The eyes were everywhere. From the moment I walked out my door, no matter what I was doing, or where I was going, I felt the eyes watching me. “What is he wearing?” “Who is the woman he is with?” “Can he really not dance?” A kind of self-consciousness began to infect everything I did, even while shopping for groceries, I was sure people were watching what I was putting in my cart and reporting back to their friends.
“Girl, you will never guess who I saw at the D’Agostino’s!”
“Olivia’s daddy, from the Huxtables.”
“No! He is fine.”
“Yes, girl! But he was buying tuna fish…on sale. And a lot of cranberry juice.”
I know what you’re thinking: “You are ego tripping, Joseph. Everyone was not looking at you.”
That’s true. Not everyone. But it didn’t take everyone to make me feel weird. Lots of people scrutinizing my shopping cart was more than enough to make me feel awkward. And one person stopping me on the street might easily lead to signing ten autographs.
Signing autographs on the street was a fascinating study in social and racial behavior. Most often, black people noticed me first and more often than white people. White people tended to walk by me and wouldn’t stop until a black person stopped me on the street and asked me for a photograph or to sign a piece of paper. It was only then that white people would become curious and stop to look. Being 6’ 2” and 190 pounds, people often assumed I was an athlete and perhaps played for one of the local teams. Curious about why black people would be making a fuss about me, they would ask, “Who are you?”
The black fan would pipe in laughingly, “Don’t you know who this is? He’s Olivia’s daddy from the Huxtables!”
“Oh. Can I have your autograph too?”
Another interesting difference between black fans and white fans was that white fans mostly referred to the program as, The Cosby Show, while black fans often called the show, The Huxtables. I have no idea why or what that means. Perhaps, some university will conduct a study.
Most of the time, I was fine with the attention. In fact, there were times I hoped for it, like when meeting an attractive woman. The lack of anonymity only became a burden when I was despondent, which was becoming more frequent. The depression I had felt over the summer had not really abated and was frequently governing my days.
Of course, fans sometimes forget that celebrities are people just like them, and might be carrying a burden. I discovered rather quickly that no matter how I was feeling, fans expected me to smile, laugh with them, and sign whatever scrap of paper they put before me. If I wasn’t convivial enough, they let me know.
One afternoon, during a visit to Los Angeles, I decided to treat myself to a matinee. I was running late and didn’t want to miss the beginning of the movie, so after the clerk ripped my ticket, I hustled to the theater. As I got to the door, a pretty, young, Latina that worked at the theater approached me and asked for an autograph. I politely asked if I couldn’t give it to her after the movie. She left.
After the film was over, as I headed out the lobby, this same girl presented me with a folded piece of notebook paper, wrapped in a ribbon. “How nice,” I thought. I opened the packet only to find a rather nasty note, telling me that I was “stuck up,” that she didn’t want my “stupid autograph anyway,” and that among other things, I could go “straight to hell.”
“That’s not fair!” I called after her as she disappeared into the employee room. Her co-worker, working behind the concession counter, shook her head and offered, “I told her not to do it.”
At that moment the manager, a young white guy with an enormous belly, came over and asked if there was a problem. I shook my head. “No. No problem.”
The incident upset me so much that I drove back to where I was staying, found a head shot, signed it, and drove back to the theater, whereupon I was informed by the manager that he had just fired her.
I am not THAT guy — not now and certainly not then. I didn’t want anyone’s job! I didn’t want anyone to feel bad. I just wanted to not miss the beginning of the movie.
As bad as that was, it wasn’t quite as bad as being cussed out in the middle of Penn Station.
I was at Penn Station in New York, buying a train ticket. It was one of those days when I was walking beneath a cloud. As I began to make my transaction, a young man approached me with a big smile.
“Aren’t you on the Huxtables?”
“Yeah,” I grumbled. “How are you?” I turned back to the clerk.
“Well, ain’t you gonna shake my hand?”
“I’m paying for my ticket…”
“Well, fuck you! You ain’t all THAT!”
For good measure, he gave me another “Fuck you!” before disappearing around the corner. I turned back to the clerk, who just looked at me and counted out my change. I took the cash and walked toward my train, wondering why it was that I wasn’t allowed to have the blues.
And as odd as it sounds, there were many days I was wandering the streets of New York in a dark blue mood. At times, the melancholy weighed on me like a sack of wet sand. There were days that it was so heavy I felt as though I would have to sit down on the corner to rest. In the middle of that darkness would come: “Excuse me. Can I have your autograph?” Or, “Hey, Can you say ‘hi’ to my girlfriend?” It was surreal. It was absurd. It made me dizzy. I would have to stop and brace myself, so I wouldn’t fall over.
One might think that in moments like that, the attention would lift my spirits, rather than add to my burden. Alas, depression doesn’t work like that. For those who are chronically depressed, the blues becomes part of your DNA, part of who you are. Eventually, it becomes a part of your identity. Flattery, fame, or fortune make no difference. In fact, sometimes those things are just an added burden — just one more thing to carry along in your sack of tribulations.
Besides, not every fan was gracious.
One of the things I grew to hate was the rude way in which some fans approached me. I would be walking down the street — eyes downcast, so as to not make eye-contact — and suddenly hear, “Hey! Hey! Come here, man!” Those words made me cringe. But always wary of not hurting anyone’s feelings and not wanting to get cussed out, I would stop, try and force a smile, and go back. Then, one evening, I had a dinner with John Amos that became an epiphany on how to deal with the “Hey, come here!” fan. I think of John as a kind of elder statesman of black Hollywood. I grew up watching John in “Good Times,” “Roots,” and “Let’s do it Again,” to name just a few of his credits. So, I didn’t talk very much that evening; I mostly listened, eager to gain some wisdom. At some point, another customer in the restaurant called to John, “Hey, man! Come here.” John gave him a look that is best described as “withering.” This was an OG look. This was a look that said, “I will fuck you up and then sit down and finish my dinner.” I would hate to be on the other end of such a John Amos look. John gave the customer this look and said real low: “Am I your dog?” The man stuttered, humbled his eyes and tiptoed away. That moment changed my life. I don’t have a “John Amos” look, (but I am 6′ 2″ and can come close). I was/am certainly allowed to be treated with dignity. After that dinner, I never again responded to the “Hey You!” call.
In the large scheme of things, these are fairly small annoyances. On balance, I would rather be noticed than not. I would rather be a celebrity and enjoy all the perks than not. And anyone who tells you different is lying through their teeth. What they really mean is that they want the perks of celebrity without having to pay the cost. The cost of celebrity is privacy. But the perks of celebrity are great: Swag bags filled with expensive toys; free tickets to shows; free music; promotional items; tickets and backstage access to sporting events and concerts; shoes and clothing; first class upgrades in food, travel, and accommodations. And I am saving the women for another chapter! Being a celebrity means being granted special treatment all the time. Who doesn’t like special treatment? No one!
And that can become a problem.
Next…When special treatment makes you think you are special