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Sunday, January 27, 2008

NYC Moments 2: "I am Bill Gates"

Celebrity is a heavy burden. Being instantly recognizable and recognized by millions of people, any number of whom are outright lunatics, is no easy proposition. How would you behave if every public gesture or statement you made was dissected and published ten minutes later all over the web and the mass media? Easy enough to say: "Well, I'd just be myself!" Really, would you? Which self?

A couple of weeks ago M., E. and I were walking crosstown in Manhattan. We were walking West over to Hell's Kitchen and E. and N.'s apartment. It was a fine afternoon, mild for the season and the air felt good - fresh Hudson River air blowing in from New Jersey. I mentioned this to M. and E. and couldn't resist adding that times sure had changed. When I was a kid any wind from anywheres in the direction of New Jersey was a thing to be feared. I don't know what they used to burn over there, in all those places near Hoboken and Paramus ("That guy is an ignoramus from Paramus.") - but I'm very glad they stopped.

As we walked West the sidewalk, which up until then had been pretty much full speed ahead, became crowded with people standing around, leaning up against the buildings and generally making a mob scene.

"What is this nonsense?", I wondered. We tried to step off the sidewalk into the street to walk around these obstructionists but it didn't work. The curb was tightly lined with parked cars and, just beyond them, taxis and limos were zipping by without a care in the world. The crowd got denser and denser as we walked and finally, stopped.

I tapped a guy on the shoulder who was standing right in front of us. I couldn't help noticing that this guy was huge - he looked like a professional football player. A defensive center.

"Excuse me, sir. Could we get by?"

"Sorry. It's blocked right here. See?"

He pointed down toward his knees where there was a low portable fence set up directly across the sidewalk.

I stared down in stupid amazement. Then a sign on the facade of the building caught my eye and I realized what was going on in a flash. This was the stage entrance to the studio for one of the late night TV extravaganzas. Obviously some famous people were expected momentarily and the gawkers, the paparazzi, the NYPD and the security people were out in force.

"You can walk around this van, just be careful."

I turned and explained quickly to E. and M. Just then I had the first of two New York moments.

I noticed a man standing just behind us on a plastic soda crate with his back to the building. He was perched up there to improve his view of the proceedings and looked slightly too enthusiastic for my tastes. Some kind of nut. Sure enough, this guy points at me and lets out a loud, shrill yell:

"Omigod! It's Bill Gates!"

The crowd, which had been buzzing with talk and excited anticipation, froze and spun on its collective heel. Not a sound. Everybody staring feverishly at me.

I must explain that I do not think that I look very much like Bill Gates. OK, I am tall. I do wear glasses. I do have sort of an oval face. And that's where the similarities end: I have considerably broader shoulders and I don't walk around like I just stepped out of a flying saucer.

So there I am, in the middle of this crowd, several hundred gawkers glaring at me. What to do?

I yelled back:

"That's right. I'm Bill Gates. Now just hand over all your money."

That did the trick. People were cracking up. Fortunately, they had realized that I could not actually be Bill Gates. I was relieved, for a second there I thought they were going to tear me to pieces like Pentheus in The Bacchae.

Some joker yelled back:

"Hey! Listen! If you're Bill Gates you've already got everybody's money!"

Yeah. Wonderful. More merriment.

I said to E:

"Help your mother around this van and let's get outtahere. This is starting to get the hell on my nerves."

We walked around the velvet rope and got back on the sidewalk. And found ourselves in the midst of a dense tangle of photographers. I asked one of them as we went by:

"Who are you guys waiting for anyway?"

"Oh. Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman."

"Well, good luck with the pictures."

"Yeah. Thanks, man."

"And, you can always take a few of me. I'm Bill Gates."