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Brushes With Fame

When I lived in New York City, I frequently had brief, meaningless encounters with celebrities.

I used to have a place on 6th Street between 2nd and 3rd. One time I was at my front door and a limo pulled to a stop right before me. Iggy Pop and a very large woman got out. They were both wearing black leather from head to toe. They walked right past me. Iggy and I had a friend in common but I didn’t say anything.

Another time, I saw Parker Posey at my neighborhood supermarket. She was picking up tomatoes, two at a time, and gently squeezing them in one hand, testing their ripeness. I got a boner. Another time I ran into her at the bodega on 11th Street and 4th Avenue. She was with an entourage of eight young men and she was walking down the aisle, balancing a beer can on her head. The young men were all laughing and carrying on. We locked eyes and I wanted to tell her, “You’re very talented,” meaning how she was balancing the beer can on her head, but I didn’t say anything.

An acquaintance of mine married Mac Rebenack, aka Dr. John, the Night Tripper. My wife and I went to see him play at the Blue Note. After the show, we bumped into him on our way out. Mac gave my wife a big hug and said, “Hello darlin’! How you doin’?” He glanced in my direction then looked away and left.

Once, while on a lunch break from a temp job in midtown, I sat on a bench next to Frank Rich of The New York Times. I knew it was Frank Rich of The New York Times because he took out his cell phone, dialed and spoke into it: “Hi, this is Frank Rich of The New York Times.” He stood up and walked away while I finished my turkey and swiss sandwich.

In the early ’90s, I went to a poetry reading at Danceteria, of all places. I was standing on the street outside with my friend Carl, smoking cigarettes. A checker cab stopped right in front of us and a frail old man got out, using a cane to steady himself. Carl said, “Look, it’s Cab Calloway!” That’s right—I saw Cab Calloway get out of a cab.

Later that night, inside the club, a bunch of us were sitting around an anteroom before the show. Legendary beat poet Jack Micheline was there; he was crashing at one of the reader’s houses in Brooklyn. Warhol superstar Taylor Mead sashayed in. Jack Micheline said, “Oh Christ, Taylor Mead, you disgusting pervert!” and Taylor Mead said, “Fuck you, Jack Micheline, you drunken no-talent piece of shit!” Taylor stormed out and Jack drank some more beer. I never spoke to Jack.

I once went to a New Year’s Day reading at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were sitting right behind me, but I didn’t say anything.

At that same reading, Eric Bogosian performed a preview of his next play, which, to the best of my recollection, was called “I can’t remember what difference does it make they’re all the same anyway so who cares.” He was great, hilarious and engaging. Afterwards, I went across the street to a bodega to get a Diet Coke, my drug of choice at the time. When I got to the counter, Eric was just ahead of me, buying whatever he was buying, so I said, “Hey man, I just saw you next door, you were fantastic!” He ignored me and refused to look my way or acknowledge my presence.

One time I was at a loft party, hosted by a gentleman who was the biggest weed dealer on the Lower East Side. A bunch of jazz men were jamming. Ornette Coleman came in and joined the band. I was sitting about 10 feet away and couldn’t help myself, I had to bang out the rhythm, slapping my legs to the beat. After the number ended, Ornette looked at me and shouted, “White boy can keep time!” This was arguably the best moment of my life.

One Saturday night, 1985 or thereabouts, my best friend Norman and I dropped some acid and ended up at the Pyramid Club. William S. Burroughs was planted at the bar. I sidled up to him and started spouting some psychedelic gibberish. After about five minutes (or maybe it was five hours; remember, I was on acid), Burroughs picked his hat off the bar, stood up, looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m finished!” and tottered off. Many years later, Norman, long since my ex-best friend, wrote up the story on his blog, but he told it as if he was the guy who spoke to Burroughs. I wasn’t mentioned.

In the late ’80s I lived in the projects on Avenue D and 7th Street, in one of the Jacob Riis Houses. Just about every evening after work, for weeks on end, as I walked east on 7th towards Avenue C, I would pass by Bill Murray heading west. We would nod at each other.

Don Cherry used to live in Charlie Parker’s old brownstone on Avenue B and 9th Street. I once lived on 10th Street between B & C. Don used to sit on the stoop all the time. Whenever I walked by, we would nod at each other.

I used to go to the old Jivamukti Yoga studio, back when it was on 2nd Avenue and 9th Street. I was doing Yoga next to this middle-aged, pasty-skinned balding fellow. He looked vaguely familiar. I figured he lived in my building, or maybe the building next door, so as we were getting dressed after practice, we made eye contact and I said, “Hey, how you doin’?” and he scowled at me, looked down and returned to tying his shoes. I shrugged, put on my ratty old sneakers and followed him out. It was pouring rain. A limo was parked at the bottom of the stairs and a chauffeur, in full chauffeur drag, leapt out, opened an umbrella and ran up the stairs, holding it over the pasty dude’s head so he didn’t get a drop on him, and led him to the car, and I realized the pale, balding dude was Sting. I heard that one time, Sting was in class and the instructor, Ruth, asked him his name and he said, “Sting.” Knowing nothing of pop culture, Ruth screwed up her face quizzically and asked him, “Stink?” Ruth later on became infamous in her own right, but this is not the time or place for that story.

A few years later, at the much larger, upscale, fancy-boy Jivamukti studio on Lafayette Street, I was doing Yoga next to Willem Dafoe and the teacher (probably still Ruth; she was my favorite) said, “OK, everybody pick a partner while we try to do a headstand!” Willem looked at me and said, “You can do it, man! Don’t be scared!” I’d been doing headstands for years so I wasn’t scared but I didn’t tell Willem that; I wanted him to think he was doing his good deed for the day. I got into my headstand and Willem held my ankles, keeping my legs upright, which was entirely unnecessary. After a few minutes, I got down and said, “Thanks!” He smiled and never spoke another word to me. I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you that my friend Susie, an actor, worked with Willem on some shows at the Wooster Group. She said that Willem was renowned for having the biggest dick in Hollywood. As a practical joke, during rehearsals, he would sneak up behind folks, pull out his giant wang and flop it over their shoulders. I’m glad he just held my ankles.

Maggie and I went to college together. One time, I think it was senior year, a bunch of us went to see Rick Danko, the bass player for The Band, at a tiny little club. It was fun, he played all of The Band’s Rick Danko songs we knew and then a bunch of songs from his solo career we’d never heard. After the show, he stepped off the stage and Maggie said, “Let’s go talk to him!” The audience, not large to start with, had thinned out and Rick looked bored. We went up to him and Maggie asked, “Hey, do you want to go to a party?” He was sweaty, his skin paper-white, and he was toothpick-thin except for a big beer belly. He leaned over Maggie and leered. “What kind of party?” Maggie said, “Never mind,” and we walked away.

When I first moved to NY in 1983, I was hanging out at my friend Fred’s apartment in midtown. Maggie was visiting from Providence. She asked us, “So what do you guys do in New York City on a Saturday afternoon?” and we suggested going up to 48th Street, where they had all the music stores, to mess around with guitars. Once we arrived, I told Maggie, “This is where all the rock stars get their gear.” She was having none of it. “Yeah, sure, you New Yorkers think you’re all that.” A limo came to a halt on the other side of the street. Maggie said, “Pfft, I wonder who this is gonna be, Aerosmith?” Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg and Patti Hansen got out of the limo, crossed the street and strolled right past us. We wordlessly looked at each other and started following them. It was the middle of July, and really hot, but both ladies wore calf-length mink coats. Keith had on a beat-up leather jacket, the giant skull ring on his finger, and his famous rattlesnake-skin boots. The boots were really worn and his toes were sticking out. The ladies both had an arm hoooked under each of Keith’s elbows, propping him up as they meandered down the street; apparently he didn’t have the power to support himself. Keith kept pointing at stuff on the floor, mumbling incoherently and chuckling. We tailed them for a couple of blocks and then they went into a Beefsteak Charlies.

A decade or so later, I was walking south down Avenue A with my best friend Mark, who was the lead singer for a famous-on-the-Lower-East-Side punk-rock group, and we chanced upon Anita Pallenberg. Mark, who was never short on nerve, handed her a flyer for an upcoming show and asked that most dreaded question: “Will you come see my band?” Anita took the flyer, looked it over and sneered, “Maybe I vill.” She didn’t come.

Speaking of the Stones, a friend of mine used to stay at the Plaza when he came into town for business. They gave him a crappy room and charged him $500 a night but he didn’t care because his company paid for it. He’d stayed there a bunch of times so, for whatever reason, on this trip they bumped him up to a suite. He decided to have an impromptu party and invited a bunch of us over. I got to the Plaza and told them who I was visiting, and they hustled me off to the side, away from the regular elevator banks, past a guard to the high-falutin’ lift. There was a middle-aged, bearded English guy there who kind of looked like Andrew Loog Oldham (but wasn’t), saying to the nattily-dressed little guy next to him, “Man, it’s too much, with the girls and the paparazzi and…” I looked at the short guy and realized he was one of my heroes, Charlie Watts. I couldn’t help myself. I blurted out, “Hey, I never do this, but I gotta shake your hand! You make the band, man!” He held out his hand limply, like a soggy fish, and I shook it. He didn’t say anything. The elevator got to my floor and I walked out.

Speaking of Andrew Loog Oldham, when I was temping in the ‘80s, I did word processing for some shady accountant on 42nd Street. He’d send me out to buy cigarettes and say “Don’t forget to get a receipt!” Andrew Loog Oldham used to come in once a week to pick up his royalty checks for old Stones records. I never spoke to him.

Now I live in California, in a little town north of San Francisco. There are actually lots of celebrities here, but it’s not like New York—people aren’t all jumbled up together, and mostly drive instead of walk. But I still meet some from time to time. For instance, I was at a benefit concert for the SF Jazz Institute. McCoy Tyner played. He was phenomenal, a force of nature. After McCoy, I was tired and headed out, but there was a little man in the exit hallway wearing a brown pleather jacket blocking my way. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, can I get past?” He recoiled and grimaced at me. It was Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica. My nephew actually knows him; long story short, my nephew is a physical therapist and goes on tour with Metallica because they’re old and have bad backs. I thought of saying “Hey, you know my nephew,” but Lars was a douche so I just left.

A few months ago, I had to send a fax. It was for some official legal bullshit, and I couldn’t send it by email. I thought, “A fax? More likely to find a time machine and go back to 1995,” but then I remembered that Mailboxes Express, located in our twee downtown area, would send faxes for a dollar a page. So I went to Mailboxes Express, walked up to the counter and stood next to a strikingly beautiful woman, about 50, with long curly dark brown hair. She was parsing a stack of tax forms about two feet high, with dozens of little yellow “sign here” Post-It notes sticking out all over. I said to her, “Better late than never!” (It was September.) She bestowed a dazzling smile on me, the kind that can make your day. I smiled back and started filling out the cover sheet for my fax. I heard her say, “Oh, you got here just in time, you have to sign all of these.” I glanced over—she was bossing around Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead. Now, when I was younger I was a big old Dead Head—OK, I’ll admit it, I’m still a big old Dead Head—and I’d actually met Bob and “partied” with him (and by “partied” I mean “took narcotics”) when I was in college, shortly after he’d screwed my girlfriend, back when he had matinee-idol looks, but that’s another story. Anyway, Bob now appeared an unkempt old man, knotted long gray greasy hair and matted beard, stooped over with that bend in his upper back that beat-down old guys sometimes get. He looked miserable so I didn’t say hello. Not that he’d remember me. Or my girlfriend, for that matter.

A couple of years ago, I was lugging a large package into my local UPS. It was a really big, heavy box, so big I couldn’t see around it, could barely manage it. There was a guy at the counter—I could only see the top of his head—but as soon as I heard that voice say, “Hey, let me give you a hand with that,” I knew it was Peter Coyote—you know, the ex-hippie occasional movie star who narrates a ton of TV commercials, all the Ken Burns films, and every documentary about the ’60s ever made (I think there’s a law). He reached out, helped me lay the box on the counter, and said, “After you, please.” He was really tall, and looked at least 10 years younger than his age. I turned and said, “Thanks.” But he doesn’t live here anymore. And neither do I.


6 thoughts on “Brushes With Fame

  1. So, once I went bowling at that hipster all night place on University Place. Waiting my turn, Billy Idol passes out and fell across me. I pushed him off and he drawled out “ahm fukkingsorry” then it was my turn.

    love this, btw

  2. just loved the walk along pace of this piece of writing. i was right there with you and holding my laughter in like an inhale while you told me the stories. i want to hug you. thanks for writing it down.

  3. Great piece. Should I tell about my own when I met James Williamson in his Sony days and wasn’t aware of his celeb times. Then Knowledge was offered by my boss with whom I had a great and so friendly relationship and it was, in a way, as having taken a bite of the apple in Eden. I thought I could never have casual conversation with him as before. But as he’s as skilled in living as a human being than he’s in playing guitar, it didn’t change anything for him. Furthermore it coincided with the end of the standard topic we we’re working on in the same arena. Nevertheless I’d still like to retrieve these moments when I didn’t know. I hope he will never read this.

  4. Ah… All those bashful brushes and yet the secret desire for infectious microbes of fame elude us except in random coughs of context.

  5. This piece is golden. I really enjoyed hearing you read it during a Sensitive Skin Beer Virus Zoom event a few months ago. I was all ears. Superb writing & reciting.

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