1. My George Clooney Thing
I’m over it now, but for a few years he was my father. There were these similarities to my real-life father. The salt-and-pepper hair. The suntan, even in winter. The shameless charm and killer grin. Clooney was a doctor. So was my father! Clooney was handsome and played basketball – my father too! Every Thursday night Clooney was my father, and Noah Wyle was me.
With celebrities, it’s all about the relationship. You pal around, you bond, fly off together to unreal places. A weekend in Baden-Baden, say, with Julianne Moore. She’s your mistress, dressed in some period costume, like in An Ideal Husband with Rupert Everett and Minnie Driver, and you dive under the ruffles of her petticoats while she naughtily giggles. You go fishing with Gene Hackman. Bridget Fonda is your kid sister -- anyone messes with her, they gotta mess with you. Philip Seymour Hoffman is your childhood pal who has a bunch of money from an internet start-up, and gives you a Harley Sportster, and the two of you go rocketing off down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When it comes to sightings, as Molly says, you want to be cool. You might live out here in the hinterlands, but you want to tap into that bicoastal, NY-LA nonchalance. You don’t want to give yourself away.
2. Diane Keaton
My first sighting. It’s September 1988, and I’m in Manhattan, on the corner of 8th Avenue and 45th Street, coming out of the Key Luncheonette, carrying a recent issue of Film Comment magazine. There may in fact have been an article about Diane Keaton in that very issue. And I’m holding the magazine rolled up like a wand when -- presto, suddenly, there she is. Walking south along 8th Avenue toward my corner.
Hey, I thought, that’s Diane Keaton!
She was wearing a shawl, and a bunch of other stuff: a layered, ankle-warmer, tights-and-skirt, ragamuffin, Desperately-Seeking-Susan look. She had a suede bag slung over her shoulder like a hobo, and walked with this huge stride -- dark glasses and little knit cap and head tilted back with a big sunny smile. She looked like a cross between Stevie Wonder and Mary Poppins. She looked like someone on a lot of happy pills. She was duded up like a gypsy and listening to a Walkman. The wire ran down into her layers and up under her cap.
Hey, I thought, that really is Diane Keaton!
I stood in a classic celebrity-sighting daze, rooted to the spot, little tingly ripples of recognition rolling all up and down. A guy came up to me. Yo, he said, check this out. He was selling stolen Walkmen at $10 a pop. He had them in boxes inside a sack. I bought one.
My girlfriend at the time was living a block away on 45th St, just past the No Smoking Theater. She had been in Manhattan for three years, straight out of college, and considered me a rube from the hinterlands. You bought what? she said when I came in.
Hey, I said, a guy can always use another Walkman, no? Then I opened it. The box was stuffed full of newspaper, and buried in the newspaper was a rock. That’s all there was.
I can’t believe you let yourself get taken like that! she said. She herself would never, ever get taken by someone selling a phony Walkman on the corner of 45th and 8th. But look at the shrink-wrapping! I said. The expertise of it! The cunning! Plus, I said, I was distracted. I told her about Diane Keaton.
Let me get this right, she said. Diane Keaton had a Walkman, so you needed one too. Is that what you’re saying?
It wasn’t a good match anyway. She was insecure. She wouldn’t be seen in certain places, like Connecticut. And there were other problems.
She couldn’t relate to my Steffi Graf thing.
3. Power Mädchen
I had a picture of Steffi in a German magazine I’d bought. In the photo Steffi was on a beach, carrying a surfboard. Her body (in a striped one-piece bathing suit) looked intensely muscular -- every molecule coiled and ready. It was a provocative photo, in a Leni Riefenstahl way, that same pagan idolatry. Steffi’s hair hung down around her face, highlighting her regal nose and adding a glamour that belied her usual hausfrau look oncourt, how she worked her way through a match, mopping up her opponent.
The way I saw it, Steffi was suffering and misunderstood. Repression and regimentation ruled in her family. Her parents hated each other openly. The tragic, chain-smoking, suntanned mother. The overbearing, chain-smoking, tax-evading father. Steffi was winning Grand Slams just to make the pain go away. She was topspinning forehands and undercutting backhands, a highly conflicted style. She was tying herself in knots.
If I ever met her, I decided, I would give her a backrub. She’d roll her head and gasp in pure relief. I would let Steffi be not Steffi!
My girlfriend couldn’t relate. It all broke wide open the day we saw Steffi at the US Open in Flushing Meadow. She was playing Helena Sukova in a middle round, and during a side switch between games I called out in German, We love you, Steffi! I wanted it to be a sound that lent a comforting, gemütlich feeling far from home. But it backfired. I cupped my hands to my mouth – and the crowd went silent at precisely that moment, one of those freak nodes in the public burble, just as I shouted, Wir lieben dich, Steffi! Steffi looked up and frowned. As for my girlfriend, she stared, aghast.
Is that German? she said.
I’m not saying we broke up over Steffi Graf. We quarreled over Steffi because we were already breaking up. We just didn’t know it yet. Steffi helped us know.
4. Tom Cruise, Santa Fe, 1993
My girlfriend at the time – my new girlfriend -- decided to sleep with him. This was on a corner in Santa Fe in 1993. It was the weekend Cruise’s John Grisham film opened, The Firm. We had come out of another movie, and in the theater lobby we walked by a poster of Tom carrying a briefcase. And just as I’m thinking how un-lawyerlike Tom looks, my girlfriend does this little frisson thing, this little shiver, and says, He’s so hot.
We came out into the street, crowded with tourists. You really think Tom Cruise is that hot? I asked her.
Totally, she said. She rolled her eyes, and sucked in her breath, and looked away, and shook her head.
What about those teeth? I asked.
Ooooo, she said, yes! I love those teeth!
We walked along. Let me ask you something, I said. What if Tom Cruise showed up and wanted you to spend the weekend with him?
I’m his girl, she said. Take me away.
No, I said, but really. What if a big white limo pulled up and the door opened and Tom Cruise got out and said, Lets you and me have wild sex all weekend, and I’ll bring you back here Monday morning to this same corner.
She smiled. Like I said, I’m his girl. Break out the bubble bath!
No no no no no, I said. You don’t get it.
I’m telling you, she said. If Tom Cruise pulled up and asked me to go with him for the weekend, I wouldn’t say no.
Wait a sec, I stammered. You’re saying you would actually get in the car and actually go off and have sex all weekend? What about our adventure?
We were on a big race through the Great American West; we were setting up our tent in the middle of places like Zion National Park and wading in icy streams and cooking baked beans on a propane stove like Lewis and Clark. What about all that?
She offered the most dreadfully kind look anyone ever gave me. Then she kept walking. I stood on the sidewalk, shouting: Excuse me, but I don’t feel Tom Cruise is being INVOKED in a way that adds lustre to this relationship!
And so on.
Even after the dust settled, there remained the fact that it was Cruise she wanted to sleep with. It wasn’t right. His acting was a bunch of poses. He did this thing where he cocked his head and raised his eyebrows, and it was supposed to convey quirky unpredictability, but instead came off in this weird, avian way. Like a big tropical bird about to parrot your words back at you. Didn’t she see that? Toucan Tom, I’d say to her. That’s the beak you want pecking your tender bod. Toucan Tom, Toucan Tom. I wouldn’t let it go.
The bottom line is, we weren’t matching up celebrity-wise. This is not trivial. If your partner has a Tom Cruise thing, and you see yourself as, say, Gary Sinise or Steve Buscemi, you have a serious problem. And we did.
5. Julianna Margulies
Manhattan is the Grand Banks of the sighting world. Out here in the hinterlands, a celebrity sighting means seeing the Channel 3 weather guy, Miles Muzio, at a charity golf event. But in Manhattan, real celebrities practically jump out of the water. Just drop your line and you hook one. Rod Stewart. Barbara Walters. Sting. William Hurt. Connie Chung – throw her back, she’s not a keeper. It’s almost too easy.
I go to New York every month or so with my girlfriend, Molly, and we do New York things: we buy stuff for the sake of buying it, eat Senegalese food, listen for new words that haven’t hit the hinterlands yet, and look for videos you can’t get out here, like Rutger Hauer in Soldier of Orange. And we look for celebrities. These are sighting excursions, like taking the whale-watching boat off Woods Hole. You keep your eyes open and hope.
Last Saturday we were up on Amsterdam at noon, Molly and her friend Julie and I, chasing brunch. There were lines at Sarabeth’s and Good Enough to Eat, and I’d just crossed Amsterdam to check out a place called Fred’s on the corner of 81st. I came back, and Molly had this gloating smile.
“We just saw Julianna Margulies,” she said. “She walked right by. She was wearing khakis and a chamois shirt. She looked great.”
“Damn,” I said. And I had to cross the street at precisely that moment! “Well, at least it wasn’t Alex Kingston.”
Molly turned to Julie. “Him and his Dr. Lizzie Corday. He saw her naked in Croupier, and now I can’t shut him up.”
Julie is one of those I-don’t-have-a-TV people. “This is ER we’re talking about, right?” she said.
We assured her it was a quality sighting. Julianna Margulies was positioning herself for a breakout movie, it was all about to happen for her. “Take my word for it, Jule,” I said. “This is cool.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “If we’re talking cool, can I really take the word of someone who comes to Manhattan in white jeans?”
Julie has been in the city six years and considers herself an infallible barometer of style. The two of them were dissing me for my outfit -- white jeans and white sneakers, and a pale blue tie-dyed tee shirt with green frogs that I got years ago at a Ben and Jerry’s festival in Vermont.
“You look like an orderly,” Molly said.
“You look like a guide at an aquarium,” Julie said. “You look like the Good Humor man.”
It was a practical outfit, I pointed out. The day was sunny and warm and we were doing a lot of walking. My white jeans were reflecting and my sneakers were cushioning.
“I’ll bet you’re the only guy in Manhattan wearing white jeans,” Julie said.
I was completely at ease with my look, I told her. “And you want to see white jeans? Check out Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia.”
“Wasn’t he playing a hospice worker?” Molly asked, traitorously.
“Look, I’ll bet you a beer,” said Julie. “If we even see one other guy today in white jeans, one guy anywhere in the city, I’m buying tonight. We’ll go to Markt and I’ll buy you a meter of Kölsch.”
And so this is how I was spending my Saturday, walking around Manhattan keeping my eyes peeled for a guy, any guy, in white jeans. And thinking about Julianna Margulies nuzzling George Clooney in some secluded corner of the ER. I wondered whether my father had a juicy little Nurse Hathaway to nuzzle all those years. I wondered whether I was dressing like an orderly because of my doctor father, and whether the Julianna Margulies sighting might help shed some light.
We took the subway back down to the Village. It was a fluffy warm October day and we walked around buying things and looking at things. I played two games of speed chess in Washington Square and got hammered. We walked through a Green rally where people were dancing and wearing Ralph buttons and Hemp Now! tee shirts. On Broadway I stared after a guy in white pants. Those were khakis, Julie said. I could forget about khakis.
“I just want you to know,” I said, “that this is a no-lose situation for me. If I win, I’m getting a meter of Kölsch. And if it turns out I’m the only guy in Manhattan today with white jeans, then I get the satisfaction of knowing I’m making a style statement of distinction.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Julie said.
We were standing amid a bobbing multitude on a stretch of Broadway where vendors sell $5 sunglasses in Peter Maxx shades of saffron and rose. “What about you?” I said to Julie. “You think those boot-cut jeans are cool?”
“Guy, if you don’t know these boot-cut jeans are cool, we don’t even need to be having this conversation!”
On Houston Street Molly bought earrings from a woman who made them out of bits of copper roofs scavenged from torn-down buildings. It wasn’t easy to stay constantly on the lookout for white jeans. I felt like a secret service agent in a presidential security detail. But as it turned out, Julie was the one who got bitten by her own bet. She was so determined to prove me uncool, so focused on trousers, she completely missed the Rupert Everett sighting.
6. Totally Rupert
We were on one of those cozy blocks in the West Village. There was a pottery store where we looked at Japanese-inspired square plates with a shimmery raku finish. They cost $40 a pop, and after picking each one up and putting each one down I bought a coffee mug for $7.50.
“If I had a lot of money I could spend it at this store,” I said to the girl at the cash register.
“If you had a lot of money,” she said, “you wouldn’t be in this store.”
It was the kind of sharp little comeback no salesgirl in the hinterlands would ever muster up. “True,” I said, and upgraded my repartee. “I guess if I had a little more money, I could spend a lot of it at this store.”
Molly and Julie were waiting at the door, and we went out. We started walking, past a cute brick house with a mansard roof, and these two guys were coming toward us on the sidewalk, and one of them was Rupert Everett.
I didn’t know right away he was Rupert Everett. But I knew he was somebody -- somebody I knew and yet didn’t. That’s the crux of a sighting, that vibrating dreamlike chord of faux recognition. It’s tingly and very tantalizing.
And then Rupert made it better. He made it much better. He took it to the next level.
He nodded at us.
He was walking toward us and as he went by he made eye contact and just… nodded. Just like that, he added value to the sighting. Freely and of his own accord. He nodded.
All this took maybe five seconds. Molly and I looked at each other. We kept walking but we turned and mutually significantly glanced.
“Wasn’t that--?” Molly said.
“It was,” I said. “Absolutely.”
And then Julie shrilled, “No it wasn’t! Those weren’t white, they were bone!”
She meant his pants! Rupert Everett’s pants! She’d been so focused on his pants, which in fact were a pale ivory (below a long-sleeved, blue crew neck French sailor shirt with a pebbly weave), that she missed the sighting altogether. And now he was around the corner and gone.
Julie, we said. Forget the pants. That was Rupert Everett!
She tried to be blasé. Oh, he lives around here, I see him all the time. Come on, Jule, we said, we know you’re seething. You love Rupert Everett. Remember that scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding when they all sing Dionne Warwick? Remember him with Julianne Moore and Minnie Driver in that Oscar Wilde film? What other actor is so dashing, cynical, and charming as Rupert Everett? Who else can be a fop, a cad, a gigolo, a bounder, a roué… and your best friend too! He’s so English. He’s so gay. So straight. So every which way. He’s Cary Grant for the 21st century. How can you not be ABSOLUTELY BOWLED OVER by Rupert Everett? And so on.
All right, she said, caving in, all right, you’re killing me here.
“It’s payback for dissing us on the Julianna Margulies sighting,” I said. “What goes around comes around.”
We went back through the sighting, frame by frame. Rupert Everett was shorter than you’d think, I observed.
“They’re all shorter,” Molly said. “The ideal male actor is five-foot-eight with a big head and narrow body and perfectly symmetrical features.”
“Like Pierce Brosnan,” I said. That little puppet! “But Rupert had a normal head. He just wasn’t as tall as you think.”
And then there was the nod. In Molly’s opinion, the nod had a definite warn-us-off quality, as if to say, That’s right, I’m Rupert Everett, now lets just leave it at that, shall we, mates? Whereas in my view the entire interaction was much friendlier and more inviting. “I’d say it was more like, Yup, ya got me, I’m Rupert Everett, and lets all enjoy it together, lets have a little moment.”
I thought about what it would be like to separate from your own selfness like that, to walk around carrying it in front of you – just hold it out there and share it when you want to, wherever and with whomever. Like a cookie. Here, I’m Rupert Everett, go ahead, take a bite.
“And did you see me?” Molly said. “Did you see how cool I was? Rupert Everett nodded at me, and I just nodded back and kept on going! I mean, that’s being pretty cool, if you ask me.”
“Although,” said Julie, “to be really cool I guess we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now, right?”
“Hey,” I said. “A sighting isn’t a sighting without this conversation. You have to caress the details.”
Molly had that gleeful look again. “You two are jealous. First you missed Julianna Margulies—”pointing at me-- “and now you missed Rupert. But I got both.”
It was true. She’d hit the daily double. “I have a feeling,” I said. “Like maybe we’re about to see Phil Hoffman. I’m thinking trifecta.”
“Don’t get greedy, guy,” Julie warned.
“I just want to see more. I want to See More Philip Hoffman.”
They groaned. They made faces and held their noses at my dead fish of a pun.
“Shall we?” I said.
We had dwindled to a stop only half a block past the sighting, but now we shoved off, back into the afternoon. The day had turned breezy, with scudding clouds and a balmy something in the air. It was spring, summer and fall all at once, a three-in-one, holy trinity of seasons. And the light! There was a foamy, champagne sparkle to the light. “What a gorgeous day,” I said. “It feels so…” I groped for a word.
“So Rupert,” Molly finished.
Yes! Exactly! There was a Rupert feeling to the day, giddy, extravagant, handsome, better than real. I pictured Rupert in his French sailor shirt, sailing into port and exploring. Those scudding clouds, that balmy, islandy something. Manhattan was a mystery. It was an island you never stopped discovering. I squeezed Molly’s hand.
The rest of the day had this deathless and ideal quality, as if every moment, every sight, was being engraved in memory even as it happened. Like the fifty-times-larger-than-life ad on the side of a building on 6th Avenue, a giant photo of a teen nymphet posing seductively in Levis boot-cut jeans (“See?” said Julie) -- and right by her head two tiny windows, the only ones on the whole side of the building, through which you could see some attic dweller’s complex houseplants. Or the meter of beer placed in front of me at a brasserie later that night, ten glasses lined up in a wooden rack with a handle on top, like a strange, elongated toolbox. I raised a toast to the guy we’d seen three hours before, walking his bulldog on Waverly Place. He’d been about to disappear down a stairwell, and I ran after him, a full block, hollering out, You, pal, hey! You in the white jeans! When I caught up I was laughing and out of breath. Could you possibly wait just one minute right here? I said. I have two women who need to meet you!
Now the three of us clinked glasses in the brasserie. “To us,” I said, and settled down between my Julianne Moore and my Minnie Driver. We would trade gossip and innuendo, and get ourselves into complications, and bail ourselves out with charming insincerities and gouging thrusts of wit. It was totally Rupert, the whole day had become suffused with a perfect Rupertness. Which meant it would all work out in the end. And there was going to be a lot of fun in between, too.