The door to the kitchen of Mount Sinai Medical Center's Founders Dining Room swings open. A tall, buxom, middle-aged woman with smooth, dark-cocoa skin saunters across the carpeted floor of the elegant cafeteria with a breathtaking view of Miami Beach's Biscayne Bay. She wears a white dress shirt, black bow tie, black vest, and black dress slacks. She carries a pot of fresh-brewed coffee to four hospital employees sitting at a table facing a window overlooking a white sailboat cutting the waves as it passes under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.
"Here you go, sweetie," the waitress says softly as she pours a cup for one of her customers. A ninth-degree black belt, she walks with a subtle limp. A pair of eyeglasses, dangling from a turquoise-beaded necklace, rests on her chest. Her black hair is twisted into a high, tight knot, a style she has sported since working the counter at a bakery on Chicago's South Side in the late '60s, when she was a teenager.
She carefully weaves from table to table like a bee collecting pollen and greets a couple of regulars — a ginger-haired man and his blond lady friend — with pecks on the cheeks. Grinning disarmingly, she shares an inaudible joke that makes the pair burst into a chorus of chuckles. Then the waitress, once a member of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad's security detail, wraps her right arm around the man's neck and pulls him in for a hug.
She shuffles to another table, where a lone diner looks over the menu. "What would you like today?" she says. "Our special is the jerk chicken with rice and plantains. Or would you like a burger? A veggie burger?"
The Chicago native, who has graced the cover of Ebony magazine seven times, works the lunch shift Mondays through Fridays. She takes a public bus from her one-bedroom apartment in North Beach to Mount Sinai to get to her job. She arrived in South Florida in 2008, looking for a respite from the frigid Midwest. "I came down here in the middle of winter for a vacation," she recollects. She fell in love with it here. "I'm too old to be in the snow."
The routine allows her to focus on writing her memoir in a city that propelled the career of her first husband into the stratosphere. The name on her ID badge reads Khalilah Camacho-Ali. As in the ex-wife of Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer ever and one of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century.
She married him when she was 17-year-old Belinda Boyd, daughter of strict Muslim parents, and then spent a decade by the Champ's side during his most turbulent and triumphant moments. She stood with him when he lost his license to box for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. She was ringside for the "Rumble in the Jungle." when Ali knocked out George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title. She divorced him after he beat Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla in Manila." And then he humiliated her by introducing his mistress as his wife to Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos.
"Ali and I remain good friends," Khalilah insists during a conversation after her shift. "Always have been. It was a rough marriage and a rough divorce, but today we can talk on the phone forever."
On a balmy summer day in 1974, a black-and-white Oldsmobile bounced up a winding road in the mountains of Deer Lake, a rustic village about an hour's drive from Philadelphia. A handsome, chiseled, 30-year-old former heavyweight-title-holding boxer sat behind the wheel. "I'm gonna knock out that gorilla," he boasted. "I'm gonna work him over and under. He can't beat me."
Muhammad Ali was weeks away from fighting George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, to reclaim his championship belt. After losing to Joe Frazier and then Ken Norton, Ali had defeated both men in rematches to set up what was perhaps the most anticipated match in boxing history. The rural landscape was supposed to bring him a sense of peace as he prepared for his big comeback fight. But his 24-year-old bride, Khalilah, who was riding shotgun, shattered the tranquility. "You are just saying that to convince yourself," she retorted. "But the way you are training, you won't win anything."
Angrily gazing at the road, Ali threw a jab at his wife. She weaved to the right, his fist grazing her cheek. Is this boy crazy? Khalilah thought. With a closed fist, she popped him above the right eye. A small welt formed over his brow, and a drop of blood trickled down. The bickering continued until Ali pulled the Olds into the camp.
"Ali would get into this lazy mode sometimes," Khalilah recalls. "He did the same thing before the first Joe Frazier fight, which he lost. Plus we were already having marital problems. Women here, women there. Having babies out of wedlock."