One Pack. No Turning Back.
Number of miles driven today: 474
Total miles driven on road trip: 6,020
Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Northern Florida and Georgia really are a toss-up, as both franchises are well-represented. I have to call this one another tie.
Starbucks' record (# of days Starbucks was more common): 19-6-2
Dunkin' Donuts' record: 6-19-2
Cheapest gas I saw today: None. I barely left the hotel!
Number of states visited overall: 11
Number of red states visited overall (as of 2012 presidential election): 8 (Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia)
Number of blue states visited overall: 3 (California, New Mexico, Florida)
Best line from a Tinder profile in Lavonia, GA: "I just want to make you bacon and teach you how to drink bourbon." -Rita, 24
Oddest billboard: A pro-life ad of a cartoon baby seal holding a fetus with the tagline "Save the baby humans."
This is technically my second rodeo.
And by rodeo, I mean an attempt to write a book about the people that I idolized when I was eight years old.
The first time I refused to grow up was ten years ago when I quit my steady job as an editor at Islands Magazine in Santa Barbara to write the biography of my favorite professional wrestler, the Iron Sheik. This entailed moving across the country to suburban Atlanta and embedding myself in the Sheik's daily life for three months.
At the time, I thought I had it all figured out.
At 24, I had beaten life--I had already had my dream job for several years (working at Islands), I was dating a wonderful woman whom I planned to spend the rest of my life with, and I now had built a relationship with one of my childhood heroes that culminated in a book project. A prominent literary agent in New York was anxious to see the book proposal, and all I had to do was spend a few months with the Sheik to craft it. I had actually started to believe that I could do and get whatever I wanted as long as I worked hard for it.
Then I fell flat on my face.
I'll detail that collapse in Wax Pack, but for now I will leave you with the placeholder that the Iron Sheik book, the relationship with the wonderful woman, and my invincibility complex did not last. And thank God they didn't. I would have become a real cocky sonofabitch if I had not learned the true meaning and value of failure.
Now 34 years old, life and I aren't fighting anymore. We're comfortably co-existing. This book will not end in some grand epiphany of profound meaning, nor should it--such is the realm of Hollywood, not reality. But as this journey unfolds, I'm listening to myself in order to better understand where I've been and where I am. Self-awareness is the goal.
Today I had the privilege of closing one of the chapters of my past--I got the chance to reunite with the Iron Sheik.
Born Khosrow Vaziri in the town of Damghan, Iran, he became famous in the mid-1980s as a professional wrestling villain, the man who Hulk Hogan dethroned for the WWF championship, strapping a rocket to Hogan's back and shooting him to the moon. While most wrestlers playing evil foreign characters were Americans faking bad accents, the Iron Sheik was the real deal, a legitimate amateur wrestling star from Iran who had even served as a bodyguard for the Shah in the 1960s.
Why he was my favorite wrestler as a kid when everyone else was cheering the good guys remains a mystery. But like Don Carman, I felt no pressure to explain my favorites. It was involuntary, intrinsic--it just was.
But the Iron Sheik's story is really the story of two distinct men--Khosrow Vaziri, a quiet, courteous, even shy man possessed of great discipline and strength, and the Iron Sheik, a larger-than-life cartoon known for boorish, obscene YouTube and Twitter rants. At some point in the 1970s, Khosrow Vaziri began morphing into the Iron Sheik, and by the WWF's peak in the 1980s, the Sheik was no longer a gimmick or a character. Khosrow Vaziri was gone.
Only the Iron Sheik's incredible physical strength and mental toughness kept him in peak condition for so long. Even while he was abusing drugs and living a rock star life on the road with the WWF, he trained like an Olympian. There are legendary stories of him snorting lines of coke in Ramada Inns with his wrestling contemporaries--guys like Rowdy Roddy Piper and The Magnificent Muraco--and then standing in front of the mirror to do a thousand Hindu squats, the sweat pouring off his bald head.
But even the Iron Sheik couldn't cheat biology. After years on the road, he started to break down. First his body, and then his mind. By the time I reached him in 2005 for the proposed book project, he was at rock bottom. Broke, addicted to hard drugs, and sustained only by the compassion and stability of his wife and kids, the Iron Sheik was incapable of functioning. He was reborn in the public eye around this time through his crazed, drug-provoked online tirades that went viral, but there was a sadness to the insanity that reeked of exploitation. Howard Stern had him as a regular guest and people laughed. I cringed.
But the Sheik has made an impressive turnaround in recent years. Thanks to the help of his family and his agents, the Magen Boys, he has kicked the drug habit, a comeback that is well-chronicled in the recent documentary The Sheik. It had been about 8 years since I had last seen him when I knocked on his door in Fayetteville, Georgia today.
I was as nervous as I've been this entire trip. I could see through the blinds that the TV was on, and heard his voice through the wall. The door swung open, and I saw no one. Then I glanced down a foot, and saw the pretty, smiling face of a young girl with dark brown hair, no more than 10 years old. I realized it was one of the Sheik's granddaughters.
"Is your grandfather home?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, but did not invite me in. I was a stranger, after all.
But I had heard the Sheik's voice, and so I called out, "Koz!" (short for Khosrow, and what I've always called him).
Without seeing me, he recognized my voice. "Brad Belushi bubba!" he said, as I walked inside. Belushi is his best attempt at Balukjian (I've long since given up on trying to correct him) and he calls everyone bubba.
With considerable effort, the former WWF champion stood up and met me halfway across the living room. He had aged considerably since I last saw him. He wore a red t-shirt with a giant B logo over his cement-mixer chest. White scruff covered his face and was visible below his wool knit cap, and his mustache, usually dyed jet black and meticulously twirled into evil handlebars, was white and gray and disheveled. I gave him a big hug and said, "It's good to see you Koz."
I took a seat next to him on the couch, one of three arranged around the room which faced a flat-screen TV. Fox News was on. Framed pictures of flowers and portraits of the Sheik posed with his grandkids hung on the walls.
"I am on this seven-week road trip to write a book about baseball players and I'm on my way to New York and I thought, I've got to see Koz if I'm going to be near Atlanta," I explained.
He seemed distant, even a bit agitated by my ambush.
"I don't feel too good Brad bubba, knee, ankle, shoulder," he said in his thick Farsi accent, pronouncing "ankle" "ang-kell."
He pulled up his left pant leg to reveal a discolored, swollen lower limb. The ankle bone was not even visible. He had originally broken it years ago in the ring and simply wrapped it in tape and kept wrestling. Back in those days, if you got hurt, you lost your job.
"I feel weak, lotta pain," he said, his breath shallow and labored. I could see the pain in his dark brown eyes. They looked heavy and worn.
For several minutes, we sat mostly in silence. He flipped the channel to Rachael Ray, one of his favorites, and answered my attempts at conversation with one or two words.
But then Tanya, one of his daughters, emerged from one of the bedrooms and started chatting with us. Tanya and her sister Nikki are around my age and have always been kind and welcoming towards me. I told her about my trip and the baseball book and we caught up on the last several years. When I last saw her, she had only one child, a baby. She now has three, two daughters and a son.
Our conversation diverted my attention away from the Sheik, and as we chatted, he started to come to life. He clearly was proud of his daughter and of his grandkids. He sat up on the couch, fixing his hat, and said to me, "I'm sorry Brad bubba, I don't look too good, I didn't know you were coming." He touched his scruff self-consciously and motioned at his t-shirt and pajama pants. The Sheik has always taken a great deal of pride in his appearance.
"Where is the Nico bubba?" he asked Tanya, referring to her youngest son. The Sheik even calls Tanya bubba, and often adds the article "the" in front of names, another quirk of his version of the English language.
"Nico, I love him, he has a lot of energy," he told me, almost beaming.
I asked Zara, one of his granddaughters, to put on a DVD I brought of the Sheik's matches. When he saw himself on the screen, 30 years younger with a six-pack and trapezius muscles like massive right triangles, he glowed and said "I'll be damned."
He turned to his grandkids, who seemed curious and genuinely interested in this chiseled version of their grandfather (who they call "Papa Sheik").
He smiled at them and said, "Madison Square Garden, most famous arena in the world," referencing the location for the match on the screen.
We spent the next half an hour drinking Molson Ice, eating pizza, and watching his greatest matches. He didn't say much, but watched intently, occasionally holding his knee, trying to blot out the pain. Now and then he let out a little whistle at something in the match that impresses him.
I had to get back on the road to make time towards New York. He seemed sad to see me go. I leaned over and gave him a hug, whispering "Take care Koz" and accidentally knocking his hat off his head.
"Thank you Brad, I love you" he replied.
I got up, said goodbye to Tanya, and the grandkids, and walked out the door. The last time I left the Iron Sheik sitting in a room was ten years ago when I packed up my stuff and skulked away, confused and frustrated by my failure. Things had not ended well.
But as I drove away in the same Honda Accord and headed for the freeway, the man I left in the rearview mirror was different this time. Gone were the lunatic, drug-fueled rants. Gone was the bravado. Gone, in fact, was the Iron Sheik.
Sitting in the living room surrounded by the people who stuck by him at his very worst, Khosrow Vaziri put his hat back on and flipped the channel.
For older blog entries, click here.
The Iron Sheik, 1986
Khosrow Vaziri, 1971
The Return of Khosrow Vaziri
Day 28: Jacksonville, FL to Lavonia, GA, 7.16.15