Thursday, March 11, 2021

The only Roger Mudd story I've got.

     "Roger Mudd died," my wife said, looking at her phone. "He was 93."
     "I met him!" I said, stupidly, then instantly regretted it. The distortion field of self, making everything about me. A tick I've come to notice and despise, more and more, in myself, even as I notice and despise it more in others. 
     Is that fair? We construct mental universes with ourselves at the center, as George Saunders says in his excellent book on Russian short stories and writing, "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain." In our minds, existence is a story starring us. Why should the death of Roger Mudd be any different?
     I figured I had already told the tale, slight though it is. In this job you end up telling just about everything, sooner or later. Yup, 24 years ago. The original title was: "Celebs in Our Midst: Try to Relax, Folks." The only salient detail I left off was the press bus was in the short-lived presidential campaign of Al Haig, which meant it happened some time in 1988.

     When I was in college, a young lady of my acquaintance asked me to stop by her apartment so she could show me her etchings. I didn't go, not for many months. But she persisted, and eventually I paid her a visit. Late that evening, she asked me why I had waited so long. I propped myself up on one elbow and said, "I thought you etched."
     What I'm trying to say is that I can be thick about certain aspects of life. What is plain to everybody else is often a mystery to me.
     Celebrity news, for instance. This week, a rental car with two strange men was parked in front of my building for three days. I noticed the car, and the men, but didn't think anything of it. Realtors, perhaps, waiting to show a house.
     Then I bumped into my neighbor, one of those keen-eyed moms who is up on everything. "Did you notice the car?" she said. "Paparazzi. They were camped out waiting for Smith. I had the police chase them away."
     Smith? The name didn't ring a bell. Then I realized she meant William Kennedy Smith, the member of the Kennedy clan who got in trouble a few years back and is now practicing medicine in Chicago. He lives across the street.
     Now, I have no desire to intrude on Mr. Smith's privacy and hope he doesn't mind me bringing him up. Frankly, I'm astounded that anybody would care what he does, never mind camp out in front of his house for three days to get a picture of him doing it.
     Yes, he is related to the Kennedy clan. And yes, he was involved in a trial some years ago. But he was exonerated, was he not? And he dutifully proceeded with his medical training, and seems to keep his nose clean. Why annoy him?
     The answer, of course, is our current fixation on celebrities, any celebrity, based on anything. There are so many Hard Copy-esque shows that Madonna and Michael Jordan aren't enough anymore. This week "American Journal" ran a segment on Sherman Helmsley's bankruptcy that I swear could not have been more lengthy or involved had he bounced back from "The Jeffersons" to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm as interested as the next guy should Princess Di be found selling heroin or Clint Eastwood start wearing a dress. But that type of really meaty news is rare. Most of it is on the "Bill Cosby ate a hot dog at Gold Coast" level and is sort of boring. Isn't it?
     I mean, say those two guys snapped a picture of Smith, walking his dog. (He has a dog—now I'm dishing the dirt!) No offense to Smith—he's a nice-looking man, blue eyes, dimple in his chin. But is there anything interesting in such a picture?
     I admit, I am curious about the dog. Everybody in my neighborhood has a dog, and they're always walking them, and I've started playing a game where I guess the breed, then ask and see whether I'm right. I have no problem asking most anybody, and they seem to enjoy telling me.
     But I have too much pride to ask Smith. Because I know he'll assume that I don't really care about the dog, but only want to have some sort of personal exchange with him, so I can tell my grandchildren about it, or something.
     I think the dog is a black lab. (More dirt! Exclusively here!)
     The highest compliment you can pay a prominent person, after all, is leaving them alone. Which is why the press of celebrity journalism is such a paradox to me: If you like Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, then you don't want to see them plagued by prying photographers. And if you don't like them, then who cares what their new baby looks like?
     Ignoring celebrities should, if nothing else, be a point of civic pride. Aren't New Yorkers always bragging how big stars can wander unaccosted (with the exception of John Lennon) through their streets? Why should Chicago be any different?
     Think—you never see Michael Jordan on the street, because if he showed his face on Michigan Avenue, he'd be torn apart. But if only people were cool, and respectful, then we'd have all sorts of stars wandering around. Oprah Winfrey could be spied smelling the flowers in front of the Wrigley Building. Cindy Crawford could sun herself on Daley Plaza. It would be great. But no.
     I can't think of a famous person I've spoken to in public and didn't immediately regret it. I once passed Studs Terkel, striding through the Illinois Center, and said hello, only because I was once a guest on his radio show and figured that made us pals. Wrong. He gave me that "hello young fan" wave and never broke stride. Ouch.
     I blew it even worse with Roger Mudd, the former CBS newsman. Not a big star, true, but big enough. We were on the press bus, I was sitting next to him. Time passed, and eventually a comment came to me that seemed worth expressing. "My mother thinks you're great!" I said. He took my attempted compliment with great style, however. Later, while the press corps was waiting in a bar for the bus, Mudd went up to collect a round of drinks for the table. I tried to give him money, but he refused. "Tell your mother," he said, "that Roger Mudd bought you a drink."
     Only much later did I realize I had insulted him, implying he was old. As I said, I can be thick that way.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 24, 1996

14 comments:

  1. "I propped myself up on one elbow and said, I thought you etched." Tastefully coy. And how could we know any Bill Cosby sightings would evoke such disgust in the coming years?

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    1. I wonder if Roger was descended from Doctor Samuel Mudd, convicted to life imprisonment as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination and pardoned by President Johnson.
      Tom

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  2. ive no use for celebrities of any stripe. though of course am a fan of many peoples work. especially baseball players. as a young cubs fan Ernie banks in particular.

    in the late 80s I had a recording studio on green st near chicago and occasionally would share an elevator with mr banks. several times just he and I alone. a firm believer that you give people their privacy , I didn't say a word , it was just 4 or 5 floors.

    the 5th or sixth time this happened I said good morning mr. banks . he smiled and said I thought you were from a foreign country. known for his humility , turns out even he had enough of an ego to imagine everyone , at least everyone in chicago knew who he was.

    most celebrities seem to have enormous egos and suck the attention up even while complaining about it.

    etchings indeed. you could write even as a pup

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  3. "We construct mental universes with us at the center..." Funniest line in the movie "Shakespeare in Love" has an actor with a minor part in "Romeo and Juliet" being asked what the play is about and he says "It's about this nurse."

    Tom

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  4. Greatest Ernie Banks Story is in Bill Bryson's "Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" I'll leave it up to you to look it up.

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    1. My wife just read that book again, during our Covid recovery. He met Ernie Banks because his father was a sportswriter in Des Moines, which has always had a huge number of Cub fans. They routinely fill caravans of buses for the trip to Wrigley, all summer long.

      My wife added that his father had offers from other papers, in far bigger cities, but he liked Des Moines too much to accept them. Thought it was a wonderful place to raise a family, and that book makes it sound like it definitely was.

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  5. If it were me, both the title of this post and what I'd have said to my wife would have been "Roger Mudd bought me a drink." : )

    No doubt he'd hate this, but I always kinda felt sorry for him. Because he didn't exactly set the airwaves on fire and his name seemed unfortunate for a distinguished journalist.

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  6. Three years ago on Mother's Day we had a family outing at The Bagel at Old Orchard (gone but not forgotten!) We were seated three booths away from a man with a wild blond haircut. It was Rod Stewart. I thought I was mistaken, but a record producer sat just one booth away and confirmed it was him. I did not disturb him for an autograph, nor did anyone else. After all, he was entitled to his privacy.

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  7. "Late that evening, she asked me why I had waited so long. I propped myself up on one elbow..."

    That says it all...nothing more needed...

    I had a brief coversation with Studs Terkel once, under the stands at old Comiskey. He seemed very hyper. It sounds like he was always that way, always in a big hurry. Just before I was able to say a few words to him, he'd been on a pay phone. Probably with his bookie, as he was placing a bet on a horse.

    Only major-league ballplayer I ever really met actually came to my house when I was fourteen. He was trying to sell my father a life insurance policy. He was a huge man in his late thirties, probably almost six-six. Didn't pay him much attention, but there was no mistaking the enormous diamond-encrusted ring he wore. I recognized it immediately as a World Series ring.

    That's when my father introduced me to Paul Minner, who had pitched in the National League for almost a decade. Minner compiled a mediocre record with Brooklyn and the Cubs (69-84 lifetime), from the late Forties to the mid-Fifties. He earned the ring when he was with the pennant-winning '49 Dodgers.

    I was impressed. But my old man wasn't. Minner didn't make a sale that night.

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  8. The etchings story sounds like something I might have done in my youth. It also sounds like the kind of stories my fellow Aspies post on chat groups for those of us on the spectrum.

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  9. I wish being admired by an older person wasn't an insult. Foolish of me, I know.

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  10. Alec and Kim have not been together for years. It is Alec and Hilaria with baby. And that is a whole other story.

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    1. Not that it matters, but the posted column was written in 1996, at which point it WAS Alec and Kim, with baby Ireland.

      When it comes to stories, Al's got a million of 'em. ; )

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  11. Sam Gibbons was a Congressman from Florida for nearly 30 years when he was a passenger in my livery vehicle. We had a terrific conversation, none of it concerned politics. At the end of the ride he thanked me by name and said "I'm Sam." I told him I knew who he was and thanked him for the conversation. His obituary said he never lost an election in Florida. I know why. Don't feel bad about your encounter with Mudd, you set him up for a great comeback And you could have done worse. I encountered Jack Carson in a Rosemont diner in 1977 and asked him to "say something funny". I might have been excused for interrupting his steak and eggs had I said something actually interesting.

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