We live in a world where our encounters with celebrity are becoming more and more commonplace, or at least where we believe we’ve seen someone, as in China Miéville’s novel The City & the City, where one sees and then unsees, for fear of trespassing on a forbidden second city occupying the same physical space. I have had emails from friends in L.A. such as “Today I was in a 7-11 and saw Ice Cube.” Or, my favorite so far, “Oh my God. I just saw Lindsay Lohan drive into someone’s car;” perhaps a more commonplace sight than one might have thought. So out of desperation to find a new topic for a blog, this will be a log of all of my near-brushes with the famous and not-so-famous. Or at least what I can recall these days. And they’re in no particular order, following the fashion of Georges Perec’s Je me souviens. This will not include seeing musicians perform or actors in a Broadway play, for that would be cheating, and I’d have to list names such as Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Zero Mostel, Joseph Cotton, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, and Ralph Fiennes, et al. Anyone with the money for a ticket could have seen them.
1. I shook hands with wrestler Bruno Samartino at a Jewish Community Center in Yonkers just after he’d wrestled someone else to the mat and before he washed his hands.
2. I shook hands with President and Mrs. Eisenhower, as well as with Richard M. Nixon. I was five years old, and this incident has been thoroughly covered in an earlier entry. I assume Ike and Dick, as well as Mamie, had washed their hands, though there may have already been blood on the vice-president’s.
3. Abbie Hoffman once offered to trade me his ice-cream cone for a tab of acid.
4. I delivered a handmade necklace to the lead guitarist of Country Joe and the Fish and briefly chatted with this very shy man.
5. I used to walk past Allen Ginsberg nearly every morning for an entire summer. We’d exchange glances and his lingered longer than mine.
6. I once found myself standing behind the poet Gregory Corso at the Gotham Book Mart, where he was trying to sell books for some quick cash.
7. Ordering an Orange Julius in 1967 I discovered that I was standing next to Don Preston, keyboard player of the Mothers of Invention. I said, “You’re Don Preston of the Mothers of Invention,” and he said, “That I am.”
8. I once saw the top of Bob Dylan’s top hat emerging from a crowd of followers on a warm July evening in 1967.
9. I watched Alvin Lee, lead guitarist of Ten Years After, roll a joint. He asked me to promise not to mention it to anyone, as at the time he was also sitting on the toilet.
10. Carlos Santana once asked me where he could smoke one of his joints, and I directed him to the boy’s locker room.
11. I once walked in on Roland Kirk while an assistant had just plunged a needle into his vein. Being blind, he had no idea who I was, and all he said was, “I’m taking my medicine, man.”
12. I was in the men’s room of the Village Vanguard when the impressionist David Frye was standing before the mirror practicing his impression of pre-Watergate Richard Nixon before washing his hands.
13. I was ten feet away from Bobby Kennedy and his family at a rally in Riverdale, NY, when he was running for the Senate.
14. The last time I was in L.A. on business I saw Ron Goldman's father sitting next to me in traffic on the 405. If you need to know who he is, Google “Simpson, O.J.”
15. While waiting to speak to my editor some years ago I found myself standing next to Dr. Benjamin Spock and his much younger wife.
16. While waiting to see another editor a few years before that Arthur Miller walked past me in a hallway. He was so tall that he didn’t even notice me. He was, in fact, as tall as Dr. Spock.
17. At a Jaki Byard gig in the Village Gate my friend went over to talk to Mr. Byard, and Byard looked at me and nodded. Many years later the great pianist, well-known for his work with Charles Mingus, was found in the apartment he shared with his two daughters. Someone had put a gun to his nostril and blown his brains out. A New York Police Department spokesman said that no gun was found in Byard’s apartment, and that there were no signs of a struggle, forced entry or robbery.
18. I once saw Terri Hatcher walking at a studio lot, whether Paramount or Warners I don’t remember, and it was as though everyone else there were completely invisible. She unsaw us utterly.
19. Original Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy (of the Hog Farm) used to give me cigarettes whenever I saw him on the street. Each of his teeth was of a different primary color. He smiled and you saw a rainbow.
20. I once found myself standing next to James Coburn, filming a scene for “The President’s Analyst” in the West Village. He was very tall and had begun going gray, and a little boy standing nearby looked at him and said, “Daddy, he’s so old,” which earned him a look of amused scorn from the actor. I was then asked to sit on the curb to be in the scene, and ended up on the cutting-room floor.
21. I shook hands with Leonard Bernstein after a rehearsal for the opening night of Lincoln Center. Two nights ago I dreamed that I was visiting him in the days before his death with composer Francis Poulenc, who in fact has been dead since 1963.
22. Opera great Jan Peerce was present at my circumcision.
23. As I was walking into a bookshop on Madison Avenue, the woman I thought was Julia Roberts turned out to be a very pregnant Cindy Crawford and her real-estate developer husband.
24. When I turned four or five my mother had a birthday party for me. She told me that the man who played Clarabel on "The Howdy Doody Show" was now a magician and would be entertaining me and my friends. The man showed up, opened his suitcase full of tricks and proceeded to entertain. As someone graced with an eagle eye and a subversive mind, I understood immediate how the tricks were done, and announced them to my friends: “There’s a thread!” “He put the egg in his pocket!” “He didn’t make the wand disappear, it’s up his sleeve.” When the magician had had enough about fifteen minutes into what should have been a forty-five minute gig, he shut his suitcase and told my mother never to call him again. He stormed out of the house, and the next time I saw him he was portraying a guy named Captain Kangaroo on TV.
25. I once walked into Ginger Baker on MacDougal Street. Though there was some mutual impact, he had his arm around a groupie and didn’t notice me.
26. I once literally ran into Charles Mingus in the West Village during a demonstration of some sort. The police were on the rampage, and I sped up a side street and found myself in collision with the great bass player and composer. He was holding a Nikon camera and was about to shoot the scene. I apologized and he laughed, and only later I realized he’d been wearing a caftan.
27. I once saw Daniel Patrick Moynihan sitting at a table outside an Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square.
28. Once strolling out to pick up a morning paper in Hampstead, North London, I found myself walking behind Michael Foot, head of the Labour Party, walking his dog Disraeli.
29. I once saw John Le Carré and his wife coming out of the Flask, a pub also in Hampstead.
30. Once in the old Europa Supermarket in Hampstead I found myself pushing a shopping trolley alongside Judi Dench and remarking to myself how much toilet paper she’d bought.
31. Once, on Kensington High Street, I walked past Jeremy Irons and his wife Sinead Cusack, and admired his knee-high leather boots.
32. I once spent an entire morning smoking cigarettes and interviewing the writer Beryl Bainbridge. She showed me the bullet hole in the stairway where her mother-in-law had tried to kill her.
33. When I was 7 years old and at my first summer camp (see previous blog entry), I met Althea Gibson, whom I believe was the first African-American woman (or even first African-American, period) to win Wimbledon. I arrived to get my autograph bloodied but unbowed, as just before this was the nightly milk distribution, and I wanted to get one of the rare containers of chocolate milk. Though I fell and skidded a number of feet, I did get my chocolate milk, and also my autograph.
34. Fifteen or so years ago, on my birthday, the phone rang around midday, and an unmistakeable voice proceeded to sing "Happy Birthday" to me. When she was done she asked if she didn't sing divinely, and I of course said she did. One doesn't ever disagree with the actress Patricia Neal.
35. One morning, coming in to teach, the school secretary told me I had a parent waiting in my classroom. As I never allowed impromptu meetings, I was pretty steamed, until I came and saw the man Woody Allen's character in "Sleeper" claimed had dropped a nuclear bomb on New York City, Albert Shanker, president of the teachers' union. His son was my student.
36. One of the pleasures of teaching was hearing from time to time the gorgeous baritone of Howard da Silva, whose kids went to the school. He appeared in the hallway now and again, and when he saw pretty much anyone he recognized he'd say, "Hello, darling, and how are you?"
37. One day at the school I saw a familiar face walk by. I ran up to him and said, "Are you Art Davis?" He said he was and also said he was astonished that anyone knew him. But of course he was already famous for having played bass behind such luminaries and geniuses as John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and Clifford Brown, and beside Max Roach in one of the great rhythm sections of jazz.
38. And once, in 1971, while waiting to submit a passport application in Manhattan, and needing to leave the line to let my ride know I was going to be late, William Holden promised he'd keep my space. And he did. I owe him everything for that.
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