I’ve always had a knack for spotting celebrities. I inherited it from my mother. In London, where I grew up in the 1970s, every time she’d come home from a walk or a trip to the supermarket, she’d say, “Guess who I saw?”
And I’d say, “I don’t know, mother, the Pope?”
“Very funny,” she’d say. “I saw Bianca Jagger . . . Princess Margaret . . . Maximilian Schell . . . Omar Sharif . . . Harold Pinter . . . Jimmy Connors,” depending on what neighborhood she’d been in and which jetsetters had touched down in London that day. She seemed incapable of walking out the door without glimpsing one.
I’m not in that class, but I have my moments. For me, spotting a celebrity makes a day just slightly special. This sounds vacuous but is actually true. Whether it’s someone I don’t particularly care about (Hugh Grant at a bookstore in Los Angeles) or someone I do (Lawrence Durrell alone in an empty café in Paris), there’s always a mild sense of visitation. Celebrities are, after all, as close as most of us come to having gods. And occasionally you see one who really is a kind of god.
That happened to me at the junction of Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue in New York. It was a cold January afternoon in 1983, one day after a snowfall, and the streets were turning syrupy with slush. As I crossed the street at the light, an unmistakable profile grazed the corner of my left eye: Bob Dylan had just walked past me. He was wearing a fur hat, a black-leather jacket, and brown corduroy pants tucked inside knee-high motorcycle boots. Head down against the cold (or public), hands jammed into jacket pockets, he walked away with a slow, rolling stride. Had he been heading east, I might have followed him for a block or two, but watching Dylan walk through Greenwich Village was like watching someone walk into his own history, into one of his own album covers, and I left him alone.
Four months later, I saw him again, at Columbus Circle uptown. I was crossing the street at the light, and once more the familiar profile grazed my left eye. This time, Dylan was with two children — his own, presumably — and though it was a warm spring evening, he was dressed in the same pants, boots, jacket and voluminous fur hat. Emboldened by the fact that I had now seen him twice, I turned around and followed him. I watched from a distance as he said goodbye to his children at the entrance of the subway. Then, as he walked toward me, ä I jumped from the shadows. Not sure how to address him (“Bob” seemed too hippie-ish and familiar; “Mr. Dylan” ridiculously formal), I just started talking. “Hi! This is the second time I’ve seen you!” I called out, scurrying up to him on the deserted sidewalk. Then I explained, as if it could be of any conceivable interest to him, how I had passed him in the Village four months earlier. You know: the traffic light, the profile, the left eye — it was, like, fate, man.
Amazingly enough, Dylan stopped to listen. Leaning against a wall, he took a pack of Benson & Hedges King Size from his leather jacket and offered me one. He lit my cigarette, then held the flame of his brass lighter up to his own, which gave me a moment to study his face. I found it compellingly strange. Under the fur hat, it looked about as metropolitan as a Cossack’s. Dylan might have just come back from the “wild unknown country” he sang about in “Isis.”
We spoke for a few minutes. I remember almost nothing Dylan said, probably because he didn’t actually say anything. He simply listened to me babble (“I saw your show at Earl’s Court,” “I love your records,” etc.) as, over the years, he must have patiently listened to thousands of people babble. When our cigarettes had burned down, he politely put an end to the one-sided conversation. Mumbling something like, “It was good talking to you,” he backed away slowly, hands in front of his chest, palms out. It was a gesture of conciliation, or fear, and suddenly I realized that Dylan was scared of being shot, just as Lennon had been shot, a mere 14 blocks north of where we were standing. He continued backing off from me like that for a yard or two, and then abruptly he turned and walked away, heading west into the darkness of 58th Street.
A few years ago, I was reminded of our encounter while reading an interview Dylan gave to USA Today, in which the topic of celebrity came up. “It mortifies me to even think that I am a celebrity,” Dylan told the interviewer. Then he explained why:
“By being a celebrity you lose your anonymity. It short-circuits your creative powers when people come up and interrupt your train of thought. They consider you completely approachable. And you can’t be rude to people, so basically you shut yourself down. I know I do. I shut myself down when people come up and want to shake my hand or want to talk. That’s just dead time.”
Sorry, Bob. And happy birthday.