by Charles Salzberg

"In her eyes, I realized, I was famous."



Last year, the morning after Mark McGwire hit his 62nd homerun, smashing Roger Maris' record, someone asked for my autograph. I do not resemble the new record holder, nor have I ever accomplished anything remotely as noteworthy, in fact, being rather shy, I have always tried to shun the limelight. And so, frankly, I was puzzled and a little taken aback by this obvious case of mistaken celebrity.

I was on my way upstate, walking through LaGuardia airport on a bright, cloudless morning, still wearing my sunglasses. I stopped to pick up the morning newspaper and when I went to pay, the woman behind the counter, meticulously dressed in her official vendor's uniform evidently designed by someone who has a fetish for Catholic school girls, looked up at me quizzically, hesitated a moment, and then said, "You're someone famous, aren't you?"

I blushed. "Nope."

"Yes, you are," she insisted vehemently.

"I'm really not," I said, thinking that if I were, I wouldn't be rushing to make some puddle-jumper. "Do I look like I'm famous?"

"You're wearing sunglasses."

"Oh," I muttered, as I sheepishly removed them, realizing that perhaps she believed anyone wearing shades indoors must be some rock star either trying to travel incognito, or hide alcohol-induced swollen eyes the result of an all-night bender. "Do you still think I'm famous?"

"Not all writers are famous..."


She examined me more closely, smiled and nodded, "Yeah, you're famous, all right. What do you do?"

"I'm a writer," I said, figuring the jig was up, my fanciful flirtation with fame unmasked, since at best only a handful of writers are famous enough to hide behind sunglasses, and certainly I'm not one of them.

"See, I knew you were famous," she giggled.

"Not all writers are famous," I said. "I'm sure you've never heard of me."

"What kind of stuff do you write?"

"I write for magazines, newspapers, and I write books."



She smiled victoriously. In her eyes, I realized, I was famous. I wrote. I got published. Ergo, I must be famous. Maybe not as famous as Mark McGwire, but for the moment I would do. Suddenly, she dipped behind the counter and pulled out a plain white note pad, and thrust it at me. "Can I have you're autograph?"

"You don't want my autograph" I said.

"Yes. I do. Please. Sign it. To Shirley."

For a fleeting moment I considered signing someone else's name, someone really famous, but I didn't. Instead, with some hesitation, I signed my own, feeling terribly guilty that this poor woman would proudly show this autograph around to her friends, to her family, and no one, not one soul, would know who the person was behind what I tried to make as unintelligible a scrawl as I could, not to save my feelings, but hers.

"...I'd hardly envisioned experiencing writer's cramp..."

This thing about autographs puzzles me. I know some collect them purely in hopes that they will rise in value, as with McGwire's or any other sports, political, or entertainment figure, and I certainly understand that economic stab at a sweepstakes anyone can win, simply by being in proximity of fame and carrying a pen. But that's not what was going on with Shirley. Nor was it what was going on with a young woman I encountered at a Kentucky book fair several years ago that was featuring my NBA oral history, among fifty or more other books. I was there to sell and sign books, but although I'd hardly envisioned experiencing writer's cramp, I was rapidly becoming bitterly disappointed that no one seemed to be interested in my book or in me. Further down the table there was a fellow who had a gardening show on the radio and folks passed my station with arm loads of his books. I eyed him enviously as one of his stooges actually had to go downstairs to bring up another box of his tips on how to sow and reap and weed. I couldn't help recalling a friend of mine, Roy Hoffman, who'd recently published a first novel and would sign it at the drop of a hat. I used to kid him that if he ever got famous it would be the unsigned copies that would hold extra value.



But just when I was losing all hope, a young woman, in her late teens, perhaps, approached my table, stacked with unsold books. She picked up a copy and thumbed through it (to see if there was print on the pages, I wondered?). I smiled. Then she shyly asked for my autograph. Eagerly, I grabbed a copy, sensing my first sale, the icebreaker that would inevitably lead to many others.

But she stopped me short. "No," she said, as she pulled out a small notepad, not unlike Shirley's and handed it to me. "On this."

I signed, though without much enthusiasm. It wasn't that I was disappointed about the lack of a sale; it was more that I felt uncomfortable signing my name for what I conceived of as no good reason. After all, what possible value could it have if it weren't connected to something tangible, in this case a book. What would she do with it? Frame it and display it on her wall? Laminate it and show it to her friends? Would having my autograph somehow make her feel more important? Would some of my perceived fame rub off on her? At that moment, my signing that pad seemed an effort in futility, as it did with Shirley years later.

"...a life worth living..."


But on reflection maybe it wasn't. After all, soon after writing the book I decided it would be a good idea to send the same copy to all those I had included, asking them to sign the first page of their chapter, so I would have a memento of having met these sports legends, many of whom were probably close to death. I sent the book to five former players, each of whom signed. The sixth time I sent it out it never returned. Whether it got lost in the mail, stolen, or the last player I sent it to simply neglected to send it back, I don't know. But I do know that even today, some ten years later, I occasionally experience pangs of regret that I don't have that book. Why? After all, I have plenty of copies of the book. But it was those signatures that made it important to me, the signatures that added something human to those print-filled pages, that gave those men some personal connection to me, making me feel a little more special.

For many, having the autograph of someone famous (even if they're not) is somehow comforting. Perhaps it's a validation of having lived an ordinary life, which now becomes a life worth living simply because we have had a brush with greatness, even if we really haven't. Perhaps somehow we become famous by coming in contact with someone with real fame, and then have proof to show for the encounter. After all, haven't we all, upon spotting a celebrity on the street, rushed home to tell our husbands, wives, friends, who we saw? And why? Perhaps it's because for a moment, however fleeting, we have entered the sphere of celebrity. And if we stop the person and talk to them and even get their autograph, in some strange way we become a part of their world, and for many of us that is a world we will never otherwise enter.



Not everyone can get Mark McGwire's autograph on a ball, a bat, a uniform, but there are other fish in the sea, and some of them walk through airports pretending they're famous by wearing sunglasses.

And so, Shirley, if you're reading this, I am famous. At least in your eyes. And that's good enough for me.



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