Sunday, May 2, 2010

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The Little Guy in my Booth

Gary Coleman sat in my section at the Olive Garden and the hostess said, “I got you a gift.” And I suppose, in a way, she had. He did look charming, sitting in a booth, little legs in cowboy boots, wagging, inches from the floor like a toddler using the toilet. This former child icon, still resembling a child, anxiously rolled his small fingers across the table as if stardom was once again knocking.
I felt nervous approaching the table, because I didn’t know what to expect. People told me if I asked for his autograph he’d try and bight me, and I wondered what I might do if attacked. I played out plan B scenarios in my head while reminding myself that he couldn’t stand more than 5 feet. I made it a point to treat him like anyone else. But even then I was anxious because he had such a reputation. People in central Utah discussed Gary Coleman sightings like residents around Area 51 discussed UFO’s. All over the nation Gary Coleman was known because of Diff'rent Strokes, but I knew him because he threw fits in gas stations and bowling allies.
We all knew when Gary moved to Utah and I can only suspect why his arrival was so talked about. I’ve never seen the show. I received my knowledge of Gary Coleman from older siblings. They told me about how Gary was little Arnold Jackson on Diff'rent Strokes. That he lived in Santaquin, Utah, a small western town 25 minutes from the Provo Olive Garden. Reportedly he drove nightly down Main Street in a black lifted pickup, nearly hitting pedestrians, his motivations for near misses a source of debate. Some people said it was intentional, others argued he simply couldn’t operate a machine that size due to his child-like frame. People in gas stations or cafes laughed about the size of his anger in relation to his body and I became under the impression that he never really was a celebrity but simply a sideshow.
Gary sat across from two women, both disproportionally lean, one with red curls and one a brunette. He looked up from beneath a black leather long-brimmed hat with a sideways jaunt, his eyes withered like knots in old lumber and ordered the children’s spaghetti with one sausage and one meatball. He then asked that the kitchen “dice it up”. I pondered on the irony of Gary Coleman, little Arnold Jackson, ordering from the kid’s menu and asking that it be diced, something akin to slicing the crust from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I told others on the serving staff about it and sent restaurant patrons to peek from alcoves to get a glimpse of Gary sipping a Dr. Pepper. We made short jokes in the kitchen, talked about how washed out he was. Someone said they read he was a virgin; the conversation drifted to Gary’s penis and the question of whether the girth associated with his race could overshadow his stature.
I brought out his children’s pasta and he reached inside his little body pulling out the howl of a man, “I wanted it diced, not chopped.” He karate chopped with both hands and then rested his chin into his palm. The girls across from him glared at me. “Good God,” he said. “Take it back.” And I removed the pasta from the table and returned with it in smaller pieces. “Umm hmm,” he said and shooed me away with his hand.
I recall asking myself, who does he think he is, treating me like he’s famous? What an asshole. I took treatment similar to Gary’s regularly from customers, and I shrugged it off when it came to everyday people, but it seemed worse coming from him because he was Gary Coleman, a washed out nobody, and in that moment, as I served pasta in a midgrade restaurant, I felt better than him. I felt so above Gary Coleman that I wanted to do something bad to him, something more than the serving cliché of spitting in his food. I wanted to punch him in the face, wrap my apron around his throat, and stomp on his small body with my slip-resistant shoes. I imagined myself doing it and felt justified, like he deserved to be beaten because he was so insignificant. His distance from success was growing by the moment, fans finding new idols and new generations forgetting who he was, and perhaps I assumed he needed to be nice to me because I was part of that demographic he was losing. But if he were famous, if this would have happened in 1982 and not 2006, would I have been less offended? Or if he were just some assclown off the street would it have bothered me so much?
We talked and laughed some more in the kitchen over Gary’s existence as he sat in the dining room, with small child-like hands contrasting a withered face, unaware of who we were, and we only slightly aware of who he once was. Along with myself, most of the servers were in their early twenties, far too young to have been fans of Diff'rent Strokes during it’s success, or to have an understanding of the glory days when "What'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" was associated with a genuine phenomenon and not some washed out catch phrase. We never knew Gary as a star, only as an oddity, an outdated icon living in exile 20 miles from our home like a faded piece of modern art. We knew he punched a lady while working as a security guard, but not that he once made $100,000 a show. We knew that when someone asked for his autograph at a local Home Depot he hissed and ran away, but not that he once had his own animated series produced by Hanna-Barbera. Gary achieved more as a youth than any of the people in that kitchen probably ever will as adults, and yet there we were, working for tips, mocking his height and discussing his penis. And I suppose we felt vindicated in this because he was on the way down, and that is all we had known, was his decent.


mgaggers said...

one thing i can't stand is anyone, famous or not, that acts like they're more entitled than anyone around them. i'm glad i never bumped into him when i was in utah.