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May 2001 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Brushes with Fame
By Chris King

I was invited to a dinner party at the summer home of Helen and E.L. Doctorow on the East End of Long Island, out in the Roy Scheider Hamptons. "E.L. Doctorow" is a name only for the spines of books, such as "Ragtime," by far his best-selling book. His friends call him "Edgar." I didn't call him anything, though, because I wasn't seated anywhere near him. My name card (for it was an assigned-seating dinner party) sat next to a name card that said "Roy Scheider." You know, Roy Scheider, the cop from "Jaws." Delighted to dine next to the most famous person at the party, I spent the meal marveling at how very flat his face was.

I rather like nasty movies. From the first time I saw the sex act, which wasn't on a nasty movie, I decided that I rather liked seeing the sex act, as long as the appearances of the actors were up to spec.

One night my wife asked if I had ever watched nasty movies. I admitted that I rather liked watching them, which surprised her because I had never mentioned the matter or watched one at home. She said she had also watched nasty movies as a teenager in Africa, and got a kick out of them. She said it was something we would maybe do together some time.

I have a lender's card at a video store in Greenwich Village which, like every video store in the Village, is amply stocked with nasty movies. Feeling authorized by my wife, now, I started ducking into the nasty movie room whenever I went to rent a movie. Though I always could find something that looked good and nasty, with all the right sex acts performed by actors who looked perfectly agreeable, I never could pull the trigger and take a box up to the counter. In fact, I have never successfully rented a nasty movie, on account of the shame.

The most recent time I walked, ashamed and empty-handed, out of my video store, I passed a woman with crossed eyes and a funny nose walking a weird little dog. Three steps later I knew I had just passed Anna Gasteyer of the "Saturday Night Live" cast.

I once spent a summer on the road with a photojournalist who had formerly worked on staff at The Miami Herald. When she showed me her old Florida photographs I was struck, in particular, by an image of two old ladies peeling down the street in wheelchairs under what seemed to be a hurricane sky.

Just this winter I was drinking in the afternoon at an outdoor sports bar in St. Petersburg, Florida, the town where Jack Kerouac started his final, and fatal, bar brawl. A holy roller kids' conference was in town, and the bar was swarmed with Christian teens ordering Pepsis.

A woman in a wheelchair appeared next to me at the bar, ready to order a soda. Being in Florida, I thought of my friend's photograph of the old ladies in wheelchairs, though in fact this woman was not at all old. The connection inspired me to strike up a conversation with her, and we had plenty of time to talk because the bartender, made crabby by the low-tipping teens, was feeling sorry for himself and ignoring everyone, including the woman in the wheelchair. She either had been injured in an earthquake as a child on an island in Greece and then brought over to the United States as a black market baby, or she knew how to tell a very quirky, detailed lie.

In a lull in the conversation, a sentence occurred to me. Though bragging bores me, and what I had to say could be mistaken as a boast, I figured that I would never again be able to say this sentence truthfully, so I came out with it: "You know, the last person I spoke to was the centerfielder for the Yankees."

It was true. I had spent the morning reporting a story at the Yankees spring training facility, where all the professional sportswriters were grousing about being stuck in Florida for two months, and debating which would be worse: if the Yankees made it to the World Series again and they had to work through October, or if the Yankees were eliminated and George Steinbrenner went berserk all next winter, snapping up free agent after free agent, forcing the sportswriters to work all winter interviewing guy after guy holding up his new Yankee jersey at a press conference.

In the Yankee clubhouse I was surprised to notice that I didn't smell any disagreeable male odors — no jock strap smells, not even any underarm smells. The Yankee locker room smelled like stewing Italian beef, and its dominant sound was the sound of an unwatched television.

The conversation had left me in the dust. It seemed that everyone at the dinner table, except me, had strong opinions about the part of Friuli that turned into Slovenia, and had rubbed elbows with at least one person from the golden youth of the Tito regime, and had become bored with Yugoslavia long before Yugoslavia became all the rage, which was long before I watched the country destroy itself on TV.

I had a story that I was tempted to tell. It was about the first and only person I had ever known from Yugoslavia. He was a mathematician named Anjelco, and we were tossed out of a gay wrestling party together. On a drinking binge in St. Louis with a talkative cousin, I had traded rounds with a gay man who made a little money training people who wanted to be professional wrestlers — teaching them the basic moves, how to fall and fake punches, advising them on costumes and identities. This guy invited us to his birthday party the next weekend, which was to have a wrestling theme.

My cousin had to work the midnight shift at the steel mill the night of the wrestling party, so I dragged along some other people, including Anjelco the Yugoslav and a brilliantly sexy woman from Peru, who became the first and last woman to crash this guy's annual gay male wrestling birthday party. After she ran down into the basement to see if the wrestling match was turning into an orgy yet, someone picked her up and threw her, kicking and screaming in Spanish, onto the lawn, followed (on our own feet) by myself and a very puzzled Yugoslav mathematician.

I thought this story might compete, in its own way, with the narratives about vineyards that were equidistant between the Alps and the ocean, but I was too nervous to trot out such an elaborate tale in present company. The English language translator of Milan Kundera (most famous for having written "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") was there, as was Claire Bloom. At the age of 21 Claire Bloom had acted in a film with Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, my two most cherished artists in any medium, and here she was at age 70 with a tremendous bosom, a fetching British accent and an apparent interest in everything, even me. I was too terrified to utter a word.

Claire Bloom

That is, until we were finished with the main course and moving on to the poached fruit desert, when Claire Bloom casually took my dinner plate, forked my last flakes of halibut and fish bones onto her plate, and retired to the kitchen. The intimacy was unbearable. Our leftovers had touched. Suddenly I was able to open up. When Kundera's translator said that she was getting too old to keep all of her books and that she planned to start selling them off so that she didn't die and leave her estate with thousands of books that no one wanted, I said, "No, don't. It's a like a captain — you have to go down with the ship." Claire Bloom laughed, and touched my arm, and said, "Yes, I like that. The captain has to go down with the ship."

Earlier, when I was still terrified, I had overheard Claire Bloom saying that she was leaving in the morning for a small island in Greece, where she had recently purchased a home. After we learned that, there had been jokes about her finding some young sailor to share her island nights. As I was leaving, I touched her arm and said, "I hope you find that nice Greek sailor."

"Or a nice Greek book," Claire Bloom said. We thought, together without speaking, about captains going down with ships, and then I went out alone into the rain.

Chris King (brodog@skuntry.com) grew up in Granite City, Illinois, in a storytelling kind of family. His aunts were the narrative geniuses, though one cousin, Bobby Butler (or "Robert Olen Butler" on book spines), has won a Pulitzer Prize for short fiction. Chris studied literature at Washington University, quit grad school to tour with the rock band Enormous Richard and eventually settled in New York City. He is married to Karley, a former Olympic athlete from Togo, and edits a travel magazine for money. For kicks, he maintains two Web sites, www.hoobellatoo.org (an oral history/ field recording project) and www.skuntry.com (an indie record label), and writes an e-mail newsletter called "Art Dog" based on his travels and life in the big city. He still misses St. Louis.

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