I WAS ON A FLIGHT with Sam Rockwell once. He was a few rows ahead of us. I said to my wife, “Hey, that’s Sam Rockwell.”
“You know. Matchstick Men? He played Chuck Berris in that Clooney movie? He’s been in tons of stuff.”
She shrugged. “No way.”
I figured she was right. It could be any guy with a bad haircut and a Hollywood smirk. Plus, he was wearing Jackie O sunglasses. No way a dude who’s been in big budget films, apprenticed with a Krav Maga master as research for a role, done coke off random starlet-belly at Hef’s, and walked the red carpet with his Peruvian nanny/girlfriend would wear those sunglasses, would he?
So I forgot all about Sam and dug into my book, a compendium of vaguely socialist essays from the mid-eighties by Alexander Cockburn. Each one hilariously and deservedly tears an ass out of Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6), while also being fey and pedantic in a way that makes it understandable why even very smart people sometimes God in, cash out, and gun up.
I mean, if the sharpest people on the left are all still mewling about the same pointless and intractable issues forty years after they first whinged about them, and were summarily ignored, maybe the right’s Ruthless Steamroller of Indifference has some merit. Exactly how long can you go on losing the same battles? Arguing the finer points of personal ethics and social responsibility to a diminishing crowd of like-minds may be a career, but it’s also a form of masturbation. Not to mention delusion. The smug pleasure taken in the production of The Leftist Essay may well be the equivalent of holding in a hit as long as you can–right before coughing out a long, hacking plume of futility.
Hey, any good Republican will tell you that the only thing that matters is action. Pure, confident, unexamined action. Even if the result is astonishingly stupid. Storm into Iraq, trade derivatives in the dark, sell sub-primes to the desperate lower class, laugh at the notion of peak oil. Why the fuck not? If there is no God, and there is no afterlife, there might as well be wealthy and well-armed life. And if there is a God, he’s going to float down on a gilded cabbage leaf sooner or later and solve up whatever apocalyptic shit needs solving, so why get bogged down in details (exactly the kind of details that make for persuasive but widely unread paragraphs) now?
At any rate, this is the line of thinking I tend to entertain on airplanes, which for some reason never fail to make me deeply cynical and unaccountably grim. I’m not a good flyer. My wants are myriad, my perceptions are off, and my politics become malleable at thirty thousand feet. I think it’s the relative lack of humidity. Because aluminum corrodes, airlines keep cabin air unnaturally dry. Which is why you always feel like hammered horseshit even after a short flight. I find it satisfying that with each and every wet exhalation, my fellow passengers are causing the very thing keeping them airborne to slowly degrade.
My wife, well aware of my travel imbalance and saddled with her own doctrinaire tendencies, ignores me for the duration of any given flight, popping in the Skull Candy and dialing up hours of max-volume Natalie Merchant. My daughter channels a feverish concentration she displays in almost no other forum, immediately transforming every last inch of whatever princess or NASCAR coloring book we scored from duty free into a demented lipstick red.
Halfway through the flight, I get up and walk to the front, past the few rows that are allowed to use the pilot’s bathroom, and there’s Sam.
He’s got two scripts laid out on his tray table, busy marking them up with a yellow highlighter. One seems to be a hit man thing, because there’s lots of silencer talk. The other looks like a Nora Ephron deal, crammed full of Viagra jokes. I linger by his seat, mostly because I have no other choice. Whoever’s in the bathroom has been there for a while, apparently dropping an duodenum’s worth of lasagna over Cleveland.
When it’s the pretty blond stewardess who finally exits, I turn around and go back to my seat, yanking out my wife’s left ear bud.
“That’s definitely Sam Rockwell. He’s reading scripts. No way that’s a coincidence.”
She gives me a look that puts the hyphen in trial-separation.
When we land at JFK, the girls get off first and go for snacks. I take a position by the carousel, doing what I always do, which is stand at least ten feet away, providing a silent example for all the wheedlers and jostlers. If everyone just stood back and stopped acting like they were handing out free Percocet, it would leave room for people whose luggage is actually coming down the chute to step forward and retrieve it unmolested. But no, it’s the usual Fall of Saigon. I shake my head sadly, imagining myself in a tweed jacket, smoking a meerschaum pipe and suddenly approached by a gorgeous Audrey Hepburn-ish type who lisps, “Excuse me, but are you by any chance standing back in quiet disdain of the ridiculous grubbing for position that inexplicably attends almost all luggage carousels?” When I say yes, she nods and takes my arm, leading me to a fashionable hotel, changing into striped pajamas, and pouring martinis on the veranda.
Oddly, as I was standing there, someone did approach me.
But it was not Holly Golightly. It was Sam Rockwell.
He parked just to my left, waiting for his luggage.
I said nothing, because I am the sort of person who says nothing. I believe the famous deserve to be left alone. My greatest gift to any person of real or perceived stature is to ignore them entirely. Also, I can’t imagine anything fucking stupider than an autograph. What do you do with the scrawled napkin after they walk away? Frame it? Put it in a shoebox? Wipe up spilled wasabi?
So we’re both whistling, me and Sam, rocking back and forth, hands in pockets, tread spinning, no bags. Then it occurs to me he was in that Mamet robbery movie with Gene The Hack, where he gets to french Rebecca Pidgeon. I have long had a crush on nerdy-hot Rebecca Pidgeon.
I am about to break my rule, lean over and say “So, what was it like kissing Rebecca Pidgeon?” When this enormous blousy woman rushes over, grabs him by the lapels and goes
Sam grins, nods, shuffles his feet, adopting an appropriately self-deprecating manner. There’s a glint in his eye, a palpable relief, that odd battle between thank God no one recognized me and finally, someone recognized me! He goes:
“Yeah, I’m Sam. I’m an actor.”
It’s a good line, I’m thinking. Humble, nicely veiled ego. Leaving just enough room for the pleasure of star discovery, maybe a reluctant iPhone pic.
But the woman frowns. She lets go of him.
“Oh,” she says. “No. I thought you were Janine’s husband. Never mind.”
The woman turns and clomps away.
Sam turns deeply red. It’s embarrassing for both of us. Really, more for him than me. In any case, it’s crying for an ironic comment. Or a simple human connection. An acknowledgment that we’re all just sacks of skin, filled with small joys and large mortifications.
I want to deliver for Sam Rockwell, but I got nothing.
I am a complete, useless blank.
Then my bags come tumbling down the chute like they’ve missed me.
So I grab the handles and haul them off.
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