My Brush with Greatness


First Person

Joan Collins in Drive Hard, Drive Fast (1973). Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was 1990, and the man I loved had died. I was out all the time. I just couldn’t stay inside, and I was writing in a notebook in places where I could sit for a spell. A new shop opened on Broadway, a bakery that was also a café in the low eighties or maybe the seventies, on the east side of the street. You could sit there with a coffee and maybe—after God knows how long—you would also buy a muffin out of obligation and shame.

The owner hated his customers because he’d created the wrong kind of flock in us. We were a band of deadbeat loners, off whom rose different kinds of sadness that united us into a force. The owner was a loud and theatrical gay man I also felt for because he may have been as lonely as we were, and he was trying to establish a business. I don’t remember if he had a boyfriend. I remember the startling freedom of his contempt for us—and by us, I don’t mean the customers who came and left in a timely fashion and didn’t turn his place into a campsite. He would thrash about, sighing and slamming down the cups he bussed after one of us moved on. It was theater. The boss staged his show, and we were the audience.

In the spring of 2002, Geoff Dyer published a piece in The Threepenny Review called “The Despair of Art Deco.” It’s a wonderful piece about nothing, really, meaning it’s my kind of writing, in which for seven pages or so Dyer recounts a recent visit with his girlfriend to South Beach, Miami, where he plans to write about the art deco hotels that attract visitors. Instead, he sees his first dead body, or at least the soiled socks of a woman who has jumped from a balcony to her death on the sidewalk, careful to avoid landing on anyone.

Earlier on the visit, Dyer and his girlfriend are asked to take a photograph of a couple standing in front of the house where Versace was gunned down. The patch of sidewalk has become a site of what I would call “dark tourism.” Dyer doesn’t call it that, but he understands there is some attraction people feel to standing in proximity to where something gory and grisly has taken place, in order to feel the double thrill of not yet being dead and also being reminded that every life goes in only one direction.

Another afternoon, walking on his own, Dyer comes upon the recent suicide. A passerby tells Dyer the dead woman was seventy-two, and he says that the heat of Miami makes people crazy. Dyer considers that Rome is just as hot and people there don’t routinely pitch themselves from balconies onto the pavement. In Miami, Dyer suggests, perhaps the despair of art deco causes people to jump, the despair that rises off architecture that always looks better from the outside than the inside.

What was I writing in the notebooks I carried to the bakery-café? I was writing dreck. I wasn’t writing dreck in my published work, but this was years before I’d meet Richard and together we’d establish better guidelines for writing in notebooks than I had at the time. The dreck I was writing was about one piece of the sadness rising off me or another. In these awful entries, I’m clutching at the damp hankie of my life. I’m not so much sad about being in the world without a man. I’m sad about facing starkly my troubling personality in the unshaded world without a man. I knew this was not a fit subject for writing, but I didn’t stop writing the dreck. I don’t think I even tried.

One day Joan Collins paid a visit to the bakery-café, and the excitement still lingers in my mind. Joan in the bakery, a streak of glamor, like the façade of an art deco hotel, sent to lift us from our forlorn existences. According to Dyer, part of “the despair” of art deco is that it includes a wash of shabbiness as well as of brilliance, and you could say the same thing of the glamor of Joan Collins or the glamor of anyone looked at close up.

The visit was not a surprise. We’d been primed for days and perhaps weeks by the usually irascible boss. He was her devoted fan. There were pictures of Joan on the walls. Suddenly, we had a purpose as props in the bustling café. Did he instruct us to give Joan space and allow her radiance merely to fall on us? I hope so. I don’t remember. Let’s say he did. In this moment, all of us are joined with the boss in his wish to host Joan beautifully. All of us want him to be happy.

Joan pulls up in a town car. Paid for by the boss? He escorts her into the bakery-café, and ushers her to a table, showing her around a bit before she’s seated. It’s the period just after she has ended her run in the prime-time soap opera Dynasty, and Joan will be a little at loose ends for a while after the towering success of her scenery-shredding portrayal of the vixen Alexis Carrington. She was great, snarling, and camping. It’s her crowning achievement as an actor. By the way, Joan was born in 1933. She’s ninety as I write. She’s still working. Go Joan!

In the bakery-café, she is full-wig and fake-eyelash swish, her vowels so sweetly plummy bees suddenly circle her head. She looks fragile. There’s a tottering tilt to her bearing. What am I doing here? she might have been asking herself. Who is this man who loves me? What is my role here? What is my role in life in general?

Do we, the rabble, stay back and stare courteously? Does Joan leave with a box of rugelach? Does she stay long enough to make the boss happy? Can anything make any of us happy?

Yes. This memory makes me happy. While Joan is with us, the boss is gracious and Joan is gracious. They pull me out of myself, and I write a different kind of entry, thinking about all of us gathered there, thinking about the sadness of the boss. Somewhere, there’s a jaunty, outward-looking piece I attribute to Joan. Some kind of exchange is set in motion, each side a site of tourism for the other. We inject the glamor of our humdrum realness into Joan as she wafts the despair of her fading stardom onto us—the despair, like the despair of art deco, that always includes the wish to show a good  face and can, in this case, brighten your point of view rather than prompt a leap to your death.

Joan is gallant to have come and generous to have taken the time to sit in front of her mirror and create for a fan the Joan Collins, with her sexy overbite, that slides into the world. At this time, she’s between marriage number four and marriage number five. She won’t marry again until 2002, when she weds Percy Gibson, who is thirty years her junior. Go Joan!

After a while, the bakery-café has to close. Probably, we are the cause. It takes a few years. I’m sad when it’s gone.


Laurie Stone is the author of six books, most recently Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing That is Happening, which was long-listed for the PEN America Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She writes a column for Oldster Magazine and the Everything Is Personal Substack.