Inhuman Swill : Celebrities

The following story is an outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist. The names of most of the other participants, including relatives, have been changed to offer some small measure of concealment.

When I was eighteen, my father and I drove from northern Utah to Los Angeles for my cousin Delia's wedding. I had recently put in my application to become a Mormon missionary, and I had yet to learn where I'd be spending the next two years of my life. It wasn't for the sake of one last road trip with my father, though, that I agreed to tag along. I was hoping to meet Danny Elfman.

After the wedding—a brief affair in a tiny chapel like a sugar-frosted cake—the entire gathering moved down the road to the Arcadia Women's Club, a large banquet hall for rent, where a shaggy trio played jazz on a spare proscenium. A dozen long tables were set up in ranks across the room, and we enjoyed an abundant feast of cold cuts, casseroles, and cakes as the music played. "Hey," I said to my aunt Deborah, who sat across from my father and me, "I thought Oingo Boingo was supposed to play."

"All Delia and Sammy's friends are musicians," she said, "so lots of different people are playing. I don't think they're on until later."

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Generation Swine Let me tell you about the night I hung out with Mötley Crüe.

Okay, to be honest, it was only half of Mötley Crüe, and it's not like we were out clubbing it up with groupies and blow. But we were at a club. I was reminded of this story the other day when I happened to hear "Shout at the Devil" on the stereo for the first time in quite a while.

This was June 1997. I was working in New York City as technical producer for a website called (sadly now long deceased). Our company, N2K Entertainment, ran a variety of genre-specific music sites, all meant to drive traffic to our online CD store, Music Boulevard. At Rocktropolis we ran rock music news, contests, curated streaming radio, artist chats, and—coolest of all—live concert webcasts.

Some of our live shows were simply streamed versions of special syndicated radio broadcasts, but more and more we began to arrange our own on-location webcasts. We would get a temporary DSL line installed in the venue (if they didn't already have one—and they usually didn't), hump our equipment over there, tap directly into the soundboard, and stream the feed out to users via RealAudio. Believe it or not, this was trailblazing stuff at the time.)

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I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate last Saturday afternoon. I certainly didn't expect to feel as if I were literally walking into the mind of Gene Wolfe, but that's what it was like.

The occasion was an evening to honor Gene Wolfe as the first recipient of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's Fuller Award for lifetime contribution to letters. Since the Hall of Fame itself is reserved for dead Chicago writers—Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and the like—the Fuller Award was created to recognize the achievements of great living Chicago writers. It was miraculous enough that the first Fuller was being bestowed upon a writer of science fiction and fantasy. The amazing setting for the festivities was like a bushel of cherries poured on top of a spun-sugar sundae.

As we guests arrived at the gated estate in Barrington Hills, we left our cars with the valets at the carousel house and either walked or rode in a shuttle over rolling lawns, past a rail line (no train in evidence, sadly), and around an expansive pond to a huge brick Victorian mansion. Even inside the soaring foyer, where I ran into Gary K. Wolfe, met Peter Straub, and chatted with Patrick O'Leary, I had no idea the wonders I was about to see. The mansion, you see, is more of less a museum of mechanical marvels collected by Chicago engineer and roasted-nut magnate Jasper Sanfilippo. As I wandered through three levels of the house, I saw orchestrions, pianolas, vionolas, music boxes, moviolas, record players, gaming machines, fortune-telling machines, and all manner of fin de siècle era devices in overwhelming profusion. The bright lights, brass, and air of seaside merriment continually reminded me of such Wolfe stories as "Seven American Nights" and "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton."

At five-thirty, we all gathered in the theater, an immense balconied chamber draped in velvet and built to house the world's largest theater organ. Critic and scholar Gary K. Wolfe (no relation, of course, to Gene) opened the award ceremony with a quick history of the realist and fantastic traditions in Chicago literature and the building where they may once have shared offices. Neil Gaiman read the short story "A Solar Labyrinth," then presented the Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe, whose acceptance speech was itself an intricate flight of fancy.

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Our celebrity sightings have definitely tailed off since we moved to Chicago, but Laura and one of her colleagues had a good one the other day. At the same hot dog joint where they were grabbing lunch, they spotted Dennis DeYoung of Styx.

(I'd suggest that he had too much time on his hands, but Tommy Shaw took the lead vocal on that track.)

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In today's mail, I received an invitation to have my biography included in the next Marquis Who's Who in America. I knew already that it was a scam, but if I hadn't I would have guessed as much from the fact that the invitation came to my work address. There's no reason whatsoever for my day job to get me into Who's Who.

A minute or two of searching online led me to an amusing article from Forbes by Tucker Carlson, "The Hall of Lame." To Carlson's catalog of Who's Who shames, I would add this question: Why does Ronnie Spector think it's important for me to know she's a member of the Literary Guild?

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Anna Nicole Smith, née Vickie Lynn Hogan, a/k/a Vickie Smith, a/k/a Miss May 1992, a/k/a 1993 Playmate of the Year ... we barely knew ye.

Unless, you know, we were Playboy subscribers back in the early '90s.

Rest in the peace you never found in this straitlaced, size-two world.

Update:  Laura points out that, only two hours after the death, Anna Nicole's Wikipedia entry is already updated. Man, those motherfuckers are inhuman.
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Recent wildlife sightings

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Hearing a friend's story last night about spotting a coyote crossing Santa Monica Boulevard reminded me that Laura and I have had some wildlife sightings recently.

August 24th, pulling into our hotel parking lot in Anaheim after having been to Disneyland, we spotted a huge raccoon lumbering across the asphalt.

August 27th, waiting to board our flight at LAX, we spotted James Brown being pushed in a wheelchair.

September 9th, outside a friend's birthday party at Dempsey's on Second Avenue in the East Village, we spotted Drea de Matteo sitting at a table outside the restaurant next door.

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To my great astonishment and delight, model-turned-actress Pollyanna McIntosh and her husband, Melrose Place's own Grant Show, would appear to have posted a reply to a blog entry of mine from last month.

In writing about the experience of attending a screening of indie horror flick Headspace, I appended a couple of paragraphs waxing rhapsodic about the underutilized talents of Ms. McIntosh, Scotland's National Face of '95 winning model—and also implicitly challenging her spousal unit to a showdown.

Well, this morning the happy couple responded. It took me a minute to decipher the fact that Pollyanna had written the first paragraph and Grant the second. At least, I'm assuming the post is genuine. It certainly doesn't read like a hoax. And I will be very sad if it is.

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Celebrity sightings

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I mentioned a couple of celebrity sightings a few posts ago. We used to have a whiteboard here at the office that listed the nearby celebrity sightings for everyone in our group. We also had an elaborate set of rules about what counted as a celebrity sighting. Public appearances didn't count, of course, nor did celebrities encountered in the line of the job (Sesame Street actors, for instance). The sighting had to take place in the neighborhood of the office, or else during the commute directly to or from the office. Certain celebrities seemed to like being seen—their entries didn't count as much as less visible celebrities. Folks in this catagory included Danny Aiello, Paul Shaffer, and Richard Belzer (who, for a while, was a particular attention-whore, always hanging out at a sidewalk table at Fiorello's).

Sadly, someone from upstairs saw our whiteboard ventured back here into the cave once and decided that we were using company resources for something frivolous (I guess). Our VP told us that he was receiving vague pressure to eliminate our celebrity sightings board. There was much grieving, but we complied.

I had a great list going there. Personally I had Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O'Neal, Mandy Patinkin, Kevin Spacey, Pat Metheny, Kenny Garrett, John Goodman, Michael Moore, Dan Hedaya, and many more. Elsewhere in the city, I've garnered David Strathairn, Fisher Stevens (twice), Susan Sarandon (with her son in the Union Square green market, both riding Razor Scooters), and John Turturro (twice in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which I've written about elsewhere). My coworker Geoff recently spotted Kurt Loder at Fiorello's, and before that Richard Grieco with a woman who might or might not have been Yasmine Bleeth. (Obscure sightings score very highly.) My friends Andrew and Stephanie spotted Isabella Rosselini in the Village, wandering around lost asking people for directions. Repeatedly.

People here want a new celebrity sightings board. I keep meaning to whip up a secret online version in my copious spare time. Instead I write journal entries. :)

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I've been working at my present job for two and a half years now—if you overlook a brief absence during the summer to recklessly pursue alternate employment, that is. After returning here in August, I fell quickly back into the old familiar habits. (In many ways, it felt as if my three months at Vindigo were a strange dream, from which I awakened to discover myself in an old changed world.) One of the habits I must recultivate is that of noting the found poetry every day on the A&E Biography sign.

When I leave the office and head south on Broadway, I see the electric sign atop a tall building somewhere in midtown. The sign offers a weather forecast and then announces the subject of that evening's Biography episode on A&E. Sometimes this results in startling poetry. Other times the effect is simply weird. Other times it's more matter-of-fact, like last evening's forecast:

I must keep notes more assiduously. Were I more cabalistic, I would study these notes religiously for clues to the underlying structure of the universe.

Speaking of Farrah Fawcett, I saw her up close nearly two years ago. I was hanging out at the annual Lincoln Center Xmas tree-lighting ceremony with my friend Geoff. We were there to see the Sesame Street Muppets perform, like the hundreds of other small children on the plaza, and to see two thirds of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Geoff and I were standing toward the back of the crowd, and I noticed a stunning older blonde woman walk past me. A few minutes later she walked past me again, going the other way. She looked fabulous, dressed simply but expensively in warm clothes.

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William Shunn

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Celebrities category.

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