This is NOT a photo of me and Shaquille O’Neal. However, she’s about my height, so this illustrates the story I’m about to tell you.
SEEING A FAMOUS PERSON is like seeing a mouse run in front of you. It’s startling. Larger than life. Odd, even. It suddenly transforms a routine stroll across the kitchen to check out the refrigerator into an adventure involving a spatula, shrieking, and a sudden spike in blood pressure.
Once, while I was in line at the outdoor breakfast buffet at the Hotel Del Coronado in California, one of those guys from Friends and two other stars from some other television show (you see why I’m not good with famous people—you’re supposed to remember their names) came staggering up from the beach in badly buttoned Hawaiian shirts that had seen a hard night. They butted in line ahead of me.
One of them—okay, I looked him up, it was Matthew Perry—absconded with my omelet. The chef, temporarily dazzled, handed over my scallion-and-cheese breakfast to Mr. Perry, who received it as his just due—who, by the way, was having a really bad hair day. Now when I see reruns, I point to the TV screen and announce to anyone in the room, “See that man, there, next to Courtney Cox Arquette? He stole my eggs.”
One day, I got into a Hilton elevator and was surrounded by a forest of men. After a few floors, I gradually realized that every one of those guys was so tall I couldn’t make eye contact without a drone. Yet I did not twig to the meaning of this unusual reality, and blithely rode from floor to floor, watching one six-foot-five (or -six or -seven) man after the other climb out without ever wondering why I had found myself nestled in a patch of giants.
Eventually, the elevator was populated only by me, a fellow with interesting numbers shaved into the side of his head—a fashion choice that I found innovative but was unable to decode—and a very, very tall man leaning into the corner. Through heavily lidded eyes, he looked down at me from on high and politely asked, “Ma’am, do you know what day it is?”
This so shocked my maternal instincts that I produced a wagging finger and scolded up at him. “Young man,” I said, “what on earth are you doing with your life that you don’t know what day it is?”
Mr. Numbers-In-His-Hair nodded solemnly at me. “We don’t,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”
The tired, tall one shook his head. “We’re on planes and the buses and we don’t always know.”
Well, that sounded just silly to me. “Young man,” I repeated with parental intensity. “Listen here. You go straight to your hotel room and you go straight to bed and you stay there until when you wake up, you are able to remember which city you are in and what day of the week it is.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he promised.
I scolded on for a while as the elevator kept rising. When the doors opened to a special VIP floor, the tall one backed out alternately nodding and shaking his head with “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” and “Yes, ma’am” again.
I had my hands on my hips by now. “You go to bed, now, you hear?”
“I will do that, ma’am,” he said, grinning and heading down the hall.
The Numbers-In-His-Hair guy wanted a Diet Coke and he got off on my floor, so we walked to the soda machine together and I gave him a little advice about which chocolate dessert to never order in the restaurant downstairs. That chocolate pecan torte was misnamed and poorly executed, and Mr. Numbers would do far better to order the tiramisu, I advised.
Two days later, my son was reading a Sports Illustrated. “Hey, who’s that guy in the cover?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes and said a word that made no sense to me: “Shack.”
“I mean, what’s his name?” I asked.
He sighed. “Shaq! Shaquille O’Neal.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I saw him this weekend and I told him to go to bed.”
And that’s how I came to have a Diet Coke with Penny Hardaway and probably become the only woman in history to tell a fancy schmancy basketball star to go get horizontal without having any plan whatsoever to join him.
Years ago, while Garrison Keillor’s film was being shot in Duluth, Minnesota, I was at a funky little shopping mall attached to the Fitger’s Brewery when Meryl Streep walked by. She had a young teenage girl with her, and they both were dressed as if they had once been Amish or perhaps were now unpopular geometry teachers in a suburban high school. Even in disguise, it was unmistakably Streep.
I caught her eye or she caught mine, and we exchanged a look. Her intention instantly registered with my mother’s sensibility: don’t ruin my afternoon with my kid. I nodded and kept on walking. She smiled and headed up the stairs. I have rarely seen a dumpier skirt.
I chatted about bad internet in a European hotel with some rock star guy wearing drop-dead snakeskin leggings and impressive leather do-dads. What a snarl of hair he had. But mostly, he had little patience for the bad web service, and around that traveler’s issue, we bonded. He had an accent that was somewhere between Liverpool and Sydney, and when we stepped out of the elevator, he was swarmed by a mob of giggling girls. Don’t ask me, I cannot tell you who he was. All he wanted to do was email his kids.
I gave directions in a hotel hallway to Conor Oberst once, and then called my son to say, “You know that guy on the poster on your wall? I just told him where the vending machines are.”
At a crowded cocktail party, I fought through a throng of post-concert patrons to snag the only open chair in sight. I looked down and saw that my Stuart Weitzmans were parked next to a breathtaking pair of ostrich-skin boots. “Excellent footwear!” I said wittily, and then looked up at the man I had just wedged in next to: Doc Severinsen.
On a little puddle-jumper plane in New England, I once thought I saw John Irving. I would have a few things to say to John Irving if I ever saw him, like “Nice use of adjectives,” and “I think I love you.” I adore John Irving, and so I clutched.
I am fine at handling famous people when I have absolutely no idea who they are. But in this case, I must’ve stared like a deer in headlights for too long, because after a while, the gray-haired, handsome guy wearing an extremely nice watch lifted one eyebrow and winked at me. Not quite a John Irving thing to do, I’m thinking, and decided it was probably not the famous author.
But for a minute or so there, I believed I was in the presence of fame. Even greatness.
Which only confirms the very human reality that even the swells and the toffs among us must occasionally stand in line for breakfast and endure annoyingly crowded little planes. Comforting, in a way.
And maybe that was John Irving.
I tell the Shaquille O‘Neal story to my media studies classes as an example of framing theory at work.