Celebrities often get a bad rap as untouchable, snobby and aloof. That didn’t stop one student from gushing over her literary hero in a chance meeting 30 years ago. And as it turns out, that fateful encounter was just as meaningful for him as it was for her.
By Betsy Thrailkill Tetsch ’86
In January 1986, I faced some hard choices. I had spent the better part of the last three semesters in France and faced a daunting 21-hour load of classes to complete my degrees in French and theatre in the four-year time span granted me by my parents. I was busy and a little overwhelmed.
Compounding my stress was the fact that I had also accepted a summer job at the NATO hotel in Bad Godesberg, Germany, without my parents’ knowledge or consent. No parental approval (or funding) meant I needed to come up with the money to buy a plane ticket to make it to my European summer job. As luck would have it, I saw an advertisement for “breakfast help” at the Francis Marion Hotel just a short walk from campus. The hours from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. would work with my class schedule, so I took it. When they offered me the night receptionist job, I took that, too.
It was a long semester of studying and working, and working and studying. Let’s face it, a European trip is expensive for college students no matter the decade – but I was determined to go. The drudgery and sheer insanity of taking that many hours and working in customer service was punctuated by one incredible event: a face-to-face meeting with writer and novelist Tom Robbins. A chance meeting that, at the time, was the ultimate fangirl experience for this proud literary geek.
Tom Robbins was in Charleston to appear in Alan Rudolph’s movie Made in Heaven. The film starred Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis, with cameo roles featuring rockers Tom Petty, Ric Ocasek (of The Cars) and Neil Young. One fateful morning after the breakfast shift, as I was tearing my polyester uniform off to rush to the theater for class, my night manager informed me that Neil Young and “some author” called Tom Robbins would be checking in late that night and that I was to check them in under whatever pseudonyms they chose.
My heart froze. Could it really be that the author of Still Life with Woodpecker and Jitterbug Perfume was coming to Charleston and checking in during my shift? That evening I grabbed my worn paperback copies of these two titles from
my private dorm room on Coming Street before heading back to work for the night shift. I distinctly remember thinking that when I was making real money, I would only buy books in hard cover. At the hotel, I clocked in, hummed “Cinnamon Girl” and waited for my literary hero.
Sometime well past midnight, two black-leather-jacket–wearing, straight-from-California–looking gentlemen entered the hotel lobby. It was Robbins and Neil Young. This was it. The moment had arrived. My heart was beating in my throat. I already had the books skillfully positioned on the counter and blurted out something about how Robbins was my favorite author and would he please sign my books for me. He did. As he was signing them, I said, “Mr. Robbins, I love your rings!” to which he replied, “My rings are big and weird like me, and your rings are small and cute like you.” I can still hear him saying those words to me right now. In my excitement to meet the quirky writer, I completely ignored Neil Young – undoubtedly the more famous of the pair. The whole encounter lasted maybe 10 minutes, including check-in, but it continues to be one of my most vivid memories. It was a pivotal brush with stardom where I realized that celebrities were just people. And that it was even possible for them to be nice people.
This spring, 30 years after my starry-eyed encounter, I decided to attend A Charleston Affair for the first time with my dear college friends, Maura Hogan ’87 and Becky Headen. Maura told me that Tom Robbins had written about our fateful interaction in his most recent autobiography, Tibetan Peach Pie. When I tracked down a copy of the book and peeled back the pages to find that passage, I was surprised to discover a highly detailed account of that meeting between myself and him.
And here it is:
One of the perks of associating with celebrities is that you get to experience firsthand the state of invisibility. Step out in public with any rock star or Hollywood actress and poof! –
You disappear. People look right through you. It’s a kind of enchantment, more effective than the graduate program at Hogwarts. Once during the filming of Made in Heaven, however, the tables turned and the cloak of invisibility unexpectedly fell about unaccustomed shoulders.
There had been a small but lively dinner party at the house in Charleston provided to Debra Winger and Timothy Hutton for the duration of the shoot. The house was in an upscale neighborhood a good distance from the downtown hotel where most of the cast and crew were lodged. At the end of the evening, I caught a ride back to the hotel with Neil Young and his manager. In the conversation that ensued, Neil learned for the first time that the guy in the backseat was a novelist. He’d never heard of me or my books, assuming all evening that I was an assistant producer or some other functionary connected to Lorimar Studios.
He was mildly surprised, I suppose, but didn’t seem particularly impressed.
It was well past midnight and the hotel lobby was deserted. To retrieve our room keys, Neil and I approached the front desk more or less in tandem. When we got closer to the desk, the night clerk – a pretty woman in her early twenties – suddenly lit up like a ballpark, clutched her chest, and made an audible sound that resembled a mixture of a sigh, a squeal, and a purr. Naturally, Neil thought the excitement was for him.
“You’re Tom Robbins, aren’t you?!” the girl gushed. “I heard you were staying with us.” She went on to tell me how wonderful my books were, how much they meant to her, while the great Neil Young (and he truly is great) waited impatiently – invisibly – for his key. The human ego is a treacherous apparatus, best kept at a safe distance from the self, but I confess I took a small measure of pleasure in making a star play the transparent ghost for a change.
It was a moment to be sure – evidently as much for Tom Robbins as for me. I believe now, at 51, that life is a series of divine collisions rather than a string of random events. The fact that one of my favorite authors chose to write about me 30 years later convinces me of this even more.
– A jack-of-all-trades, Betsy Thrailkill Tetsch ’86 divides her life between creating art at her business, CanvasOne; teaching people how to sell stuff; helping refugees; and spending time with her delightful husband and two daughters.