Walking out of the West Hollywood Library a few blocks away from home, when I suddenly noticed a half dozen men hunched over and running between parked cars, most of them wore hooded sweatshirts over their heads and all of them had cameras thrust out, with foot-long telephoto lens attachments. Naturally I wondered what was going on.
A minute later, I passed a woman sitting on a bench in the adjoining park watching her little blond-haired boy on a slide. It's a young children's playground, always busy at midday. I thought, she looks familiar. Ordinarily I'd walk by -- there are celebrities all over my neighborhood: in supermarkets, walking dogs, at the pharmacy and at take-out windows. But something about her stopped me.
"Excuse me. I'm really embarrassed," I said to her, "But I know you're a celebrity and I just passed a bunch of paparazzi."
I thought she would ignore me.
Instead, she leapt up. "My son!" She ran to her child and all but covered him while she pulled out a phone and speed dialed. "Where were they?" she asked me.
I pointed out the direction, on San Vicente Blvd...
"Take Robertson!" she said into the phone urgently. "Come now!" Then to me, she asked, "Help us?"
"Pretend you're with us. That we're together."
She picked the boy into her arms and I moved in very close to her as she hurried over to Robertson Blvd. I wondered if I should put an arm around her. And she saw my motion and nodded yes, do it. She looked scared.
Behind me, I became aware of a sudden noise and commotion, but I didn't dare look back.
We'd just made it to the Robertson Blvd exit of little West Hollywood Park, when a big black Escalade pulled up, with a young woman driving.
"Thank you so much for warning me," the young mother said and climbed into the back seat. She was tucking her son into the child seat as the Caddy took a u-turn and sped off, squealing tires and headed the other way to avoid the long traffic light at Santa Monica.
In that instant, two of the fastest paparazzi, those in the lead of the chase, reached Robertson. They took off running after the Caddy.
I turned around to watch another four or five of them causing havoc as they leapt and charged their way through about twenty women with tiny children, who had been enjoying the playground in the park. In seconds there was tumult, turmoil, nannies dealing with crying children, mothers screaming at the camera men and these big galumping guys in hoodies with camera's held to their otherwise blinded faces and pointed like assault rifles, busting their way through what seconds ago had been a calm playground.
I turned and walked away. But now the ones not following the Caddy were following me, shooting me, and yelling out, "Who are you?" What's your name? How do you know her? Are you her boyfriend? Were you meeting in secret?"
That ridiculousness lasted a block while people on the street looked on at paparazzi with a new target, me, surrounded and being shouted at.
I crossed the street and dashed into the lobby of the bank I use where I am known. The paparazzi continued shooting photos of me through the windows and one actually even dashed in. The manager noticed and asked if I was being bothered. I said yes, and he went out and threatened to call the police on them.
I later found out the frightened young mother was a famous rock singer.
I helped her because I also know from stalkers. I've had several in my life since 1974, when living in Greenwich Village, I got a phone call from a stranger: a young woman working somewhere across the street as an au pair who had been watching me through binoculars for several months. That got too creepy for me and I moved soon after. I also wrote about what might have happened if I hadn't gotten away. Then the paperback of that book, my second novel, Eyes -- about a very disturbed voyeur -- hit the New York Times best seller list. Phone calls and letters from strangers poured in.
I was young, so I ignored them. I thought it was funny, if odd. Anyway... what did these people want?
That died down but then in 1982 I began receiving post midnight phone calls. A young man was on the other line. I could never figure out who he was or what he wanted.
Then came a call from the New York Police Department's Homicide Division. The detective asked if I'd been getting strange phone calls. Had I ever, I replied.
He told me that so had fashion designer Calvin Klein and an editor of a decorating magazine. We had a conference call, compared notes and it was the same guy all of us were hearing from: someone none of us seemed to know. The detective pointed out that we were all "high profile in the gay media" and he reminded us that Klein had his children kidnapped a few years before. So this was serious business.
Eventually that too died down and that stalker vanished.
After an extended book tour for my novel, Like People in History , in Europe and across the U.S., I moved temporarily into a pal's place in Beachwood Canyon, Hollywood. It was one of those little eight cottages-around-a-courtyard set ups. He was out of town and I was waiting to move into my permanent L.A. home. One afternoon as I was vacuuming the living room, a burly guy in a sport coat asked through the screen door if I was Felice Picano. Yeah. Sure.
He then flashed his badge. He was from the Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
He was blunt: "If I were your stalker, I could have kidnapped or murdered you," he told me, adding that I was totally unprotected. He added that I possessed a new stalker. His NYPD colleague had forwarded "suspicious" -- no return address, etc. -- letters sent me to his L.A. colleague. I looked them over. "I love you. . .I hate you. . .They're keeping us apart but I'll get them... If I can't have you no one will. .. This can only end one way."
It was like holding pages full of wet snot: utterly weird, unmotivated and disgusting. Once again I had no idea who it could be. But when I moved into my new place the police made sure it had a lockable outside fence and gate and a call system. My phone was blocked. My address was blocked and I'd agreed to have any suspicious mail opened by the LAPD.
Today I joke and say that my stalker has moved on to Michael Cunningham or David Sedaris or whoever the hot gay writer is these days. But every once in a while, I get that call informing me of "intercepted mail." So it's still going on. I haven't answered my home phone since 1995. Ten people have my cell phone number and I'm prone to suddenly changing the number.
I'm an active author: I travel to give readings and talks, although I know it's risky. At airports no one waits for me with a sign reading "Picano." Who knows if my stalker didn't find out via the internet that I'm in Vancouver or Chicago and the stalker is casing airport arrivals? Instead I wear dark glasses and a cap and I rapidly walk to the airport parking lot as though I've parked there, and I phone my pick-up driver. I've seen a photo of that driver a week before -- or I don't get in the vehicle.
Stalking specialists tell me that every interview, every public utterance I make, will be interpreted by my stalker to be about him -- including this blog you are reading.
I over-scrutinize anyone new entering my life.
I'm the most minor of celebrities -- a gay author. But my life has been changed so that I trust no one I don't know well. And even so, I can't begin to imagine what real celebrities go through -- even with their bodyguards and managers and handlers around. As we know, gun shots easily cut through crowds. Remember, it's handled through the Homicide division: stalking victims have died.
This isn't the first time period in which celebrity was deemed the highest standard of human accomplishment. In 5th Century B.C. Athens, that hotbed of democracy, men became famous for their athletic skill, their inventions, art, philosophy, and even for their beauty. And Socrates might be called the first victim of celebrity, when he was accused not of doing anything but of saying what Greek conservatives didn't want their young people to hear.
First Century Rome b.c. and a.d. was another hotbed of celebrity and Julius Caesar another victim of it. Cicero said of him "He is every woman's husband and every man's wife," which was bad enough; but then he conquered entire lands and seemed to be asking for kingship. We all know how badly that ended on a certain Ides of March.
Renaissance Italy and Post-Revolution France were other times and places where celebrity was fervent, rampant, and you could literally lose your head once the fame game turned against you.
But what do these stalkers and contestants for all those "talent" shows on TV. want, really? No one who's been stalked or followed that I've ever talked to seems to know. Paparazzi are in it for money, of course, although one I met socially in Manhattan admitted that he was in it "for the hunt." But what motive do personal stalkers have? The one or two years that I personally felt famous people would shove my friends and partner out of the way to get at me. Did they think I had an answer to whatever their question was? Did they think something I possessed (and didn't much value) would somehow rub off on them?
I'm not sure. But one friend whose own artistic career never developed as he'd hoped for recently pointed out to me that all wasn't lost for him: "All I have to do to become famous is to kill you."
Since then, we mostly meet in public places.
I never asked for this when I wrote my first novel. Nor did that young woman in the park with her toddler. Timberlake didn't ask for it when he began singing. Aniston didn't ask for it when she got a role in that first TV soap. We just wanted to become ourselves and to use our talents.
Is that really too much to ask?