I once met Darryl Strawberry before he was Darryl Strawberry. That’s not technically true — even when I met him and he was a rookie outfielder for the Triple-A Tidewater Tides of Norfolk, Va., he had an aura of superstardom about him. He may have hit .235, but he had the glow. He was Darryl Strawberry.
Still, the meeting was awkwardly unsatisfactory. It always is when we meet someone famous. Before the game, Strawberry sat in a corridor at the stadium at a card table piled high with programs. He was there to sign them for the fans. It is a standard practice, and he showed neither enthusiasm nor disdain for the process.
He smiled, signed the program, or the glove that the kids offered him, and said things like, ”Hi, glad to see you. Enjoy the game.”
Meeting a celebrity seems attractive at first, when you think you will get a chance to rub up against something bigger and greater than everyday life. But it never works out that way. What happens is that you shake hands with a goofy smile on your face, you say something like, ”I’m so happy to meet you. I’m your biggest fan.” And then you realize you are an idiot. It’s the Lucy Ricardo syndrome.
But what else is there to say? It isn’t as if you will discover some secret you have in common: ”Oh, Mr. Redford, you own a Pacer, too? Great car, isn’t it?”
Or that the bonds of friendship will open up: ”Sure, Ms. Taylor, I’d love to join you and Michael Jackson for dinner.”
Meeting a celebrity is a dead end.
AN INARTICULATE DUMB-SHOW
I think I first learned this when I was in sixth grade. New York Yankee first-baseman Moose Skowron came to visit our Boy Scout troop one night. What I saw was a very large man with a permanent smile standing like an oak among the shrubbery of adoring Little Leaguers. They all wanted to talk to Skowron, but they didn’t have anything to say to him.
And, of course, he didn’t have anything to say to them, either. What was supposed to be a treat for the kids turned into an inarticulate dumb-show.
Later in life, I have come across various celebrities and semi-celebrities, and the result is invariably the same.
When I was unofficial staff photographer for the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., I was sent to the airport to pick up world-famous cellist Leonard Rose, who was going to give master classes. I carried his bags, put them in the trunk of the car — he carried his cello — and I drove him to his hotel. He sat as silent as a pumpkin for the entire ride.
What was I going to say — ”I love your Dvorak, but don’t you think a looser vibrato would add some warmth to the second movement?” Yeah, right.
USING EACH OTHER FOR MUTUAL GAIN
It is all very different as a journalist, doing interviews.
In such cases, the celebrity does a well-rehearsed dance with the journalist. We have something to talk about — the upcoming book, play or concert. And the celebrity usually reiterates the best lines and choicest anecdotes from previous interviews. When you are lucky, something new, deeper or more genuine pops out.
But you haven’t really met the celebrity, you have used each other for your mutual gain.
Occasionally, the interview goes somewhere odd: When talking to the silent half of Penn and Teller recently, we got off on a long conversation about the difficulty of translating Virgil’s Aeneid. Teller is a former Latin teacher, though you would never know from their act that either of them can even read.
And even in an interview, Lucy isn’t always far away. Once, when interviewing Tom Seaver, I wound up asking for his autograph, and, what is worse, it was ”for a friend.” It really was. But I felt like a dweeb anyway.
I have made it a general rule of conduct never to bother a celebrity if we chance to come in contact. If I see Alice Cooper at a string-quartet concert, I leave him alone. If I see Hugh Downs forking pasta at a restaurant, I won’t even look his way.
What would be the use? Celebrity is a sort of wall around certain people, constructed of a palisade of smiling teeth.