3 min read

Day 16: Mr. USA

Day 16: Mr. USA
Tony Atlas in his wrestling prime

Tony Atlas doesn't sit on furniture. He consumes it.

Thighs parted and legs fully extended, he's waiting on the couch in the Hilton Garden Inn lobby in Auburn, Maine. He's wearing a red hoodie, black swishy pants, and Converse sneakers, with a double-decker fanny pack wrapped around his waist. It's been a long day, flying in on early flight from Minneapolis after a weekend wrestling show and convention, and he's barely had time to drop his stuff at home before racing off to this lobby to meet some guy who wants to write something about him. Not exactly sure what, there's always a fan wanting to do a podcast or a book, but this guy's traveled all the way from California (by car!) to see him. Little does he know that guy just slept in that car in a motel parking lot, so he's not the only one in this pair feeling road-weary.

He's worried about his wife Monika, who lives in an extended-care facility in town since her stroke in June, 2019 that left her left side paralyzed. She counts on him to be there every day from 1-6 PM to cut her food and tell her his goofy jokes and be there for her the way she was for him when she literally scooped him off a bench in Kennedy Park 32 years ago and saved his life (as much as a German woman, however strong, can scoop a 265-pound man who was once arguably the strongest person in the world). He gives her notice every time he has to go out of town, but she starts getting anxious after a day of not seeing his big bald head and even bigger smile. She always loved going to the beach and sitting in the direct sun, but there's no warmer orb in the sky than Tony Atlas' smile.

The writer, who's only two inches shorter than Tony, looks delicate walking next to him, like he might snap if Tony went for a hug and squeezed too hard. Tony's face is expansive, his cheeks full, his nostrils like two caves below a forehead criss-crossed with scars from the razor blades he used to slice when a match called for "getting color" (bleeding; there is no such thing in wrestling as a blood capsule). Further up on the noggin is an indentation, the lasting impression of childhood trauma when a bully pushed him into a dry creekbed and he landed on his head.

At the YMCA in Auburn, Maine

But the physical scars are only the beginning. Over the next hour, as the dainty writer scribbles in his notebook and says simple things like, "what do you mean?" and "tell me more about that," the former Mr. USA bodybuilder purges a lifetime, from the two times he tried to commit suicide to the daily fights he endured in an orphanage in western Virginia to keep the most aggressive housemates from "sticking their penises in me." The writer, who spent his childhood looking at maps and pretending to be wrestlers like Tony Atlas in the mirror, sits in disbelief, trying to process how this man could still walk the streets of Auburn every day saying hello to everyone.

It's just the beginning of two days between the writer and the wrestler, the lanky scribe who uses his head to write these words and the rock of a man who used his head as a weapon, slamming it into his opponent.

By the end, both will be exhausted.