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Saturday, June 21, 2003  

For the "flash fiction" file: Why Harry Potter Won't Change His Glasses.

Last night I happened to watch an episode of Hollywood Squares and was amused by the similarities among people who became famous in a specific era—many of them willingly become caricatures of themselves. Whether they wear the same hair styles, the same clothes, sometimes the same style glasses, working hard to be sure that they look exactly the way they looked when they were made famous, or whether it is a manner about them, some trademark saying of theirs, or a performance, like Chubby Checker who is condemned to Twist Again Like We Did Last Summer until he dies. And I thought of my friend Brian O'Keefe.

Brian is not the kind of person you would ever think would become famous. He is about normal height, but thin, too, and this makes him seem taller than he really is. He has eyebrows as thick as caterpillars and a bush of curly dark brown hair that he wears longer than he should, so it always looks disheveled, like he just woke up.

One evening, a few years ago, he and I went to a party at a friend's house in the suburbs, and Brian wore a black pinpoint cotton dress shirt with a yellow tie that was barely knotted at a collar that wasn't buttoned. It was a casual look, he said, so he would appear relaxed and friendly. In spite of that, he kept to himself most of the evening. Then he and a woman happened to reach for the same piece of cheese and he had to interact with someone. He and the woman got into a conversation and Brian happened to tell her why he likes to go to New York City: because, as he's driving down the city's streets, people wave to him.

Now you and I know, and I guess the woman knew, too, that these people weren't waving at him—they were waving for a taxicab. And maybe Brian knew that, but you just weren't sure. I had heard the story before (about a week earlier), and Brian laughed when he told it and it was really funnier to him than to me, but I smiled and gave a short guffaw out of politeness to my friend. Apparently that encouraged him to think that it was funnier that it was, and so he felt confident telling the story to the woman.

Well, the woman thought that was the happiest thing she'd heard in years and told him so. Maybe it was the gag, or maybe it was the way Brian told it. As he told the story to her, he leaned way over to one side and with one arm outstretched, reaching almost on tiptoes, he simulated the friendly gesture of a citizen of New York City, and as he did this stretch he lifted one of his enormous eyebrows and smiled, perhaps to simulate the joy of the citizens of New York City as they encountered my friend Brian driving down the street. The woman laughed, almost choking on her cheese, and she dragged Brian over to her husband and a group of people talking together. There Brian told the story again—he made the same moves, stretching and waving, raising his enormous eyebrow—and again there was much laughter.

Before the end of the party, Brian had told his funny story to every person there at the house, and he was the hit of the party. That party led to many other parties, and always Brian was commanded to tell people why he liked to visit New York City.

And Brian learned that he had to wear the same black shirt with the yellow tie, for otherwise he would be out of uniform for the performance. Once he showed up at a party without the tie, or with a different color shirt, and his funny story wasn't funny. So Brian ended up with a wardrobe of black pinpoint cotton dress shirts and several yellow ties, all identical, and always the same disheveled hair. But he also ended up on evening television talk shows, and finally Hollywood Squares, and whenever he is introduced, he stretches out his arm, leans to one side, raises an eyebrow—and that is enough to get laughs and applause, for we all know his story about why he likes to visit New York City.

posted by Merle Harton Jr. | 2:08 AM |
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