Last spring I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles. When we’d first met, he was living in a tiny apartment on Venice Beach, a young writer scratching out screenplays and working as a bar back. It had been 10 years since I’d last seen him, and in that time his life had changed dramatically. His work for HBO had garnered him a Writers Guild Award and an Emmy nomination; he had multiple new projects under contract; and he’d fallen in love and partnered up with someone else in the biz. On any given day, they were lunching or dining or having over to the house A FAMOUS PERSON. And so it was that I was tagging along on the day we visited SOMEONE FAMOUS in her home.
We parked our car down the street from her place in Venice Beach and wandered up the sidewalk. I had my face tilted up to the Southern California sun when THE FAMOUS PERSON answered the door, opening it just a crack. She peered out, pulled us all in, and slammed the door behind us, saying, “They’ve been out there all day.” Various members of the paparazzi, she explained, had been hiding behind the cars along her street.
Now is when you start to think of Norma Desmond (or Carol Burnett playing Norma Desmond), the paranoid, fading star desperate for her close-up. But indeed, a quick peek behind the blinds revealed a guy with a huge camera hiding behind a Chevrolet. And in truth, the private life of THE PERSON WE WERE VISITING was constant tabloid fodder. I’d seen her in movies and it was odd now to be standing next to her as she slammed the door to the outside world.
She wasn’t the first celebrity I’d ever met, and certainly not my only brush with fame during this visit. We’d been to brunch one day and I had been seated, by accident, next to A FAMOUS MOVIE STAR. Before I realized who he was, I’d asked about his LABRADOODLE COMPANION. We also ran into A HANDSOME TELEVISION STAR one evening at dinner. And when we went to A MUSICAL TELEVISION SHOW’s summer concert, we’d gone backstage afterward and met most of THE CAST. It’s true what they say: celebrities are smaller in real life. Tiny. And yet, not. They have a glow about them, an aura that is decidedly bigger than life.
OUR HOSTESS took us on a tour of her home. I was impressed with the organization of her closet. She had an enviable selection of sunglasses, and I suddenly felt self-conscious about the pair propped on my own head, purchased at the Sears on University Avenue after I’d renewed my tabs at the DMV, tucked behind housewares.
When we got to the fourth floor, she yanked open the door to the rooftop terrace and a gust of ocean wind nearly blew it off its hinges. We made our way to the edge of the terrace and were appreciating the view when she spotted the paparazzi below, still crouching behind cars and pointing a camera up at us. She ducked and made for door, heading back downstairs.
At various points during my visit to L.A., while in the company of the famous, I had felt awkward and longed for the comfort of my neighborhood in St. Paul, where I could dig into a huge cheeseburger at the Nook or wander over to the coffee shop in my pajamas. In contrast, I realized, our hostess was trapped in her own home. She looked tired, sort of fragile.
This seems like the point where I should say something about the awful price of fame, and chirp on about the charms—the gift, really!—of an ordinary life. But the truth is, after everyone else had left the rooftop, I lingered, looking down at the photographer who was still snapping my photo, hoping, I suppose, that I was SOMEBODY.
Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”