Last week, on successive afternoons, I spent more time than I should have, probably, standing in front of Kroch's & Brentano's trying to get a glimpse of Chuck Berry (Thursday) and Barry Manilow (Friday). Both came late, giving me the chance to mingle.
On Thursday I stood next to one couple for 15 minutes and was beginning to think they were both mute, maybe even paralyzed, when the man turned to me and said, without a trace of self-consciousness or embarrassment, "Who are we waiting for?" I told him that I'd heard Chuck Berry was going to be autographing his new book. The woman immediately broke in, telling me their names, Glenda and Jim, and where they were from, Peoria. Then, dropping her voice, she said, "We knew something was going on." "Because of the crowd?" I asked. "Because of the crowd," she repeated, "and because of that thing," she added, pointing to the limousine.
When I arrived, the limo was already waiting out front and the rumor was that Chuck Berry was inside, waiting for the 12 o'clock starting time. But then noon came and went, and the people near me became somewhat restless, until a hip-looking guy in a pin-striped blue suit--black shirt, no tie--cooled us down by pointing out the obvious.
"Hey. Chuck is an entertainer. He knows when to make an entrance."
I was impressed at this piece of wisdom. And impressed by the way most of the people in line called Chuck by his first name. Even if everyone is not famous for 15 minutes in the future, everyone will almost certainly be on a first-name basis with someone who is, I figured. A woman walked by in a gray business suit and Reeboks, saying to a friend, "It's going to be a mob scene for Barry tomorrow."
And she was right. On Friday, the line outside Kroch's went all the way down the block and around the corner at Madison. And that was just the people who wanted to get their books autographed. Another couple hundred were just watching, or waiting to take pictures. The crowd was made up almost entirely of women, modestly dressed, chatting and laughing among themselves. I went up to one woman who was anxiously peering north up Wabash, a camera in one hand, Manilow's book in the other.
"I've been here since eight this morning waiting for Barry," she said. "My husband thinks I'm crazy. We're in the middle of a move from Ohio to Georgia, but when I saw that Barry was going to be autographing his book I told him we had to stop over."
I asked her about how she was going to get an autograph and she shook her head in disappointment. "I have friends holding my place in line. They gave the first 480 people yellow slips of paper which meant they'd be sure to get an autograph. You know what my number was? 484. But I think Barry will stay and sign everybody's book."
This view was shared by a young Northwestern student near the front of the line.
"Barry really cares about his fans a lot. This used to be just, like, a job for him. But now he knows how much we care about him and he feels the same way about us."
At this moment a limousine pulled up and a wave of emotion spread over the sidewalk. As the doors of the car opened, a massive squealing broke out, but it quickly dissolved into nervous laughter as two gray-haired ladies indignantly disembarked. When Barry finally did come, it was through the back door of the bookstore, much to the camera buffs' disappointment.
Thursday was much different. For one thing, the Chuck Berry crowd was about as diverse, ethnically and in terms of age, as a crowd could possibly get. The feeling was different too; less awe and more plain respect. One small group was talking over the movie Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. I asked them what they thought of Berry's open preoccupation with money. The response was unanimous: Aren't we all preoccupied with money? A woman in red gym shoes and sunglasses asked me why Chuck shouldn't get what's coming to him. Before I could answer, a slightly heavy-set, vigorous black woman elbowed her way into our group and the following exchange took place:
"In the limo."
"Oh my God. I want to see him."
"Everybody wants to see Chuck."
"Yeah. Chuck Berry."
"Where's Barry Manilow?"
"Well, I don't care about Chuck Berry."
The wait for Chuck got so long that a few people started making jokes. A Trailways bus slid by and someone yelled out "There goes Chuck." When a Flash cab stopped at the curb, a few people pointed to it mockingly and said, "Here he comes." A black man rode by on a messenger bike and the guy next to me nudged his friend and said, "That's Chuck Berry." Finally, a dark 1987 Lincoln pulled slowly into the vacant spot in front of the store. Not only was it Chuck, but he was driving! The crowd loved it, clapping and cheering. He was dressed in cream-colored pants and jacket, waving and smiling. Once inside he got right to work signing his book. Next to me, a tall, handsome man holding a camera and a book told me that I didn't look old enough to remember Chuck Berry when he was starting out. The man told me his name was Bob and that when he was in high school he almost got a ride to school one day with Chuck Berry.
"Chuck gave a friend of mine's sister a ride to school."
"Really? How did she meet him?"
"They met at a concert. And he told her he'd give her a ride to school the next day, and he did. And my friend and I just missed him, just missed getting a ride to high school with Chuck Berry."
Bob told me that he's moved back to the USA after living abroad for 25 years. And he's living with his high school sweetheart.
A loudspeaker in the store was playing "Sweet Little Sixteen," but almost too softly to be heard. On my way out I paused near somebody who looked like Rasputin. Black clothes. Long black hair. Long black beard. He was waiting in the autograph line and stopping people as they left. He tapped a black guy on the shoulder and asked to see Chuck Berry's autograph. I peered over both of them and saw the signature with a smiley face next to it. "You got one of those too," said Rasputin, shaking his head in annoyance. Then he said, to no one in particular, "I don't want a smiley face, I just don't want a smiley face."