One day while waiting for a bus at Mayhew Lane, I observed a scene that made me think about the meaning of celebrity. John Kerry and a friend of his strolled up from the wharf, went into the Town Provision store and ambled back towards the water, heads bent in ernest conversation, carrying a bag of ice. Interesting, I thought, he’s not as tall as he looks on TV. I overheard several surprised comments from others sitting on the bench. I then experienced news traveling fast because within seconds a young waitress came running out of Among The Flowers yelling, “Where is he??”
“Where is who?” asked one of the bystanders. “Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey!” she crooned. When informed it had been the former democratic candidate for president not the rubbery faced comic she pulled a disappointed look and returned to work.
It reminded me of a sultry midsummer day I was walking past what was then The Stand By Diner. Spike Lee came out of the diner, jumped into a jeep and was driven away by his wife. Two adolescent African American boys (I apologize if this is not the politically correct term; I can't keep up) spied him and started jumping and hooting. “Spike Lee, Spike Lee!” they shrieked. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been Alan Dershowitz exiting the diner, getting into a Mercedes SUV and a couple of pre-law students were passing, would the response have been equally effervescent. Young people seem to be more impressed with Hollywood type celebrities. I suppose the idea of being ‘discovered’ is still a reality to them.
Vineyarders have a live and let live attitude about the local rich and famous. Once they become neighbors or friends we tend to treat them like neighbors or friends, which is to say, in the summer we are pretty much too busy for anything more than a nod or quick hello. And in the winter they’re like a lot of our other neighbors...gone. Although when my friend Janice ran into Tony Shaloub at the Farmer’s Market she had to tell him how much she liked his show, “Monk”. But I figure that would be like telling Frank Perdue that you like his chicken. Certainly not star struck behavior, just polite chat.
You only see the Hollywood type during the summer. When they move here full time they are in danger of a change in status. Walking to South Beach on Christmas day I passed David Letterman jogging in yellow shorts and a Ball State tee shirt. He greeted me with a smile and boomed out, “Hello, Merry Christmas,” At that precise moment he went from celebrity to neighbor.
Most Islanders are much more entranced by local ‘characters’. People who are so friendly or notable for one reason or another that every one either knows them or knows of them. Urban, I mean Island, legends abound about such people. For instance, who brought the first skunk to the Island? A reputation could be broken, or made, depending on your point of view, if your name became linked with such a nefarious deed. On the other hand the whole Island shared in the shame of being unable to save the last of the Heath Hens. That one of God’s creatures became extinct in our neighborhood is nothing to be proud of. This explains why we do such a song and dance for the piping plovers each year. Atoning for past sins I suppose.
If a transplanted celebrity lives on the Island long enough they might become elevated to ‘character’ status. Which is to say, they don’t run shrieking if they are approached by someone with a camera or asked to be involved in a fund raiser. Art Buchwald, Patricia Neal, Walter Cronkite, Carly Simon, Mike Wallace, and the Taylors come readily to mind. Not necessarily part of Island ‘lore’ but close enough.
Vineyard celebrities, writers, artists and Nobel Prize winners, tend to be more approachable and three dimensional than the actors, actresses and politicians that cause an uproar when seen in public. If you had stopped Phil Craig on the street you were more likely to hear about where the blues were running rather than his last book. Cynthia Riggs will rant about the good ole boy network in West Tisbury politics. Rumor has it that between Chappy and Chilmark there are more Nobel Prize winners per capita than anywhere else on earth. For my money, these are the real celebrities.
Flash forward a couple of weeks after my John Kerry sighting. Sitting on the bench waiting for a bus again. A transplanted celebrity walks up the street, dressed all in black, long sleeved shirt, slacks and shoes. (Shoes! You can take the boy out of Hollywood...) I nudge the woman sitting next to me and whisper, “That’s Marty Nadler.” “Who?” she says, looking completely baffled.
Everyone has their own version of fame.