Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Celebrity travel encounters - past and present

My first celebrity encounter occurred when I was a kid, still too young and inexperienced to have formed a properly cynical view of the rich and famous. But my naiveté resulted in disappointment (they say never meet your heroes) and subsequently stuck with me into adulthood. Lessons ensued.

To be clear, my first celebrity sighting wasn’t much of a celebrity. He was a local television personality who hosted a kid’s show that probably aired to only about half of the state of Massachusetts and possibly some of Southern New Hampshire. A big deal, for sure.

My family was vacationing at our time-share condo in Bartlett, New Hampshire, a small village right up the road from the slightly less-small ski village of North Conway. My parents took my brother and I to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a Mexican joint called Margaritaville.

We were lucky to get a table, since it was high summer season. As most restaurants in the area do this time of year, this one was buzzing with commotion. A lot of families stumbled in after a long, long day at Storyland, the nearby theme park, which caters mostly to children under 10 years old. Even then I could tell a father who would give up his firstborn child for a cold beer (or in the case of Margaritaville, a frozen margarita). My dad was one of them.     

But despite the cacophony of youthful zeal echoing around the place, one table in the corner was noticeably loud. Curiously, there were no kids there, just a group of adults lounging around a wooden table – or at least I think it was a wooden table, it was difficult to tell since none of the tabletop was visible under the slew of empty margarita glasses.

My seat at our table had a direct line of sight to the commotion in the corner. Most of the view was of the backs of adult heads, tipping back slightly at frequent intervals, assumingly to slug some frozen booze concoction. But between the heads I could clearly make out the face of that local television host, whose face I watched most days after school.

He caught my eye and there was no way he didn’t realize I recognized him. He made no attempt to engage and instead continued with the raucous group. Part of me expected him to jump up and give me an autograph. Part of me expected at least a deliberate nod.

But none of me expected him to drown himself in tequila, cause a minor scene, push past the other tables with his rowdy friends, knowingly look at all the kids in the room and ignore every single one of them on his way out the door.

Today, I can’t recall his name, what he looked like or even what station he was on. But the experience made a mark. It still sits way in the back of my brain, tucked away in the travel section, filed under people who disappointed me.

I was young and I had never met anyone on television, so I had a natural inclination to believe that his TV personality matched his real personality. Wrong. Lesson learned.

I grew up, as kids typically do. Here and there I’ve met famous people or saw them in person from afar, no more and no less than any average American. Some of them lived up to the expectations and some didn’t.

And some simultaneously did both.

The atmosphere at Bobby Flay’s MESA Grill in Las Vegas, Nevada compliments the spectacular steaks and chops. It is eclectic and vibrant, pungent with meaty aroma but with a relaxing mood, the perfect spot for dinner with friends. 

Our small group was on a guy’s weekend in Sin City, and me being the only one with any real sense of quality eateries, I frequently made the restaurant reservations. So we found ourselves sipping gin martinis and scotch, chatting about the night past and the evening ahead. 

We orderd what most guys order when out at a nice restaurants – large steaks. For me, it is most always a rib-eye, bone-in if possible. Bobby Flay’s MESA version – as do most of his offerings – came paired with a distinctive sauce. My friend ordered a plain steak – just a straight up charred piece of beef. It wasn’t a show of manly ruggedness, but rather a sign of his fearful palette. No sauce? The waiter looked genuinely insulted. The guy at the table next to us scoffed at the unrefined patron sitting adjacent. We all laughed at our friend too scared to try a potentially spicy chipotle sauce.     
At some point during the meal, probably while my friend was hacking away at his purposefully overdone slab of meat, a murmur began percolating in the dining area. It followed two people strolling through the restaurant, led by the hostess. 

The man was older and larger, more of a round shape but sharply dressed. His escort was the opposite. She was tall, beautiful, with exquisite posture despite a chest that would make a Barbie Doll jealous. Her dress was loud and tight, like someone wrapped her naked body in Christmas wrapping paper. But it accentuated all the right spots, which was why every man in the place had dropped their forks, jaws and dignity. 

But I was wrong. They weren’t ogling the beautiful woman who was obviously on a different level than the guy she was escorting. They were ogling what we all assumed was her client.
Even a casual sports fan should recognize notorious baseball legend Pete Rose. As soon as I stopped salivating over his lady, I did too. 

He clomped between the tables and spilled into a seat twice removed from our own. The woman sat across from him, a coquettish smile never leaving her face. 

The man at the table next to us and the man at the table next to him stared. We all did too. Pete Rose didn’t seem to mind, or care. He just muttered something we were too far away to hear and the hostess left them.

There are a lot of opinions of Pete Rose and many of them are founded in actual, nefarious deeds he committed – nefarious enough to get him banned from baseball for life. But truth be told, he was a damn good ballplayer and his rogue persona fit naturally in Las Vegas. So after a few quick conversations about baseball, my friends and I began debating who the woman was – and more specifically, how much she cost. 

The amazing food we were served became second fiddle to the all star nearby, even though Rose and his date didn’t do anything. They sat like any couple would and talked sparingly, ordered drinks and food and minded their own business. It was the rest of the restaurant that lost its collective mind – quietly, of course. Every man whispered to whoever he was with. It was like elementary school students gossiping in class. 

We could hear at least two tables actively debating whether or not to get up, go over and say hello. One man did, briefly. He shook Rose’s hand and went back to his seat. Rose wasn’t rude but rather looked ambivalent to the situation, which might have been even worse than if he told the guy to leave him alone. The man walked back to his seat – no autograph because he didn’t ask – with his head tilted down. 

Then the waiter approached Rose and his date. He very clearly, and a little too loudly, told Rose that a gentleman sitting across the way was a very big fan. The man was such a big fan, he offered to pay for Rose’s dinner, drinks and whatever else he ordered at MESA. 

Here is where my memory of Margaritaville came rushing back. I remembered that as a child, I was surprised by what a celebrity was capable of.

I didn’t expect Rose to jump up, rush over and embrace the guy. But I certainly didn’t expect him to accept the man’s offer. Rose was, after all, the celebrity in the transaction. Decorum suggested he gracefully decline, perhaps send a thank you or a drink back to the man, and continue on with his evening. 

Instead, Rose accepted. The waiter seemed startled. Rose and his date finished up, stood up and left. That was that. 

When they did, the murmurs started again, including at our table. After a few minutes, we concluded that, given the same history, talent, infamy and opportunity, we all would have done the exact same thing. A free meal is a free meal, especially when it tugs at the ego a little bit. 

We shifted conversation back to the beautiful woman with Rose. Later, we’d learn that we had all jumped to conclusions – she was not an escort but rather Rose’s future fiancé. 

I wondered about how we judge celebrities, often too quickly and too unfairly. Many deserve it, I’m sure. But then there are the times Pete Rose is out with his girlfriend and a nice fan buys them dinner. Or that local TV kid’s show host is on vacation in the mountains finally away from the screaming brats he deals with on a daily basis, and wants nothing more than to lose himself in a bottle of tequila.
To a naïve boy or adult fanboy, the situations are reprehensible. But to an adult, who was enjoying a dirty gin martini and spectacular medium-rare ribeye, it all seemed pretty reasonable.

And given the chances again, I’d ask both men for their autographs.