(Good g-d that's such a little kid in that picture! )
I Faked my Name: An Artifact from Jessica Handler
Okay, I’ll own up at the get-go. I worked in the Dream Factory – Hollywood. I wasn’t a celebrity, or a celebrity-hanger on, or a rarefied director or producer. The closest I usually got to celebrities, other than next in line at the Irvine Ranch Market at the Beverly Center, was at work, shepherding a member of that rarified society from the green room – a holding pen with a cheese tray and iced diet sodas - into the hallway, where an assistant director took over, herding them the next few yards to the stage. This activity was always timed so the house band could vamp a glossy riff on a celeb’s theme song.
There’s a show-biz term for people who aren’t celebrities; “civilians.” As a civilian, I worked backstage on a talk show. Before I worked on the talk show, I worked backstage for a game show, a land where success was measured in on-camera joyous tears.
But this was the eighties, so even civilians dressed like stars. We all tried to have very big hair. We squeezed ourselves into extremely tight pants, and wore jackets with shoulder pads resembling family-sized loaves of bread. I freshened my swaths of dark red lipstick on the hour, until a make-up artist (who had been a child star – another true confession) told me that if I put talcum powder on my lips first, “like the French,” my lipstick would stay on all day. I don’t know if this is the French method, but it worked.
Despite the grueling hours I spent steering celebrities through basement hallways, and decimating forest acreage by extreme quantities of script photocopying, I occasionally got time off. And it’s on one of these days off that I deliberately misrepresented myself to an innocent little kid.
On that Sunday, I met a friend for brunch at a restaurant in Malibu. She picked the place; the kind of restaurant with the faux-casual patio seating offering warm Pacific breezes and a cinematic cliff-side view, or for the less fortunate, a wall of picture windows.
I drove out to Malibu in my half-dead car. My car was the color of my lipstick, except for the speckles of Bond-o. My spiky hair was sturdily gelled, my lipstick impermeable.
I shelled out for valet parking at the restaurant. I was feeling flush. My friend got a table with a view of the ocean, and the California sunshine guaranteed flattering lighting. We had a wonderful time. After we’d worked our way through bagels, lox, eggs, an opulent fruit salad you can only get in California, and more than a few Bloody Marys, I started to have that creepy feeling you get when someone’s watching you.
At first, I resisted the urge to look around and find the starer. Instead, I paid closer attention to my friend’s gossip about college pals. Behind me, the staring grew more intense. A magnetic force emanated from the middle of the restaurant. My friend’s voice faded into the general hum of the room, and I found I couldn’t resist the pull of the stare. I gave in. I turned, prepared to meet my very own paparazzi.
It was a kid - a little boy maybe ten years old. Sweet faced, blonde, dressed in a button-down shirt and jeans. And holding out a smudgy paper napkin and a ballpoint pen.
“Uh, hi?” I said.
The boy smiled at me, awkwardly, and extended the pen and napkin closer to me. He shifted from foot to foot, and smiled harder. Smiling would make me do something.
Despite the paper and pen, I had no idea what he wanted.
I looked past him, searching for clues from the other diners. No one noticed us, until I saw a middle-aged couple at a table a few feet away. The man waved, that wiggly finger shy wave. The woman beamed, and made a gentle shoving motion toward her little boy. Shoo. G’wan. This was a family of tourists. I could tell because Mom wore an appliquéd sweatshirt.
Beside me, the boy cleared his throat, or tried to. He made sort of a squeaking sound.
“Glurk?” he asked.
“Huh?” I replied.
“Can I have your autograph?” the boy said.
He was gaining confidence, probably because I proved to be slower on the uptake than he had predicted. He pushed the pen and napkin toward me one more time.
I froze. This kid – and his parents – thought I was someone famous. Someone whose autograph on a crappy paper napkin from a breakfast place in Malibu they would treasure forever. Across the table, my friend, stifling a laugh, choked on her Bloody Mary. At my side, the little boy beamed at me. Across the room, his parents beamed at him.
And I did a terrible thing. I smiled back, and I reached for his napkin and pen.
“Sure!” I said.
What I wanted to say, what I should have done, was ask him, “Who am I?” Or I could have disguised my deceit and framed a leading question like, “Which of my movies is your favorite?” That way I could get a clue about who I was supposed to be. But what if movies were wrong, and he thought I was a TV star? Or a rock star?
What if he thought I was someone I didn’t actually like?
For as long as I’ve been old enough to hold a pen or pencil, I’ve been known for having really terrible handwriting. It’s a scrawl, unrecognizable in any language. I can’t read my own handwriting. So I went all out. I signed his paper napkin in the most deliberately awful loops and dashes I could muster. And I handed it back to him, and smiled.
He took the autograph, examined it – and gazed up at me with love in his eyes.
“Thank you so much!” he whispered, and scampered back to his parents.
Here’s the confession. I feel terrible about this. I wondered then, and I still wonder, which celebrity he thought – he was sure – he met that day. He met someone whose identity existed only in his eyes; a woman whose very bad handwriting, curved and thick as her lipstick, obscured her true identity.
That little boy must be grown by now, perhaps with kids of his own. I hope that on his way to being an adult he was once briefly presumed to be someone he wasn’t. I hope that on that occasion he went along with it, and that he forgives me.
I hope, too, that he managed to sell my panicky and elaborate autograph online or at a fan fair. True confession? I hope he got a good price for it.
Jessica Handler read at "True Story!" #1 in October 2009.
The next "True Story!" reading is Friday, August 19th, 8:00 p. at Kavarna in Decatur.