reached Team Tapia’s southwest headquarters. I mentioned the email I received, the reason for my call, and she said the Tapias were still in New York, the other number was Teresa’s cell, and I should call her.

I followed her advice.

Teresa Tapia answered the phone and thanked me for calling. Then she got right to the point. “Johnny and I love your writing,” she said. “I’m a reader, while Johnny is not, so I’ve been reading your boxing journalism aloud to him, and Johnny always says the same thing: ‘Hey, what is this? Is this about boxing? We’ve never read anything like this about boxing!’ You know some of Johnny’s story, but there’s so much more to tell. We’ve been approached several times by Hollywood producers about making a film of Johnny’s life, but we wanted to have a book first, where all the details of Johnny’s life can be told in advance. We’ve talked to several writers over the years, but no one ever seemed right. It wasn’t until Johnny and I started reading your work that we thought you might be interested.”

I told Teresa Tapia to count me in. She said they’d be in touch, rang off, and we went our separate ways.

A week passed during which time I heard nothing. I was thinking about the project, how best to structure Johnny’s story, and emailed Teresa some suggestions.

She telephoned a few days later.

“Johnny and I received your emails,” she said, “and it all sounds great. We love your ideas – especially Johnny – and we can’t wait to get together so we can meet. Are you available any time soon?”

“I’m ready whenever you are,” I answered.

“Great! We want to fly you to Las Vegas as our guest,” Teresa Tapia said. “I keep reminding Johnny that he’ll have to get to know you, that he’ll have to trust and get along with you, because, as I told him, ‘You’re going to have to open your heart to this guy.’ And Johnny keeps telling me: ‘Don’t worry. I know I’m going to get along with this guy. I just know it!'"

Two weeks passed during which time I heard nothing. I telephoned Teresa Tapia, left a message and inquired as to what was up. Two weeks later she returned my call.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner,” she said. “We barely arrived in Las Vegas before we flew to Albuquerque for a surprise party I threw for Johnny. Then we came back to Nevada and had to turn around and return right away to New Mexico.”

I said “Okay.”

“There’s been another Tapia family tragedy,” she said. “One of Johnny’s brothers just stabbed his other brother to death. We can’t believe it. Johnny’s life has been so difficult. I really feel for the guy. There have been so many problems. It never seems to stop . . . and now this. Johnny and another brother are going camping in the mountains for a few days. Once things quiet down, we’ll get back to you.”

My travel plans had been thwarted by Johnny Tapia’s karma.

A month passed.

Then I received a call from Lucy Tapia, Johnny’s sister-in-law.

“I’m calling for the Tapias. They want to see you right away. Are you available?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “More or less.”

“Can you fly to Las Vegas now?”

“You mean right now?”

She seemed surprised that I asked. “If not now,” Lucy said, “how about tomorrow?”

“You mean tomorrow tomorrow?”

“Teresa and Johnny really want to see you – the sooner the better.”

We agreed that I’d fly all expenses paid from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Las Vegas on Monday the following week, have dinner with the Tapias, and return the next day.

Even though the trip was on the Tapia’s dime, I frugally took the A train, perhaps out of habit, from my home in Harlem to Kennedy Airport. JFK is in the boondocks and I had plenty time to spare, but what was supposed to be an hour-long ride to an outer borough became a trip into the heart of darkness.

I had to switch trains at Rockaway Boulevard to catch the final leg to Kennedy. I left the subway and stood on the graffiti-adorned open-air platform, waiting for the next train. Two shady characters appeared from nowhere and started edging toward me. They were Hispanic and dressed in oversized tee-shirts, baggy three-quarter length pants, high-top sneakers without socks, and, the coup de grace, baseball caps worn backwards.

And they were fondling their genitals.

My first thought was GAY, these yo-yos are hitting on me, welcome to Nuevo York. So in defense, almost reflexively, certainly without thinking, I lit a cigarette. That cig was a signal, a way to say keep your distance, stay away, don't bother me, bug off, leave me alone, can’t you see that I’m busy?

The sleaze merchants were not impressed.

They pulled out badges and barked “Police.”

“Police?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “You’re kidding me? Police?”

“Do you have outstanding warrants?” the bad cop asked.

“Outstanding warrants? Who knows? You tell me. That’s your line of work.”

The bad cop frowned. The good cop asked “What’s in the luggage?”

I said “Underwear, toothpaste, a pencil, deodorant, check it out, it's fascinating, be my guest.”

I know enough of the law to know I’m protected against unreasonable search and seizure – other words, the cops can’t rifle through my things – but it seemed silly to get stuck on a technicality, especially with a plane to catch.

J. Edgar and Clyde went through my bags.

And the clock kept ticking.

After twenty years in the Big App and having no run-ins with the law, no sooner did my destiny align with Johnny Tapia’s then nutty stuff started happening in fistfuls.

“We’re giving you a ticket.”

“A ticket. That’s typical. A ticket for what?”

“Smoking on government property. You broke the law."

“But you guys came onto me! There should be a law against that.”

The good and bad cop smiled.

“Do you have an ID?” the bad cop asked.

I gave him what he wanted.

With forms in triplicate, with a malfunctioning pen, with English a carefree partial language, it took another ten minutes for the cops to write my summons. I couldn’t hide my disdain, but managed to hold my tongue, as a subway stopped, then took off without me. My flight was at 12:05. I had a little more than a half-hour to get to JFK. The cops were wasting my precious time. They were trying to meet a quota. I was trying to catch a plane to visit the Tapias in Vegas.

The cops gave me my ticket and wandered away in pursuit of the next mark.

After my shakedown at the hands of the NYPD working undercover, after losing fifty smackers to a bureaucratic folly called quality of life, I nervously waited for the next train.

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. When the subway finally arrived, it was one of the slowest trains in all of Queens.

Ten minutes later we came to the end of the line. An airport minibus was sitting there, stewing in its own juices, idling to take us to Kennedy. I got on and sat down. Another five minutes passed before the jitney chugged to a start.

I felt queasier by the minute.

Shortly after embarking on this wing of my roundabout voyage to nowhere, the time on the digital clock at the front of the bus blinked 12:05PM. 12:05PM. That was when my plane was supposed to leave. 12:05PM. That was that. It looked like I missed my flight.

Five minutes later I ran from the jitney into Kennedy Airport, hoping and praying the flight had been delayed. I jogged down a corridor fifty feet wide and the length of two football fields. I raced up two flights of steps and sprinted to the National Airlines counter.

Panting, choking, gasping for air, I blurted out, “The 12:05 to Las Vegas. Did I miss it?”

A brown woman from the islands in a blue uniform with brass buttons looked at me warmly and nodded her head.

I tried to hide my exasperation. “Then I’ll just catch the next flight. When is it?”

“The next flight is six hours from now,” she said.

“Six hours? That’s a whole day.”

“Almost,” she almost agreed. “Almost a whole day.”

“What am I supposed to do between now and then?”

“Nothing you can do,” she said. “You have to wait.”

“What about a lounge? Does National Airlines have a lounge where I can at least spread out a little and relax?”

“National don’t have no lounge. There’s a snack bar downstairs. I think there’s a place down there where to have something to drink,” she said. Then she turned away.

I dragged my luggage, which felt light when I was trying to catch a plane, but now felt like a ton of bricks, to the airport gift shop. I thought I should telephone the Tapias and tell them I’d be late. Since I’m the last person on earth without a cell phone – even the homeless have cell phones in New York – I asked the woman at the cash register behind a wall of candy for five dollars in quarters.

She looked at me like I was crazy. I bought a Mars Bar as a consequence.

A pound of quarters enabled me to contact Las Vegas by payphone. I was on the line for many minutes before Lucy Tapia got the gist of my botched arrival. I told her about the cops on the subway platform and the semi-retired jitney and the missed flight. I told her I’d contact her when I finally hit Vegas.

“There will be a car and driver waiting for you at the airport,” said Lucy Tapia. “Hopefully we’ll see you soon.”

I made light of a bad situation. I broke down and killed time. I had a beer, had a sandwich, had a nap and a cigarette, followed by another beer, another sandwich, another nap and another cigarette. Sometimes I tapped on my laptop.

By the time six o’clock rolled around, I was the worn-out traveler they let onboard the National Airlines evening flight to Las Vegas.

This once on this silly day it seemed my luck was still with me. The flight went without a hitch. There was a movie. There were snacks. There were no stewards. There were no terrorists.

Five hours passed in a flash and we alighted like a dove on the tarmac.

While people were unlatching their seatbelts, gathering their wits and their things from the overhead rack, a stewardess came on the intercom with a special announcement.

“Is there someone named Robert Ecksel on the aircraft? Mr. Robert Ecksel? If there is a Robert Ecksel on the plane, will he please identify himself? An air marshal is waiting for him at the cockpit door.”

My first thought was, there’s no way I’m going to identify myself as me, not after the day I’ve had, but then my hand, which has shown a propensity over to years to act as though it has a mind of its own, shot up of its own accord.

Everyone in first-class, business and coach turned to me and stared. And I understood why. September 11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I am tall. I have a beard.

Could I be Osama bin Laden?

There had to be some kind of misunderstanding. My first thought was that the Tapias were tight with law enforcement and wanted to give me the special A-1 star treatment. Maybe that explained the air marshal. Maybe he was going to escort me to the motorcycle cops who would lead the motorcade from the airport to the Tapias’ home.

No such luck.

The marshal was there to escort me to an official of National Airlines.

We walked down a long hall and entered a room through a secret door. Once I was in a secure, secret, undisclosed location, the official asked me if I was me. Figuring the gig was up, I confessed that I was.

The man asked, “Do you have your ticket?”

I handed him the ticket I got from the Tapias.

He held it like it was DNA in a capital crime. This guy was no longer just an airline official. Now he was Sherlock Holmes in aviator glasses.

“This ticket,” he declared, “is invalid.”

“Invalid? What do you mean invalid? How can that be? I just used it to fly here from New York.”

“Yes, we know,” he muttered. “That’s the problem. Why do you think you’re here? The credit card used to buy your ticket from New York to Las Vegas is no good. It was turned down, not once, not twice, but three times, and the phone numbers for the party who purchased your phony ticket have been disconnected. What do you have to say about that?”

“Not a lot.”

“Do you know that you’ve flown here to Las Vegas on National Airlines free of charge?”

“You say ‘free of charge’?"

“Don’t get your hopes up, Mr. Ecksel. That’s not how we do business here at National. You may have scammed your way to Las Vegas, but I can guarantee you you’ll crawl back to Kennedy if National Airlines has its way.”

Trying to get control of the situation, I asked, “What do you propose I do?”

“Propose you do?” The official made a face. “Pay the fare! That’s what we propose you do! Can you pay for the ticket?”

“The ticket was purchased for me. I’m not sure I can afford the ticket.”

“Can’t afford the ticket,” he repeated sarcastically. “Do you have a credit card?”

“I don’t use credit cards.”

“You don’t use credit cards?” His face registered disbelief. “What about cash? Do you have cash?”

“Sorry. That’s too dangerous. I never carry cash.”

“Let me get this straight. You have no credit cards, and you have no cash. Am I to understand you’ve come to Las Vegas with no money?”

“That about sums it up.”

He looked at me like I was from another planet. “Do you know who purchased this ticket for you?” He was growing more frustrated by the second. “Do you know their names?” He was getting red in the face. “Can they be trusted?” He looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel.

I nodded my head indifferently.

“Do you know whose credit card was used to purchase this airline ticket? The official’s exasperation sucked the air right out of the room. “And will they pay?”

“I’m sure they’ll pay. They’re big-time local celebrities. He’s a millionaire superstar athlete and he lives in Las Vegas. I hope to be his biographer.”

“A millionaire superstar athlete? Hmm.” I heard gears shifting in the bureaucrat’s head. “Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Ecksel. I’m not going to hold you. This time we’ll let you go. Just make sure that whoever bought your ticket – this millionaire superstar athlete you mentioned – contacts us as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’ll be in Las Vegas a lot longer than you expected.”

I walked away a free man toward the empty baggage claim area. There were metal slides and conveyor belts as far as the eye could see, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. I squinted and searched the perimeter, because there was supposed to be a car and driver waiting.

I spotted a small figure a block away standing beneath a huge fake deco clock. As I moved toward him, he held up a sign he was holding in his hand. I picked up my pace. I couldn’t believe my luck. My named was scrawled on a piece of cardboard with a blue ballpoint pen. This was the guy I was looking for.

A middle-aged man in a black linen suit stood before me smiling. He had dark hair, bad skin and bright blue eyes. “How ya doin’?” he said. “My name is Bill. I’m Bill the limo driver. Glad to see you, bud. Welcome to Lost Wages.” He grabbed the bag from my hand. “Where ya been?” asked Bill. “Your plane got in over an hour ago. I wasn’t sure you were going to show up. I thought you missed the flight.”

“It’s been nip and tuck, Bill. The earlier flight I missed. Then there was a big hassle with the ticket.”

“No problemo,” Bill said.

“Maybe we can dispense with the formalities and hit the road.”

A worried expression crept across Bill’s face. “I don’t know how to tell you this, bud, but whoever booked you this lift screwed up big time.”

“Come again?”

“Yeah, someone made a big mistake.”

“How do you mean?”

“Whoever was supposed to pay. I don’t know the details. All I know is you’re gonna have to pay for the car and driver.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Bill, it’s nothing personal, but I’ve been hustled all day. And now you want me to pay into your shell game, too?”

“That’s how it is, bud,” said Bill. “You wanna dance? You gotta pay the piper.”

“What’s the piper's going rate?”

Bill answered by asking, “Do you have a credit card?”

“Nope, never use ‘em,” I replied.

“Wish I could say the same,” Bill admitted, “then I wouldn't be in hock up to my neck. You got any cash?”

“Barely. How much do you need?”

“Sixty will do it.”

I started a mad calculation. “Let’s see. I left New York with a hundred. I blew two dimes eating time and fast-food in Kennedy. I got eighty bucks left.”

Bill the mathematician blurted out, “That’ll leave you twenty. Twenty’s perfect. Trust me, bud. This will be sixty bucks well spent. The good thing about this investment is that it will get you out of the airport. You don’t wanna waste your whole holiday here. Whaddaya think?” Bill looked a little impatient. “I'm a limo driver,” he said, “not a mind reader. Should I stay or should I go? What’s it gonna be?”

“Stick around, Bill. You’re the only person I know in Las Vegas.”

“Okay, bud. You’re the boss.”

Bill and I strolled the half-mile from the terminal to his limo parked in a multi-story car park.

“Where ya headed?” Bill asked.

“Didn’t anyone tell you where to take me? C’mon, Bill, I thought you knew.”

“Nope. Not me. I don't know nothing. Don't you know?”

“All I know is I’m sure you were supposed to take me somewhere."

“I only know what I know,” Bill said.

“Let me get this straight. I'm going to pay you sixty dollars to drive me around Las Vegas without a destination?"

"Yup,” he answered. “So it appears.”

"Well, Bill, why not? What a wild and crazy idea! Let’s go! Just do it!”

There was a moment’s silence. “That doesn’t seem quite right, now, does it?” asked Bill.

“Well, no, Bill, not exactly, it doesn’t.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Bill said. “I’ll call the main office and see if they’ve got some info about where I’m supposed to take you. I’ll talk to one of the girls. There’s a blonde on that switchboard who definitely knows what she’s talking about.”

All of the sudden I heard this loud buzzing around my head. Something had gotten tangled in my hair. I swung around and moved my hands in a series of quick circles above my head.

I turned and watched an insect the size of a bird flap its wings and fly away.

“What the hell was that?” I cried.

“That’s our local flora and fauna,” said Bill the naturalist. Then he sighed and added: “I’m from the northeast, born and raised there, so I know what I’m talking about, because after being out here for twenty years, what I wouldn’t give for a green leaf.”

Surrounded by smog, fumes, exhaust, smoke and the smell of jet fuel, I made the mistake of leaning against the hood of Bill’s black Lincoln Town Car. The sun went sayonara hours ago, but I could have fried eggs on the hood of Bill’s car, if I had a credit card or cash.

“Let’s see if they’ve got a name of some hotel or casino for you at the office.”

Bill disappeared into his car.

After a few minutes he reemerged fresh as a daisy, thanks to air-conditioning and a sunny disposition.

“It was hot today, even for Las Vegas,” Bill said. “Do you know how hot it was?”

“No idea,” I said. “How hot?”

“Hotter than a bitch in heat.”

“That’s hot.”

“That’s what I’m telling you! One-fourteen. One hundred fourteen degrees in the bloody shade. It was hot, my man, hot!” Bill quieted for a moment. “I talked to Blondie and she told me you’re in luck, my friend. Whoever booked you your crazy credit card flight from New York, whoever screwed-up booking you this Lincoln Town Car, finally got something right.” Bill grinned. “You got a room reserved at the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino.”

“You’ve done fine work, Bill. That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.” Then I asked, “Did they say whether or not the room at the casino was paid for?”

“That’s a good question. I didn’t think of that.”

“Bill, could you do me one last little favor and give the hotel a holler?”

“Why not? It’s a living.”

Bill disappeared a second time, before reappearing wearing a smirk. “Lady Luck is riding shotgun with you to-night, baby! The front desk told me there was no problem. What’d I tell ya? Said I’d take care of it and I did. You gotta freebie! You've been comped! You got a room for the night for no charge!

“Sounds good. Then we’re off?” I asked.

“We are off. Lookout! Here we come! Next stop: Sin City!”

I sat next to Bill on the passenger side of the Lincoln Town Car and spoke about my day from hell, the day that was like a movie, the day which would not end.

Bill was amused and pointed out landmarks in the moonlight.

After a long trip on a dark highway, the Lincoln Town Car glided into the entrance of the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino. By this time I had convinced myself that Bill the limo driver was the ultimate transportation authority, so when he suggested he join me in the hotel just to be sure that everything was okay, I happily consented.

A portly woman in a floral print dress stood behind the reception desk. She smiled and asked me my name.

I told her and she replied cheerily, “Yes. Mr. Ecksel. We've been expecting you, sir. You do know that you’re several hours late?"

"Yes.”

"Is anything wrong, sir?"

"No. What about that room?"

"Yes, the room. Let’s see.” She turned her attention to her computer. “A room for Mr. Robert Ecksel. One moment, please. Here we are. Everything seems to be in order. A room reserved for one night. And how will you be paying, sir?”

“Excuse me, Miss, or Madam; my understanding was this room was a comp.”

Bill stepped forward and seconded that emotion. “I just called in on my cell phone! That’s what they told me! They told me she was a comp!”

The woman stared at Bill. She didn’t like the looks of him one bit. “Which ‘they’ are you referring to?” she asked. “Do you recall who you spoke to?”

“Who I spoke to?” Bill repeated.

“Yes. On the phone? In your car?” She shook her head. “Don’t you remember?”

“Well, no, not exactly, I don’t.” said Bill, “But I think it was a guy. Yeah, I’m sure of it. It was definitely a guy, and he told me she was a comp."

“A guy? And he said she was a comp?” The woman made a face and turned to her computer. “Well, give me a second, let me check, hold on, let's see.” She tapped on her keyboard. “A complimentary room for Mr. Robert Ecksel. One moment. Still checking. Gosh this computer is slow. Still checking. Let me see. One second. Still checking. Still checking.” She paused for effect. “What have we here?”

Her face grew stern. “Sorry, Mr. Ecksel, there’s no comp for you at this hotel.” She noisily shuffled some papers to suggest I was wasting her time. “And how would you like to pay for the room, sir? Credit card or cash?”

I turned to Bill, who looked a little green around the gills, and did my best to console him: “Bill, just think of it! A couple of years from now you’ll be driving around and you’ll see me ragged and homeless and wandering the Vegas Strip. You’ll be able to turn to your passenger in the back seat and tell him, ‘Say, bud, you won't believe this, but I know that guy! I was the first one to bring him in from the airport!’ Either you or he will crack a joke, everyone will laugh, and everyone will go about their business.”

“Don’t you worry, bud,” said Bill reassuringly. “It won’t come to that. If worse comes to worse, my wife and I will put you up. We won’t let you be homeless in Las Vegas.” Bill reached into his pocket. “Here. Take this. It’s my personal card. Call me if you need help. Remember. Me and my wife will save you.”

The lady at the reception desk must have been watching the touching scene, because she cleared her throat and asked: “And how would you like to pay for the room, sir? Credit card or cash?”

Bill asked me, “Do you have their phone number? The telephone of the millionaire superstar athlete?”

“I believe I do.”

“You should call ‘em. You gotta tell ‘em what’s happening. They gotta know what’s goin’ on. Just tell ‘em there’s been some kinda mix-up.”

I knew better than to question Bill's wisdom, so I asked the woman at the desk for some quarters for the phone.

She asked if I had a credit card or cash.

I called the Team Tapia cellular and Johnny Tapia answered. It was the first time we had ever spoken.

“Hello, Johnny? Johnny?” The line was breaking up. “Hello. Are you there? Johnny, this is Robert Ecksel calling.”

“How ya doin’, brother-man?” Johnny Tapia said. “Let me get Teresa.”

I heard a clunk as Johnny dropped the phone on the ground.

A woman’s voice got on the line. "Hello? Yes, hello? Is this Mr. Ecksel?”

“Hello, yes. Teresa? Is that you Teresa? I can barely hear you.”

“No, it’s me. It’s not Teresa. It's Lucy. Lucy Tapia. How are you, Mr. Ecksel? We were worried about you. Are you in Las Vegas? Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m finally in Las Vegas, but what a trip it’s been. Nothing seems to have gone as planned. There was a problem with the cops, a problem with the airline, a problem with the car and driver, and now there’s a problem with the hotel.”

“I’m so sorry,” Lucy said. “I feel terrible about this, Mr. Ecksel. I’m going to take care of this right away. Don’t go anywhere. Stay right where you are. I’ll be right over.”

Lucy Tapia arrived in no time. She had a friendly face, a modest smile, and a handbag filled with cash. She gave Bill money. She gave the hotel desk clerk money. She gave me money.

“What’s this for?” I asked, staring at a fistful of twenties.

“For the airplane ticket,” Lucy answered.

“But, Lucy, I didn’t pay for the airline ticket.”

“I don’t understand.” Lucy looked puzzled. “Then why did they let you go?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

Lucy regained her composure and said “I have a message from the Tapias. They will pick you up tomorrow morning around eleven.”

She said goodbye and drove off.

I got my key/card, stumbled to my room, flopped down on the bed and slept fitfully in Vegas.

Lucy and Teresa Tapia picked me up in a white BMW Tuesday morning as planned. With the seats smelling of new leather, with two prim and proper ladies sitting in front, Teresa behind the wheel and Lucy to her right, we left the Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino and headed toward the Tapia home.

The car was weighted down in silence.

Teresa Tapia broke the ice. “I’m sorry about yesterday’s craziness,” she said.

I waved my hand. “It’s old news, Teresa. An amusing blur. It didn’t matter then. It matters less now.”

“Johnny’s the exact same way!” she said with some surprise in her voice. “It takes a lot to get Johnny angry. You two have that in common.” She paused. “I know you’ve not met Johnny, so I want to warn you in advance.”

“Warn me about what?”

“Johnny has a very short attention span.”

“That’s not a problem. I’m used to short attention spans.”

“No, you don’t understand. Johnny has a very short attention span. You’ll see. He can’t sit still a second. He’ll be running in one room and out the other at one and the same time. He’ll be with you one moment and gone before you know it. I’m telling you this now before you meet Johnny, because I don’t want you to be offended. It’s just the way Johnny is. You should know before meeting Johnny that it’s not personal. That’s just Johnny.”

We passed into a gated community not far from the casino. In a corner lot stood the handsome Tapia home, a large, comfortable adobe-style dwelling rung by barren mountains. A Team Tapia van with Johnny’s face spray-painted on the side dominated the landscape, and two classic cars, a ‘56 Chevy and a silver '40s roadster, simmered in the sun.

The three of us approached the house. Teresa tried the knob. The door was locked, bolted from inside. She rang the doorbell. There was no answer. She tried the knocker. A dog inside the house started barking. Teresa banged on the door.

“Johnny,” said Teresa Tapia, sounding like a cross but patient Mom, “open the door. I know you’re in there. Open the door.”

The dog was snuffling and growling on the other side of the door.

“Come on, Johnny. Stop playing games. Mr. Ecksel has come from New York to visit us. He wants to write your story.”

“Ruff,” said the dog. “Bow-wow.”

“John-ny.”

There was a muffled, almost human sound coming from inside the house.

Then I heard someone cry from behind the door: “It’s the dog! It’s the dog!”

“Let us in Johnny,” said Teresa.

“I’m telling ya, it’s the dog, it’s the dog!”

“I know, Johnny, I know,” said Teresa sympathetically. “It’s the dog.”

“It’s the dog!”

Suddenly the door flew open. There stood a tiny illustrated man bouncing on the balls of his feet and grinning from ear to ear.

It was featherweight champion of the world Johnny Tapia.

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