I’ve shaken hands with Dr. Jonas Salk. I’ve stood close enough to Teddy Kennedy to smell cigar smoke clinging to his bulging jacket. I’ve discussed nutrition with Jimmy Carter. And I’ve had my dogtags blessed by two popes. But the celebrity whose name I most enjoy dropping is Joe DiMaggio.
In October 1992 I was in Washington, D.C. on church business and went to National Airport for my return flight. I always get to airports as early as possible and on this occasion I sat at an empty gate to read.
The adjacent gate was already full of passengers. As I scanned my book, a young ground agent escorted a gray-haired man with rounded shoulders to a seat directly in front of me. “I’ll come over to get you when it’s time to board,” she told the man, who nodded and smiled slightly, exposing large and slightly irregular teeth.
The man was dressed in a brown varsity jacket and wore a baseball cap with a logo I didn’t recognize. He appeared tired. It took me a second or two before I realized the man was Joe DiMaggio.
Joe sat down, pulled out some reading material, and bowed his head to peruse it.
I knew very well that Joe was seeking the same thing I was: quiet privacy before a flight. Joe was reported to be unfriendly with pushy strangers so I quickly dismissed the thought of talking to him (although I did try to imagine myself sticking out my hand and asking, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”). Instead I breathed silently through my mouth, staring at the back of Joe’s old gray head.
Within minutes, the gate agent next door announced the boarding of first class passengers and the young woman came over to escort him to the front of the line. Joe may have said thanks, or maybe he just nodded. He moved slowly and disappeared into the crowd.
As soon as he was gone I got up and sat in his seat. In his warmth! It was as close to Joe DiMaggio as I was ever going to get, and I remained in the chair until it was time to go to my gate.
I sat in Joe DiMaggio’s human warmth! Not a lot of people ever did that, I thought. Marilyn, maybe. Maybe Lou Gehrig if they switched seats in the dugout. But I thought of my experience as highly unusual and slightly intimate. “Maybe you even picked up some of his epithelials,” said a friend when I told her the story, just before she rolled her eyes.
I’m willing to concede that the experience is a little weird, but I’d like to think I was more respectful of the big guy than if I had interrupted his repose to shake his hand or ask for an autograph or remind him how a nation turned its lonely eyes to him. He never even knew I was there. But I had shared something very personal with him.
I figured out later that Joe DiMaggio was in Washington to participate in an Italian-American observance of the quincentennial of the landing of Columbus in the new world. I don’t know what he did during the event, but he looked as glad as I was to be going home.
And I have always been glad I shared that gladness with him.