Formerly Famous

A while back I was walking into the public library, and I nearly ran into a baby stroller that was pulling away from the circulation desk. I begged pardon of the mother who was pushing the stroller--a tall, attractive woman whom I was supposed to know from somewhere. From the look on her face, I got the impression that she was trying to remember where she knew me from, too. I was just about to say, "Did you used to go to Covenant Presbyterian?" when Keith Urban walked up behind her, and I realized that the woman was Nicole Kidman. Celebrity sightings are relatively common here in Nashville. My wife stood in line with George Jones at Bread and Company, a shi-shi bakery in Green Hills. That hurt my heart. I suppose The Possum has as much right to a buttered scone as anybody else, but he lost some street cred with me.

For my money, however, famous people aren't nearly so interesting as people who used to be famous. There are plenty of those folks kicking around Nashville too. Today's story--a rerun of a Rabbit Room piece--tells about an encounter I had with one of them. I changed his name, so don't even try Googling him.

I was in the checkout line at the Belmont Bi-Rite. In front of me, a famous person was paying for some ice cream. When I say he was famous, I don’t mean I recognized him from TV or the magazines. I didn’t. I knew he was famous because of the way he exchanged pleasantries with the cashier: not so much talking to her as engaging in stage patter. He pitched his voice about twice as loud as it needed to be, and he cut his eyes now toward me, now toward the thirteen-year-old bagboy to see how the act was playing to this little audience. His manner suggested that he thought we all knew who he was.

The bagboy gaped at the famous person as he handed him the bag. The famous person beamed a benevolent smile on the boy. “You recognize me from TV,” he ventured.

The boy’s eyes widened further, now with fright. He wasn’t up to the task of supporting such a hope. He froze where he was, the bag of ice cream still extended. “Randy McLeod,” the man said. “That name mean anything to you?”

The boy leaned back as Randy McLeod leaned in closer. Randy sang a few bars of a country hit from a few years earlier, but no light of recognition brightened the boy’s face or softened his anxiety. The man’s hope yearned across the terrible silence. But it was no use. He tousled the bagboy’s hair. “That’s all right, boy. You’re probably not a country fan.”

That name meant something to me; Randy McLeod had been half of a duo that enjoyed moderate success some years earlier. After the duo broke up, he had one solo hit on the radio and a music video that played about once an hour throughout the one summer I watched the Country Music Television station. That was nearly twenty years ago; I don’t think he has been on the radio since. I imagine him still wandering the countryside like some folktale character, peering into every face and asking, “Randy McLeod—that name mean anything to you?”

I don’t suppose this is news to anybody who has ever watched Behind the Music on VH1, but in fame there can be a yawning neediness that is terrible to behold. What I at first believed to be arrogance or entitlement was in fact need. It was only false hope, a frail protest against the sorrow of a world that doesn’t keep its promises.

I watched Randy walk out of the grocery store. But I wish I had put my arm around his shoulder and said, “Yes, Randy. Of course I remember you. You had that music video a few years back, with the girl in the cotton dress and the train depot.” I wish I had said, “I hear you’re a very talented songwriter. Thank God art doesn’t fly away as fast as fame.” I wish I had said, “You’re going to be all right, Randy, even if no stranger ever recognizes you again.”