We all know that I have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to meeting celebrities (even local ones). “Will they like me?” I think. “Can I trust myself to say something witty and endearing?” I think, sweating profusely. “What if I’m not dressed nicely enough to impress them?” I think, from a dead faint on the floor.
It’s silly, and it doesn’t make much sense. We’re all people, after all. We’re all plodding through this wonderful, cruel maze that is The Human Condition. Celebrities just happen to have a marketable talent. Or are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Or are really, really ridiculously good-looking. Or are hard workers. Or some combination of all four.
The fact is, I can’t seem to remember any of this wisdom when faced with a real, live celebrity. And thus I’m always surprised when they turn out to be nice, regular people. (Of course, some celebrities are as appraising and arrogant as I fear, and those I choose to smirk about later: “It goes to their heads. It always, always goes to their heads. Heh heh heh. I was right all along.” But then again, plenty of people who don’t have their own TV shows are appraising and arrogant.)
So when Wednesday night found me sitting in the sixth row at a Garrison Keillor poetry reading, I knew I was in for it. Here was a man whose voice I had literally been hearing through the radio for my entire life. My parents own a boat on Lake Superior, and some of my earliest memories are of hurtling through the northern woods on Sunday afternoons, listening to Guy Noir or News From Lake Wobegon and laughing whenever my parents laughed. Sometimes, uncomfortably full with the Happy Meals we had begged for for miles and miles (and which were somehow disappointing once actually opened and consumed), my sister and I would fall asleep in the backseat of the minivan to the sound of Mr. Keillor’s voice, and wake up at home.
Garrison Keillor is perhaps the most important public figure of all, in the Minnesotan mind. He brought us–our church basement suppers, our bars and hot dishes, our passive aggression, our experience of being up at the lake or down on the farm or “in town,” our grandparents and parents and cousins–to the world. And sure, we’re not always so neurotic as A Prairie Home Companion portrays us to be. Nor always so poignant nor so musical. But the spirit of the show is right.
All of the sudden the poetry reading was over. The wide sheets of paper Mr. Keillor had read from were scattered on the floor. And Mr. Keillor himself was strolling down the stage steps, down the aisle, and out into the lobby, where, as he said, he would be happy to sign copies of O, What a Luxury and to chat. Mom and I joined the growing line, squashed in between an older woman who exclaimed that she was “just wild for E.E. Cummings” and a young couple tossing computer jargon–discs and codes and bytes–back and forth like a softball.
Then we were at the front, and I silently handed my book to Mr. Keillor, deciding in a split second that perhaps I should just be quietly friendly and not attempt any conversation. He looked up, though, and jokingly commented on my mom’s hair, and then turned to me with an “what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” expression.
So I told him that I’m a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota.
“And what did they do for you there?”
“They gave me an English degree, but I’m still figuring out how to use it. I’m trying to get a job writing or editing.”
“Are you a good writer and editor?”
“Yes.” (Then, because that seemed too vain) “I mean, I like to think I am.”
“Send your resume to Prairie Home Companion, then.”
I’m going to end the conversation here, but note that there was some additional stuttering on my part before the exchange was over. Perhaps also some gushing to my patient mother during the drive home: “I can’t believe Garrison Keillor told me to send in my resume! I mean, it wasn’t exactly a promise of a job, but still. I’m going to have to write a cover letter right away. I think I’ll say something about listening to APHC as a kid, but I don’t want to ramble, you know, so I’ll have to be concise…” You get the idea.
To conclude this saga, I think there’s a lesson to be learned: if we ever happen to develop a marketable talent; or are in the right place at the right time; or become really, really ridiculously good-looking; or increase our work ethic…in other words, if we become celebrities, let’s remember to be kind to stuttering recent graduates who ask for our autographs. Because it will mean a lot to them.