I thought I had come to understand Justin Bieber. You and I (and here, of course, I’m addressing the fellows) didn’t come to manhood facing the obstacles he did — for instance, everybody except girls between eight and 14 regarding him as The Great Satan in the body of a doe-eyed angrogynous teen whose music everyone on earth except girls between eight and 14 regard as the ultimate cultural affront. If I’d been in his little shoes, it had occurred to me, I too might have taken to spending 14 hours a day at the gym, gotten a lot of ugly tattoos, begun recording songs with titles like I Sure Enjoyed Drilling Your Girlfriend All Night Last Tuesday, and assembled a posse of scowling gangsta types likely to enhance my street cred.
Thus, when I encountered him quite by chance at Erewhon — the Los Angeles food store where those who are too A-list for Whole Foods buy their bean sprouts — the other afternoon, I didn’t sneer or harrumph, but smiled and told him how much I enjoyed his music. I don’t listen to his music, but it doesn’t cost anything to make someone feel good. “Really?” he marveled, suddenly looking around 12 in spite of the tattoos and glowering hired homies.
“Really,” I lied again, and he insisted on my letting him buy me a smoothie. We conversed, and I didn’t find him Dorothy Parker or Clement Freud, but was charmed by his eagerness to please, and enjoyed his posse’s naked jealousy, and hardly thought twice about accepting his invitation to dinner at The Ivy last night.
I arrived early, and went to the bar, hoping not to look like someone who’d never been in so storied a venue before. As I enjoyed my glass of orange juice, which the bartender had made a big display of squeezing fresh right in front of me, I realized that Dr. Stephen Hawking and a date were on the stools to my immediate right, and the actor Will Farrell, with someone I guessed might be his agent, to my left. When Dr. Hawking’s date excused herself, presumably to visit “the little girls’ room,” I told him how much I’d enjoyed the recent biopic about him, and was surprised when he seemed no less gratified than Jus had been to hear about my feigned appreciation of his music. I asked if the film had been pretty accurate. He shrugged and said, “You know how these things work. Some things have to be juiced up to make the story quote unquote cinematic.” Before I could gently point out that it’s nonsensical to say “quote unquote” as he had — without the disputed material between the two — Mr. Farrell, a much longer drink of water than he appears on TV, heard Dr. Hawking’s voice(box) and turned to say that he wished his very well-thumbed copy of A Brief History of Time for Steve to sign, which I thought slighty insensitive in view of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis having robbed Steve of the use of his hands decades ago. But Steve seemed not to mind at all, and turned out to be as big a fan of Will as Will was of him. Within a moment, the three of us were chatting like newly reunited fraternity brothers.
But then Jus turned up, only four minutes late, and I got a kick out of being able to say, “Guys, I’d like to introduce my new friend Justin Bieber.” I’m not sure Jus knew who Will Farrell was, but I don’t think he could have been more delighted to be meeting Dr. Stephen Hawking if someone had made him able to to bench-press 200 more pounds. It was my understanding that you might as well ask a amyotrophic lateral sclerosis sufferer to pole-vault as manage a facial expression, but if that wasn’t a sneer on Stephen’s face, I don’t know what it was. And there was no mistaking his saying, “As if!” as he turned back toward his date’s still-empty stool.
Hoping to avoid Justin’s feelings being hurt, I blurted, “Will, you know, is one of the giants of American comedy, Jus,” only to realize that Will too was turning away, toward his rolling-eyed agent. Justin looked as though about to cry, and I wasn’t sure I blamed him.
As, because of his great celebrity, we were led immediately to a table, a number of diners felt called upon to snicker, or hiss, “Asswipe.” I was feeling worse for my new young friend by the second. We hid from each other behind our menus until I realized Jus had put his down and was asking, “You know what? I don’t think I have much of an appetite.”
I couldn’t blame him. And the worst part of it was that it was largely my fault.