[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
I've only asked a waitress to go out with me once in my life. And it's possible that I never tried it again because of what happened on our first date.
For single men, flirting with waitresses is one of life's great guilty pleasures, but I was surprised, after years of indulgence in that idle pursuit, when I actually succeeded in getting the phone number of lovely -- let's call her Kiki -- and having her agree to go to a play with me the following weekend.
This was in Manhattan, where people go to plays. The play was Terence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, then at the peak of its successful first run in an off-Broadway theater. There was a good crowd milling around outside when we arrived, and I noticed Stephen Sondheim among them, talking to a friend. This musical icon had once critiqued a musical of mine as part of a Dramatists Guild workshop program, and I couldn't resist telling Kiki this as I pointed him out. She seemed suitably impressed to hear that he was familiar with my work.
At this point, with the doors not open, Kiki decided to make a phonecall, and this being in the pre-cell era of the '80s, she went off to use a payphone up the block. So I was alone when they started letting people in. And since I was waiting for my date, it was only natural that I hang back and say a brief hello to Mr. Sondheim.
Here he was now, looking like he'd just snuck out of some room where he'd been imprisoned for hours with a score-in-progress, finding new rhymes for "apse." I re-introduced myself (it had been a couple of years), saying "I just wanted to thank you again for your input on my show," and was flattered to find that Stephen (I can call him Stephen) did remember my musical, once I gave him a specific reference, and had a few kind words about one of its songs. He wished me the best of luck with it and went on into the theater.
Sondheim was just disappearing through the doors when my date returned, and of course I told her about the conversation I'd had with him while she was gone. "Really!" she said.
As we walked inside I had a sense of some subtle skepticism on Kiki's part. After all, she didn't know me very well. We were on a first date, which can so often be an exchange of gilded lillies, and outright invention ("There goes my homie, Stevie Spielberg!") might've been my standard m.o. Anyway, conversation turned to other things, and then we were both absorbed in McNally's first act.
Come intermission, we headed into the lobby, where a few other entertainment luminaries were stretching their high-powered limbs, and in fact... My moon must have been in Replay. "Ohmygod," I said, "There's Diane Keaton." She was across the room, talking to Bob Balaban and some guy who looked like somebody. As a pleased Kiki maneuvered herself into a good I'm-not-really-staring-at-a-celebrity position, I told her about my days of coaching Diane, and the brief but nice little friendship we'd forged, some nine years previous. "Why don't you say hello?" asked my date. I hesitated, knowing that nine in celebrity years could sometimes equal a millennium. I was worried that it might be awkward, and while I hemmed and hawed, Kiki decided to use the Ladies.
Alone, I drifted to the coffee line. And then here she was, so close and so Keaton, laughing in that warm and giddy way of hers... Fuck it, I thought, and strode right up to her. "Diane?" I said. She turned and looked at me without recognition, and for an instant (the horror!) I was seeing classic Celebrity Defensive Posture in action -- the face polite but masked, the body subtly verged on flight, as vague apprehension seeped into the expression of her companions. "Billy Mernit," I announced, and thankfully (the wonder!) Diane's face lit up with relief.
"Oh, hi," she returned, the essence of friendly, and she introduced me to the guys, and asked about what was going on with me (I'm sure I made up something), and we talked about the play and how wonderful Kathy Bates was (in the part that went, with quintessential Hollywood logic, to Michelle Pfeiffer when the movie got made), and then someone else was motioning Diane to come meet a friend. We said cheery goodbyes and I floated back across the lobby, suffused with that glow of having been, for all of a few minutes, a member of that club no one likes to admit they'd love to belong to.
And here was Kiki, asking where I'd been. "Oh! I was talking to Diane," I told her, gesturing toward where... well, she'd been there a moment ago. Kiki peered at the absence of Keaton, then looked warily back to me as I recapped our brief reunion. "And it was nice," I concluded, "considering we hadn't seen each other in such a long time."
"Really," she said.
There was no second date.
Possible lesson? Sometimes it's best for us unknowns to keep the who-we-knows unspoken.
In the movie version of this scene, my date is obnoxiously criticizing Woody Allen movies, and going on about what a ditz Diane Keaton must be and how she's not an actress but a personality, until I get really steamed and say: "Really? Well, I just happen to have Ms. Diane Keaton right here," and I pull her out from behind a potted palm in the lobby and she tells my date, "You know nothing of my work."
In real life, I can picture Kiki in bed with her husband-to-be, comparing respective Worst Dates I Ever Endured, and she goes: "Oh, that's nothing -- I once went out with a jerk who said he knew Stephen Sondheim and Diane Keaton, and then pretended he'd had actual conversations with them when I wasn't looking."