4 min read

Chance encounters with the celebrated

Chance encounters with the celebrated

Letter No. 61: Includes far more name-dropping than is customary.

Walking into McNally Jackson Books in Soho, I nearly collided with Joyce Carol Oates, who was on her way out at some speed. She has always looked frail to me, and by now she was old too, so even though it would make a better story, I’m glad we didn’t collide.

In a club in Cincinnati, I shook hands with Warren Zevon. He had just finished a concert set and barely looked at me. I now know he was probably desperate for vodka.

In a corner of the Wilmington, North Carolina airport the actress Michelle Pfeiffer was making out with her then boyfriend, Fisher Stevens, before boarding a plane in sunglasses. Or so my wife tells me. I missed the whole thing. I was reading The New York Times.

At a party, I was within 20 yards of Mikhail Baryshnikov. We had no interpersonal exchange because there were people assigned to keep people like me away.

Once in the 1980s I sat in a parking lot in Cincinnati behind a photo lab I used at the time. The lab shared a back lot with Bogart’s, a rock club. As I sat there, a tour bus pulled in. It was the bus for a metal band called Anthrax. As I sat there, the members of Anthrax clambered off. They were small, as humans go.

I was in another New York bookstore when Lauren Hutton walked in. She did not acknowledge me.

In the Russian Tea Room, I sat two tables away from Dick Cavett.

Dining at Citronelle in Baltimore, a restaurant now gone, we sat one table away from Robin Williams, also now gone. The other people at his table were laughing a lot.

I was walking down Court Street in Athens, Ohio in 1976 when Bruce Springsteen walked past. He was not very big. Though he was bigger than those Anthrax guys.

In a boarding tunnel at BWI airport, I chatted with former Cincinnati Reds great Eric Davis, and told him I would never forget him throwing out Barry Bonds at third base in the 1990 Major League Baseball playoffs. A magnificent throw from deep center field. He didn’t thank me. “Bonilla,” he said. “It was Bobby Bonilla.”

At a Johns Hopkins University reception, I tried to chat up the great writer Julian Barnes, who had just begun a year as a visiting faculty member in the creative writing department. I wanted to welcome him, but found I had absolutely nothing to say. He smiled and sipped a gin-and-tonic and did little to encourage further discourse.

I spotted the founder of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem, in the Cincinnati airport. I handed her a copy of a story I’d just written about women police officers, a new thing at the time. Ninety minutes later I was waiting for my bag in New York when she walked over and complimented me on the piece, which was nice of her.

I have fetched coffee and champagne for Susan Orlean. Not on the same occasion.

In a grocery store checkout line, the customer ahead of me was a member of the Baltimore Ravens. He was a huge man, bigger than Bruce Springsteen and all of Anthrax combined. He complained about the high price of Doritos.

One night I missed a chance to go bowling with Michael Bloomberg in Queens. Let me explain. I was covering the last day of his first campaign to be mayor of New York. I’d had a long day and was leaving a late-afternoon event when a perky volunteer invited me to join a bus full of other perky volunteers. “We’re campaigning all night!” he said perkily. I knew as a diligent reporter I should board the bus but I was tired and chose my hotel room instead. The next morning, Election Day, I saw video of Bloomberg at a wee hours campaign stop at a bowling alley, where he chose to roll a few frames. I’d already written about him at length so he knew me, and had I been there I suspect he’d have said, “Get some shoes, Keiger, we’re bowling.” Maybe not, but I regret the missed opportunity all the same.

When I was a kid, my high school band was part of a 4th of July concert by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Riverfront Stadium. The concert’s guest star was the renowned pianist Van Cliburn. A bunch of us were seated pre-concert in the Reds’ dugout when Van Cliburn walked by and tripped over the bell of my tuba. I felt bad. Later, during the climactic “1812 Overture,” many of us kids stopped playing to watch the fireworks.

I once shook the hand of a man who’d once bummed a cigarette off of Catherine Deneuve. His husband told me, “You’ve never seen an icy look until you’ve bummed a cigarette off of Catherine Deneuve.”

I knew trash-TV host Jerry Springer when he was mayor of Cincinnati. Very smart guy. Funny, too.

When opportunity presented, I’d hang out with a city vice squad commander who was not a national celebrity but was celebrated among us local reporters. He’d let me page through the mug shot book of prostitutes the vice squad had arrested. Image after image of tired, scarred, sad, beaten-down women. But one was a young pretty blonde. The commander spotted me lingering on her photo. “That one’s a guy,” he said.

I’d just written about the great poet Mark Strand. He called me and said, “Thanks for making me sound smart.”

There’s a photo of me chatting with acclaimed novelist Alice McDermott. She’s laughing really hard. I wish I could remember what I’d said.

I’d love an encounter with William Gibson, Jill Lepore, or Patti Smith. Hasn’t happened yet but you never know.

As a 16-year-old in need of money for gas and rock-n-roll records, I worked at an Arby’s roast beef restaurant. One Sunday afternoon, Reds all-star catcher Johnny Bench walked in and bought a sandwich and a Coke. Sotto voce, I alerted my coworker: “That’s Johnny Bench.” “No it isn’t,” he replied. “What would he be doing here?” A few minutes later, the customer who was not the Reds’ best catcher ever pulled away from the parking lot in a maroon Lincoln Continental. Two carloads of girls followed him out. “That was Johnny Bench,” said my coworker.