These strike me as the only two options. There is always the third, remote possibility that Tom Hanks does not know who I am and thus is indifferent to me and that God is a human construct whom is therefore also incapable of holding strong feelings about my existence… but this seems farfetched. I am definitely getting screwed, and it is either by fate or by Hanks himself.
This is my thought process on the night of March 4, 2013. Emily, myself, and our friends, Matt and Regina, got into New York the day before via an eight-hour Megabus trip and we are all splitting a cheap motel in Jersey City. This is how we’re spending our spring break. On the fourth we go into Times Square and get student tickets to Lucky Guy, a new play starring Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks! It is also written by the late Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) and inspired by the blah blah blah… we have made the decision to go based solely on the presence of Hanks.
Everybody loves Tom Hanks, and I am no exception. Every guy wants to be his pal, every girl wants to be his gal, and every member of my generation wants to be his child. The man gives off such a fatherly vibe, you just want him to tussle your hair and play catch with you.
After Broadway shows they usually set up some barricades around the exit and let fans gather around to get autographs from the cast. That’s how I got Alan Rickman’s autograph last year and the autographs of the cast of The Book of Mormon the year before that. And this time I will get Tom Hanks’s autograph. I am sure he will sign something for me, and I privately entertain the fantasy of him permitting me to give him a hug. He has to; he’s the nicest guy in Hollywood! We bought our tickets early in the day and as we walk around Times Square we discuss what we will have him sign. The Toys ‘R’ Us store alone is full of possibilities – should we buy this Woody doll and have him sign that? Actually, it’s pretty pricey, but what if we buy this Woody pez dispenser? The sporting goods area probably has a Wilson volleyball. In the toddler section they are selling a mat with piano keys on it that kids can dance around on and play with their feet. Maybe we should get this and hold it up for him to sign, shouting, “Get it? Like that scene in Big!”
I keep wanting to go to a used DVD store and buy a copy of That Thing You Do so that I can wave that in his face; show him I am a true fan; that I appreciate the deeper cuts in the Hanks oeuvre. Ultimately we all decide to just go empty-handed and have him sign our playbills so that he can see that we actually went to the show and aren’t just cheap autograph seekers.
Once seated I look at my playbill to see who else is in the cast. Maura Tierney! I love Maura Tierney; she was in NewsRadio! And Christopher McDonald, a.k.a Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore! And Peter Scolari – where do I know that name from? Peter Scolari, Peter Scolari… Holy shit, Peter Scolari! Peter Scolari was Tom Hanks’ co-star on the 1980’s gender-bending sitcom Bosom Buddies! We will be seeing a Bosom Buddies reunion tonight, live on stage! This will be great!
It was okay. Actually, I thought it was pretty good, but Emily, Matt, and Regina all seemed disappointed. At about 10:20, the theater lets out and we make our way down from our position in the back of the balcony and head outside and see that there is already a large crowd that has gathered in front of the barricades. We join the mob, but there are about two rows of people in front of us, making it difficult to get access to the actors. Many of the stars come out and no one asks for an autograph because they are not Tom Hanks. I want their autograph but am not close enough to get it, so I just watch them walk away to little fanfare. There goes that guy who played a judge on The Wire; there goes that guy who played a creepy boss on Girls. When Peter Scolari comes out he signs for the people in front of us and stays long enough that I can reach my playbill up to him and I get my first autograph of the night. Success! God, I hope Tom Hanks signs his name directly next to Scolari’s; both of the Bosom Buddies together again on my playbill.
Maura Tierney never comes out, but Christopher McDonald does – still, we can’t reach him. After all the actors but Hanks have left the tension is mounting. The audience of Rock of Ages lets out across the street and they all just stand there anxiously watching, just excited by the mere possibility of seeing Tom Hanks. Suddenly his bodyguard gives some kind of a signal and the police and workers move the barriers so that they now take up all of the sidewalk and create a path directly from the theater’s exit to the car that’s waiting for him. There is more room now and everyone presses forward and now we are at the front, but on the far left, right next to Hanks’s car.
Finally the door opens and it is Him! We cheer; the Rock of Ages audience across the street cheers; the world cheers! He feigns an exaggerated look of shock and it is hilarious; he is hilarious, and so nice! He autographs the playbills being waved at him by people to the right of us, and then he goes over to the other barricade and starts signing glossy photographs from Saving Private Ryan and Forest Gump presented to him by the non-ticketholders. I’m afraid I’ve missed my chance, but then he makes his way back to us, the ticketholders! He signs the playbills next to me and I’m shoving mine next to theirs and his pen gets so close!
– and then suddenly it is whisked away as he turns and gets into his car. The door shuts and he is driven off.
That motherfucker. I am crushed. The next time someone tries to tell me that Tom Hanks is the nicest guy in Hollywood I’m going to say, “Not as nice as Peter Scolari!”
With God as my witness, I will get Tom Hanks’ autograph. I have decided it will happen. I’m going back tonight and waiting so that I can be right there in the front.
When I walk by a little after 9 p.m. there are already people waiting with their glossy Tom Hanks prints. These are the mercenaries, I think to myself. These are the ones who don’t care; are just in it for the money they can make selling the autographs on eBay.
They are all lined up to the left of the exit because apparently, when the barricades come out, the right side will be kept open for ticketholders leaving the show and everyone else will have to get behind the left side barricade.
“Well I was here last night, but I couldn’t get his autograph so I thought I’d come back tonight,” I say to one of the mercenaries. “I still have my playbill.”
“Yeah, I don’t know, if you have your playbill they might let you in the ticketholders line,” he says.
It is bitterly cold so I decide to kill time inside the nearest diner, where I drink a cup of coffee by myself for half an hour. This is the life.
I wonder why I care so much about autographs. I’m not a fanatic, but I do have several. I got Elvis Costello to sign a vinyl copy of his debut album, My Aim is True, after a concert. Now it’s hanging in my bedroom next to my similarly framed autographed copy of Weird Al Yankovic’s debut album. Plus I have the aforementioned playbills, not one but two autographed David Sedaris books, that Sundance postcard with January Jones’ inscription that Emily got me, a plush Garfield doll that Jim Davis signed for me at a bookstore, Gordon Lightfoot’s name scrawled on a ticket stub, etc.
Part of it is a natural human tendency to worship celebrities, I think. I remember when I was a kid being completely star-struck upon meeting a former Survivor contestant at my cousin’s graduation party in Cincinnati. It didn’t matter that I had never seen an episode of Survivor, or that I actively disliked the genre of reality television (which, in those early twenty-first century days, I naively regarded as a passing fad) – she was a TV star, and I a TV watcher. I followed her around, hanging on her every word, lapping up all of her behind-the-scenes stories. Though I had no idea who he was, I was delighted to discover that Jeff Probst was, in real life, a very short man. Delightful! And of course, at the end of the day, I got her autograph on a Survivor business card (yes, she carried them around with her).
So I guess it’s not surprising that I would be especially prone to obsessing over autographs from celebrities I actually care about. So many of my friendships and relationships with other people have been formed, strengthened or threatened by our respective tastes in popular culture. My autographs provide yet another conversation starter that can be secretly used to asses someone’s worth as a human being. When I’m talking to people, I will know their true value based on whether or not they are impressed (or, even better, jealous) when I tell them I possess physical evidence that I have met Weird Al. And then if they are suitably wowed I will regale them with the story of how I asked him to sign it as “Daffy Mal Yinkleyankle AKA Weird Al Yankovic” (an allusion to the parody of Weird Al that appeared on the brilliant sketch comedy series Mr. Show), and if they get that obscure reference then I will know that they are a truly spectacular person and that we are soul mates. If this hypothetical human being turns out to be a male, we will be immediate best friends. If female, I will promptly call up Emily and explain, “Sorry, honey, it’s over between us; I’m leaving you for a girl I met at a party who gets the Daffy Mal Yinkleyankle reference.”
After I feel I have killed enough time, I head back to the theatre. Now the non-ticketholders line is packed, and there is no way I will get Hanks’ autograph from this side. I ask the guy who puts up the barricades if I can get into the ticketholders line since I went to the show last night. He says it is for tonight’s ticketholders only.
Damn it. I will not be getting Tom Hanks’ autograph tonight.
But I remember that last night all of the non-Tom Hanks actors exited to the right, so I decide to stand on the sidewalk with all the other mercenaries and hopefuls and get their autographs. And it works! Christopher McDonald autographs my playbill with a giant, John Hancock-style signature that greedily takes up one third of the page (Christopher McDonald clearly believes himself to be the star of this play). Then I am the only person who asks Dierdre Lovejoy for her autograph (even though she played McNulty’s on-again off-again girlfriend on The Wire), and when I tell her she was great in the play she smiles widely and seems genuinely grateful for the compliment. The same goes for Danny Mastrogiorgio, who I actually succeed in making laugh when I tell him his fight scene with Tom Hanks was very convincing.
See! Autographs are a good thing! I am doing a public service; I am making b-list stars feel good about themselves!
But then of course Tom Hanks comes out and I have to watch from afar as he rushes through the two minute frenzy of autographs and cheers, then hops into his private car and drives out of my life without so much as a goodbye.
At this point in my journey I am uncertain which is more pathetic: potentially wasting three nights of my vacation just to get Tom Hanks’s autograph, or having already wasted two nights of my vacation to not get Tom Hanks’s autograph.
If I don’t get his autograph, how am I supposed to explain this to my future children? What if my father could have gotten Jimmy Stewart’s autograph and didn’t? Actually, now that I think about it, that’s not even a hypothetical – my dad showed me pictures once of a Ronald Reagan campaign rally he went to in Dayton in the seventies and Jimmy Stewart was one of the speakers there. Why hadn’t my dad tried to get Stewart’s autograph? Why had he denied me that priceless family heirloom?
I don’t even like children that much, but maybe I will have one just so that I can give him Tom Hanks’s autograph on my deathbed. He will love it and cherish it forever.
Or maybe not. Maybe he will say, “What’s Lucky Guy? I’ve never even heard of this stupid play. Why didn’t you get him to sign something cool, like a Woody pez dispenser?”
I am conflicted. Then Emily solves the problem by telling me that she wants Shooter McGavin’s autograph more than anything else in the world. She wants a giant autographed portrait of him, framed in gold and hung over a fireplace. She doesn’t have a fireplace, but will build one for the picture.
Now I have a perfect excuse to go back. I am not just some shady Mark David Chapman-type fellow who has been stalking Tom Hanks for three nights in a row; I am a normal, hot-blooded American male getting a matinee idol’s signature for the girl he’s goin’ steady with.
I get to the theatre over an hour early. There is one other person loitering in front of the exit, a young African American male who I immediately recognize as the person that I stood next to last night. He recognizes me too, and at first we are both embarrassed to have been found out, but we quickly take comfort in the fact that we can confide in each other as fellow fanatics.
We talk about Broadway. He tells me I must see Hugh Jackman if I ever get the chance. He tells me he saw his one-man show twice; the first time on a date with a rude Australian man and then again by himself. He tells me that being in the audience you feel like you yourself are on a date with Hugh Jackman, and that this is an incredible feeling to have.
I ask him what he brought for Hanks to autograph and he tells me he is just hoping to get his picture taken with Tom Hanks. I gently suggest that such a goal might be difficult to accomplish, all the while knowing that this is an impossible pipe dream. But he is still green, and has only had half of the experience I’ve had with the Lucky Guy autograph line. He reminds me of myself when I was a younger man two days ago, still dreaming that Tom Hanks might hug me. He asks me if I will take the picture for him, and I say yes, knowing that this is like promising someone I will have their back in the event of a spontaneous lion attack.
As time passes more people show up, including the quintessential mercenary; a suspicious looking man who is carrying a whole folder filled with Tom Hanks photos. In a thick Brooklyn accent, he describes to us his vast amounts of experience obtaining autographs from stars.
“Tom Hanks, he’s bipolar. Sometimes he signs, sometimes he doesn’t. One time I got him when he was leaving some show and he was in his car, he just rolled down his window and signed seven pictures. He was signing everything I put in front of him; he was in a good mood. Oh, he doesn’t like to be called Tom. Watch the video of him signing stuff in front of Letterman, he says ‘If you guys keep yelling Tom, I’m not gonna sign anything.’”
Do not call him Tom. That’s good to note.
“I’ve gotten a lot of these guys when they’re going into the shows. I got James Earl Jones to sign like seventy pictures when he was doing that play.”
“Seventy?” I asked.
“Yeah, well, not all at once, I would go back every night.”
“So what do you do with all of these; sell them?”
“Nah, nah, I don’t sell ’em,” he says quietly. “I collect.”
“All seventy of them?”
“So how many autographs do you have, all together?”
“I’ve got about – ” suddenly he stops talking as a random security guard paying zero attention to us walks into the theatre. “I’ve got two thousand,” he whispers. “I didn’t want to say in front of him.”
This man is almost certainly insane. Either he is telling the truth and he truly has devoted his entire life to amassing a collection of two thousand celebrity autographs (seventy of which are all James Earl Jones signatures), or he is actually the mercenary extraordinaire that I believe him to be, but is so ridiculously paranoid that he feels the need to lie to me about it and to whisper the number of autographs he has acquired over the years in hushed tones. Either way, he’s a cautionary tale.
With a hardened, cynical, world weary autograph-hound to my left and a naive, idealistic, gay photograph-seeker to my right, I think of myself as the level-headed pragmatist centered in the middle of these two extremes. One is too deadened by addiction and the other too ambitious in his dreams; only I will actually experience the pleasure of success tonight.
The line grows, the show lets out and the actors start exiting. When Christopher McDonald comes out I present him with the glossy Quiz Show photo that Emily had printed at the Walgreens in Jersey and ask him to make it out to her.
“Sure,” he says enthusiastically, slathering his giant autograph all over the picture underneath a “To Emily” dedication. “Jack Barry,” he smirks, imitating the distinctive voice of his game show host character.
The Brooklyn mercenary next to me, clearly as an afterthought, presents him with a blank piece of paper and asks him to sign it.
“And, uh, underneath your name could you write ‘Scooter?’” the man asks, badly butchering the name of McDonald’s signature character.
“‘Scooter?’” McDonald asks incredulously, “you mean ‘Shooter?’”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘Shooter,’” he adds hastily.
“Want me to make it out to anyone?”
“Nah, that’s all right.”
“Easier to sell that way, huh?”
“Nah, nah, I won’t sell this,” the man lies. (At least I sincerely hope he is lying. The thought of him actually collecting thousands of autographs is creepy to me, though I’m not entirely sure why).
Other actors who I have already gotten start to leave. Tension is mounting. Finally the moment arrives… for the third time. Hanks reappears.
Being in the very front of the crowd makes the experience even more intense. Everyone is shouting, including me.
“Tom! Tom!” I yell. Damn it, I forgot, I’m supposed to call him “Mr. Hanks.” Oh, fuck it, he’s lucky I didn’t call him “Dad!”
He signs things for the ticketholders first, but then he comes over to our side, and he’s working his way down the line and oh God I can feel him getting closer and closer!
If my life were a Tom Hanks movie, this would be the moment where I symbolically turn around and walk away, realizing there is something in my life that is more important than some stupid autograph; something like meeting Meg Ryan at the top of a New York landmark, or convincing my fiancé that I love her more than the drunken revelry that is going on at my hysterically depraved bachelor party.
But this is not a Tom Hanks movie, and instead I get that stupid autograph and it is the best fucking thing that has ever happened. He quickly brushes my playbill with a sharpie, creating a barely legible “Tom” and two indistinct lines that apparently are meant to symbolize the surname “Hanks,” and yet this half-assed signature makes me impossibly happy.
My friend, of course, did not get the picture he wanted; didn’t even really get the opportunity to ask in all the rush and noise. He is heartbroken and I offer him an incredibly insincere “Better luck next time,” as I walk off with my treasure.
Last night I met someone at a party. I don’t remember his name but I remember that he was from Long Island and that when I told him I was just in New York he asked what I did, and when I told him the story about Tom Hanks he threw his hands in the air and said enviously that he was obsessed with Tom Hanks and I knew in that moment that at the very least, he was a worthy human being and so was I.
story by Patrick Grieve