Friday, December 12, 2008

My Perfect Moment with Wallace Shawn

For some reason, last night, I found myself thinking about Wallace Shawn. Sometime back in the early 90s, I had to walk across campus to pick up some software. I was strolling down the sidewalk, headed west on Iowa Avenue by the English-Philosophy building. It was spring or fall, a bit crisp, maybe a breeze now and then. Someone was walking along the sidewalk toward me. I was enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine, not really paying attention to whoever it might be, when suddenly, I realized I knew who this guy was. It was Wallace Shawn.

I'd seen Wallace Shawn in movies and TV shows, among them The Princess Bride and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
I enjoyed his quirky characterizations, the zaniness he always brought to his roles. I remembered him most from My Dinner with Andre, one of my favorite movies. I admired the courage it must have taken to write and star in a movie about two men talking over dinner, and the talent it took to make a great movie about a conversation between two people, with no action, no change of scene, no other characters. This was not just some U of I student or professor walking toward me. This was Wallace Shawn!

As the distance between us decreased, I could feel my mouth curling into a little smile. The Grand Nagus Zek! Vizzini! Right here, in front of me! Headed toward me! Looking at me! My face broke into a huge grin. And as Wallace Shawn saw the smile on my face grow and grow, a small smile sprouted on his face, and as we approached each other, it too enlarged, until we were two smiles walking toward each other on the sidewalk by Iowa Avenue.

And suddenly, he was beside me, and then we kept on walking, him eastward, me westward. I took a few more steps, maybe twenty feet more, and stopped and turned. And there was Wallace Shawn, who also had stopped and turned. We looked at each other for a moment, each of us grinning ear to ear. Maybe I nodded, maybe he gave me a short wave.

And then I turned again and walked on.

I've always thought about this moment. I've had a few other brushes with celebrity or near-celebrity. I was waiting for the bus one winter day when Al McGuire and Billy Packer, the college basketball announcers, walked by. McGuire was relaxed, smiling, approachable, comfortable with the looks he was drawing from everyone. But Packer had this nasty glare that seemed to have "restraining order" written all over it. Once, at a party, I got a beer for Linus Torvalds, the guy who developed Linux.

But this moment with Wallace Shawn was different, pregnant, ripe. I sometimes wonder, what if I had walked back toward him? What if I had said something? Whole universes germinate and grow from this soil: Wallace Shawn inviting me to dinner. Wallace Shawn asking me to read something he's writing. Wallace Shawn inviting me to New York. Wallace Shawn mentioning me on a talk show.

But there was something about that moment that was perfect, just as it was, just as it always will be. My perfect moment with Wallace Shawn.