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Op-Ed: If you see Dr. Fauci at Pink’s, go ahead, say hello

Pink's Hot Dogs in Los Angeles
Pink’s Hot Dogs, reopened in Los Angeles after months of closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, could be a good place to meet your heroes.
(Los Angeles Times)

If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, past or present, what would you order?

Oh, wait. Somehow that cliché veered off course. But as long as we’re considering weighty questions, why are L.A. people so blasé about meeting their heroes?

Not me. Dr. Fauci at Pink’s, Michelle Obama at the Egyptian, Stevie Nicks at the DMV. I’d jump at the chance. I want to meet them all.

As COVID begrudgingly eases, there’s a lot of talk about what we’ll do when life normalizes. Just this week, I’ve heard “learn to lip read,” “cancel HBO” and “play Twister with total strangers.” All nice ideas. But after a year of stunted access to humanity, I’ve been suggesting to friends that they strive to meet their heroes, even if it’s just for those few moments before the hero tases them.

My friends groan: Oh, grow up. In person, heroes inevitably disappoint you.

Huh. So, a woman at a Studio City charity event buys her husband a lunch with his hero Sully Sullenberger and…

“Gee, Hon. What if Sully clips the curb driving up to Vitello’s? Or the place fills up with smoke and he saves himself first? Worse, what if he’s merely a person? I’ll never look at that river landing the same way.”

Funny, when I met ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame at a Santa Monica book signing, she didn’t call in a drone strike or ship me off to a black site. Yet she was very impressive.

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I’m just saying, when freed from house arrest, we should rethink human contact. Edging within six feet of the woman whose 55 Amazon packages landed in error on your doorstep in 2020 might feel weirdly comforting, but 2021 is a year for aiming higher.

Fact: I’ve never been disappointed in encountering my heroes.

Well, that’s not totally true.

Once, a Comedy God was talking to my friend at a party. I eased over as Comedy God said, “That was the only time in my life I ever felt happy.”

Eek.

Otherwise, my encounters have ranged from hysterical (Jack Nicholson) to engrossing (Joan Didion) to inspiring (Arthur Ashe). Granted, a string of media jobs granted me access to icons in their natural work habitats. But no matter your job, a great thing about L.A. is that you can seek out a lot of heroes. Or meet them accidentally.

You may ask, “Do I really want to bump into my idol in an endocrinologist’s office?”

Actually, yes. That’s where I met a legendary actor who had amazing glandular insights. The fact that hyperthyroid icons sit in waiting rooms just like the rest of us should make them more appealing, not less.

A first step for bracing icon encounters would be forgiving them for being human. A second would be letting go of your own insecurities. It’s normal to fear embarrassing yourself before someone you revere, but it’s also pointless: Based on their experience, your heroes just assume you’ll embarrass yourself.

Considering steps 1 and 2, maybe we should conclude that simply looking your hero in the eye and shaking hands is worthwhile. But start there, and you may get lots more.

At UCLA in 2008, I was in a book signing line for my favorite author, John Updike. He seemed tired. Barely glancing up, he asked my name. Irrationally taking that as an icebreaker, I told him I dove into his books after reading an interview in which Philip Roth called Updike America’s best writer. Updike looked up with the gratitude of a man hearing that a long-lost love sees him as the one that got away.

“Really? Roth said that?”

This man, late in a lifetime of writing in the voice of God, was touched by a secondhand compliment. Now, recalling that moment under my N95 mask, I close my case: Don’t shy away from meeting your heroes because, really, it’s not so different being one of us or one of them.

Peter Mehlman’s latest novel is “#MeAsWell.” He was a writer and producer on “Seinfeld.”


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