I don’t believe people who tell me they don’t pay attention to celebrity gossip or who make a point of shunning all celebrity news rags and TV shows. We are all human. We are all members of a successful species, which means we are absolutely fascinated by other members of our own species. If we weren’t, extinction rather than overpopulation would be our problem. Gossip rags and TV shows give us the opportunity to observe, gape, and wonder at other members of our own species.
That being said, I am the sort who, although very interested in celebrities, can never keep them straight (I hate to tell you this, but despite the fact they alternate weeks being on the cover of People magazine, if you showed me pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton side by side, I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart). This is particularly true, because, at this point in my life, I don’t watch television. And I don’t go to movies much, either. I am also the sort who, when I was a teenager, thought all those girls portrayed screaming and crying in the ancient video footage of the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles were nuts. What a stupid thing to do! I dreamed of meeting my own heartthrobs like David Bowie and Sting and very calmly asking questions that showed a keen ability to interpret song lyrics. David would think I was as cool as he was when I very intelligently asked him, “So, is Major Tom all of youth, and Ground Control all the parents worried about losing us?”
When I was a child and a teenager, I didn’t write fan letters to pop stars. I wrote them to my favorite authors. I wanted to meet David Bowie, yes, but I also wanted to meet Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary and later John Irving and Pat Conroy. The nice thing about writing fan letters to authors is that, unlike pop stars who just send sleazy autographed photographs (I did have friends who wrote letters to the likes of Shaun Cassidy), authors tend to write at least a few sentences back. I’m still likely to compose letters to authors in my head these days, although less likely to get them written and sent than I did in those days. And I dream of suddenly finding myself, one day, sitting next to the likes of Sarah Blake on an airplane, striking up a great conversation with her (complete fantasy, because I never talk to a soul on airplanes, if I can help it), and then saying to her, “Dammit. Write another book. I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting ever since I read Grange House, and that was years ago.”
The trouble with authors is that we don’t tend to have a very good idea of what they look like. If they bother to have photos on their books, they seem to be inclined to use the same ones for years on end, never aging from the time they wrote their first book fifteen years ago. They’re difficult to spot in a crowd. So, imagine my surprise when Bob and I were down in Florida, visiting Fort Jefferson at The Dry Tortugas off Key West, and I happened to take a look at the other members of our tour group. Standing a few feet from me was a very cool-looking, tall and bulky gentleman who was holding onto a crooked walking stick and occasionally smirking at some of the tour guide’s dumb jokes. He looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t exactly figure out why. He also looked decidedly gay, which led me to look to see who was accompanying him. Ahh, my gay theory was confirmed when I discovered standing to his right, a short, stocky middle-aged man wearing a very cute fisherman’s hat and looking very serious. He looked even more familiar to me, and then it dawned on me. I was standing a mere few feet away from my greatest idol David Sedaris.
David Sedaris? No, it couldn’t be. What would he be doing here? I looked a little more (okay, I stared -- no, I gawked. My parents would have been mortified after all those years of telling us how rude it is to stare at others), and, yes, that most definitely was the man I’d seen pictured on book jackets. Why wasn’t anyone else staring at him, though, or crowding around to get his autograph? I looked around. There was the obese guy with the “Coors Light” t-shirt. There was the all-American family dressed in Bermuda shorts and matching shirts. There was the sextet (long khaki shorts, dark socks pulled up mid-calf with their white sneakers) that was obviously on some sort “over-65” special. There was the honeymooning couple from Kansas. Not exactly a David-Sedaris-reading, NPR-listening crowd.
From this point on, I was unable to pay attention to our tour guide. I started wondering how I was coolly going to interject myself into David and (who was obviously his partner we all know and love) Hugh’s conversation. This was not going to be an easy task, as these two weren’t talking at all. They were both squinting into the bright sun, perspiring in the extreme heat with the rest of us, and trying to focus on what the tour guide was saying. After wondering why on earth they were here, it was beginning to make perfect sense to me. David was obviously on tour for his newest book, and they’d been in Florida, Hugh accompanying him for the trip. They, like everyone else on the tour, had been curious about Dry Tortugas National Park and had decided to come out and see it.
I began to imagine the piece I’d eventually read in The New Yorker that evolved from this little day trip: the salty old tour guide with his limp, the annoying, ghostly-white blond woman who kept staring at them and who eventually started asking them all sorts of inane questions and blabbering on about having grown up in North Carolina and been to France a few times... Maybe I should stop paying attention to them. Maybe I should just turn away and ignore them for a while. I began to focus completely on our tour guide and everything he was saying about the torture of building this fort in the heat, soaking up his narrative the way the soldiers’ wool uniforms must have soaked up their sweat. I was going to become the expert on what the tour guide had to say, maybe station myself as we walked to the next stopping point on the tour, so that I would be standing next to David and could casually comment on something the old guide said, something that would identify me as an intelligent, wry observer of history.
Our next stop inside the fort was the boat that had recently been brought to shore with eight Cubans aboard, ranging in age from 8 to 65. It was wooden. It was tiny. It was something I wouldn’t have taken out into a pond, let alone the waters of the Atlantic. I began to think about how desperate these people are to get to our country. I began to write a blog post in my head blasting those who are so down on immigrants and immigration. I was lambasting them for thinking that people who are desperate enough to get to our country by such means are shiftless nobodies who plan to live off us hard-working Americans. I was observing how the Cubans (because they are from that all-so-dangerous-huge-and-powerful Communist country) are welcomed once they manage to make it in such a vehicle, but our Mexican neighbors are not. With each of my imagined keystrokes, I was questioning armchair bigots, sitting around in their Lazyboys watching Fox News, about where they thought their families had come from to become citizens of The United States, and what if someone had been building fences to keep their forebears out? And then I looked up to discover that David and Hugh were gone. They’d left the group. They’d gone off to wander around the fort on their own. I was crushed! I’d been so busy fighting for immigrants, I’d lost the opportunity to become immortalized in The New Yorker and possibly even Sedaris’s next book.
Bob was, of course, oblivious to all this. He was the one who actually was asking the tour guide intelligent questions. He was also the one talking to others on the tour and finding out where they were from and asking them if they’d like him to take their pictures together with their cameras in the hopes they’d offer to take pictures of him and me together with our cameras. Unfortunately, he’d managed to miss David and Hugh (he wouldn’t have known who they were anyway. He reads Sedaris sometimes, but is not the lunatic fan I am). Good thing, really. Chances were, I’d remain anonymous, and he’d show up in The New York Time’s Book Review write-up on Sedaris’s next book as the “screamingly portrayed Picture-Taking-Pennsylvanian-Preacher.” The tour guide ended his spiel, and Bob wanted to explore every part of the fort we could, eat our lunch, and then go snorkeling. The snorkeling off this island was supposed to be some of the best in the world.
We went our separate ways for this snorkeling expedition. I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer without a float, and Bob wanted to snorkel out to posts that seemed to be miles off in the distance. I told him to go ahead and that I would stick close to the shore and snorkel around the fort’s wall where some fantastic coral was growing. He was wrong to go all the way out there, as the octopus we eventually saw, was hanging out right by the wall where I’d been all along. However, there was another spot on the island for snorkeling, and he eventually convinced me to walk over there with him. That spot seemed to be too close to boat landings and dangerous-looking posts, though, so I once again told him to go on ahead, and I’d walk along the beach that was up above and watch him.
I scrambled up the bank to the wall above the water, and lo and behold! there were David and Hugh, standing up there taking pictures. Isn’t it reassuring to find out that your idol does something as cliché as taking pictures while touring a national park? Anyway, my chance was back. I could do something cool, say something brilliant. David and Hugh would love me. We'd get back to Key West and have dinner together. Our next vacation would be to visit them in France. Suddenly, Bob popped up to the surface to call up to me to tell me how I really ought to come down, that it was so cool, and that I was missing out on all kinds of great sea life. I looked over at Hugh and David, trying to gauge what David might be writing in his own head as he witnessed all this. All of a sudden, Hugh looked at me, and said with a distinct Australian accent,
“Tell him to be careful. We saw some barracuda swimming around down there earlier.” At the same time David said, in just as distinct an Australian accent, “Let her get by, Wesley.”
I’m relieved, actually. I would hate to think that a man like Hugh, who spent his childhood in places like Africa, wouldn’t know that barracuda are perfectly harmless to snorkelers and scuba divers. And I don’t have to worry about The New Yorker essay describing the idiot couple -- she watching from above as her husband swam around in the boat landing, flirting with barracuda. Then again, maybe I'll one day read the essay about how he and Hugh pretend to be clueless Australian tourists when they're in the U.S.