Monday, October 09, 2006

More Brushes With Fame: Appearances Can Be Decieving


In 1980, when I was 19 years old, I was working as a cashier at a Walgreen's in the western suburbs of Chicago. I was in the midst of a year-long break from college, while I worked and saved money for school.

One day while I was working this guy who was a dead ringer for Robert Redford came through my line. I knew it couldn't be him-- why the hell would Robert Redford be in Western Springs, Illinois? And this guy was about 5 foot 5. He was tiny. I'd seen Robert Redford on-screen-- he was at least as tall as I am.

The other cashier made a big hulabaloo-- "Look at that guy", she said, how much he looked like Robert Redford! "Doesn't he look like Robert Redford!" The guy in my line just smiled quietly-- no, he was smirking. I should have known.

Well, a few years later, it dawned on me-- it was Robert Redford. He'd been in the Chicago area at the time filming "Ordinary People." He'd stopped in there for toothpaste or something. And in the meantime I'd heard that he was shorter than he looked on-screen. He was. A lot.

After I finished college, I was indulging in what has become a lifelong habit of working as a waiter, either full time or to support my teaching habit. In 1989, I was working at a restaurant near Depaul. The neighborhood was in the midst of a rapid gentrification, and the restaurant, called Minnie's, became "hot." I loved working there-- it was mostly nice people as customers, and it was like printing money.

There were many celebrities, mostly local ones, particularly media people, that came in there. There was a local newscaster, the late Phil Walters, who came in all the time mid-morning and was pissy with me because I didn't fawn all over him. I didn't even know who he was until someone from the lunch shift saw him and told me who he was-- I never watch tv news. And I wouldn't have anyway-- most of the media people loved the place because it was it was a place they could come in and have nobody made a big deal over them. Pam Zekman came in-- major pain in the ass. She was a big has-been (she had done the Mirage Tavern story years before), and so was trying to hang on to the last scraps of her semi-celebrity status. Bill Curtis, who was very pleasant, was also a regular.

One day, John Cusack was there. I was shocked to see how tall he was. He was much taller than me, and I'm six feet tall. He was the only celebrity I've asked for an autograph, and it was not even for me; it was for an old friend, who'd been a big fan of his from early in his career, and had suffered a huge tragedy (his home had burned down, killing his mother and sister). I thought he could use a little cheering up.

After meeting Cusack, I mused at how he looked short on-screen, but is tall, and Redford looks tall but is short. But, I discovered, it is not only looks that can be misleading on-screen.

There was a group of little punk wannabes that would come in to Minnie's for lunch once in a while. These girls would come in with their silly hair and clothes, trying to show who could be the cutest and the cleverest. I'm the last person to try to be "punker than thou," but I was into the scene-- I hung out at the Exit, Neo and Gaspar's. The guys in Naked Raygun were friends of mine. I'd never seen these girls out anywhere in the bars. They were obnoxious little suburban girls, playing "punk" while they were in college. And they were shitty tippers, to boot. I and everybody else there hated waiting on them.

Flash forward to the mid-nineties. I had become a huge fan of the X-Files, which creator Chris Carter openly declared was influenced by "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," one of my favorite cheesy seventies cult shows. I loved both main characters, Mulder and Scully. Scully was my dream girl-- gorgeous, intelligent, spiritual in her way. But something nagged at me. I knew I'd seen her before. I was reading an article about the X-Files that mentioned that Gillian Anderson, the actress who played Scully, had gone to Depaul. Then it hit me-- I realized where I knew her from; she had been the ringleader of the twerps who had come in to Minnie's. I hated her. She was snotty, vulgar and not nearly as clever as she thought she was. Her real persona couldn't be farther than what she played on television. I couldn't watch the show without thinking of this.

A couple of years ago, I got a huge lesson in how far a person's onscreen personna-- and life-- can be from their reality. There was a Best Buy commercial where a middle-aged, middle-class suburban-- and presumably straight--guy and his son are standing in a store watching a show on a big-screen television. The son asks why they don't simply buy the television. The dad replies that it was because the minute they bought it, no longer how long they waited, the price would drop the next day. I am blessed (and sometimes cursed) with the inability to forget a face. I knew that I knew the guy in the commercial. I suddenly realized that it was Jimmy Doyle, a guy I'd worked with as a waiter nearly twenty years before. Jimmy was an actor, and very, very gay. The last I'd heard of him, in fact, was a one-man show he'd done at the Mercury Theater, on Southport, in Chicago. I'd read the very favorable reviews, which said the show centered on his identity as a gay man. I found it very ironic that the next time I saw him, he was playing this butch suburban dad.

Spending the first years of my adult life in the eighties, I should know better. I should already know that the right actor can "play" anything-- even President.

18 comments:

dirty said...

In 1980 I was 1.

Johnny Yen said...

Good god... I feel old.

I guess I can't blame you as one of the people who voted for Reagan, then. You were in Kindergarten when he was elected a second time, in 1984.

Palette said...

um, I may have been one of those despised punk rock girls. I knew the raygun boys, but I was so supercool it is hard to believe it would have been me. Plus we ate at Nick's not Minnie's.
I too ran into John Cusack, circa 1989, at a restaurant in Evanston. His formidable tallness, and creamy skin threw me into a lathering frenzy that has yet to be repeated. Unfortunately I was the victim of a perm gone wrong and was waiting to get it chopped off al la Linda Evangelista. Obviously he was not returning any frenzy.

Johnny Yen said...

No, I guarantee you weren't one of those girls-- they were painfully uncool and not too bright. I loved punk rock girls-- they couldn't by any stretch of the imagination be included in that category. Dressing like it doesn't make you it.

Are you talking the Nick's when it was still on Armitage?

Working as a waiter as long as I have, I rarely go out to eat. When I did in those days, it was usually at the Belden Deli, at Clark and Belden. I always had the Greek Salad. My tastes in food are as pedestrian as my tastes in wine.

I think I remember you telling me and my wife that story about Cusack. I've had a lot of people tell me what a wank he is. He was pleasant to me.

kim said...

I've met more than my share of celebrities, but all in celebrity settings. Usually rock stars who give you a nod and offer you a drink. David Johannason was very cool.
When Wynonna Rider was dating Dave Pirner she would come and be a little fan at his concerts at Metro. She was just another pixie girl with a hoodie sweatshirt.
I was at a salad bar at a grocery store in L.A. and I couldn't reach the spoon to get to the chopped celery, so I knocked over all of the olives in the jar next to the celery. Julianne Moore was standing next to me just laughing and shaking her head. She is cute as a button.
In Minneapolis, Prince was always at the grocery store buying frozen pizzas or waiting in line at the movies at Eden Prairie Center. No big deal, it was just prince. BUT, one time, he was in the grocery store with Kim Basinger. . .that was COOL.

Johnny Yen said...

I was working a catering gig for the Smokehouse-- a rehearsal dinner-- and Dave Pirner was one of the guests (the bride was from Minneapolis). I chatted him up a little-- reminded him that the last time I saw him was onstage with Soul Asylum at the West End, at Armitage and Sheffied. There's a real estate office there now.

AnJaka said...
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lulu said...

You and I may have run into each other at some point. I knew the Naked Raygun guys, in fact Jeff's new band The Bomb played at my 40th birthday party a year and a half ago. Plus, I used to to to N&N with my then BF all the time. Never ate at Minnies though.

I used to work at Blue Plate when it was next to Cubby Bear and waited on Cusack then. Mid-late 80s I guess. He was really nice, but I have run into him since and he has been kind of a dick, plus I have heard some unpleasant things about him from people from ETHS.

Johnny Yen said...

Did you ever hang at Danny's, on Damen and Dickens-- back when Danny owned it (I think he sold it in 1990)? John Haggerty bartended there, and I hung out with his brother Joe, who's in Pegboy with him these days. The last time I ran into John was when he was bartending at the Liar's Club-- he may still be, I just haven't been there in years.

Pezzati and company used to hang at a bar at 63rd and Pulaski called "Over Easy." It was right down the street from the giant Indian in "Wayne's World." They closed in 1986. Best punk bar ever. The only jukebox I ever saw that had Husker Du's version of 8 Miles High. Mike Duffy, the owner, spins at Delilah's once in a while. Great guy.

I was the tall blonde guy with glasses at N and N. I actually figured out that I waited on my wife and her now-ex (with my then-newborn stepdaughter) back in 1996 or so. I still get customers at the place I work at now who remember me from there.

You probably spent a little time at the Gingerman, if you were working and hanging in Wrigleyville back then. I spent some formative years there. From like 1985 to 1995. Bobby Scarpelli, the bouncer, was my son's godfather. Still miss Bobby.

lulu said...

Tall blond guy with glasses. Did you have a kid? (I know you do now)

My BF at the time had long black hair and wore a leather jacket constantly, rocker dude type. I was a blond preppy princess. He was usually drunk, I was usually annoyed.

My best friends Jane and Steve used to live right around the corner and were there all the time. She's beautiful with curly dark hair and he's an artist. You might remember them.

Never went to Over Easy. I was strictly a Northside girl,too bad, because the jukebox sounds great. I spent some time at the Gingerman. I spent some time at a lot of bars on the Northside.

Johnny Yen said...

Yes, I do remember you guys. I remember that he wasn't too sharp-- I figured you were with him because he was good-looking and generally a nice guy. You usually sat in the booth that was right next to the kitchen and usually came in with friends.

Johnny Yen said...

And yes, I do have a son, who's now 12.

N and N was like "Rick's" in Casablanca-- everyone went to the Smokehouse. Everybody I meet seems to have been there.

lulu said...

Yeah that was us. You know, I had a huge crush on you.

Johnny Yen said...

Um, the feeling was mutual. But you kept showing up with your boyfriend...

I remember when I waited on my now-wife ten years ago, I thought she was cute as hell. She and her then-husband were brought in by Joe, a regular. Last year, we ran into Joe in a store; he is no longer in touch with her ex- and was happily surprised to find we'd ended up together. I keep finding that everybody I meet, I met somewhere in my past, or I know someone they know.

My world gets smaller every day.In July, I was in Seattle visiting an old friend. We were walking down in downtown Seattle and ran into a couple who are regulars at Jury's, where I work with Phil.

lulu said...

It is an odd small world. You should have said something, he and I were a miserably unhappy couple...

Johnny Yen said...

I never felt like it was appropriate to hit on a customer. Now if you had asked me out, that would have been different...

I would probably not have been real fun to be around back then. I was overweight, drank too much and got into a really bitter custody fight with my ex-girlfriend.

lulu said...

Ah well, water under the bridge at this point.

Dale said...

Cool post - I'm always shocked at the height thing and really great to read the story continue through the comments. Small frickin' world.