It wasn't until I moved to L.A. and attended my first Smashbox Fashion Week runway show, that I actually heard someone unabashedly bark (with conviction), "Do you know who I am?"
The answer, of course, was no.
Fame is handled differently on the respective coasts (and perhaps in the days before reality TV made every trailer park resident with lip injections a star). When I was growing up in the 80's and 90's on Manhattan's Upper West Side, star sightings were of a quieter nature: Woody Allen (pre-Soon Li) devouring a $3 burger at Diane's on Columbus Avenue; glimpses of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal shooting When Harry Met Sally outside Shakespeare & Co. bookstore; a crooked smile exchanged with James Taylor in my building's elevator or at his door on Halloween, when--dressed as a Cabbage Patch Kid--I muttered, "Trick or treat." (Even then I had the sense to feel ridiculous in green felt).
There were small brushes with my own "fame" too, those moments that nibble away at a lifetime's 15 minutes: at eight-years-old, a People Magazine photograph for a story on little girls in The School of American Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center; at 11, the inevitable "producer" (read: probable sex offender) approaching to promise a modeling career; at 12, an Associated Press reporter's interview at a particularly snowy Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the resulting quotation, '"It's a white Thanksgiving," said Nora Deledansky.' (Despite the butchered last name, the quote won my grandmother major bragging rights at her West Palm Beach retirement community.)
But none of these moments resonate as deeply as one run-in during a warm, late spring day in 1989. I was knee deep in bar/bat mitzvah season. And by that I mean that every other Saturday, I watched classmates celebrate the onset of Jewish adulthood (a.k.a. their 13th birthdays) by grunting awkward Hebrew words from a synagogue pulpit. All the while, I sat silently wishing I was tall or busty enough to fit into a Betsey Johnson dress. The receptions, hosted anywhere from Helmsley Palace to the synagogue's ballroom, were characterized by heavy-handed themes (skateboarding, Broadway musical theater, gymnastics, guitars, pink and black sock-hopping 1950's) that shaped the frightful decorations and garish party favors. (When my bat mitzvah finally came around, my father resolutely informed me that my theme would be "Judaism").
At each event, we played heated games of Limbo and Coke and Pepsi (like musical chairs, but on boys' laps), drew Magic Marker notes on signing boards, and danced, as greasy-haired DJs in white tuxedos (or tuxedo t-shirts) blasted Billy Idol's "Mony Mony" and Digital Underground's "The Humpty Dance."
My best friend Stef and I, still 12 and the tiniest girls in class, were practically twins with short brown bobs above Fruit of the Loom boy's white v-neck undershirts, Levi 517's and Tretorn sneakers. On this particular day, our friend Veronique (Vero) was in tow, as we marched (our parent's cash stuffed in our pockets) east from West End Avenue to Columbus, past rows of brownstone stoops we'd slouched on before and would occupy a thousand times again. We were on a quest for yet another bat mitzvah gift. And, if one wanted to please 13-year-old birthday girls that year, there was only one acceptable spot to purchase said present: Savage Jewelry.
As we shuffled into Savage for probably the 30th time that year, the saleswoman--middle-aged with short hair and rhinestone-imbedded cat-eye glasses--nodded. And we began the usual debate about the merits of sterling silver bracelets over earrings, when the front door opened. A tall woman walked in and, almost imperceptibly, the atmosphere in the shop shifted. Stef elbowed me.
"That's Carly Simon," she whispered, almost inaudibly.
"Cucumber?" I misheard (or at least pretended). We all lapsed into hysterical laughter. We were, after all, still children.
"That's Carly Simon," she repeated, when we regained composure.
"Who's that?" Vero asked. We shushed her. But it wasn't her fault. She was from New Jersey.
It was Carly Simon. And she was beautiful. I'd seen her ex-husband in my building a hundred times before, but I'd never seen her. I tried to glance at her without glancing; to catch a glimpse without seeming to care. I'm sure she knew that we recognized her and she flashed us a warm grin.
I turned back to the task at hand and that was when I saw them: It was just weeks before the greatly anticipated release of the first Batman movie. That day it opened, we would camp outside the Loews 84th Street Theater, boys and girls, waiting for tickets in a sea of yellow and black. And here was a perfect pair of must-have black plastic bat symbol earrings. They wouldn't do as a bat mitzvah gift, but I wanted them bad.
Though I probably should be, I'm not ashamed to admit that I considered giving a slightly less generous bat mitzvah gift, if only I could have those cool earrings for myself. But, Stef, always responsible (here our similarities ended), reminded me that our parents gave us money expressly for the gift. I was forlorn. But the three of us managed to pick out a present (a sterling silver bracelet or earrings--who cared?) and marched over to the register. By now Carly was long gone.
"Well, girls, did you pick something out?" cat-eye lady asked.
We nodded and pointed out our choice. She grabbed it and then peered at us strangely. "I have a little surprise for you." We couldn't imagine what this might be. Were we in trouble?
"Carly Simon left you a little gift," she smiled. She handed us a card, which we ripped open to discover $40 and a note that I will never forget:
You're all so beautiful. I wanted to make sure you got something nice.
Needless to say, we were elated beyond belief. Stef picked out a simple, sensible necklace, Vero snagged a more wildly colored treasure and I got my Batman earrings that day too. And I wore them with pride until one fell out and got lost a few months later. Even then, I kept the remaining stud. It sits, even now, as a reminder in my jewelry box. Somewhere amidst my father's papers, is that note, as well.
I'd love to write one back one day:
You may not even remember, but 20 years ago, you left a generous surprise for three small strangers in a jewelry shop.
Thank you, belatedly, for that memory.
The Little Girls at Savage
Today in my LA life, star sighting are a daily occurrence at neighborhood spots from Joan's on Third to Toast. Some celebrities unsuccessfully disguise themselves behind Ray-Bans. Others broadcast their notoriety with loud talking and outrageous outfits.
But, here, I have yet to receive Batman earrings or even, my Joan's favorite, a chocolate peanut butter cupcake. And, in NYC or LA, none has offered an equivalent moment of pure glee.