Most ordinary folks, meaning non-wealthy, non-paparazzi types, probably have had brushes with famous people—unexpected sightings of celebrities, the chance to shake a president’s hand, that sort of thing. Probably not many ordinary folks, however, have come close to inadvertently assaulting a famous person.
Embarrassingly, I am one of the few. I’m not proud of it.
Many, many years ago, Steve and I were in Washington, D.C. on vacation. One thing we did was to go to the Phillips Collection—a small museum in a large brick house—to see an exhibit of Bonnard and Vuillard paintings (if you don’t know ’em, it’s worth your while to look ’em up). The museum was deserted, with just one or two other visitors browsing the rooms. I tend to be a somewhat aimless viewer at times, and for some reason in that uncrowded setting I abruptly crossed a room to reexamine a certain painting.
Somehow I found myself virtually shouldering aside an older, stouter, taller woman who seemed rather put-upon. This near-collision happened very quickly—where had she come from?—and I excused myself amidst an impression of white hair, pearls, well-tailored clothing. As I moved away, I thought, “That woman is a dead ringer for Barbara Bush.”
Then I noticed that black-suited men wearing discreet earpieces had materialized at the doors to the gallery, and I looked more closely. Holy crap. I had damn near knocked down the First Lady.
How did I feel, besides clumsy and stupid? Lucky, very lucky, not to have been tackled or tasered by any of the black-suited men. (Actually, tasers probably hadn’t been invented when the first George Bush was in office.) How did the Secret Service guys know I was harmless? Despite the apparent beeline I had made toward Mrs. Bush, I must have seemed too obviously oblivious.
But the fun wasn’t over. It quickly became clear that the director of the Phillips Collection was giving Mrs. Bush a personal tour of the exhibition. Once I realized what was going on, I stayed well away. Steve, however, chose to deliberately interpose himself between Mrs. Bush and a painting she was looking at. His position was that he was just as important as she was. Well, of course he was. But my position, which I hissed at him after I witnessed this scene, was that, regardless of social equality issues, he was being rude. Also reckless, given the presence of the men in black.
All in all, it’s amazing that we weren’t both promptly escorted out of the building. The Secret Service rose in my estimation, since they somehow intuited that Steve and I were merely annoyances and not threats.
I have had one other brush with celebrity, but that brush was strictly figurative. I thought this one would have made Steve envious, but it didn’t. John Waters, whom Steve semi-revered, came to talk at the SIU Student Center. Waters’s movies aren’t my thing, but I figured he’d be entertaining. So I went while Steve, inexplicably, stayed at home.
I was almost late, and I took a little-used front entrance at the end of the building. This entrance doesn’t lead to the ground floor; it leads to escalators going up to the second floor, where all the ballrooms had been opened up for the talk (a large crowd was expected). No one else was around at this entrance; I was alone. But as I walked to the escalators, I noticed a little niche where an exit door from an auditorium was inset, and there was John Waters, pacing and smoking a cigarette. Illegally, of course. Well, the pacing was legal.
He was alone as well, with no handlers or Student Center staff protecting him. He was wearing a brown suit and bright orange leather shoes in some sort of alligator pattern. He looked nervous, reclusive, and not particularly happy to be where he was. Our eyes met very briefly. What an opportunity! Me and John Waters, by ourselves. I could have told him that I liked his writing (true). Or asked for an autograph. But I couldn’t bother the man two minutes before his talk, and what really could I say that would matter to him? “My husband likes your movies so much he owns a John Waters comb” (a PR item obtained for Steve by a close friend)? No. I think I nodded slightly. Then I just went on.
The cigarette did him good; he pulled it together before he took the stage. I had a seat in the far reaches of the ballrooms, so I couldn’t see if he still looked unhappy. But he was very funny in his wonderfully snarky way. And I’m very proud of not having come close to injuring him.