When I picked up the tickets, I heard the ticket seller say that the play was sold out. I had made my purchase online from a discount source, as I almost always do, and that site enjoined buyers to pick up tickets early. This time I had, and I went outside to seek a quick bite to eat. The theater doors had not yet opened, and a ticket-line monitor was trying to herd the early arrivals into an orderly procession. Someone behind me spoke, and I heard “Jonathan.” I assumed he was giving his name to the TLM in case tickets were not picked up or returned. I was about to continue my quest for a sandwich (later found at Pret), when I heard, “Jonathan and the last name is F-O-E-R.” I turned around and saw a man, not that tall, with scruffy facial hair. A striking woman behind him saw my movement and smiled a bit, but my attention went to the TLM, who had stopped writing on a pad to ask, “Like the writer?” Almost as if embarrassed, he silently replied with a small head movement.
My thoughts ping ponged. Should I say how impressive I had found Everything is Illuminated and that friend Judy thought it was one of the best things she had ever read? Would I have to pretend I had read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which I did later read)? Should I try for a brief conversation and ask if he was working on anything? (Since this incident, he has published another book.) Should I offer him my one ticket and then ask that striking woman, from whom I averted my eyes because I did not want to stare, for a drink? If I said anything, was I really trying to give him a compliment or just trying to show off that I was literate enough to have read him?
With these thoughts ricocheting, I walked away. I have felt that we unique-in-our-way-but-ordinary-people should not intrude on celebrities. Some of this feeling comes from decades ago when I attended a Liza Minnelli concert, and whispers in the audience said that Jackie Onassis was there. I looked down from my first-row balcony seat, and yup, she was right below. At intermission, what seemed like half the audience walked towards the stage in the aisle where she sat, turned around, and walked back in order to see her. She sat in her seat, composed, ignored the parade, and talked to her companion. I thought how hard it could be for a celebrity to do what the rest of us can take for granted, and I vowed not to be such a gawker.
I have, however, found myself nodding. At the intermission of another play which I don’t remember, I saw the actor who a long time ago did the ads where he dared you to knock a battery off his shoulder. Our eyes met. I nodded. He nodded back. He was standing alone, and I did wonder if he, like I, had come alone. When I saw Sam Waterston walking west on West 23rd Street as I walked east, I again nodded, and he nodded back. Once before, I almost broke my nod policy. Shortly before a performance of the Flying Karamazov Brothers (I am a sucker for juggled chainsaws), I was at a urinal, when Jerry Orbach appeared at the adjacent spot. I wanted to say how much I had enjoyed his performance in 42nd Street on Broadway and that I hoped besides Law and Order he would do more song and dance roles. Few were better than he, but he and I only exchanged nods. And, of course, in New York, there have been other celebrity sightings, but almost always with no external reaction from me.
I have wondered if celebrities have advice for how us non-celebrities should react when we see them. Do they want to be acknowledged in some way? How? Or do they want to be ignored? What is the celebrity’s reaction if a stranger wants to engage in conversation or give words of praise? Or take a picture? I heard Paul McCartney in a TV interview (my closest encounter with him was being in the same baseball stadium with him) say that he would not take a selfie with strangers, but he would talk with them.
Of course, I am sure that different celebrities have different reactions to us ordinary folk, but are there some sort of general rules? Perhaps the source of the fame matters? I assume that well-known actors are approached often and this can be wearing, but is that true for writers whose faces may not have been imprinted on us? I certainly would not have known that the man behind me had written a book that I admire if I had not heard him give his name. I did feel more of an urge to say something to him than I have had to the actors I have passed. Perhaps that is because I expect that a well-regarded author would have interesting things to say while I am not sure that that holds true for other celebrities.
What would you have done if you were standing next to Jonathan Safran Foer? And would your answer change if, as I am 80 percent sure, his companion was Michelle Williams?
But if anyone knows him, tell Jonathan that he looks much too young to be such a distinguished author. And I truly have admired his writing. Also tell his brother Joshua that I found his memory book fascinating. (I wish I could remember that book’s title.)