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no one was impressed
november 16, 2002

Every once in a while I think of famous people I've seen.

I don't count concerts, because there you're paying to see someone famous.

I mean instead seeing someone famous in a normal, everyday situation, where you're picking up your dry cleaning, for example, and there, all of a sudden, holding up three plastic-wrapped suits in his right hand, smiling the big smile at the clerk, is what's-his-name, that guy who had a TV series a few years back, and who's now playing somebody's sidekick in the movies.

The act of suddenly seeing someone famous is, for me at least, disconcerting. Like seeing a family member, except they aren't, although their face is just as familiar. It's not like meeting a true stranger, where neither of you know anything about the other. It's decidedly one-sided, in that they know nothing about you, other than that you're unintentionally blocking their way, but you know so much about them.

All about the gay rumors, for example, that time he threw a plate of sushi at a waitress, that long distance shot of him with some blonde on the prow of a yacht, the picture taken of him and his dark-haired wife, she in an evening gown, leaning against him, used to illustrate the story of the split, the plastic surgery the tabloids proved with before and after photos, that picture of him dancing in a loosened tie, eyes closed, hair mussed.

I've lived in a number of large cities, visited dozens of others, and so have probably seen about a million different faces so far, nearly all of them, for all their little distinguishing features, barely noticed by me, but every so often, in that crowd of eyebrows and chins, I glance again, think, it couldn't be him, could it? Look a few more times, and by now I'm also thinking, out of pride, Well, I don't want to stare at the guy, I mean I don't want to come across as one of those rubes who start patting their shirt pocket for a pen, but the thing is, when you do see someone famous, there is a tendency to stare, maybe because we're so used to staring at them on TV, or at the movies. Is it really him? He looks different from on TV, but still. It helps if I hear his voice, because that's even more of a giveaway than the face. Most famous people I've seen without their makeup look almost regular in real life, someone you work with at the office, but the voice is always distinct.

After the encounter, no matter how brief, I go back to whatever I was doing, but some point later, I can't help it, I think, I saw someone famous today.

Here's a list of famous people I've seen over the years, in chronological order. I'm not going to bore you with a list of everyone famous I've ever seen, but I will bore you with the following:

BERT PARKS. He was the host of the annual Miss America pageant from its start, up through the time when they added 'talent' and 'congeniality' to the qualifications, instead of just letting the contestants parade around in swimsuits, Vaseline on their lips. He's remembered most as the guy who sang, bending back from his hand-held microphone, "Here she comes, Miss Ameeeerica". I saw him occasionally in the late fifties, early sixties. He lived in the same town I did, Greenwich, Connecticut. You'd occasionally spot him in the supermarket, pushing his cart around like everyone else, nodding and grinning at everyone. He always wore a suit.

CLAUDE KIRSCHNER. Same time period. He was the host of Terry Tune Circus, a kid's show that ran on a New York City station. The show ended at six-thirty each night. He'd close each show with, "And now it's time for all good little boys and girls to go to bed." I hated the fucker, because that sign-off was this absolutely unnecessary reminder to my parents to make me stop watching TV and go to bed. "Can I stay up just a little longer?" "Well, Claude Kirschner says you should go to bed now, Bobby." Fucker. He'd smile at people in the supermarkets too, like Bert, but he always looked nervous, pushing the cart a little too fast down the aisles, like trying to get this ordeal over with, being out among people who didn't wear stage makeup, so he could drive back to his big mansion in northern Greenwich and start drinking. (I don't know if he actually drank. That was just my impression of him, as a kid. I might be being unfair to him. Notice I said, 'might'.)

JOHN F. KENNEDY. This was when he was running for President, in 1960. My parents drove up to New Haven, where he gave a mid-day speech. Huge crowd. We were too far away to make out his facial features, though I could see his trademark hairstyle, which many men adopted. A few protesters hoisted placards. "Vote For Kennedy And You Put The Pope In The White House", "Kennedy Takes His Orders From Rome", that sort of thing. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected President, and I think the first Irishman. There was tremendous energy in the crowd as he spoke. He was the first young person to run for President.

LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON. Same political campaign. He made a whistle-stop at the Greenwich train station. Because he wasn't Kennedy, the crowd was smaller, so I was able to get closer, using the child's maneuver of wriggling between stomachs (I was ten at the time). He struck me as affable, masculine, well-mannered, with an easy sense of humor. I found him to be more impressive as a person, more larger-than-life, than Kennedy.

LOWELL WEICKER. He was a senator from Connecticut at the time (he later became governor). I attended a graduation day celebration at a local high school I didn't attend, I don't remember why I was there, when you're a teenager you find yourself in a lot of places where you're not sure how you got there, but anyway, he was the featured speaker. Talk about pompous. This was in the mid to late sixties. He kept comparing himself over and over again to President Kennedy, who had been assassinated a few years earlier. I remember thinking to myself, Jesus, what an asshole. I looked around at one point, bored, and on all the faces in the crowd was the same thought, Jesus, what an asshole.

W. H. AUDEN. He gave a poetry reading at my college. Wore dark glasses throughout the reading. Prefaced his recitations with an admonishment that no one should take photographs of him while he was reading. A few flashbulbs went off anyway. Each time, he'd abruptly stop reading, tilt his dark glasses up at the audience. Wait longer than I thought was necessary before resuming. No one could understand what was the big deal about someone taking your picture.

ZERO MOSTEL. Late sixties. I was working in New York City by then. I saw him in a take out restaurant a block away from where I worked. Looked at him quite a few times. At a point in this process in my studying him, I realized he knew I was looking at him. At another point, he acknowledged I was staring at him by nodding his head at me, giving me an eyebrows-raised smile. We both happened to leave with our lunch orders at the same time. "Excuse me for asking, I know you probably get this all the time, but are you Zero Mostel?" He shook his jowls. "But you know, I constantly get mistaken for him." I studied his face. "Really?" "Happens to me all the time." "Okay, well, have a nice day." It was him.

BOB DYLAN. Late sixties. I worked at Brooks Brothers in New York City, a clothing store for the rich and famous, so there were a lot of celebrity spottings. Dylan had a bad motorcycle accident a while before, and had dropped out of public view. Now he was coming back, with a new album, Nashville Skyline, which presented a completely different approach to music from what he had done before. More of a Country sound. A salesman for Brooks, who knew I liked Dylan, mentioned to me on a smoke break that Dylan had come in for one of Brooks' customized suits, a gabardine. I was stunned. Bob Dylan? One of the great rebels of rock and roll? Buying a Brooks Brothers suit? But he showed me the ticket, and it was true. Once the suit was finished, and before Dylan picked it up, I tried the jacket on, looked at myself in the mirror. I found out when Dylan's appointment was, told a few other young Brooks Brothers employees who were constantly being nagged by management to get a haircut, who told a few others. By the time Dylan stepped off the elevator there were about fifty clerks standing back a respectful distance. Having been the one who discovered Dylan shopped here, I was, of course, at the head of the crowd. Dylan exited the elevator alone, surprisingly, shorter and slighter than I expected. He looked quite a bit like Monte Rock III, a local (New York City) singer who occasionally appeared on the Merv Griffin show. Dylan wore shades. I walked away from the crowd, which held respectfully back, right up to Dylan, holding my copy of the Nashville Skyline LP. "Mr. Dylan, would you sign my album, please?" As soon as the words came out, I thought, What a dorky thing to say, calling him 'Mr. Dylan', which wasn't even his real last name, instead of 'Bob', or 'Hey, man' (although since this was the late sixties, I probably didn't think the word 'dorky', which I don't believe had been invented yet). He asked for a pen, which I retrieved from the crowd, wrote 'Bob Dylan' on the album cover, hesitated, then above that wrote, 'Best Wishes', just like a greeting card. After that, he disappeared behind the curtains where the adjustments to his suit would take place, flapping out between them five minutes later, irritated, asking me where Vito was, the tailor assigned to his suit. Dylan had actually arrived early for his appointment, so Vito was still out to lunch. I explained that to Dylan. He scanned the crowd staring at him, disappeared behind the curtains again. Vito finally showed up, I think even a little late, he was old and had no idea who Dylan was, just another inseam. A little while after this, Dylan did a TV special with Johnny Cash. He wore the gabardine suit on the special. If you've ever seen the special, remember this. The suit Dylan wears on that show? I wore it first.

DICK CAVETT. Late night TV talk host. He was considered the 'thinking man's Johnny Carson'. Brooks Brothers again. I was working a call desk, where people go to pick up their suits, in my late teens by now. I kind of recognized him. Glanced at the ticket tied with white string to the sleeve buttons of his jacket. Richard Cavett. "You're Dick Cavett." He closed his eyes a moment in acknowledgement, put on an ironic face. "I know. I'm much shorter in person." I actually hadn't thought that. "No, not at all." I felt a need to reassure him.

JOHN LINDSEY. Mayor of New York. During the race riots of the sixties, he walked through Harlem to show he cared. There were lootings and burnings elsewhere in the nation that summer, but not in New York. At one time, he was considered a strong presidential contender. Tall, thin, unusually handsome, in a tanned, British sort of way. People kept coming up to him while he looked at suits, shaking his hand.

GREGORY PECK. The most impressive of all the famous people I've seen. Tall, thin, very masculine, soft-spoken, deep-voiced, with a polite, courtly manner. Everyone, salesmen and customers, followed him around as he flipped through the suits. He seemed like he didn't deserve all the attention, but took it in stride.

TONY RANDALL. Now we're in California. Mid-seventies. I was in a Ralph's Supermarket parking lot in Los Angeles when he strolled by, holding his flat shopping bag up in his right hand like a waiter bringing a dish. He still had his stage makeup on. He seemed smug and pretentious, corners of his eyes counting how many people noticed him.

DON RICKLES. Santa Barbara, mid-seventies. He drove past me in a station wagon, of all things. He looked irritated.

THE BRIDGES BROTHERS. Jeff Bridges, all the other brothers. They were at a 4-H kind of show, looking very Californian, tanned, handsome, casual, the whole clan moving together from stall to stall, leaning their elbows over the tops of the stalls, looking at goats. They seemed close.

TROY DONAHUE. He sat directly behind me at a retrospective show Bette Davis gave in Santa Barbara in the mid-seventies. He looked older than in his films, but still quite handsome. His companion was a much younger, slight-built man, also with blonde hair. They talked in quiet tones to each other right up to the point where the lights lowered and Bette Davis strode on stage, to an easy chair placed in front of a modest movie screen.

WARREN ZEVON. Werewolves of London. Mary and I were living in Portland, Maine at the time. Mid-eighties. He was giving a show that evening. I believe it was a Sunday. We had walked down from our apartment to the main street in Portland, to buy a record that had just come out, I can't remember what it was. This guy in a black leather jacket, longish black hair, was flipping through the racks with three of his friends, making a lot of attention-getting noise. I glanced over, realized it was Zevon. They left before we did. Outside on the sidewalk, the four of them were walking farther downtown, same direction we were. Zevon threw his head back, started singing a few lines from one of his songs, then whirled around, grinning, to see if anyone was watching him.

Famous people I've almost seen (sampling):

PAUL MCCARTNEY. He and his new wife Linda shopped at Brooks Brothers while I was out to lunch. Damn! My friends kept telling me about it afterwards. The general consensus was disappointment. They both looked like they hadn't bathed in a week.

FRANK SINATRA. Still another time when someone famous went to Brooks Brothers while I was eating a sandwich somewhere. He was described as short, fat, bald. Other than the fact he was famous, no one was impressed.

ALICE COOPER. He lived in Greenwich, banked at the same bank where my mother was a teller. He used to go to her window for his transactions. My mother had only a vague idea of who he was, other than that he was a famous rock and roll singer, but when I asked, said he seemed like a nice man. Very polite.

A famous person I pretended to be:

BRIAN ENO. Sometime in the eighties. Mary and I were living in San Francisco. We learned of Brian Eno because he produced several Bowie albums we really liked. Curious, we bought several of Eno's own records, including Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and Before and After Science. One night in our apartment, we decided to order a pizza for dinner. When the guy on the phone asked for a name, on a lark I said, Brian Eno. Didn't think anything of it. Just a joke. No one knew what he looked like back then. Twenty minutes later, we pulled up at the pizzeria, went inside, asked for our order. All the staff stared at me, asking shy questions about the music industry. I played it casual, like I didn't want to draw any attention to myself, just pick up my pizza. Outside, heading back to our car, Mary and I bent into each other over the pizza box, giggling.

I finally found out what it feels like to be famous.