I was talking with a friend about personal celebrity sightings. Mine are mundane, at best. At lunch a few years ago, while sitting at an outdoor cafe, John O'Hurley, J. Peterman on Seinfeld, strolled by our table. A lot of people wouldn't have noticed, but this was at the height of his Dancing With the Stars domination. Still, most people did not look up from their overpriced salad for more than two seconds as the nice-looking celebrity walked past on a sunny day. In the Seinfeld universe, it was more thrilling than seeing the guy who played Babu Bat, but not as exciting as spotting Newman.
I brushed shoulders with Colin Farrell about four blocks from our apartment. As I walked to work, I saw a man who looked a lot like Farrell crossing the street, after he emerged from an Irish bar in the neighborhood. The production trucks nearby let everyone know a movie was filming. It was for a scene in the cop movie Pride and Glory. He exchanged a handshake and hug with a worker on the film while Inwood residents stared and snapped pictures.
There have been others, of course, but nothing real exciting. Saw Fabio in our work cafeteria. He had the same hair, but was wearing a shirt, buttoned to the top.
Last summer, I thought I had a really cool celebrity sighting. Not just a sighting, an encounter. A night of pictures and drinks. The celeb: Mos Def, the famed actor/rapper.
I met some friends on a Friday night at a bar near the Empire State Building. One girl arrived from Connecticut. Her twentysomething brother was in the city with her, visiting New York for the first time. He was a nice Southern kid and planned on meeting us at the bar around 10. At some point during the festivities, he called his sister to let her know he wouldn't be around for awhile. He'd been sidetracked. At that moment, he was walking around the city. His tour guide? Mos Def.
The kid showed up to the bar about two and a half hours later, calling it the best night of his life. Whatever second-place was on that list was a distant runner-up. The sweat rolled off his face but the grin never left it. He had the look of wonder that graced the faces of the girls of Fatima.
He slowly told the story, as the group leaned in. Seasoned journalists, we peppered him with crucial questions here and there but otherwise we all stayed silent. According to his tale, Mos - it took about two minutes for all of us to feel comfortable calling him Mos - ran into the kid down in Chinatown. Mos rescued the wide-eyed youngster, preventing him from buying a fake Rolex. Mos showed him his real Rolex. After a few seconds, the kid asked, "Are you...Mos?"
Mos said yes, but wanted his new friend to keep it quiet, lest the crowds swarm the pair. Mos told him, "I don't want my shit getting blown up."
It's a phrase with a hundred different interpretations, but the point was obvious: shhhhhhhh. You're with a celebrity now. Be cool. Just, be cool. And if you are cool, the night will include drinking and girls, preferably more of the latter than the former. Mos took his protege around the town. They rode in a limo to some hotspots, and walked to others. They hit the clubs. Mos tossed around hundreds of dollars on drinks, buying for everyone in the joint. Hot babes gathered around both of them.
At one point Mos said he wanted to take his new buddy to Atlantic City for the night, in the limo. As much as he wanted to, the kid turned him down. Instead he walked down to our bar to tell us his story.
We were all a bit skeptical. Why would Mos Def kidnap this stranger, show him the sights like some type of bejeweled fairy godfather and then offer to take him to Atlantic City? Were they filming a reality show, something produced by Oprah or another big-hearted celebrity with too much time and money? Celebs rescue small-town rubes from the tedium that is their life for one night of fun, before throwing them back to their one-stoplight village? Two of the people at the table, including his sister, were huge Mos Def fans. They told the rest of us all about his career - his movies, songs, and genius. They wanted to believe. Eventually, we all believed. It's the power of celebrity, even though I had only a vague idea who the celebrity was.
About 30 minutes later, Mos walked into the bar. At least, it was the man identifying himself as Mos. I didn't know what he looked like. Everyone else thought it was him, so I agreed: we were in the presence of a celebrity. Maybe he'd buy us drinks. Maybe he'd cast us in a future movie, perhaps as extras in a saloon scene. He'd set up the single fellas with ladies and offer insightful advice to the married folks. He'd open his celebrity arms to us and by simply being in his presence, we would become greater people. We wouldn't exchange cell phone numbers, but maybe e-mails?
He wore shades (at night, indoors - so Nicholson-like!), a fancy suit and a porkpie hat that looks ridiculous on 97 percent of the population but looked just right on him. Mos gave us all fist bumps and high fives, while telling each of us to, "Keep it low. Don't blow my shit up." Everyone agreed with this. No, we would not blow his shit up. Christ, no.
We talked with him, man-to-man, instead of celebrity-to-civilian. He was easygoing and friendly. Like Bill Clinton, he had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room. Maybe it was the alcohol.
All the while, we kept whispering to each other, "Is it him? Is it really him?" But it wouldn't make any sense for him to be an impostor. The guy wasn't just calling himself Mos Def. He threw around thousands of dollars in a single night, entertaining a young kid from Kentucky. Who would do that? What kind of pathology would be involved, unless he really was Mos Def? He wasn't stealing anything from the kid or asking him to help dispose of a body. There was the Atlantic City thing. That still seemed a bit suspicious.
Eventually Mos announced he had to leave. He posed for pictures with the poise of a seasoned politician and signed napkins for everyone, personalizing each one. After some goodbye fist bumps, he went out the door, holding a woman in each arm. After Mos exited, one of the girls in our group took a closer look at her napkin. She squinted, fighting the poor lighting and the effects of the beer. She finally asked, "Why would Mos Def sign his name Most Def?" And then our eyes were opened to the reality after being blinded by his supposed celebrity. On each one, he'd signed it Most Def, adding an extra T to the name. Seemed like an odd thing to do. How many people, past the age of 6, misspell their own name? How many people who sign hundreds of autographs a year misspell their own name? Especially one with just a single syllable?
One read, "To Shawn, Jill and Andrew. Stay strong, stay sweet & wise. From Most Def."
That did clinch it for us. This wasn't Mos. We went our separate ways, slightly drunk, completely confused.
A member of our group ended up on the subway with Most that night, heading uptown. Def got off the subway at 125th Street, just a normal guy going home after a long night of partying.
Later we discovered the real Mos was on tour that night in Atlanta, at the same time he was supposedly traipsing around New York City. Eight months later the confusion remains. Who was he, and why did he do what he did? What was the end game? A kidnapping in Atlantic City, which ends in removal of a kidney that gets sold on the black market? If it was a con, what was the end game? Was it some type of long con, the type of scheme only Paul Newman's character in The Sting could comprehend? Did he toss around counterfeit money, in addition to a fake persona?
We still don't have any answers. Just beware. Next time you're in the city, if Mos Def asks if you want to go to Atlantic City, demand some identification. Better yet, make him sign an autograph.