I had a brush with Stardust years ago.
I met David Bowie, whose music and mad-rich life come to the world’s attention again today, due to his passing.
Living in New York in the late-1970s had its challenges. This was pre-Giuliani, pre-cleanup, pre-crackdown. Times Square had peep shows and you could spot folks tokin’ a joint out on the sidewalk without fear, even on the relatively tame upper West Side.
The thrills and rewards of the city, though, outweighed the rough stuff.
Seeing stars and celebrities always got my blood pumping, even though I would act nonchalantly. Like many other transplants to the Big Apple, I feigned sophistication.
It was on that upper West Side that I spotted David Bowie one afternoon. I think it was a Sunday, on Columbus Avenue at 70th Street.
Dressed in all black, shorter than I thought he would be, and thinner, too, he walked with a young man almost identical in size, as well as garb. They ducked into a restaurant very close to where I often did cleanup, maintenance, stuck mostly in the musty cellar.
My little sister loved David Bowie.
We grew up in Pittsburgh, a Rust Belt town, where steel mills were closing and jobs were scarce. Guys my age didn’t like Bowie or how he and others were remaking music, or remaking themselves.
My sister, though, had his posters and music. She was ahead of her time. But, those posters, of a grown man in full makeup with flaming orange hair — he looked like a female reject from the Archie comic strip — unsettled me. Shirt unbuttoned, red lips pouting, he was staring sensuously out from that poster at the guys, too, for cryin’ out loud.
I knew I had to get an autograph.
I was inexplicably nervous. I told myself I would just walk up like the tough guy I was, explain this was for my sister, hand over something to sign and all be out of there quicker than, well, a New York brush with stardom.
I couldn’t have explained why but I did a quick scan of my wardrobe: paint-and-plaster spattered pants as usual because of the maintenance work, greasy Converse, some sort of nondescript T-shirt. I tried to see my hair in a car window but it was too dirty, the window that is.
My sister really loved David Bowie.
I grabbed a Sunday paper, figured I could get a pen from a waitress if he didn’t have one, ratcheted up my macho mentality and approached the table.
He and his friend didn’t look up at first. So, I became more flustered. I think I cleared my throat. He finally raised his eyes to mine, probably worried I was homeless and ready to vomit. He didn’t speak.
I didn’t have to ask if he was really him. The real Bowie had that permanently dilated eye and there it was staring unblinking at me. If i recall correctly, he had his chin resting on his hands, his buddy held the same demure pose.
I was confused because they didn’t speak. I said something like: “My sister really loves you. Could you … uh … I only have this newspaper … Maybe the waitress has … ” They just kept staring, as the buddy eased in closer to the rock star.
They made me squirm, until the star rescued me by asking “What’s her name?”
I thought he meant the waitress; I looked around for her.
“Your sister?” he asked, pen already in hand.
“Maureen. It’s Maureen. She really loves you.”
As he began to sign the newspaper, his buddy whispered something to him. Then, in conspiracy, they looked up and became mannequins, eyes on me, unmoving for what seemed like a full 60 seconds before Bowie asked quietly:
“What about you?”
I swear he was batting his eyelashes, which, by the way, really made that dilated pupil stand out in a striking, almost handsome fashion.
Huh? Wha …? I stammered. Oh boy, he was asking if … Don’t blow this. I looked behind me to check, ridiculously, for the Pittsburgh guys.
I finally blurted out: “Of course, yes.”
More giggles from the buddy, then they turned to their food. I was dismissed.
David Bowie had just messed with me like he did for years with the squares and homophobes of that time. And, as was his hallmark, he did it with style, and mischief, and fun.
I never told that to the Pittsburgh guys this whole story, but I think I’m safe now. Most of them are too frail or lame or worse (you cannot punch someone in the back of the head when you’re dead, right?) to give me much grief now.
At that moment when the rock star and friend had me stammering, I had to do something. Truth is, I faux-flirted back.
Maureen, that autograph cost me. You better still have it.