Stalking Steve Martin - A One-Sided Love Affair
Stalking Steve Martin – A One-Sided Love Affair
February, 1985 – Albany, New York
In the movie LA Story, Steve Martin plays Harris Telemacher, a neurotic TV weatherman who thinks that God is speaking to him via electronic signs on the freeway. One of the reoccurring messages he receives is this: “The weather will change your life.”
Likewise, I can think of no other explanation besides the weather for what follows, for it was during the depths of a long and dark upstate New York winter - a youth during which I had too much time and not enough serotonin on my hands - that my obsession began. I became certain that I had a soulmate in this life, and his name was Steve Martin. Certainly this belief had no basis in reality, yet it would justify what would become a twenty-five year quest; one that would ultimately take me from New York City to San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, all because my life was unalterably changed that cold winter night in February 1985; the first time I saw the movie The Jerk.
It was a minor miracle I got to see the movie at all. I honestly believe that most prisoners had more freedom than I did from the age of birth to age 18, growing up the eldest and only daughter of a strict father who didn’t allow television other than Sesame Street and likewise, movies that were rated anything but ‘G.’A friend from high-school once causally remarked, “You know, it’s funny because your Dad looks like Jerry Garcia, but he acts like Darth Vader.” Indeed.
But I digress. Back then, February 1985, the weather changed my life when a massive snowstorm turned my classmate Charlene Wilson’s 13th birthday sleepover into a four-day lock down/movie marathon. At the time, Charlene possessed everything I desperately wanted but did not have: lenient parents. HBO. Boobs. And it was in the Williams’ cold, re-finished basement that I first fell into the depths of infatuation. It happened during the fourth scene of the film. Mrs. Johnson, played by Mabel King, the Southern Baptist black Mom stoically admits to her adopted son, “Navin, it’s your birthday and it’s time you knew. You’re not our natural born child,” after which a devastated Navin replies, “You mean I’m going to STAY this color?”
Navin’s adventures of being a socially-awkward misfit left on the doorsteps of a poor black family were nothing short of life-altering to me. Hitchhiking out of his hometown via a dead-end street; getting hired at a gas station where he is the target of assassination attempts by a random psychopath; adopting “Shithead,” the stray dog he rescues from a motel fire; inventing a pair of million-dollar prescription glasses; the Optograph! This was by far the most remarkable bullshit I’d ever seen. Watching this movie was perhaps the best thing that had ever happened to me.
I watched The Jerk seven more times that weekend. I started quoting the movie like I was getting a check from Carl Reiner, capriciously spouting statements like, “The new phone book’s here!” “I’m picking out a thermos for you!” and, “All I need is this paddle ball, this chair, and this remote control. And who among us can’t benefit from the practical wisdom to be found within: “Don’t trust Whitey.” “The Lord loves a working man.” “See a doctor and get rid of it!”
I at once fell hopelessly in love with Navin Johnson and Steve Martin and vowed that I too would one-day escape my own humble upbringings and find the adventure my soul so longed for in the larger world. And so began an insatiable need to find my heart’s desire: the actor, author, director, stand-up comic, playwright, art collector, animal lover, screenwriter, humorist, musician, and all around comic genius. The only thing larger than life about the multi-capable Steve Martin was my full-blown, clinical obsession with him.
Summer, 1994 - New York City
I recall my four years of college as being a complete waste of time with one exception: the day I ran into Steve Martin in a deli on W. 81st and Columbus Avenue.
Forever in my mind’s eye is an early 1990’s vision of Steve in summer casual: white pressed short-sleeved oxford shirt, khaki pants, Chuck Taylors, sunglasses that probably cost more than open heart surgery. Visions of reading Dickens or TS Eliot together in his Upper West Side brownstone begin to dance in my head; Roger, his dog, lying at my feet. I long to scream, “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky . . .” I quietly follow him to the counter, where he’s paying for a fresh squeezed orange juice.
I approach him but cannot formulate a sentence. “Are you . . .are you Steve Martin? I say. I can barely breathe. He smiles and nods his head “Yes.” I run out of the store into on-coming traffic on W. 81st Street. Who cares if I am hit by a bus, I’ve met Steve Martin! At least I’ll die happily now; at age 19.
I run into the nearest phone-booth I can find, a hyperventilating Catholic school girl in heat, frantically searching my pockets for quarters to call everyone I’ve ever known to tell them I said I met Steve Martin and said only this: “HI.” “HI THERE” he said back matter-of-factly. “HI THERE.”
I spend the next week lamenting what I should have said, what I should have done. Should I have told him that The Jerk changed my life? That Saturday Night Live was the only thing that kept me from offing myself in high-school? I arrive at the deli the next day and the day after that and for the next four days after that, even though it’s an hour and fifteen minute subway ride from my dorm in the Bronx to the Upper West Side. My hope is that he’ll return, and I will have another chance. I maniacally rehearse my best ‘King Tut’ impression in the bathroom mirror each morning. But Steve doesn’t come back, and after two weeks of this, the deli manager offers me a bag of leftover knishes and a free Snapple if I promise never to come back.
But the experience has left me more certain than ever that this was a sign and just like the ones on the freeway billboards, God is showing me that Steve and I are meant to be. In September, I start to re-think my college course load. All I want is to major in the movies of Steve Martin. I schedule an appointment to talk to the head of Liberal Arts department about designing an Independent Study. “Communications majors don’t have that option,” she said. but I didn’t know back then what I know now – that those of us dumb enough get a degree in the increasingly vague field of “Communications,” don’t have ANY options in this life, except perhaps a choice between working at TGIFriday’s or Houlihans after graduation. I tried to explain my theory that TS Eliot’s “Love Song of Alfred Prufrock” was similar “The Jerk” because perhaps Alfred J. Prufrock and Navin R. Johnson were both tragic heroes on the hero’s journey,
When that didn’t work, I argued that the The Jerk was perhaps the best example of multi-cultural cinema in the history of America, that other students could and would benefit from my rigorous exploration of the cultural implications of a white orphan being left upon the doorsteps of black sharecroppers in the 1970s. I thought my Independent Study was in the proverbial bag just as I was escorted out of her office by a security guard, followed by a letter the next day delivered by the Resident Advisor of my dorm, noting that I had been scheduled to attend a mandatory session at the campus counseling center before being allowed to register for next semester’s litany of crappy Communications courses.
Steve is jipped of the Oscar he so rightfully deserves for Roxanne: I get a job at Houlihan’s.
Pure Drivel is published. Steve’s essay collection is published to rave reviews. I love it and read each of the 23 essays twenty-three times. My most favorite? “Artist Lost to Zoloft.”
I quit going to therapy after realizing that reading “Artist Lost to Zoloft” twenty-three times did more for me than therapy and/or Zoloft ever did, in addition to being significantly cheaper.
2002 - San Francisco, California
I move to San Francisco after my apartment on the Lower East Side is sold to Urban Outfitters. I get hired as a Personal Assistant to a financial planner but must live in his guesthouse in the outer Richmond District, a remote neighborhood with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is quiet and under-populated which seems ideal at first for writing, until I move in and realize that the reason it’s so quiet is because the weather is wretched. It’s no co-incidence that the Golden Gate Bridge is in walking distance; people who live in fog this thick want to jump off of it. There is a reason why my boss hasn’t been able to keep an assistant longer than six months: fog is real.
It is here that I’m again reminded of Steve and the freeway message of LA Story; that the weather will change your life. And it does. I realize that it’s going to take some effort on my part in order to make friends in San Francisco because I live in the middle of nowhere with no car and in a 24/7 fog-fest. What better way to meet new people in than to produce a play? The closest thing to a theater in my new neighborhood is a coffeehouse - The Bazaar Café on 22nd and California. The coffee is amazing as is the space, but the place is empty when I go in one morning. “It’s the fog” shrugs Makiko, the bohemian Japanese café owner who will soon become my closest friend in the Bay Area. The café does have a weekly open-mic night for singer-songwriters; though they’ve never had a play in there, she’s willing to give me a shot. What could be a better venue for staging a performance of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Steve’s award-winning play?
I have a new reason to live.
In the days that follow, I worry about the fact that I have no budget and have three weeks to produce a full-length play. Finding good actors who will work for free, let alone haul ass to the Richmond house of fog is indeed a challenge. This being San Francisco and not New York or LA, I have to use every resource possible. Luckily, I find an AA meeting at a Unitarian Universalist church basement in the Tenderloin. A group of former Vietnam vets playing ping-pong agree to do the play in exchange for free coffee and egg sandwiches. I head to the dumpster behind the Goodwill on Haight Street to pilfer props and costumes. Once I have the cast in place, we have rehearsals on Baker Beach because it’s free.
I write over-zealous press releases and send them to the SF Chronicle, USA Today, and the LA Times, in hopes that Steve will hear about it. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: “HOMELESS VETS CAST IN STEVE MARTIN PLAY; PRE-SHOWS HAILED AS “TRIUMPHANT” BY FIRST GLIMPSE AUDIENCES!” I hope and pray that Steve will show. The show sells out, but the revenue earned from ticket sales is handed over to an intellectual property rights lawyer from Marin County whose car just happened to break down nearby. He stopped in the café only because he was waiting for Triple A and needed a bathroom. He asks if I obtained copyrights for the play. I plead ignorance. Fortunately, I’m not busted. Unfortunately, the performance is hailed as “PATHETIC, SELF-REFERENTIAL NONSENSE” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Bay Area Theatre Critics, and my Mom.
2004 Los Angeles
Hope is renewed when I’m invited to attend the UCLA Times Book Fair with my new boss, a Green Party politician from Sausalito who is receiving an award for her new book on the medical miracles of marijuana. We drive from Oakland to LA in her Subaru and stay at a disreputable motel in Granada Hills, but I don’t care, because it is rumored that Steve will be here, signing copies of Shopgirl.
I’m at the bar during the opening night Book Fair party when approached by a woman wearing a Press Pass and also what looks like a prom dress: red floor-length and strapless. She’s very theatrical as she places a complicated order – for what turns out to be a seltzer with lime. I get the sense that she was perhaps the lead in her high school production of West Side Story in Missouri in the late 70s and never got over it. Barbara “Barbara Starrs (her real last name is more likely Jones or Smith) tells me that she is a book critic for the LA Times and once was an actress,” (i.e., she slept with a director after a party once) though she admittedly has some credits in soaps. I admit to her that I’m hoping to meet Steve Martin here. “Steve is in my book club!” she cries, clenching the leash of her Tibetan terrier, who is wearing a fur sweater.
As she sips the seltzer while I’m shamelessly downing my third Stoli gimlet, Babs informs me that she lives in Malibu, where the weekly writers’ group is held. Malibu. “Steve attends every other Wednesday!” she gloats.
How I wish that Stoli gimlets could be taken intravenously.
On the flight back to San Francisco, I recall reading once that the idea of a soul mate is credited to Plato, who said that a perfect human being was tragically split apart at birth and that one is “destined to spend his or her life trying to find it’s missing other.” Somehow I imagine that Plato never went to these lengths.
2004 – I move back to New York and apply for a job at Hyperion, Steve’s publisher. I get hired at Starbucks.
2005: Steve wins the Mark Twain award for American humor. I dream of us celebrating this crowning achievement in front of a fire with a bottle of Sancerre, Vivaldi playing in the background toasting to Steve’s latest success. In reality, I seek solace in two buck Chuck and the Les Miserables soundtrack.
2007 – A banner year for Steve:
1.)The Best of Steve Martin is released on DVD.
2.)Born Standing Up is published; Steve’s memoir becomes an instant New York Times best-seller: I stay up all night reading it.
3.)Steve receives Kennedy Center Honors in DC.
4.)Steve is rumored to be seriously dating Anne Stringfield. Now I am worried. She’s also a bookish- brunette. She’s from the East Coast. She works for The New Yorker; I have a subscription to The New Yorker. I find out later she and I are also the same age. Ultimately, only one of us marries my soulmate.
Two words describe my misery: Jesus Wept.
November 29, 2010 – New York City: the death of manners and culture on W. 92nd Street.
An Object of Beauty, Steve’s novel about the New York City art world is published.
The Huffington Post states, “Whatever Steve Martin did while on-stage at the 92nd Street Y, it clearly wasn't interesting enough for some patrons. Last Monday, Martin sat down for a chat with Deborah Solomon of The New York Times. The discussion was about art, but according to Sol Adler (the executive director of the Y)
the institution "received numerous complaints from audience members.”
Basically, a reception of ingrates bombarded Steve with bitterness, pissed that he is there to discuss his book and not perform stand-up. Their childish temper tantrums reek of, “We don’t want to hear about your novel or your writing process or your love of art; just make us laugh, and now. Dance, Mr. Bonjangles, dance!” Three hundred Judases with ADHD, all demanding refunds. In his response a week later in a New York Times Op Ed a week later, Martin responds with diplomacy. “Was I boring? He wrote. Yes, I might have been.” Steve defends himself with class and character. My love has taken the high-road, the epitome of good graces, manners, and maturity. I decide to write a letter to his Steve’s mom, Mary Lee (nee Stewart) Martin, praising her child-rearing methods. She raised him so well!
I’ve packed up my place in Brooklyn for good. My dog and I drive 3,000 miles to Los Angeles in a 1998 VW Jetta, stopping only once in Chicago to kiss Gilda Radner’s picture in the lobby of “The Second City.” It’s a new start filled with hope. I call my brother John from the road and tell him that the first thing I plan to do in LA is go to an outdoor screening of LA Story. “Your obsession is a waste of time,” he says. Let’s face it, sis, this little pastime of yours only prevents you from having a real relationship. In reality. “I don’t want a relationship in reality,” I scream. “I want to be the third Mrs. Martin!”
But since I’m still not truly ready to give up, AND since I now live in Los Angeles, I do something no self-respecting New Yorker or really anyone with a brain would consider doing. I log onto “Cafeastrology.com.” Since I know Steve’s birthday – August 14, 1945 and his place of birth – Waco, Texas, in a few swift clicks, and for free! In minutes I will have a “soul mate compatibility chart” at my fingertips. Here’s what comes back:
“The soul mate compatibility reading compares two individual’s natal charts and examines their inner-aspects or synastry between them.” Stephen’s Mercury is in strong conjunction with Carolyn’s Mercury! You have a good connection with each other! There is a nurturing aspect to your partnership! You two are destined for . . .
Find out more with your full-length reading; only $199.99!”
I’m actually considering the upgrade when I get to the last line of the free sample:
“In this relationship. Carolyn is likely to be the teacher, while Stephen, possibly younger, is more eager to learn .” What? Younger? Did the Wizard of Oz behind the café astrology curtain not look at our respective birthdates? Clearly I cannot trust astrology after all. “Stephen” is not only twenty-six years my senior, he’s also a year older than my dad.
I decide it might officially be time to professional help.
Steve becomes a father for the first time, at age 67. He has a daughter and I imagine she is the most beautiful little girl. The thought of my sweet Navin finally becoming a father melts my broken heart even more; I am happy for him and his wife too. It feels good to let go, and it only took twenty-seven years to do so; clearly, I’m evolving as a spiritual being!
I spend a snowy New Years Eve 2012 in New Mexico, and it is this solemn vow I write in my journal. “Early in the morning . . . gonna’ find me anther lover.” I put all of my faith in these words of wisdom from the “Gap Band” and my wish at midnight is pray that it is not too late for me to find my soulmate and maybe, just maybe he exists and hopefully I will find him in LA. It was still snowing when I woke up on January 1, 2013 and I realized that the weather had once again changed my life, just like it had for Harris Telemacher in LA Story, a movie I was beginning to love almost as much as The Jerk.