Whenever I get tired of depressing news stories about overpaid fat cat CEOs, I turn to the sports pages for relief. There you can return to the lost innocence of youth and find depressing sports stories about overpaid fat cat athletes.
Take, for example, Albert Pujols, who abandoned the St. Louis Cardinals, my boyhood favorite, for a bigger paycheck with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. He’s a lock to make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, with a career in which (so far) he has cranked out 3,236 hits, 662 home runs, and 2,100 runs batted in. But he was once a kid, and not just any kid. He was a kid on a high school baseball team that the son of my second-eldest 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 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 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 friends to an Aretha Franklin concert. As the Queen of Soul brought down the house with her #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.”
We 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 had occurred in our respective golden years, Aretha and I would have touched since both her circumference and mine had increased substantially over five decades.
I didn’t get to near-famehood all by myself, of course–I had the help of my wife. When she worked in Manhattan, she sat next to two-time Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman one time in a diner. “He was nice, not at all stuck-up,” she recalls. “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 thirty-three years, so it’s as if there’s this great-chain-of-ketchup-passers that links me to the star of “The Graduate.”
Hanging out with the stars isn’t all sweetness and light, though. You have to be there for them when they go through personal tragedies. Take Christopher Cross, 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 married and sold it. I can’t stand the guy for making my wife cry, although that’s a relatively easy thing to do since she bursts into tears over certain particularly emotional instant coffee commercials.
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 north 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 covers of some of his most famous works? Updike 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!”