A while back, I gave a speech in New Jersey. I entered the hall, had a name tag affixed to my jacket, ate lunch, gave my speech and then was driven to the train. It was then that I realized how truly famous I am.
The train was not the Metroliner. This one was slower, poking its way to Washington in something over 3 1/2 hours. After about an hour, I stirred myself and went looking for the club car. As I walked down the aisles of one car after another, I noticed people staring at me. Sometimes if I returned their gaze, they looked away, but sometimes they just held their stare and even nodded. Being a polite person, I nodded back.
Back in my seat, I was at first puzzled by what had happened. But the longer I thought it over, the more it seemed to make sense. These people had recognized me. Of course! I had been on national television a fair bit at the time -- "Donahue," "The McLaughlin Group" -- and, for sure, I was being recognized. I had done local television, too, and since the train was heading toward Washington it was only natural to assume that some of the passengers had seen those shows.
Fame! I thought of fame. I thought of the benefits and the travails. I had lost my anonymity. I could no longer just go down the aisle of a train for a hot dog without people seeing me, knowing who I was, commenting on my choice of food. I remembered a conversation I once had with Robert Redford in which he described what life was like for him. He had dropped his daughter off at the Denver airport and then, he said, on the spur of the moment decided to drive to his next destination. He hit the road, but everywhere he went he was recognized. Gas station attendants wanted to get his autograph or talk about his last picture. At one pit stop, a guy followed him into the bathroom and talked through what should be a private moment. Redford drove to the next airport and hopped a plane.
This is the way it would be for me, I thought. Me and Bob in the same boat. God, the loss of privacy. People would come up to me on the street. In restaurants I would have to ask for tables facing the wall. I would have to get reservations under a phony name so headwaiters would not tip the press to my coming. Maybe I would not be able to eat out at all.
On the other hand, I have to tell you that the prospect of fame was very satisfying. I mean -- fame! Isn't it what we all want? I once had a taste of it. I was to appear on "The Merv Griffin Show," and they sent a limousine for me. It was a long deep-green affair with tinted windows, and it arrogantly cruised up to the Hollywood studio where Griffin taped his show. Since he never announced before the show who his guests were to be, there was always a crowd of autograph-seekers waiting outside. They saw my limo and descended upon it -- totally crazy people clutching autograph books. Some of them leaned over the hood of the car to see through the windshield.
"Who's that?" one of them shouted. "I don't know," another one said. More and more of them yelled the crucial question: "Who are you?" I stepped out of the car and into the crowd. "Who are you?" they demanded. I didn't know what to say. My name wouldn't mean anything to them and so I blurted out, "Nobody. I'm nobody." One of them asked for an autograph anyway. On the train, though, it was obvious: I was finally somebody.
Best of all, I would be somebody to all the people I went to school with. All of them, including the teachers who said I would amount to nothing, would know that I had made it. Mr. London, the Spanish teacher who told my father that it was not true that I was an underachiever, but that I was just plain dumb, would have to eat those words -- in the pluperfect, if I had my way. Teachers would cite me the way they did Jonas Salk, who they (incorrectly) said attended my high school, and kids would stir in a teen-age approximation of awe: "Ugh, really?" As for Mark Crain, the son of my mother's friend who did everything just as he was told ("Perfect Mark," we called him), he would clutch his chest every time he saw my picture.
All these thoughts, and many others, occupied my mind. Fame! What exhilaration! What anguish! I dreaded an increase in the anonymous letters I already get. One came to my house just the other day: "Richard Cohen. You are the worm in the shiny red apple." I weighed the good and the bad and then simply concluded that I would have to accept what was happening. There was no escaping fame. I could not stop writing. It's me. It's my life. I would not stop appearing on TV. It's me. It's big bucks. Fame was indeed a small price to pay. I did not want to sound like a rich person complaining about the servant problem. I would bear the burden.
So I arrived home rather full of myself -- famous as hell, actually. I took off my topcoat and sat down at the dinner table. Then I noticed that my son was staring at me. "What are you looking at?" I demanded. He pointed to my left lapel. "Why are you wearing that name tag?" I grabbed for it and peeled it off. "Richard Cohen," it read in big black letters. "Columnist, Washington Post," it read in letters just as big and black.
I thought of the people on the train. I thought of what they must have thought. I blushed and then thought of what the poets said about fame. Oh, how right they were!
It is indeed fleeting. ::