How would you feel if you unexpectedly encounter a celebrity whose
face you frequently see on the TV? This is what happened to me when
I ran into Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf in the California Legoland
park last summer. Meeting a celebrity for a few seconds is not such a
big deal, or perhaps it is, but those few unusual, exciting, and
somewhat confusing moments got me thinking certain things which I
wanted to share with you.
Coming straight to the action, this is what happened:
I was sitting on a bench in Legoland with my younger son sleeping on my lap when I first spotted Agassi. When he first walked by me with his son, I immediately recognized his face and his style of walking that I have seen numerous times on the TV. I recalled that he must be back from ongoing French Open, from where he just dropped out due to back injury. What surprised me was that he wasn't wearing those impenetrable dark sunglasses, virtually mandatory for all celebrities frequenting non-celebrity zones. Courageous, I thought, but at the same token, perhaps he is not the real Agassi, but a close resemblance? Otherwise why would he risk being identified in a public place? Should I go to him and say "Hello"? But that will be embarrassing to me as he would surely consider me a nuisance, as another pestering non-celebrity intruding upon him with no specific purpose. I am sure he deals with such cases daily. So I sat motionless staring at him as he passed by uninterrupted. As soon as he vanished inside a pavilion, I started regretting for not doing something. After all, how often do I meet a celebrity in a normal day? After sitting there for 15 minutes, and seeing no trace of him, I started deeply agonizing over what I just let happen, and now all chances are lost.
And then I spotted him returning the same way. Without thinking too much I quickly grabbed a pen and an envelope with a few square inches of white space for an autograph. I was ready to face him, but what should I say to him? When he came within 10 feet, I finally mustered the courage and stood up, still with my sleeping son on my lap. I walked up to him and commented in a smart-Alec tangential way, just to leave an escape route in case he wasn't the real Agassi. I said, "You look a lot like Agassi".
The way he responded, which I cannot describe in writing, gave away the fact that he was the real guy. He didn't look at me but muttered, "Yeah, yeah", while concentrating on wiping his son's face with a napkin. I had earlier noticed the slightly unusual way he was casting his gaze around. When we walk, we casually look at trees, or people or the surroundings. Whenever our gaze falls on someone, it becomes direct, one-to-one, even for a brief instant, even if we are not about to exchange a nod or say hello. Agassi, however, was looking at his surroundings with a tensed control, as if to ensure that his gaze doesn't set on anybody, lest he has to respond to a comment from a passer-by. Again it's hard to describe in language but it seemed like he was walking through a self-created glass tunnel and no sound was going to penetrate the glass walls.
Agassi had responded to me only after I said "Excuse me" several times from such a close distance that he couldn't possibly ignore me without appearing extremely rude. I realized, of course, that this was his protective shield crafted to deal with unsolicited undesired intrusions from passers by. But that is only rational thinking. For me, I was talking to a celebrity. I selfishly convinced myself since he is a celebrity and he was supposed to be encountering and tolerating such intrusions. What's the point of being world's top tennis player, if you are not recognized by people on the street? Also, it happens that I have taken the first step to encounter him, and, at this point cannot possibly go back unceremoniously.
So I continued, "Can I get your autograph?". He looked around, perhaps to judge if he was about to be surrounded by other autograph hunters. Apparently, he wasn't spotted by others (I was wrong), and there wasn't anyone in close proximity. So he said, "Sure, if you can get something (pen and paper) quickly."
I immediately returned to my bench to grab the pen but by the time I returned to him, he was gone, walking away with a brisk pace. I shouted in a measured voice, "Here it is, I got it". But he wouldn't look back and kept walking.
What should I do now? He is certainly not interested in rewarding me with an autograph, and in all sincerity, why should he bother? On the other hand, I really look like a fool now. My dignity was battling my youthful autograph hunting urge -- I may not be a star tennis player, but I am also somebody. Can Agassi invert a matrix? Can he write the dynamics equation of a robot?... Can I let the chance to get his autograph pass? Again I let my emotion defeat my reason (but thinking at the same time to never let myself low again) and followed him as fast as I could with my son in my arms.
Miraculously he stopped, and the next thirty seconds when Agassi was signing his name on my envelope, all my pre-conceived ideas changed. (By that time I noticed through the corner of my eyes the tall blonde very German-looking woman suddenly appearing from somewhere and talking to him.)
As Agassi very patiently took my envelope and pen, his gaze suddenly softened, and became normal and friendly. He directly looked at me, and as he got ready to sign the autograph, he asked my name. He had absolutely no reason to be nice to me, and he positively didn't need to know my name.
- "Ambarish, I said".
- "Can you spell it for me?"
- "A-m-b-a-r-i-s-h". (Is he going to write my name?)
He then actually took the whole time writing my name, returned me my stuff, pointed to my son, said "Cute kid!". Then he said "Good luck", and walked away. (By that time, my self-respect had returned and I couldn't get myself to ask Steffi Graf for her autograph, but could only smile at her. Much later, my wife spotted her and got her autograph.)
In those departing seconds I could see Agassi's "celebrity mask" again descending upon his face. And with good reason, since as I turned around I noticed a group of guys scrambling to assemble scratch paper and readying to approach him. They had also recognized him, but were slightly unsure and got the needed confirmation when they saw him giving me autograph.
Those thirty inconsequential and utterly forgettable seconds of Agassi's life became a relatively memorable event in my life. I have recounted this episode to my numerous friends and family members in great detail. I am probably never going to forget it in my life. Such is the power of celebrity.
After this chance encounter, I am preaching "If you become rich and famous, all the great, but if you have to choose between wealth and fame, choose the latter" because it touches others lives in a positive way. Sure, Van Gogh died penniless, but try to name a few rich people from his time.
Last Revised February 27, 2007