I come back to Kim, who’s rolling the meditation balls around in her right hand. I’m impressed with her dexterity. I pick up a set and manage to look like an intern performing her first prostate exam. I put them back. Kim shows me the slip of paper that comes with the set: “Instructions for Healthy Balls.” We giggle like schoolgirls who’ve just looked up a dirty word in the dictionary. She tells me she’s thinking of buying the set and having Hal sign the instructions. I laugh. The idea is just suggestive enough to earn my respect. ;) There's just something oddly apropos about Hal Sparks signing off on the instructions to "healthy balls."
Everyone pays for her purchases, and we look for a café or…something. We’re all hungry and thirsty. We find a Chinese bakery and marvel at the cakes and pastries in the display cases…everything looks like a work of art, with every last detail attended to. Joyce buys herself a couple of tarts or pastries, then buys us both bottles of water. Thank you, Joyce. It washes away the thin layer of cotton that’s grown along my tongue.
After a bit, we check the time and decide to head back toward the restaurant. As we walk, I notice there are few people out on a Saturday morning, little traffic on the streets. To our right, the brown hills arc up against a hazy blue sky. Somehow, L.A. suddenly seems smaller now. I remember flying in over the city the day before as we came in for a landing. I noticed that there didn't seem to be one downtown center. Just a few scattered clusters of high rises, and other than that, a long low valley spread out between the hills and the water. I remember reading "The Grapes of Wrath" as a teenager. I wonder now what it must've been like to arrive in California in the thirties, having fled the Dust Bowl, or even before then, when California was still more "Golden" than sepia-toned.
Big China is already busy for a Saturday morning. The waitstaff bustle about a full dining room. A few other SV attendees are already waiting near the entrance to be seated. It’s not quite 11 yet, and the staff are still preparing the private room we’ll be using. More of our group show up, and we chat excitedly, or take the opportunity to use the restroom. After a few minutes, we’re finally led to the private room. It’s rectangular, with rows of circular tables set up along the length of it. We spot the table reserved for Hal and his friends and family. Megan, Lorie, Wendy and I decide to take a table in a far corner, to one side of the reserved table. And again, the group is split. Kim, Joyce and Nikki find a table on the opposite side of Hal’s.
As everyone begins to file in, the energy level in the room grows. People are chatting and laughing loudly. Megan and I are excited. She’s never met him either. I’m beginning to feel the effects of having little to eat in the last 24 hours, combined with a healthy shot of adrenaline. Wouldn’t that make an impression? “Nice to meet you, Hal,” she said, and promptly passed out. Everyone teases me, pretending to fan me with their napkins. They find my nervousness “cute.” Thanks, guys. :) I joke again, as I have off and on for the last few days, that I’ll probably go to shake Hal’s hand, and all that will come out of my mouth is, “Gah-buh-doh-uh.” Material worthy only of our Commander-in-Chief.
At some point in our banter, one of my friends mentions that Hal doesn’t wear cologne or aftershave, as artificial scents cover one’s natural pheromones. Theories are floated as to what Hal smells like. Wendy and Lorie don’t remember from the last time they met him. Mental notes are made to try to smell him. And we giggle at the prospect. “How’s it goin’, Hal?” (Sniffs loudly.) “Oh, nothing. Don’t mind me.” (Sniffs again.) It’s never occurred to me to wonder what a celeb smells like, and I have to admit: now I’m curious. And then I laugh, thinking that fandom has suddenly taken a right turn at the intersection of Silly and Giddy. :)
Eleven o’ clock comes and goes and there’s still no Hal. Where’s Hal? In the intervening minutes, Wanda or Shirley makes a call, and then reports that Hal is still fifteen minutes out. The waitstaff are starting to serve drinks and set out sauces. We kill time reviewing how to hold chopsticks.
Davina arrives sometime just shortly before or after Hal, and it doesn’t take long for me to appreciate her humor and take-no-prisoners attitude. This is going to be fun. :) She gets her name tag, and somehow, in pinning it on, or moving it, it lands squarely in her cleavage, and we all laugh. Yeah, that’s a sure way to get Hal to remember your name. ;)
At eleven forty-five, Hal makes his entrance. The energy in the room shifts; all eyes focus on him. For some reason, at this moment, a little thought at the back of my mind jars me: it’s 9/11. And here we are. This was Kim’s first plane trip by herself. Many of us, including myself, are at least slightly phobic about flying after the attacks three years ago. We were determined to be here, to celebrate anyway. And the reason has just walked in the room.
He’s wearing jeans and a black tee with “El Guapo” written across it. His hair looks longer than it does on QAF, and the front of it is standing up in purple-tinged spikes. I’m struck by how lean he looks.
And that he seems just as determined to be here for us. He’s “on.” It doesn’t take him long to begin mingling, moving from table to table, chatting easily with everyone and shaking hands. Our table is sure to be last, as we’re in the back corner. Now that he’s here in person, I’m feeling better. My only concern now is offering him a cold, clammy hand to shake. I keep wiping my hands on my napkin, and my tablemates grin at me.
As he makes his way closer to our table, I notice something about him I hadn’t expected to. His voice sounds richer and more resonant than it does on T.V. It carries easily above the din of chatter in the room. There’s something soothing about it. Here, Hal. Could you read the phone book, please, and I’ll just listen? ;)
As Hal works his way toward our table, we're all talking and laughing. I say something, gesticulating excitedly, and as I bring my hands down, I accidentally smack my dinner plate. It clatters loudly. Everyone at the table laughs. Jokes are made about sending the various dipping sauces across the room at roughly Mach 1, to splatter a la Jackson Pollack against the walls. Embarrassed, I look up to see if Hal has noticed. Luckily, he's talking with someone else, so even if he has heard it--and I'm sure he has, because I think the whole room did--he's too distracted to acknowledge it.
At last, he makes it around to our table. He greets Wendy, shakes hands with Megan and Lorie. Lorie asks if he remembers that she and Wendy drove 17 hours from Seattle to see him this summer. He does.
My turn. We shake hands and he greets me with the trademark, “Hi, I’m Hal” that’s both amusing and endearing. The smile is infectious; everything about his expression and demeanor is straightforward and direct. “Great to meet you,” he says, and his eyes flick down to my name tag: “Debra.” His handshake is warm and confident. His energy is magnetic. Those deep brown eyes could make you forget the name of your last—or current—boyfriend.
It should be illegal to be that adorable.
“Great to meet you finally,” I beam. I let the handshake linger a moment longer than it should, our fingertips still touching as I say this, then catch myself and pull my hand back. By "finally" I mean simply that it’s great to *finally* meet him after a long couple of months—and days—of anticipation. Unfortunately, I think he takes it to mean that he finally made it to the restaurant or made it around it our table. D’oh.
By the time he’s greeted everyone, the food is being served, and he’s starved, so he moves on, ready to sit down and—finally—eat. But phone calls interrupt him. He’s got to work out the age-limit problem at the Improv Olympic. Several times, he has to excuse himself to take calls. I notice that he has a rather impressive flip-phone that could probably offer several services: voice, Web, text-messaging, next year’s taxes….
When he is able to sit down, the meal becomes an eat-and-greet-some-more, as he attempts to eat each course at a different table. Camera flashes go off the entire time, as attendees get candid shots of Hal, or take pictures with each other. It's reported that Hal smells pleasant, sort of like vanilla. :)
The food seems endless. More and more courses are brought out. Most of us are full about halfway through. At the end, it looks as though there’s enough food left over to feed the Sixth Fleet.
People get up and start mingling. Kip is there, and a few of us chat and joke with him. Somewhere in all this banter and chatter, a playful exchange happens between Kip and Hal. With Kip to my right, and Hal on my left, a few of us are standing in the middle like spectators at a tennis match. Kip lobs off a cool one-liner, one-upping Hal. We all laugh, including Hal. Something of the relationship between Hal and his cousins has made itself apparent. We begin to see how this all works, how they all get along.
Hal takes time to keep mingling, even though some are beginning to leave. I get a moment to tell him how great it is meeting him after the last couple of months of excitement and anticipation, and then hear myself gush, “You’re adorable.”
He shrugs it off modestly: “I’m okay.”
Oh, puh-leeeeze. :)
I formally introduce myself to Kip and get a picture with him, as do a few others.
Hal is talking with some people behind me, and I catch part of a story about him performing a comedy act in a room shaped like a piano, with part of the audience more or less hidden from him around a corner. I kid him that he should perform with mirrors, and he comes back with something about mirrors and lasers and I lose a major thread of it in the background noise, but chuckle anyway, more at his obviously quick mind than what’s actually being said.
As we prepare to leave for Almost Human, he tells us to look for a caste of his face. And tells us about having to perform—and improvise with his cameraman --on Talk Soup with only half his “James Lipton” makeup in place, thanks to an inexperienced director who had miscalculated how long it would take to do the makeup. (The cameraman started out tight on Hal’s/James’ face, then widened out to do a reveal: Mr. Lipton had apparently been hiding an embarrassingly large need for Rogaine all this time.) ;)
At some point before everyone leaves, I feel brave enough to ask Hal for a hug. He obliges with “Absolutely.” It’s a great hug: not crushing, but just strong enough to let you know you’re being hugged. It's about this time that it hits me just how approachable he truly is. It's disarming, and this marks the beginning of a rather bizarre trend. Throughout the weekend, I'll be nearly--if not completely--tongue-tied around him, and yet I'll find myself touching his shoulder or patting his back or asking for hugs. I can't quite wrap my brain around the concept of an accessible hero. Sort of like having Spielberg on speed-dial.
As he leaves I tell him, “Thank you.” He walks out with a chorus of more “Thank you’s” from everyone else to send him on his way.
As we drive away from the restaurant parking lot, Kim and I spot Hal striding across a crosswalk, checking something on his cell phone. No one in the crosswalk seems to notice him. He’s just another guy. Kim and I can’t believe it.
I had giggled. I had gushed. I had felt like a 13-year-old. I didn't even do that when I *was* 13.