New Yorkers have a different relationship to celebrity. You can't swing a cat in this town without hitting a big shot, so we are more restrained or dismissive or tolerant when famous people materialize. And we are exposed to them at an early age. My first celebrity encounter was in 1984. I was playing frisbee on the sidewalk with my brother and it went skidding to the feet of Kevin Bacon, who was out walking his dog.
I was starstruck, but, being a New Yorker, tried to downplay it and just be cool. But I had to say something.
"Is that your dog? You're the guy from Footloose," I piped in my 8 year-old falsetto.
"Yep, that's me," Bacon said, hair fluttering in the sun. "And this is my dog." Then he continued on his way uptown (grievously, without the trademark rock pirouette-and-knee-slide flourish) and I went back to skidding the frisbee.
In the ensuing decades, I've spotted my share of celebs. But I'm no fame junky and generally do as New Yorkers do -- merely cast sidelong glances while pretending to ignore their megawatt radiance. I barely raised an eyebrow to demigods Heath Ledger, Paul Giamatti, Thurston Moore and yawned in the direction of Peter Sarsgaard, Gabriel Byrne, and Emma Stone, among other notables. I even bluffed nonchalance next to Paul McCartney. I did once talk to Jonathan Richman, but I was fitting him for eyeglasses at the time.
Those are all actors and musicians, though, and being a bookish sort myself, I'm more likely to blow my cool or overcome my reticence in the presence of a writer. Movie star and rockstar adulation is at bottom a desire for their fluke wealth. If I'm going to pledge my devotion to a rich and indifferent stranger, it will be a guy who's written fine books. I've come close. I almost kissed Tad Friend's rings at a hotdog joint and agonized before letting Johnathan Ames pass me by. Then I heard that Martin Amis, an all-time hero, was moving to my neighborhood.
My oozy affection for Amis has long verged on idolatry. I latched onto him in college as antidote to all the world's mawkishness, tedium, and solemn stupidity. I've devoured all the novels, memoirs and essays. I know all about his upbringing, his literary clique, his political screeds. I used to harangue friends who doubted his acerbic wit, dazzling craft, and scary intelligence. And I even fell into pedantry, correcting a sultry partygoer's vigorously French pronunciation of his name, dooming the flirtation we had previously been sharing.
Amis's arrival in Brooklyn was a full scale media event (self-hating Brit, fading literary lion, critic low on ammunition) and I read widely before finding out that he had moved only a few blocks away from my street. His presence became my paranoia; I'd monitor the sidewalk and scan the tables in the local restaurants as if he were the one hunting for me. Even if I spotted him, would I say something? Yes, I'd have to. I kept a couple practiced phrases in mind. ("Mr. Amis, I presume..." or "Why on earth would you casually drop 'rebarbative' in interviews?")
But, on reconsideration, no. Silence is always the best policy. I can't imagine Amis would have much interest, after 40 years of renown, in my honeyed words, my damp hand, my curtsey. And the stakes are too high. I'd never recover from a withering look, an impatient wave, an icy about-face. But, then again, what if I hit a bullseye, said just the right thing, some wry, intelligent "Open Sesame" of admiration? Then we'd hit it off and I'd become his sidekick/tennis partner/drinking mate.»
Photo by Kilgub
I'm wise to the divisions between a writer and their work, the folly of mistaking the creation for the creator, but Amis's oeuvre convinces me that we'd make a stellar twosome. Granted, I can't offer the brilliant repartee of Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, or Ian McEwan, but Amis, I'm sure, would get a perverse thrill from slumming with someone so unversed and undistinguished. I mean, it's been decades since he claimed a nobody for a bosom buddy and a literary crew like his, for all their fizzing wordplay and highfalutin' hilarity, must get a bit exhausting. Imagine always having to speak in lapidary paragraphs, with impeccable grammar, and evident effortlessness.
Trolling the neighborhood for a parking spot a few days ago, I landed one on his leafy street. However, like all Brooklyn achievements, it was short-lived and the neatnik street cleaners forced me to move the car the following night. I approached the vehicle steeled for the usual torment: that aimless trail of tears, those sobbing choreographies, the tapping of the brakes, the reverses and curb-appraisals, the false ecstasies, the sighted clearings, where hydrants crouch in ambush.
I glimpsed a pretty girl with angelically blonde hair at the foot of a stoop. I looked up again, and saw Isabelle Fonseca, Amis's statuesque wife. It was all happening too fast. Another step up, I saw He was descending the front stairs. Dapper and slight, with a tentative wave of white hair swept backwards, and, thankfully, more vitality than his photographs. Fonseca looked warily at me, I at her, then up in fearful worship to Amis, who wore a decent and comfortable-looking scowl.
I suavely entered the car on the passenger side, a quirk, due to a break-in attempt, that was not lost on the audience. Say something. I flicked over some possible greetings for an urbane overture. I turned to Amis, who stood hands in pockets just feet away, ready to welcome him to the neighborhood and get things rolling before sealing the deal with some saucy puns. But the window was still up. So I turned back to the windshield and inched the car backwards and forwards in its sardined spot, performing a kind of Honda dressage, while Amis watched.
I extricated myself from the vise-like bumpers, damning my cowardice but savoring my escape. Why couldn't I have mustered my eight year-old assertiveness? Hell, I'm worldly enough. I was rubbing elbows with Kevin Bacon when Amis was little more than a literary wunderkind. At least ours is a small neighborhood short on parking, so chances are Amis and I will cross paths again. Only next time I hope he has a dog so I can deliver the perfect ice-breaker.
Sam Howard is a reporter in Manhattan and a Brooklyn homebody.