Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ordinary People

The nervous little man with the curly hair leaned over to urge his young daughter toward the movie theater door. He looked familiar, like an uncle out of context or an old school chum from high school, aged almost beyond recognition. When I realized who it was, the smile on my face probably telegraphed a warning to him that I might say something to interrupt his clearly cherished daddy-daughter time. He smiled reluctantly, desperately, as if to plead, “Please, not now. We’re good, right?” And then Billy Crystal continued toward the theater doors on a night out in Westwood Village in California, ushering his little girl ahead of him.
Life in Brentwood was surreal at best. Movie star sightings were less frequent than one might expect, but they were invariably a jolting reminder that our culture rewards an elite few with riches and status the rest of us can hardly imagine. These ordinary people experience a lopsided familiarity with millions of television viewers who sometimes expect the relationship to be reciprocal.

It seemed wherever we went in our adopted neighborhood in 1986, the quest for stardom was tangible, either in conversation with new friends who landed a part in a daytime soap, or as evidenced by 8x10 glossies hanging just about everywhere. Even our apartment manager’s office was lined with photos of her handsome, bald, aspiring actor husband. Perhaps he thought that the world needed another Yul Brynner. Unfortunately for him, Telly Savalas and Patrick Stewart came along with the same idea. Who loves ya, baby?

An essence of star-seeking scrutiny hung in the air like a bad stench. Seated near a window at a restaurant in Santa Monica, I recall being repeatedly stared at by passersby on the sidewalk outside. Maybe I was “somebody.” It was unnerving, and as a Midwesterner unused to this Californian curiosity, I found it completely annoying.  I instantly
assumed there was dressing on my face, splashed by a frazzled Meredith Baxter-Birney, who cut in line ahead of me at the salad bar with barely an “Excuse Me” as she returned to scoop up a forgotten item for one of her twins.

The phenomenon struck closer to home as well, only a half block from our back door. We found we could walk to Baskin-Robbins if we ducked behind the parking structure that shielded us from Barrington Court. We passed this routinely on our evening walks past the house where O.J. Simpson later went on a murderous rampage. Just your usual neighborly goings-on, California style.

The consistently gorgeous weather sustained a constant craving for ice cream during the endless summer of 1986. A short line led almost to the door of the 31 Flavors. Near the tubs of ice cream stood a very tanned man with a little square head. I could almost imagine him saying, “…sometimes I just go berserk!” while his cup of rocky road was scooped from the freezer case. Tom Laughlin had put on some weight since his success in 1971 with Billy Jack.

The early days of the frozen yogurt craze attracted a more health conscious crowd.  We were no different, and the perpetually nice weather resulted in a more active lifestyle, but no less desire for sweet treats. We sat curbside in our car one evening enjoying a cup of TCBY’s finest when a guttural-voiced fellow sauntered by.

“Who does this guy think he is, Arnold Schwarzenegger?” I commented, barely looking up from my Dutch chocolate. It was. The Terminator passed by without incident, though if we had it to do over again, I would have shouted, “I’ll be back” as we drove away. I bet he never heard that. The thing is, we left and we never went back. Southern California was too much for our Midwestern sensibilities. Money makes you stupid. Fame drives you crazy. Los Angeles has lots of both.