What famous person would you walk across the street to see? Celebrity fascination for its own sake is something I never really got. Even though I find it interesting that someone named Kim Kardashian is blamed for a horrible trend called “vocal fry,” I confess I have never heard her speak a single vocally fried word, and don’t really care to. But I guess we all have our heroes and crushes among the ranks of the super famous and excessively accomplished—creatures who live in some parallel universe we can see through a filmy glaze of jealousy, lust, or admiration. But my obsessions have always been off the beaten track. And literary people are prone to crushing on personalities that never adorn the cover of People magazine. Our hearts pound and throats go dry in the presence of a long-admired poet, essayist, or fictioneer, not Brad Pitt or Miley Cyrus. My celebrity encounters may be few, but they run the gamut from embarrassingly silly to deeply meaningful. I achieved both extremes when I had the good luck to share the same space for a moment with Toni Morrison. I stood, tongue-tied and glassy eyed, and finally blurted “I love you!” She was nice about it.
I have already confessed my inexplicable teen crush on a glum TV vampire in writing. But there’s more to the story. Anyone brought up in the second half of the 20th century has rock star idols. I would still crawl across broken glass to get an up-close hello with Paul McCartney. But what would I say to him? Assure him that his music formed and influenced the soundtrack of my life for decades? Like he hasn’t heard that a trillion times. Really, what on earth is there to say? Recently at an Animal Collective show, I was lucky enough to land in the VIP section of the hall—a cordoned off area close to the action where free drinks flowed and the view was fabulous. The owner of the place invited me to hang out after the show to meet the boys in the band. He was floored when I declined. Seriously, imagine that awkward little conversation—three sweat-drenched lads coming down from a major performance high and having to say hello to some middle-aged lady who probably looks like their mom. It was quite enough to witness them do their airy beautiful thing, to see yet another wave of youthful energy fall in swooning love with another terrific band. It’s a ritual I never tire of watching.
I DO understand the yearning to get close. In the ’70s I saw Patti Smith Group two nights in a row in Atlanta. Thoroughly besotted, my friends and I followed the band bus around the city for a while after the show, not even knowing what we’d do or say if we managed an encounter. This band stirred the ultimate combo of fan desire in this callow young woman: I wanted to be Patti Smith. But I wanted to love her lead guitarist, Lenny Kaye. I wanted to know him, touch him, pull his adorable nerd glasses off and kiss the shit out of him. This crush has endured for decades—it’s always still there, simmering, when Patti Smith comes up in conversation or the media, and I always check to see if he is in the lineup when she performs anywhere.
But the closest I ever got to Lenny (so far!) was by proxy. When my drummer son was living in a sort of artistic flop house in the East Village a few years ago, his painter roommate had open houses in the loft for interested NYC art collectors. Patrick called me one Friday night with some shattering news.
“Hey, Ma—you’ll never guess who is here looking at David’s work tonight. Lenny Kaye!” He spoke in a hushed voice, had probably darted to the kitchen or someplace to let his mommy know that one of her major youthful crushes was in his presence. My mind raced—what could I do to prolong this tenuous connection?
“Honey, can you ummmmmm get me his autograph or something?” Patrick snorted with derision.
“Seriously, Mom. That’s ridiculous.” Of course, he was right. But I was practically trembling as I pictured Lenny Kaye (only slightly–and attractively–aged from 1976) gazing at paintings through his signature specs, perhaps a bottle of fancy European beer in his hand. I almost said Well then, can you shag him for me? But then realized who I was talking to. I was that addled.
By far, my favorite celebrity encounter ever is the few moments’ chat I had with the one and only Gloria Steinem in the Orlando airport last March. My husband (who has a keen sense of celeb radar, honed in the ’80s during his baffling obsession with Cher) spotted her as we waited in a gate area for our flight. She had just come off a plane and was walking toward the terminal shuttle. She was entirely alone—no handlers, no assistants, no disciples. Just Gloria, hair swept into a gorgeous, slapdash knot and an enviable outfit that screamed major-cultural-figure-brainy-casual. Sort of a I may look fabulous but I don’t care kind of ensemble. She was carrying a serious-looking bag that no doubt held the secrets of the universe.
At first I didn’t believe we had the real Gloria Steinem in front of us—those kinds of things just don’t happen to me. There are so few famous people I really want to talk to, the odds just don’t favor someone I would give anything to meet simply appearing, in the flesh. But it was undoubtedly her, and she was getting away. Fast. I followed, and even followed when she disappeared into the ladies room in the long terminal walkway. How ironic it was to chase my number one feminist icon past a row of Disney princess posters. (In Orlando, we get a lot of that.) I casually hung out at the sinks and waited for her to wash her hands. Of COURSE, Gloria Steinem would wash her hands. She did. Then I marched out of the restroom practically on her heels.
“M-Ms. Steinem?” I stammered, and she turned around to look at me. Her expression was pleasant, questioning, not a trace of annoyance. Emboldened, I introduced myself and basically told her how incredibly much she meant to me. She relaxed and smiled a sisterly-beautiful smile, and despite how many hundreds of times a month this must happen to her, she was gracious and glimmering with sweet, wise, strong energy. And for a moment she aimed all that at me! It was like taking a bath in pure grace. I told her I was headed to AWP, the biggest writing conference in history. I described the work of the new activist group VIDA, whose efforts to expose and correct the gender inequality in publishing were going to be celebrated all over Boston at various conference events. She told me about the current similar work she was doing with bringing more women’s voices into the media, and she was on her way to a workshop to train women to be more assertive and confident about speaking out on various issues. Before we parted ways, she asked me a bit more about VIDA, and gave me a message for the women I’d see in Boston:
“You tell them I said give ‘em hell.”
“I will! It was a joy to meet you, Ms. Steinem.”
I told every woman I talked to that week that Gloria Steinem said to give ‘em hell. It was like passing on a blessing and a talisman.
Could I have made more of this chance meeting? Oh, yeah. I have regrets! Like why didn’t I beg my husband to take our picture together? I was far too nervous to attempt a selfie with such a personal heroine. I could have told her how those early issues of Ms. magazine made me realize I was not alone. How her interviews were lessons in not backing down while remaining classy as hell. How one of her many books, Revolution from Within, came along in the nick of time for me. How destroyed I felt when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, despite its necessity and all our hard work. How I fear for my daughter’s generation, so many of whom take the hard road to equality for granted and might be losing ground. How I turn to her presence in the world when I am confounded by the persistent sexism and racism so many seem not to notice.
But the amazing thing I learned in those few minutes is that when one of the long, slow crushes of my life miraculously came into my world, I really didn’t want to say any of those things. I wanted to listen.