I’m a sophisticated guy. A deep thinker, even. Shallowness’s scourge, you might say.
At least that was my line 10 or so years ago, as my family embarked on a trip to Southern California. My younger sister, then around 14, proclaimed before our departure that she hoped we would see a celebrity on our trip.
In reply, I unleashed a torrent of late-teenage pomposity. I deplored America’s “celebrity culture”—who are those philistines who read People, browse TMZ, and watch Inside Edition? After all, I philosophized, what’s so special about the “famous,” anyway? They’re only as human as you and me. Even the president of the United States sometimes must stand naked, as Bob Dylan noted. (Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits: Where would pretentious 18-year-olds be without it?)
For the first few days, we ran into no one famous. Who knew: Real movie stars don’t hang out at the theme park section of Universal Studios, or in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre. And, quelle surprise, no famous people came out to greet us as we skulked creepily by their homes on the “Houses of the Stars” bus tour.
But then, just as our trip was drawing to a close, I spotted Walton Goggins smoking a cigarette outside a Starbucks in Hollywood. While Mr. Goggins was (and is) decidedly B-list, I immediately recognized him as the bug-eyed, super-frenetic Detective Shane Vendrell from FX’s The Shield. The Shield was my favorite television show at the time. And Shane just happened to be my absolute favorite character.
My heart immediately started racing, my palms grew sweaty, and my vision went blurry. Despite this sheer animal exhilaration, I managed to approach Mr. Goggins and engage him in a friendly conversation for a couple of minutes. (At least I think I did—I was far too excited during the encounter to remember much of it afterwards.) After my brush with greatness was over and we were walking away from the Starbucks, my mother asked me, with concern, whether I was okay. Apparently I was hyperventilating. And my sister just laughed at me: Who doesn’t care about seeing celebrities now? A fair point, I had to admit. In the subsequent years, when I had brushes with other famous people—Rod Stewart, Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench—I didn’t quite go Full Goggins, but I’ll admit I was excited.
Then I moved to Washington a few years back, and the excitement continued. For a certain kind of person, D.C. is celebrity-sighting heaven; unlike Los Angeles, Washington proper is quite compact, so its famous-person population density is high. Within days of my arrival, I was having sightings. That person in front of me in line at the coffee shop—didn’t I see her out of the corner of my eye on MSNBC at 2:00 p.m. the other day? Huge! That guy walking out of the restaurant near my apartment—isn’t he a congressman from Kansas or something? Mega! And whenever I spotted famous people I could actually name (Ben Bernanke enjoying lunch at Le Pain Quotidien was a good one; so was Paul Ryan striding through the lobby of my office building), I would quickly send a text message to an uncle who cares about this sort of thing.
And yet, as time has passed, I’ve become jaded in that boring Washington way. Witnessing Sam Donaldson get out of his car just doesn’t do it for me like it used to; it’s become ho-hum—positively quotidian. When I walked past Cokie Roberts on a downtown street the other day, I barely remembered to send a text message to my uncle. She’s just a person, after all. And I, of course, am a sophisticated fellow.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking through the neon-drenched streets of the Dotonbori district of Osaka. Despite being distracted—and nearly blinded—by the flashing lights, teenage fashionistas, and robotic animals hanging above restaurant entrances (I particularly like the mechanized octopus that sits atop a famous octopus fritter joint), I noticed up ahead on the sidewalk a group of Westerners walking toward me—when you’re a gaijin in Japan, you always notice the other foreigners. One of them had a head of tousled blond hair, and as he got closer, I realized it was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and potential British prime minister. As he approached me, I called his name, and he turned to me, looked me squarely in the eye, and said, “Good afternoon.”
About 10 minutes later, as I boarded the subway back to my hotel, I stopped hyperventilating and my pulse returned to normal. As I said, I’m deep that way.