Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Six Degrees of Separation Anxiety: Meeting Sidney Poitier


"The imagination is not our escape. On the contrary, the imagination is the place we are all trying to get to." —Paul (Will Smith) in Six Degrees of Separation

I've never been one of those sons who wished he could trade in his mom for a new model whenever she wasn't up to some silly standard. I never told friends, "Man, I wish I had your mom," although I sure would have liked to have lived in one of their nicer houses with the double-sided fridge that was always full of Hostess goodness and after school snacks. But even during my teenage-era battles with my mother and the difficulties of being an only child to a single, struggling parent, I was always happy to have the model fate gave me. Still am, completely.

But on the dad side of things, I've never stopped pawing at the puppy store window, waiting for that unlikely selection, and the ride home. After leaving my abusive dad—who, in another life, might have been an OK dude—when I was two, my mom didn't remarry until I was old enough to have kids of my own. All through my younger years, I eyed anybody, from perfect strangers to qualified boyfriends of my mom's, as suitable father figures. But more routinely, I'd depend on either of my two uncles or my grandfather, all of whom played their role as de facto step-dad with varying degrees of success.

I doubt any of the other unsuspecting "father types" knew I was eyeing them and ready to try on their lap for size, wondering if they could teach me to fight and all. Or that I'd be thinking that, if through some strange cosmic transference, I'd maybe grow up to be as tall as them, or as cool. I rarely let on, but inside, I was constantly auditioning for that unfilled role. As any single mom can attest to, no matter how great you are, you can never really be a dad to a boy.

But I'm a grown man now. Those emotions are neatly filed away, like a bit of pirate's booty for the next therapist session or REM-induced catharsis. At least that's what I thought until I walked into my local pet store today. Arriving just a few minutes after me was the ultimate father prototype. Sidney Poitier quietly stood several feet behind me, waiting patiently for me to finish my purchase before his star presence rippled through the late afternoon tranquility of the shop.

Growing up in Los Angeles, you let famous folks scoot by all the time, with nothing more than an "I'm almost like you" glance, trying to maintain your cool. But I had no intention of feigning a casual demeanor. I was ready to gush. Besides being the most lauded export of my birthplace, the Bahamas, Poitier is as regal a man as you could imagine. His stature is world renowned and his graceful presence as revered. In real life, he's as elegant as any role you've seen him in.

I turned to him and, without much hesitation, said hello. Told him I was from the Bahamas too, Nassau, to be exact. And introduced myself. He asked me how long I'd been in the states and we talked about return visits, family and the troubled economy due to the lack of tourism. For a minute, I thought about how little I keep in touch with my dad's side of the family. Now, I'd surely have a great story to relate: Yeah, living in Hollywood, man, you even see stars at the pet store. My relatives are already in awe of my supposed glamorous life. And this was a lot better than my run-ins with Rick Fox.

I asked Mr. Poitier if he'd mind if I got a photo with him. He joked that he'd mind if I didn't ask for one. At this point, I'm beaming ear to ear. The woman with him, holding their dog, offered to take the shot, and after a few misfires from my iPhone, we went outside to get better light. Sidney (What? It's been five minutes, I use his first name now) was taking his time, making sure we got a good photo, and that the light was great. As I stood there with him, his arm around my back, I wanted to imagine what being his son would have been like. In my mind, he was the perfect dad: Tall, strong, accomplished, gentle and, not to be flip, present.

After we got the photo, I joked that I looked like I could be his son—plant the seed, I figured. In his gracious way, he quipped back that I had just complimented him. I thanked him warmly for his time and told him my mom was gonna die of jealousy when I replayed the story of meeting him. In fact, when I called her minutes later, she raced to her DVD collection, just to pull out her entire library of Poitier films. She had every one you've heard of, plus his written memoirs (he told me he was currently writing his first fiction), including an extra copy of In the Heat of the Night. We shared the moment together. Relished in how awesome he was. But somewhere in all of this, I left out the part about why I wanted to call him dad. Though I'm certain she probably already understood.

"When I was little, my father was famous. He was the greatest samurai in the empire." —"Unexplained/Liquid Swords" by the GZA

9 comments:

Colin said...

Can't even imagine what that must have felt like! Fortunately I don't have to. Amazing job conveying the emotions. Almost ashamed to say I've had it and haven't read it yet. But you inspired me to commit to reading The Measure Of A Man starting tomorrow. Great post, peace.

Liz said...

Oh, dear Raymond, what a precious experience and a lovely post. And indeed, who better than Poitier.

Sarah C. said...

This was a great read.

Diane said...

Hey Raymond,
I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing the story.
Take care,
Your cousin in WA,
Diane

Patrick said...

Enjoyed the article. Gave me butterflies

DJ Issa. said...

This was a beautiful piece. I have the same story but on the missing mother side of things. I met Angela Davis today and interviewed her for a story. I lost my cool 5000% times more than I did while sitting at Prince's dinner table. Certain folks connect to our soul. Awesome.

Raymond Leon Roker said...

@DJ Issa — Your comment was beautiful. Made me think of how fortunate we all are when we get down to it. The bits we have that we string together for a great life. Doesn't stop us from longing, but it helps us keep it all in perspective, just like your comment.

Bruce said...

Very cool and lovely way with words.
Glad you got the picture.
Unc

Dingo said...

Wow Raymond,
I understand what u mean about searching for a father figure.I guess in alot of ways I've done the same.
Even though I spent the summers with my dad he was'nt really present for advice or to much emotinal support. Judging from some of his comments i did'nt really want any of his advice anyways.
But Sydney; What was that speech he gave a couple of years ago? I think I was tearing up...