Brian Major | June 14, 2016 1:30 PM ET
True-Life Celebrity Airport Encounters
You’d think an airport celebrity sighting would be an exciting, fun experience. Mostly it’s not. I’ve run into more than a handful of celebrities in airports over the years and I can honestly say very few of the encounters can be described as pleasurable.
But I understand why celebrities are uptight in airports. Despite a long travel career I’m normally uptight myself at the airport. I’m constantly checking the flight time, making sure I’m hydrated, and often in the bathroom as a result (easily the scene of most celebrity airport sightings). And that’s after surrendering my belt, shoes, coat and honor back at security.
Think about a celebrity enduring such indignity. I’m convinced it’s a primary motivation for private jets. Any self-respecting, entitled celebrity won’t be in the best mood after all that. In fact I have a personal rule against speaking to celebrities in airports.
For one I honestly don’t know what to say. I'm willing to bet Don Cheadle knows he’s Don Cheadle. I also don’t think he’d be especially intrigued to learn that some people think we look alike. Actually knowing that might depress him. So I usually just look and leave it at that.
It happened again this past week. As I walked into the bathroom on a very early morning at my home airport, John F. Kennedy International, I looked into a big mirror and saw Jonathan Scott (I think it was Jonathan Scott), the star of the HGTV real estate reality program Property Brothers.
I’m saying “I think” because Jonathan Scott’s co-star on the show is his identical twin brother, Drew Scott. So I may have actually seen Drew. But as it happens I’ve watched several episodes of the show and based on that I’m pretty sure it was Jonathan. I think. It was definitely one of them.
Anyway, I was about to break my normal rule and say something like “Hi” to Jonathan (or Drew) but I noticed he was headed rather quickly to the stall. If you’re not familiar with the program, both brothers measure about 6’5” tall. That’s one reason I was sure it was Jonathan…or Drew.
Being a JFK bathroom, the stall and its door were both small and ill-fitting. Tall Jonathan or Drew, his head towering over the top of the stall, was trying, with a distinct sense of purpose, to fully close the door. It was right around then I left the bathroom.
This past fall I watched as baseball writer Peter Gammons walked out of the bathroom (told you) and then back and forth across the corridor at Miami International Airport. I stood near the gate, not too far from the bathroom, and observed as he finally planted himself in a partially empty bank of seats. No one noticed him.
I took a photo of Mr. Gammons, which is terrible. It looks like something smuggled out of a POW camp. But I was so determined to remain unobtrusive it obscured my journalistic instinct to get closer and take a better shot.
PHOTO: Baseball writer Peter Gammons in Miami International Airport. (Photo by Brian Major)
But then I might have to speak to him. Were it a professional interview I’d be right in his face. But an airport encounter is something else entirely. “Hey, Mr. Gammons I really enjoyed that last story you wrote about…baseball.” I know, ridiculous!
Lest you think my personal rule is silly and limiting, just think about what happened the last time I broke it.
I was again in Miami International Airport, deciding whether or not to join the fairly long line at the Nathan’s restaurant ordering stand. Just then I noticed an extremely tall, light-skinned black man among the people standing in line. He was wearing a blue blazer, tan pants, a white dress shirt and a UCLA baseball cap.
I guess I did a triple-take because if this wasn’t Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, this guy was doing a dead-on impression. I joined the line and we both got our food. When he sat down with the lady accompanying him I approached as gracefully and non-threateningly as I could. I figured as a fellow New York native, and he being someone about the age of my parents, we’d have a lot in common.
But Kareem wasn’t thinking that. When I said “I always wanted to meet you,” he responded “And?” He glared at me, and it was like a fellow New Yorker all right, the dangerous type. His companion gave me a very sympathetic look and said something like “He’s very tired.” I excused myself and strolled away. I hear you Kareem. I get tired of the airport sometimes too.
So I generally stick to my rule and really most of my non-speaking encounters are pretty special. I once shared a flight with Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer who successfully represented Abner Louima, an innocent New York resident brutalized by a sadistic police officer in 1997.
Many years ago, sitting outside of a gate at Los Angeles International Airport, I gazed up to see a bunch of (again) extremely tall, mostly black men walk out into the gate area from a plane that had just arrived. The last of the bunch to walk out I recognized as Hall of Fame player Bill Russell, who was then coach of the Sacramento Kings, who’d preceded him out of the plane.
But undoubtedly my most special sighting ever happened during that same trip, waiting on a double-sided sofa in San Francisco International Airport for the long flight home.
As I sat there reading a book, an older gentleman sat on the other side, tossing around a rubber ball with what appeared to be his grandson. They weren’t two feet from me, but facing the other way. This went on for more than 20 minutes. We were at the gate early and there weren’t many people around.
Finally I turned around and looked directly into the face of Willie Mays, the Hall of Fame baseball player. He looked at me and gave me one of the kindest smiles I’ve experienced. I smiled back and half-waved.
It almost made being at the airport exciting.
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