One place I definitely didn’t expect to see him was at the bar Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the fall of 2007. I was there for a Found magazine show, and so was he, the Indie King himself, Steve Buscemi.
For those unfamiliar with Found magazine, it’s a yearly compilation of found items—notes, papers, photographs, etc.—that people discover and turn in to Davy Rothbart, the magazine’s creator. Rothbart lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where I attended college. He and his fellow Found-ers often take their discoveries on the road in order to read and show pictures of the best, funniest, and strangest finds around the United States.
On this particular night, at Union Hall, I had just gone to the bathroom after the end of the show. When I re-entered the room, I scanned it for my friend Amanda, who had interned for Found when we were in college together. She was in a circle of people talking to Rothbart, so I casually sauntered up. The moment I reached the group, I realized Steve Buscemi was in this circle, talking to Rothbart, Amanda, and whoever else was around.
I felt my heart start racing, and my hands started to shake a little. I tried to join the conversation—he was talking about how much he loved Found and said something about seeing a set of keys in the park and wanting to send them (or at least a picture of them) to Rothbart at the magazine. I joked that he should have taken the whole set and mailed them in to Davy. He chuckled. I just couldn’t believe I was talking to Steve Buscemi. He was maybe a foot away from me, chuckling at my bad jokes.
I know, I know, that most likely he was just being polite with his little laugh, but it made my night nonetheless. I sent a mass text message to countless hordes of friends and family explaining how I had met Steve Buscemi and how he had laughed at something I said! I spent the rest of the time trying very hard (and quite unsuccessfully) not to stare at him. Admittedly, I had to restrain my every impulse to gush to him about how much I loved him. Still, he was acting so normal—so unlike a celebrity—that I didn’t have the heart to ruin his night by forcing that status upon him.
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This brief encounter doesn’t really mean much beyond the fact that I got to meet one of the few celebrities I wanted to meet in my lifetime. Plus, I have a great story to tell now. However, this happenstance meeting won’t really affect my reaction to the news that will come one day (and hopefully not any time soon) that Steve Buscemi has died. Truth be told, barring some fluke accident or small miracle, I won’t ever become his friend or even his regular acquaintance; but the amazing thing about celebrities is that it just doesn’t matter—we grieve for them anyway.
I was having trouble figuring out why everyone grieves for celebrities until Michael Jackson died. When I first read the news (reported on tmz.com, of all places), I didn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. Disreputable gossip site, I thought. Even when the New York Times finally wrote about the tragedy, the story still had an indefinable quality of unreality. Which, frankly, is a pretty standard reaction for me when people die: I don’t believe it at first, it takes a little while to sink in.
Once I was finally able to stop thinking and saying, “I can’t believe it,” I went through a personal, and yet very public, grieving process. I cried a little; I talked about the death with everyone I knew; I posted comments about it on Facebook; I put a chunk of his music on my iPod; and I spent the night of his death outside the Apollo theater, dancing and singing to MJ songs with a crowd of people seeking similar solace.
But some people I knew just didn’t seem that affected by the news, which was hard for me to understand. This was Michael Jackson we were talking about—he wasn’t just a musician; he was an icon and a legend. That, however, is just the thing. For many people, he was simply an icon and a legend, a status his death has not changed. You can still watch his videos on YouTube, and if you weren’t planning to see him in concert, his untimely end need not make much of a difference to you.
It’s only when you internalize pop culture, when Michael Jackson’s songs or Steve Buscemi’s movies become a part of your life in an extremely personal, emotional way, that you feel a sense of loss when the purveyor of that pop culture dies. In a strange way, Jackson’s death felt like the symbolic death of my memories from college, precious ones that involve his music—although really it’s the death of the possibility of making new memories (with new material). As if someone suddenly pulled the rug out from under your feet, and the world is changed, different, without any warning.
When Steve Buscemi dies, I know it will be just as sad for me, if not more so. How will I face Coen brothers movies after that, or Daniel Clowes’s comics, or Jim Jarmusch movies, or ones with Adam Sandler? The feeling will be different, knowing Buscemi isn’t acting in them because he’s gone, not because he wasn’t cast. Maybe I will I have a Steve Buscemi movie marathon, or post about it on the blog I’ll have founded by then, or write another piece about him for PopMatters, like this one, only less hypothetical. Whatever my public acts of grieving may be, his loss will no doubt be a personal affair for me as well, because though I may not know him, I don’t love him any less for that.