Since the life and times of Walter Cronkite have been covered this week like a blanket, with every Tom, Dick and Mary coming forth with an anecdote, your friendly bartender has decided to come forth with his… his Cronkite moment. And though he’d like to share with you something on the order of, While sailing on the great man’s yacht, about a mile off the coast of Nantucket, I leaned into his good ear and inquired with devilish delight, “Tell me, Wally, who was the better man at holding his drink? Was it Harry Reasoner or Eddie R. Murrow?”… to which Walter replied as he threw back his head and roared into the saline air, in that marvelous basso profundo we’d all come to revere, “Scribbler, you’re incorrigible, ya’ know that? Now have another cold one or it’s man overboard!” Yes, he’d like to share with you tidbits like that but alas the facts won’t permit it… his encounter took place on land, in a place called Barnaby’s Hotel, and the whole ordeal took less than thirty seconds. Here’s what happened.
It was my first day on the job… a bartending gig in Manhattan Beach, California, to make enough money to get back to New York where I belonged… when, clad in my brand new Barnaby’s vest, emblazoned with the hotel logo, I rounded a corner and headed down a very long hallway. It was a Sunday, as I recall, because they wanted to break me in by working the brunch crowd. And as I proceeded down that hallway, filled with first-day earnestness, I noticed I wasn’t alone in this carpeted portal. There, some forty feet ahead, another was walking towards me in equal earnest. It was Walter Cronkite.
Holy shit, I said to myself, this must be a classy joint. First frigging minute on the job and look who I’m seeing!
And since I had on my logo-ed uniform vest, announcing to the world I belonged there, I figured I’d give it a shot and say hello to the man. I mean this is Walter Cronkite (no?), “America’s Most Respected”, how do you not take a shot at something like this? So when I got about three feet away I threw out my greeting.
“Good morning, Mr. Cronkite,” I said, in a voice as warm and sunny as sunny California.
And in a silence as cold and bitter as a North Dakota winter, Mr. Cronkite set his jaw and brushed right by me. His eyes straight ahead.
Excuse me? Or, as they say out there in cyberspace, WTF? Did this just happen? Did America’s Most Respected just disrespect me? Did everyone’s favorite uncle just put coal in my stocking? I guess so!!!!
Now besides this being quite awkward to the “nth” it also kind of puzzled me, for it had to be harder for him not to respond than to respond. I mean we’d easily observed each other’s approach for a good twenty seconds or so, so how do you not acknowledge that other presence? Especially a presence wearing that Barnaby’s vest. This was calculated coldness.
So standing there feeling (at best) like a fool, licking my internal wounds, I finally took solace in the fact that I had me a scoop. That’s right… a big scoop. “Guess what, America, everyone’s favorite uncle is a pompous ass! Change that word ‘avuncular’ to fucking ‘rude’! America’s Most Respected is most disrespectful! Cronkite is just another full-of-himself jerk!” I couldn’t wait to get to the bar to broadcast my scoop.
The first person I saw was the food and beverage manager, it was an hour before we opened and he was there to give me a crash course on how things worked. You know, where the inventory was located, what glasses go with what drinks, how they fill out their checks, how to work the computer register… silly shit but shit that had to be covered. Every place has a system and I had to learn theirs. But before my boss could utter a word I cut off his tutelage for a recap of what had just happened.
“Wait til you hear this,” I blurted, like some twit on Entertainment Tonight with the latest on Britney. “I just said hello to Walter Cronkite, no one else in the hall, and the son-of-a-bitch walked by me as cold as ice. Not a word, not a smile, not one freaking nothin’ but a nasty scowl. Can you believe it?”
“Yeah, I can believe it,” he said, “I’m just surprised he didn’t try to strangle you. He’s down at the desk and he can’t check out of here fast enough.”
Well, it turns out that everyone’s favorite anchor had chosen this cozy little establishment precisely because it was a cozy little establishment… an out of the way refuge under the radar. And not because he was up to no good, (this is Walter Cronkite we’re talking about) but because he was after some good old peace and quiet. But from the moment he’d picked up his room key on that previous Friday morning, to the moment he gave me the cool breeze up in the hall, the man had gotten almost none of that peace and quiet.
The owner of Barnaby’s… a Kennedy wanna-be with a mop of Kennedy hair, a gang of kids in tow and an “I’m to the manner born” pervading air about himself… had hassled the man his entire stay at the hotel. It started by asking Mr. Cronkite to pose for a family photograph portrait, to be used in the hotel brochure, which Mr. Cronkite graciously agreed to and did. Then from that moment on it spiraled into insanity. “Would you care to dine with us tonight, Mr. Cronkite” “Can I show you around the area, Mr. Cronkite? “Do you mind if I introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. (so and so), Mr. Cronkite?” “Would you mind just signing this photograph if you would, Mr. Cronkite? “Is there anything else I can get you since the last time I asked if there was anything else I could get you?” A-I-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E!!!!
And now here comes me, after a full week-end of this non-stop intrusion, boppin’ down the hall like a long lost cousin. No wonder the man couldn’t get himself past me fast enough. He was probably afraid I’d ask him to join me for a swim. Or to sing the National Anthem in two-part harmony. Jezuzzz!
And I only share this story this week not to compete with those real life Cronkite memories, that would be ridiculous, but to share with you this mighty lesson I learned. When you encounter a so-called celebrity, some hero or person of note, you never know in that moment in time what happened the moment before, what devilish act might’ve sprouted the horns on your hero. So try not to judge.
In fact just last week I encountered someone I think is pretty cool… famous chef and author, Anthony Bourdain. He’d just come out of his bank and since he was walking right beside me I threw him a compliment. “Mr. Bourdain,” I said, “loved your book, love your show, I’m really a big fan!” But after I said it, with an expression on his face that couldn’t come close to melting ice cream, it was all he could do to just nod and mouth the words, “Thank you.” Not say the words, mind you, just mouth them. But since my encounter with Uncle Wally and the wisdom accrued therein, I didn’t judge Mr. Bordain I gave him some slack. The man owed me nothing. And hey, who knows what heinous news he might’ve gotten in that “moment in time” in his bank? Or what other unhappy horseshit the man was dealing with.
So again, the moral of the story? If you ever encounter one of your favorites and he doesn’t grab you and kiss you on both cheeks, just remember, it might be because the fan before you grabbed the man and kissed him on both cheeks!
And as for you, Mr. Cronkite, I more than forgive you that moment in time, it is I who owe the apology. I’m sorry I all but scared the living be-Jesus out of you.
“And that’s the way it is….”
Over and out from Bar-land… see ya’ next week-end!