I don’t talk to the people I want to meet: awkward encounters with Michael Palin, Helen Thomas, David Carr and Tina Fey

27 11 2011

I like meeting my idols. If you can call what I do “meeting.” It’s not quite stalking because I always keep a respectful distance and decorum, plus I’m usually a paying ticket holder at these things. But if there’s ever a meet and greet, say, after a public speaking event, you can count on me not to say hello. I’ll go to the brink of an otherwise exciting moment, and stop, feet away from greatness and start melting into an awkward fan girl who has no intention of sparking an introduction.

Not meeting Michael Palin in London

I really like watching Michael Palin’s travel shows on PBS. I used to reference them in high school geography research papers because I’m high brow and intellectual like that. When it came time to write my college entrance essay, I outlined a list of the first five places I’d visit if I was called on by the television gods to take over from Michael’s hosting duties. (Still hasn’t happened).

The chance to meet him occurred when I was spending a semester abroad in graduate school. I was interning at Food and Travel magazine in London during the World Travel Market and Michael was scheduled to speak at the Nepal booth. I knew this. I looked up the time and date and place. Some of my colleges were going to the exhibition on other days and I casually mentioned that maybe I should go one day. One day when Michael Palin was speaking. In person. So I could stare at him like I’m watching TV and not say hello.

Sure, go if you want, they said. It wasn’t like the job was demanding and I needed permission. It was more like letting them know when I’d be away from my computer.

When I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing Michael Palin speak, thinking I was dropping a big British celebrity name, they just say, oh yeah, Monty Python, my parents like him.

Right! That’s the one! Inappropriately aged celebrities are my thing!

When I arrived at the travel show, I wandered around a bit before heading over to the Nepal exhibit in the corner. I was eating Jolly Rancher candies I’d picked up from some booth and scanning the area for my man. My head swiveled to the left and standing right next to me was Michael Palin.

Found him.

My eyes got wide and I tried to open my mouth, but my teeth were stuck together from the Jolly Ranchers. We made eye contact and he immediately vacated the premise. Apparently crazy girls with their hands full of Jolly Rancher wrappers aren’t his thing.

I stuck around to hear him discuss the virtues of Nepalese tourism, and it was like watching living television. Especially the part where you don’t get to talk to the star of the show.

Not meeting Helen Thomas in Cleveland

When I returned to the campus of Case Western Reserve University for my senior year of college, I’d decided that I wanted to go to graduate school for journalism. Lucky for me, 2004 was also the year when the University was hosting the vice presidential debates, and to mark the occasion, they’d packed the year with the Race at Case themed events.

One of the lectures kicking off the season was a speech by Helen Thomas at Severance Hall. After the speech, she’d be attending a reception on the lawn outside. I needed to go to the reception anyway because the FBI told me to. I’d signed up to volunteer with the CBS news crew during the vice presidential debates and in order to get into the hall to see Dick Chaney and John Edwards in person (like there’s a big demand for that) I needed FBI clearance and the fancy ID badge that went with it.

In addition to being the summer when I decided to dedicate my professional life to the fourth pillar of government, it was also the summer when I over plucked my eyebrows and practiced extreme sunbathing. So it didn’t make for the most attractive FBI photo, but on the plus side, I’m probably untraceable since I’ve left behind the radiation chic look.

Ms. Thomas’s speech was full of all the spunk and skepticism that you’d expect. Her jokes about past presidents went over well with the slightly conservative Ohio crowd. But when she switched her target to George W. Bush, the laughter got softer. Not that it’s any surprise that non-partisan’s biggest fans are the ones collecting more support for their own team.

Standing under the party tent outside, I spotted the woman of the hour talking to one fan after another. She was open and gracious and smiling for photos when the cameras were raised.

I hovered nearby like a nervous first time hunter watching Bambi munch buttercups. I thought about what to say. I’d brought my camera along ready to pose for a photo, but couldn’t summon the courage to point and shoot from a distance or simply say hello to the trailblazer.

Eventually the event ended and I regretfully left empty handed. I often think about how great that photo would look hanging on my office wall (after I photoshopped some eyebrows on myself). If I ever get the chance to run into her again, I promise to say hello. Maybe we could even have a light chat about the situation in Palestine. I hear she loves talking to strangers with cameras about it.

Not meeting David Carr at Dean & Deluca’s or in the New York Times Building

The highlight of awards season for me is The Carpetbagger columns and videos from The New York Times. I’m not really picky about my pop culture news sources (except that I always watch E!’s red carpet interviews on mute to avoid brain shrinkage), but my favorite coverage is on the web.

I started following The Carpetbagger a few seasons ago when David Carr was at the helm. It leaves the “Who are you wearing?” questions in the dust. It’s the perfect blend of behind the scenes insights and self-deprecating humor. I can’t really think of any situation that can’t be made better with a little self-deprecation, especially when you’re reporting on behalf of the Times juggernaut.

For example, Carr’s video report from the Sundance Film Festival was filled with clips of Woody Harrelson teaching him to snowboard and Carr soliciting man-on-the-street suggestions for new movie scripts. How did he get people to stop and talk to him? Oh, just by duck taping a hand written New York Times sign to a near-by pole. Because why tap into the corporate budget when there’s a ball point pen in your pocket?

The best videos were the ones shot in his home. In the basement. In New Jersey.

After being charmed to death by The Carpetbagger coverage, I moved on to his media columns in the business section and addiction memoir The Night of the Gun.

Then one day I was sitting in the Dean and Deluca’s café outside The New York Times building (which I’ve nicknamed The Promised Land) killing time before going inside to hear Frank Bruni interview Betty White. I suddenly realized the awkward looking man at the end of the line was David Carr.

A celebrity spotting in the wild!

Except he’s not really a celebrity and an overpriced coffee shop physically attached to his place of employment isn’t exactly the wild. Still.

In person, not surprisingly, he looks like a spiffed up homeless man. The envious combination of hard drugs, cancer and journalism will do that to a person. My eyes were locked on him as he moved from the cash register to napkin station and finally to the sidewalk outside the glass doors to smoke.

Per usual, I kept mum around my hero while staring him down like a crazed stalker. My maturity is impressive, I know.

My second spotting of this perfectly nice person who would graciously say hello to me if I bothered opening my mouth happened later that year.

The documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times was being screened inside the Times building, followed by a discussion with director Andrew Rossi, former executive editor Bill Keller, writer Gay Talese, and break-out start of the film, David Carr.

I bought a ticket as soon as I heard about the screening. I sat enraptured during the post-film discussion. And then at the meet and greet in the lobby afterward, I pulled my usually shy girl shtick.

I hovered around Carr long enough that he started making eye-contact with me in a can-I-help-you? kind of way. Hopefully he didn’t recognize me as the crazy Dean and Deluca girl. That’s the good thing about living in a big city, no matter how awkward you act, there’s always somebody who can out-crazy you and put you in a positive light.

These days Melena Ryzik manages The Carpetbagger duties. I aspire to not meet her someday, too.

Not meeting Tina Fey in New York City

The easiest way to meet your idols is to hope they write a book and come to a Barns & Noble near you. And that’s how I ended up in the same room as Tina Fey.

As a fan of cardigans and feminists, I’ve always thought Tina was alright, but it wasn’t until I started DVRing 30 Rock and self-identifying with Liz Lemon that my girl crush fully developed.

When her memoir Bossy Pants published, she was booked to speak at the Barns & Noble in Union Square in New York City. Now, I go to a fair number of book readings in all sorts of settings (well, mainly bookstores and libraries) and the folks who run that ship are not to be fucked with.

They aren’t the type of people who love hot mugs of tea and a sharing a good book with a friend. They are the type of people who run a book reading like a cocky cop giving out a speeding ticket while wearing ironicly ugly glasses. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Additionally, don’t expect a free night of entertainment. The staff seats the people who bought the featured book in the store with the receipt to prove it before they seat the rest of the riff raff.

I knew the drill from previous readings, so when it came time for Tina Fey’s night, I arrived at the store as early as I could after leaving work, bought the book on the first floor, and took the escalators all the way up to the top floor.

The place was packed. I squeezed in near the back of the room between some bookshelves and a few old maids in training. Sometimes, when you come face-to-face with your people, you wonder when you became such a cliché.

Hours passed between when I arrived and when the reading began. Somewhere in the middle of all that time, one of the assholes running the show started announcing Tina’s itinerary for the night. She will walk in the room. She will get her picture taken. She will be interviewed about her book. She will sign books. When she signs your book, do not touch Tina. Do not give Tina gifts. Do not have a long conversations with Tina. Thank you and go fuck yourself.

Maybe the last part was just my imagination, but I don’t respond well to being told what to do, even if I have no intention of acting inappropriately. And really, is shouting orders the best way to set the mood for the night?

Tina arrived smiling and gave just the interview the audience wanted to hear, even if she did recycle answers from other stops on the media tour for the book. Afterwards, as previously announced by Sergeant Tight Ass, Tina stayed and signed everyone’s book, despite having a cold and a bun in the oven. Such a professional.

I decided to buck my trend of keeping a distance from people I want to meet and waited in the line for Tina to sign my book. I had a lot of time to think while I waited in line. I wondered if I should say “Hey, I have family in Upper Darby, PA, too,” or the generically popular, “I love your work.” Maybe if I hadn’t stayed away from the talent for all these years I’d be a better conversationalist.

As I worked my way closer to the signing table, I kept a cool head. Look at me being a mature adult about meeting the famous lady from the TV show, I thought. Then, it was my turn. Her assistant slid her my book, and with a quick turn of the Sharpie I had my autograph. Thank you, I said, and that was all. You’re very welcome, she said. She looked up to smile at me, just like she had with everyone else, and in an instant another employee was directing me down the stairs, away from the table so the line of customers could continue it’s pace.

Star struck for less than a second, I’d finally opened my mouth to say something to the person I’d waited in line to see. She played her role, I played mine, and then we all went home.

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