STALKING PAUL NEWMAN
I am going to photograph a Hollywood legend. Star of The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – the original Cool Hand Luke. Close personal friend of Liz Taylor….yup…that Paul Newman.
THIS is the year. My year.
I am armed with a liter and a half of the World’s Most Expensive Grand Prix water (three bucks a bottle!), my trusty camera and a recently acquired Pit Walk Pass.
The Pit is aptly named, I decide. It smells like someone has been cooking old fish, but that may just be the interaction of burning rubber and motor oil. The Pit crackles with a well rehearsed but nonetheless frenzied activity. But I will not be distracted. I know that Newman Haas Racing is sponsored by the Golden Arches. So I am looking for McDonald’s.
I creep along the Pit Walk, every sense tingling – my entire being fixed on the Goal, finger quivering over my shutter button, camera poised. I am a hunter. My steely eyes narrow against the glare of the sun.
THIS is the year….
“Did you see him?” my wife asks. At first the voice sounds far away. I process the words.
“See who?” I ask back. There is a sinking sensation starting somewhere deep inside.
“Paul Newman,” she says, using the patient wife voice.
“What?” There’s a whiney quality in my voice that is most unfitting to a Great Hunter.
“Paul Newman. He just drove by on a red scooter.”
“What?” (‘What’ is one of those words that never fail you. So I say it again.) “What?”
My wife sighs and looks off into the distance. I suspect she is trying to decide if it is worth repeating to me without any visual aids or a suitably large collection of Crayons.
“Paul Newman just rode by on a red scooter.”
An image of Butch Cassidy doing charming tricks on a bike to a giggling-way-too-hot Katherine Ross comes to mind. A red scooter?
“Ah. He’s here then,” I respond as my mind jerks itself back to reality. It’s one of those sentences you start and midway through; you realize no matter what you do, you are going to sound really stupid, so you try to turn it into a joke. I rakishly raise my left eyebrow significantly.
My wife knows me too well, simply heaves a tired sigh, and looks off in another direction.
“A red scooter?” I ask. You kind of expect Paul Newman to arrive in a limo, preceded by at least seven rose petal tossing flower girls and a couple of heralds playing those long trumpet thingies.
My wife nods. She is growing disinterested. I can tell this by the way her eyes glaze over and take on that far off quality as she looks in every direction but mine.
“I know where he went,” says she.
“You do?” I ask. I absolutely firmly resolve that this will be my LAST lame question of the century.
“You want to know or not?”
I nod with a weakly affected boredom. Slyly, I wish to convey the impression that I know exactly where Paul Newman is…and am simply testing her to see if she is worthy to make the trek with me.
I pause and cleverly snap a quick shot of the only female racer, Katherine Legge, on pre-race trip to the porta-potty. I am, after all, the Great Hunter.
My wife has disappeared. I trail after her…or more precisely…where I think she may have gone.
I locate her. She points and says: “There he is.”
“Where?” I ask.
She points to the back of a white head in a red hat sitting high in a red booth.
“There?” I ask. I am already breaking that last-lame-question-of-the-century thing.
I place my Lowepro bag at my feet, take off the water cooler and settle into my Hunter’s Blind. I wait.
Cars drive by.
Cars come into the pit and gaily costumed men in helmets use mysterious but very loud machines for fifteen or twenty seconds. When the cars drive off, the people in the stands applaud.
I see Paul is drinking unflavored Dasani water. I watch him drain the bottle. Okay well actually…I see the bottle tilt upward, held in a really old hand…and get drained. You can almost see Newman’s lips. I shrewdly snap off a couple of quick shots. You can never tell when someone will want a picture of Newman’s lips.
“Is that him?” asks a woman as she waddles up. She sounds breathless and smells unpleasantly of hot dogs.
“Yup,” I say, noting she is trying to use her bulk to shove her way into my portion of green fence.
I look significantly at her and then down at the Lowepro bag in front of me…then back at her. “This place is mine,” my look says. “See? There’s my bag and water cooler and everything.”
She ignores me and toes my bag back a few inches. She shoves herself more firmly into my area and peers around. I think she may be nearsighted.
“I don’t see him,” she sniffs.
I am torn: Do I tell her the truth and win her respect…or simply let her think I am a misguided-but-well-meaning-fellow-groupie so maybe she’ll go away?
“Guess not,” I say, using my most sheepish expression.
She sniffs again and waddles off.
A hand grasps the edge of the booth…a white shoed foot steps out….PAUL NEWMAN is coming out of the BOOTH!
I grab my camera and set it to my eye. I wait seven years for the little red square and the reassuring “ting” sound that tells me I am focused.
Where is he going? What is he doing?
This is it. My one chance. I watch as he takes careful old-guy steps down the stairs, preserving each step safely on my digital chip. He is moving toward……a cooler…….oh my God…he is getting WATER!
Paul Newman is getting his OWN WATER.
My camera is clicking clicking…the battery warning light comes on. I mutter under my breath, decide prayer is better, and keep shooting.
As Paul leans forward and takes out TWO fresh waters, the battery warning light turns red. But I am shooting….shot after shot…praying for focus…thinking “This is Cool Hand Luke!”
I consider calling out to him. No one else seems to notice. But if I call out to him, what do I say? I stay quiet and continue shooting. Paul gets his water and goes back to the booth.
Minutes after he returns to the booth a young woman settles herself in beside him and he obligingly slides over a few inches to make room. Just like a regular guy.
I need to rest for a second.
My wife comes over.
“Did you see that?” she asks.
“Uh huh,” I say. It’s about all I can manage.
“How come you were standing way over there?” she asks.
“What?” I respond. (You can’t ever get enough of the old standby.)
“He was right here,” she says, gesturing to the water cooler, a scant five feet away from her…I have cleverly used a telephoto lens. The sinking sensation gets deeper. My telephoto lens and I have had frequent disagreements about what the term “focus” really means.
I mutter something meant to reassure us both…mostly me…and take up my spot at the fence again, on the lookout for waddling breathless women.
Cars go round and round the track.
I take carefully rationed sips of water, telling myself it is just plain strange to try calculating how much each sip is costing me. My eyes are fixed on the back of a white haired head with a red ball cap. I am willing him to come out, mentally reminding him that he has had THREE bottles of water and he really should step out. I have already scouted the Pit Walk and know precisely where the nearest Porta Potty is.
I wait. I consider staking out his red scooter. After all, he HAS to go to the scooter sometime, right? Thus far, I have nobly resisted the urge to photograph Paul Newman’s red scooter because the idea is just too stalker-like.
(You just shush.)
So I wait…more cars snarl by.
People ooooh and ahhhh….and I wait some more.
I begin to realize that I have had a lot of water myself. A LOT of water. My body is pretty much done with it now…but I remind myself about the mission…I think of bright meadows without any streams in sight -- just a gaggle of galloping magazine and newspaper editors waving blank cheques at me.
Cars drive by.
I watch Paul Newman step out of the booth.
Did you get that?I watch him, dully thinking “Oh…that’s Paul Newman…getting out of a booth…about fifteen feet away from me.
Some deep part of my subconscious drives an elbow into my ribs…the psychic equivalent of “HEY! THAT’S PAUL NEWMAN!”
“What?” I say to my subconscious.
“CAMERA…GET THE CAMERA!!!”
Adrenaline surges through me. I am the hunter who had the Yeti in his sights and dozed off. I am the midnight photographer who watches Nessie rise out of a foggy loch and thought “Oh…how nice” to himself.
There will be time for self loathing later, I decide. Plenty of it.
I have reloaded my camera with batteries. Swallowing hard, I raise my camera to my eye and start shooting. Newman crosses to chat with one of his drivers…a guy who had some car trouble. They are talking…just a couple of guys. I am waiting for Newman to have an expression….anything….and as the camera goes click click I wonder what people call him. Paul? Mr. Newman? Luke? Butch?
I only need one picture, I think. Just one.
I stalk him as he walks across the tarmac…just a few feet away, pretending to ignore me. Click click….and I see him pause as he hears a voice familiar to my ears. He is just starting up his red scooter (which I now feel free to photograph, by the way, since it is no longer a plain red scooter but is, in fact a red scooter with Paul Freaking Newman on it)…the voice is very familiar.
IT’S MY WIFE TALKING TO PAUL NEWMAN!
Okay…I have been busily sneaking shots and there she is talking to him. Actually talking. My wife isn’t afraid of anything. I begin formulating a defense in case the Hollywood Royalty Police to come and take her away.
Surely directly talking to Paul Newman is against some law…
I watch as she takes off her hat and holds it out to him. She wants him to sign her hat. Newman is considering it. You can see the debate going on in his eyes. He pauses. My wife is looking at him.
He looks beyond her and sees a gaggle and a half of people hurrying his way. He half says/half mutters “I can’t…if I do….I’ll never get out of here…” Then he stops, kisses the tips of his fingers and blows the kiss at my wife. He's still a charmer, I decide.
He’s also polite and I think I really should get a photo of my wife talking to Paul Newman as he drives off on his little red scooter. Realizing I am to photojournalistic reflex what a sloth is to a champ car, I watch him drive off – and try not to meet my wife’s eyes.
I know after all – which the question is coming: “Did you get that? Did you get me talking to Paul Newman?”
I realize later that I have a picture of Paul Newman talking TO my wife. But my wife isn’t in the picture, though if you squinch up your eyes really tight you can sort of see her reflected in his sunglasses.
Helplessly, I watch Paul Newman putt putt off into the sunset, riding tall on a little red scooter. He wears sunglasses, but I know clear blue eyes are fixed in front of him.
I half wish he would turn in the saddle and wave goodbye…or change his mind and come back to sign my wife’s hat after all. But he doesn’t. And you know something? I don’t want him to.
If he did, he wouldn’t be Cool Hand Luke, which is exactly who I want him to be.