Memorable encounter

Last Updated 20 January 2018, 17:16 IST

I'm thinking back on my Dickensian early life … The loss of my mom at 5. Her bank robber-boyfriend riddled with bullets in the back of a trunk a few years later. My childhood apartment, robbed more than once. My grandmother working two jobs, bringing home $100 a week, while my sister and I rolled pennies and lived on peanut butter and spaghetti. But moving ahead, happier memories stick with me like glue traps.

One of those was waiting on John Belushi in 1976 at the Greenwich Village restaurant my father managed. John was quite possibly the biggest star in the world at that time. And I may have been his most ardent fan.

I was starstruck

I watched him religiously on Saturday Night Live. He made me belly laugh and fall to my knees in sidesplitting pain. So the day he came into the restaurant, heads immediately turned and stared, like the pope himself had walked in. I was in a state of shock. My hero was 10 feet away. I couldn't believe it! I was just 15 and a busboy, so I wasn't permitted to serve customers just yet. But I did notice how everyone treated John differently, almost like royalty. As Billie Holiday sang 'As Time Goes By' on the jukebox, I pondered fame. It all seemed magical, like skywriting.

I wanted to become an actor, too. I had no idea how anyone did such a thing, let alone become a star. I so wanted someone to look at me the way they looked at John Belushi - with admiration, fondness, respect and, dare I say, love. But I knew that was a pipe dream. He was hilarious, smart and bigger than life. I was awkward, painfully skinny and partially mute.

Several Sundays after that first appearance, Dad gave me my big chance to wait on John. I slipped on some sawdust and almost landed in his lap. My father shook his head and disappeared into the office with a tall glass of vodka. I knew he couldn't bear to witness what would inevitably be a disaster.

After all, I had clumsily on purpose/by accident broken most of his most recent wedding gifts. He had just married the playwright Eve Ensler, who thankfully adopted me and literally saved my life. Eve saw something in me I didn't even recognise in myself. She was the one who encouraged me to become an actor, and I ran with it.

Unfortunate happenings

Dad was relieved it was August, because I would be returned to my grandmother in Connecticut for the school year. I couldn't quite blame him. My Dorothy Hamill hair, white dance shoes and red tuxedo  jacket had long outstayed their welcome. I was clearly channelling David Bowie and the New York Dolls … desperately searching for an identity.

John Belushi looked at me with a combination of confusion and disappointment.

"You're not Jimmy," he said.

"No, I'm not," I immediately apologised.

"Where's Jimmy?" John said.

"Sick," I offered, lying through my teeth.

"What can I get you?" I stammered.

"Bacon and eggs," John said, diverting his attention to the script he was reading. "And I want them runny."

"Runny?" I repeated.

John looked at me the way one looks at a dog who's missing a hind leg: sympathetic yet strangely curious. I shuffled off and placed his order. Russell, our drunken chef, dropped some cigar ash into Belushi's meal, which was not uncommon. I dutifully pointed it out. Russell groaned and wiped off the ash with a filthy cloth. I cautiously picked up the plate, weighing whether to run outside and hail a cab to some exotic destination, or deliver this pile of slop to his highness. As I passed the bar, Benny the bartender was putting his glass eye back in after dousing it with club soda. I delivered John's breakfast and sprinted away.

"Wait!" John shouted.

Damn, did I not get it right? I thought he said bacon and eggs? I was sure of it!

I raced to his table, praying there wasn't a dead cigar stuffed under his hash browns.

"Yes?" I mumbled.

"Ketchup," John said.

"What?" I politely asked.

"Ketchup!" John exhaled, annoyed that he had to repeat himself.

I fetched some and gingerly placed it on the plastic green checkerboard tablecloth, the kind used at Irish bars and wakes.

John finally looked at me and smiled.

"Thanks, kid." Egg yolk proudly dripped down his famous protruding chin.

How pathetically wonderful, I thought to myself: John Belushi acknowledged my existence. However brief this strange encounter, it gave me what I needed to hold on to.

I ended up waiting on many celebrities. Most were dismissive or irritated. But when I hosted SNL years later, John Belushi's ghost seemed to tap me on my shoulder with his sword for good luck. I was standing on the same stage where he performed Samurai Delicatessen! I said a prayer of thanks to him for inspiring me. My father and Eve were in there that night, both happy and confused I had made it so far. But most important, they looked at me with admiration, fondness, respect and, dare I say, love.

(Published 19 January 2018, 06:12 IST)

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