I was relieved to hear that it was not drugs that were the contingent cause of Johnny Tapia’s death. I remember the first time I met him.
I was managing a fast food place in the North Valley, and across my parking lot came this slender but muscular figure of a man. He was wearing no shoes and no shirt, and he was walking up to my front door!
A stickler for the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” policy of the restaurant, I met him there, intending to politely inform him of that rule. Before I said anything, he spoke.
“I know, I know, sir,” he said politely. “I’m not planning on staying. I am just gonna get me a burger and a drink and I’ll be on my way.” We agreed to those terms and he came in.
I could hear a lot of the kids, mostly Hispanic kids, who worked for me, whispering behind my back. Finally one said to me, “Do you know who that is?” No, who that is? “That’s Johnny Tapia.”
Johnny Tapia. I had heard the name, but I’d never seen a fight of his or a picture in the paper.
All the kids began to crowd the counter to see and talk to Johnny Tapia. He chatted with them, and signed autographs.
I think of lesser celebrities who had come into my store and treated my people like trash.
Johnny got his hamburger, which I offered to buy and he refused to accept, and went on his way. Up until then, Johnny Tapia had only been a name to me. After that day I became one of his greatest fans.
He had no shirt, no shoes, but this was a gentleman. He addressed me as “sir,” one of dang few people in the world who ever have, and did a good thing for some hard working kids.
I would afterward cheer his every victory and my heart would drop every time I heard he was involved with drugs again. I would get angry as self-righteous people shook their heads accusingly at his drug problem while they downed their fifth Chardonnay of the evening.
Johnny Tapia was a local hero, perhaps Albuquerque’s tragic hero. He was a man at the top of his game but still battling his demons, just as all of us do.
When he died, all the finger wagging began once again. “Drugs. Overdose. Well, what did you expect?”
I was so happy to hear that this was not the reason.
I can say, I met Johnny Tapia, once, and he was nothing but a gentleman.
And to Johnny Tapia I can say, “Blessed rest to you, sir.”