Whenever I get tired of depressing news stories about overpaid fat cat CEO’s, I turn to the sports pages for relief. There you can return to the lost innocence of youth and find depressings sports stories about overpaid fat cat athletes.
Take, for example, sure-thing, first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols who abandoned the St. Louis Cardinals, my boyhood favorite, for a bigger paycheck with the Los Angeles Angels last winter. He’s struggling this year, but he was once MVP of the National League. Before that he was a kid, and not just any kid. He was a kid on a high school All-Star Baseball team that the son of my second sister’s third husband’s first wife threw batting practice to.
I could let that kind of fifth-hand notoriety go to my head, but my friends–or at least those whom I consider to be my real friends–say it hasn’t. “He could Lord it over us,” they say, “but he doesn’t. He’s still very down-to-earth.”
I’m also hot-wired in the world of Soul Music. When I was a high school senior, I drove 100 miles with three friends to an Aretha Franklin concert. As the Queen of Soul brought down the house with her final song, the #1 hit “Respect,” an inspiration struck a member of our group. “Let’s go backstage and try to meet her!” she said, and the word became the deed quicker than you could say “sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me,” as Aretha’s sister Carolyn sang in her backup vocals.
We somehow made our way past security guards to a narrow passageway outside the singer’s dressing room and, after a decent interval during which Aretha did whatever R&B legends do after a concert, she emerged into the hall and came thisclosetotouching me.
The irony, of course, is that if this encounter were to occur today, Aretha and I would touch since both her circumference and mine have increased substantially in the past four decades.
But it isn’t just me. When my wife worked in Manhattan, she sat next to two-time Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman one time in a diner. “He was very nice, not at all stuck-up,” she recalls of the meal that followed. “He asked me to pass him the ketchup, because his table didn’t have any.” As you might have guessed by now, my wife has passed me the ketchup numerous times in the past quarter century, so it’s as if there’s this great-chain-of-ketchup-passers that links me to the star of “Rain Man” and “The Graduate.”
Of course, hanging out with the stars isn’t all sweetness and light. You have to be there for them when they go through personal tragedies. Take Christopher Cross, for example, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter whose 1984 song “Thinking of Laura” recalls a friend who died young. One of my wife’s college roommates’ best friends went to high school with that girl, and she (my wife, not the roommate or the dead girl or the best friend) can’t listen to that song without getting all choked up. Actually, she can’t listen to it at all because I took the album to a used record store shortly after we were married and sold it for fifty cents.
I hope you won’t think I’m just dropping names if I mention that O.J. Simpson’s daughter once spit on my wife’s sister. We don’t have the loogie to prove it, but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the two eyewitnesses I’ve spoken to, who are both related to me by marriage.
I like to think that the famous writers I have known have influenced my work in some small way. Take John Updike, for example. I didn’t actually know him know him, but a friend of mine lived in the same town as the famous novelist on the North Shore of Boston.
I savor the memory of the story my friend told me about the Saturday he found himself in line behind Updike at the dry cleaners. Those cable-knit sweaters you see on Updike on the dust jackets of some of his most famous works? Updike had brought one in that day, and went into the same kind of detail you will find in works such as “Rabbit, Run” with the woman behind the counter about how he wanted it cleaned. And I heard about it–second hand!
But I never let this kind of stuff go to my head. I think I’m still the regular guy I used to be, before I met my famous friends. People tell me it’s true. “You’re so modest,” they say. “And you have so much to be modest about!”