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‘Gary from Chicago,’ the Oscars’ best meme, didn’t ask for your attention

Gary Coe and Mahershala Ali at the Academy Awards. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Gary Coe was touring Hollywood Boulevard on Sunday with his fiancee. Her feet began to hurt, so Coe sat her down on a bench. He didn’t know that someone was watching him at that moment. A man he had never met approached Coe and asked whether they’d like to go on a free Hollywood tour.

“I said, ‘I just got out of prison; how much is this gonna cost?’ ” Coe said Tuesday in a brief phone interview. Not to worry, the man said. The tour was free.

That tour, as we now know, was the one that surprised its participants with a visit inside the Oscars during the middle of Sunday night’s telecast. After appearing on national TV, Coe became the viral “Gary from Chicago,” a friendly human meme notable for:

  1. Filming the entire experience on his phone.
  2. Wearing an extremely touristy “Hollywood” sweatshirt while in the spotlight.
  3. Generally seeming a really nice person, carrying his fiance’s purse and cracking jokes with celebrities.

And the Oscar for best surprised tourist goes to … ‘Gary from Chicago’

Coe was surprised when he entered the auditorium; his reactions were genuine. “They made us think that there was another tour group inside the room with all the gowns and jewelry taking pictures,” he said. They were told to wait until they were done. The door even had a little sign labeling it as the exhibition. When the doors opened and it turned out to be the actual Oscars, Coe said he decided just to “embrace it.”

Like Ken Bone before him, Coe became an instant meme simply for showing up at the right time. And, like Bone, Coe is an adult human being. We’ve learned this lesson before, but it’s worth saying again: It’s nearly impossible to sustain an existence as both a human meme and a human being. Memedom requires the removal of all context except for the bits that support the meme. The human life behind it is always more complicated.

As the Internet learns more about Coe, some are fascinated or inspired by the unusual story that immediately preceded his moment of fame. Others are moving directly to the next, inevitable phase: the backlash.

Both Coe and Bone barely had time to make the most of their brief fame before opinions divided on the Internet. It took a workweek for the media to turn against Bone. Coe, on the other hand, had less than two days before details of his life started becoming very public.

The Bone backlash began after he agreed to do a Reddit AMA using his real Reddit username, which he used to author past remarks that were less wholesome than “Ken Bone the meme” of an innocent-looking mustachioed man in a bright red sweater.

The main reason for the Coe backlash is his past.

How we ended up vetting celebrities as carefully as politicians

There are plenty who saw inspiration in Coe’s story: According to his attorney Karen Nash, Coe, 59, was sentenced to life in prison for petty theft in 1997. He stole perfume from a department store. Because of his prior convictions, Coe was subject to California’s “three strikes” rule. When California voters passed Proposition 36, Coe qualified to petition for resentencing to reduce his time behind bars, which is how Nash, a public defender, became involved in his case.

Coe, Nash said, also has a prior conviction for attempted rape, for a crime that occurred when he was 18, in 1975. He was convicted of the felony in 1978. That conviction, which happened in another state, has kept Coe’s name on the sex offender registry in California.

“His crimes were mostly petty theft and drugs in the later part of his life because he became addicted to drugs,” Nash told me in a brief joint interview with Coe. But while in prison over the past two decades, Coe was changing his life. Coe said he got sober more than a decade ago — yes, you can get drugs and alcohol while behind bars — on June 17, 2004.

He got religion, and he met Vickie Vines, the fiancee who herself became virally famous herself for her facial expression when Ryan Gosling whispered something in her ear.

“I’m a changed man,” Coe said of himself today. “Anybody who wants to change their lives can. I have remorse. It is my past. Today, I am a brand new man.”

Online, the past is everywhere, dotting his Google results. Once his sex offender profile became public, the New York Post incorrectly stated in a headline that Coe “served 22 years for attempted rape” before being released on Friday. The AV Club wrote that “America has been let down” by Coe, although they later said the story “did not reflect our values” and that the publication would edit the story. The Daily Mail’s headline about Coe’s record led with “Oscars sensation ‘Gary from Chicago’ is attempted RAPIST.”

But Nash says that most of the reaction to Coe has been positive and that she was glad for it. “It’s nice to see the public see the individual like I do. As public defenders, we get to see the people and not the rap sheet. If you just look at the rap sheet, you don’t get to see the person.” Ultimately, she hopes the publicity will do more good than harm for Coe as he begins the difficult process of re-entering public life after decades behind bars.

As for Coe, he hopes to use his new fame to talk to young people who might be headed down the path he walked as a younger man and work on “convincing them to do better.”

And he has something to say to those who would condemn him for his earlier life. It’s not an easy process to get a judge to agree to free someone with a record like Coe’s. But recently, a judge who knew Coe’s entire past did just that, thanks to Nash’s many years working on the case.

Coe said: “If he thought I was still a threat to society, I’d still be in prison.”

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