From my post on a comfy love seat in Whoopi’s study, I was straining to hear the conversation next door. The sliding doors to the living room were slightly ajar so I could listen to her interview with a journalist from a London daily who was barely audible. Brits are always so subtle, I thought. I inched down the couch closer to the door, surveying the titles of all the books crammed into the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Would she let me borrow Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Still couldn’t hear anything, so I tiptoed towards the door, when a twinkling golden light struck me, blinding me for a few moments. Dazed, I glanced high up on the shelf, and there it was, gleaming in the sunlight—the bald-headed beacon of artistic triumph. It was Whoopi’s Oscar for Ghost.
I stopped moving. I stopped breathing. I’d never seen a real one before. I stood mesmerized, looking up at one of the most idolized statuettes in our civilization, shining down on me, demanding worship. My mind cranked into overdrive. Could the award possibly be as heavy as they say? Flashbacks of me as a kid, running around the backyard of our Texas ranch style home, holding our blue Persian cat Pfeffa close to my chest as a furry stand-in for Oscar, thanking my parents and agent for the award. Laughing, crying, pausing, chuckling, leaning into the mic—wow, this thing is heavy! Every winner says they’re so heavy. Could it possibly be true? What’s the harm of finding out?
I glanced over to the sliding doors. Whoopi was chuckling. The interview was going fine. I’d just pick it up for a few seconds, and put it right back. Who would know? Hopefully not my boss.
In 1997, through a series of magical Manhattan coincidences, a Los Angeles-based entertainment agency surprisingly entrusted me—a 28 year-old Texas transplant living in New York City for less than a year—to be their sole representative on the East Coast. I was struggling to master the skills required to be a celebrity publicist—a job for which I had no formal training. Each week, my duties were explained long distance by my boss who had a reputation as the nicest and busiest celebrity publicist in the business.
“Just sit in the next room while the interview is taking place. Whoopi wants the reporters to feel comfortable. So you’ll be nearby,” my boss said.
“Nearby doing what?”
“Taking notes. Listening in.”
“Eavesdropping? I’ve been great at that since I was a kid. Some people say it’s my super power.”
“Relax. Whoopi’s wonderful. There’s no way you can screw this up. ”
That night, on the eve of my Whoopi encounter, my best friend and roommate Angela—think hair of Minnie Driver with the determination of Abigail Adams—found me rifling through storage boxes stuffed into our East Village apartment’s basement. My foofy little Bichon Frise dog Winnie wagged her tail anxiously at Angela, glad reinforcements had arrived to calm down the crazy train. Angela scooped up some old photos of me as a child actor in a community theatre production of Alice in Wonderland.
“What’s going on down here?” she asked.
“Oh my god, I’m meeting Whoopi tomorrow. I need to find this screenplay.”
“Slow down. Why so nervous?”
“Because it’s Whoopi! I have always adored Whoopi—loved her in Color Purple, Ghost, Sister Act, even Sister Act 2.”
“Sister Act 2? That is love.”
Other than my dog, Angela knew me better, and longer, than anyone in the Big Apple. We became close friends at the University of Texas, both of us history majors sharing a love of Lady Bird Johnson and Princess Diana. A few years after graduation, Angela used her Democratic connections to land a spot at a New York City political consulting firm, and we became roommates when I moved to Manhattan.
I held up a 150-page masterpiece held together with two gold brads.
“Here it is! The first screenplay I ever wrote for Whoop. Mrs. Claus! A Christmas blockbuster.”
“Whoopi as Santa’s wife? I’d go see that. Sounds funny,” Angela said.
“Unfortunately, you don’t run a studio. It won some minor writing awards, but never went anywhere.”
Screenwriting was just one of my disappointing career adventure choices I was trying to leave behind in Texas.
“How is it you’re meeting with Whoopi about your screenplay?”
“I’m not, actually. I’m supposed to go to her apartment while she’s interviewed by some journalist. It’s called ‘covering.’”
She flipped through the first few pages of Mrs. Claus.
“Why don’t you just see how it goes, first? Leave the screenplay pitch to later.”
That night, with Winnie curled up by my side, I re-read Mrs. Claus and laughed—at the audacity of a middle class white kid from Texas thinking I could channel Whoopi’s special blend of humor.
The next day, under the watchful eye of a doorman in a classy gray uniform and top hat, I paced nervously in front of Whoopi’s Art Deco building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Only two miles from my home in the East Village and I felt like I needed a passport to cross the border of 59th street into the wealthiest zip code in America. Downtown in my ‘hood, the sidewalks were broken with giant cracks and dotted brown from ground-in dog poop. Uptown, the sidewalks were marble-like smooth and polished to a glistening white. The doorman only allowed me access once I handed over some identification. He mumbled a cryptic code into a phone, then nodded and directed me towards elegant wooden and brass elevators in the rear of the lobby.
Just as I was readjusting my bag and wiping the sweat off my forehead, reviewing my game plan for faking my way through this task, planning what to say when I knocked on the apartment door, the elevator opened and I was deposited directly into the home’s vestibule. Suddenly, and with no preparation, no time to gather my thoughts, I was standing face to face with the famously wide, toothy grin and dreadlocked hair that I had worshipped since I was a teenager. My Southern manners took hold and I stuck out my hand.
“I’m Jon Paul.”
“I certainly hope so, or security is going to pot in this building. I’m Whoopi. Come on in.”
She escorted me into the living room.
“Anything to drink?”
“Shot of vodka?”
She didn’t laugh. I winced.
“Just kidding. Water would be great.”
She went to the kitchen herself. I was impressed, no servants hovering nearby to do her bidding.
“How long have you been doing this?” Whoopi called out.
She returned and handed me the water, motioning for me to sit on the living room couch.
“Oh, not long, really. And you?”
“How long have I been doing this? Long enough. Have to leave next week for some backwoods Eastern European film set for a bad Disney TV movie—that evil mouse has me in an iron-clad contract.”
She sighed heavily. I grimaced in sympathy and added a little shrug for effect—like I was under the same Mickey Mouse tyrannical rule.
“Traveling must be fun, though.”
“I hate flying. Deathly afraid of it. Heavily medicate myself just to get on the Concorde.”
“Wow, so fancy. What do you do when you have to go to Los Angeles?”
“I have a rock and roll tour bus loaded with books from Barnes and Noble. I read the whole way and love it.”
I should give her Mrs. Claus for her next trip. We continued chatting like two girlfriends catching up, and I was smitten. Perhaps she would invite me onboard the bus and we could have our own book club.
“Where are you living?” she asked.
“In the East Village. On 5th street and Avenue A.”
She smiled and nodded knowingly.
“Alphabet City, eh? It used to be crazy down there. How is it now? Haven’t been there in years.”
The wailing of a deranged and mangy cat running along the back of the sofa interrupted our easy banter. Meowreowwwreowwreoww! I jerked into standing position—we were under attack. Whoopi shook her head.
“That’s just Pepper. I adopted her after she survived a horrible fire in Queens. See?”
She picked up a copy of the New York Post featuring a story of the rescued kitten and mention of Whoopi’s adoption. I wondered if she might consider adopting East Village orphans like Winnie and me. Pepper was a sad creature with portions of exposed skin.
“She’s getting used to her new home. A little skittish. Right Pepper?”
I could have sworn the cat flashed me an evil grin.
A few minutes later, the reporter arrived and I shuffled off to the study, readying myself to “cover” Whoopi’s interview. I was so nervous from the moment I arrived that it was the first time I had a chance to catch my breath and check out Whoopi’s home. With light streaming in on all sides, accenting a boldly colorful collection of African-American folk art, I was mesmerized by how effortlessly beautiful the apartment was. It was warmer and more comfortable than the fancy New York homes I had glimpsed in the pages of Architectural Digest.
I settled on the little couch, and struggled to hear the questioning in the next room. I slid closer to the door when high on the bookshelves one of her most prized decorations distracted me. I found myself staring up at the first real Academy Award I had ever seen. It was just barely out of my reach—inches really. Should I get a chair? No, relax. I could do this. Up on my toes, I stretched as far as possible, fingertips just gripping the bottom edges of the statue.
A blood curdling ferocious feline scream from mangy cat Pepper surprised me. Meowreowwwreowwreoww! Pepper jumped onto my head from a hiding place nearby just as I was picking up the award. Meowreowwwreowwreoww! Pepper sunk her claws into my head. I struggled to maintain my grasp on Oscar. Meowreowwwreowwreoww! My scalp began tingling. I grabbed my head to soothe the pain, swatting at the fur ball with one hand, clutching the statue in the other. Wow, this thing is heavy.
Meowreowwwreowwreoww! Pepper dug her claws deeper into my hair. Unable to keep quiet, I let out a blood-curdling scream. Aaaarrrrgghhh! Pepper refused to give up. I needed both hands free to swat her away. And so, reluctantly, I loosened my five-finger grip on immortality, freeing the golden god, grimacing as he fell to the ground. Thunk! The statue landed with a loud thud, bounced one time, and then laid flat—a casualty of the battle with Pepper.
The deranged feline jumped off my head and scampered away. Silence.
My screaming stopped. Whoopi’s interview stopped. I stood there looking at the Oscar at my feet, mortified, knowing I was out of a job—banned for life from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. An interminable pause, and then Whoopi called out in a calm, measured voice.
“Everything okay in there?”
Paralyzed, I was unable to muster any sort of reply. I just stood there sweating and looking down at Oscar. Mercifully, after a few moments, the interview quietly resumed. I was in complete panic mode and my mind began racing.
Is there any way she didn’t hear me drop the Oscar? From the sound, it probably ruined the hardwood floors. Oh God, is there any sign of injury to Oscar? I picked it up and examined him closely. Maybe a slight knick, but I couldn’t tell as sweat dripped onto the shiny torso. Think. Think. Think. Wait, what if I snuck Oscar out in my bag? That could work. I could search online for some minor Oscar that someone was selling. On that site I keep reading about, eBay. One for Sound Editing, maybe. That might work. Then what? Sneak back in. Switch it out. A little I Love Lucy. A little complicated. But worth a shot. Shit, where’s that damn cat?
Silence from next door. The interview had ended and I heard footsteps and small talk as Whoopi escorted the reporter to the elevator. I stood frozen, clutching her Oscar. Trying desperately to breathe. Trying desperately to summon a smile. Trying desperately to call up courage. The doors slid open and Whoopi looked at me pathetically, watching me caress her priceless statuette.
She crossed towards me gingerly—as if I were a crazed criminal brandishing a deadly weapon. Whoopi, cast as the SWAT leader come to reason me out of this dangerous situation, eased in closely, her dreadlocks just glancing my shoulder. She rested her hands on the Oscar, brushing my fingertips, and gave it a little tug. I loosened my grip, and let it slip from my grasp. The priceless golden body of immortal fame was safely in her possession again. Pepper trotted through, purring, and smirking.
I stood nervously, unable to move, turning blue from holding my breathe, watching Whoopi’s back as she effortlessly replaced the statue on the shelf, positioning it just so. She turned back to me and smiled with that mouthy enveloping grin.
“Heavy, isn’t it?”
Escorting me to the elevator, she gave me a little reassuring hug.
“Listen, kid. Take care down there in Alphabet City. You’re gonna be fine. Good luck.”
I exhaled all the way home making a mental note never to forget the grace and compassion Whoopi showed that day. Whoopi was like a guest star that had just put in an Emmy-caliber performance in an episode of my life. And my life as an adult was turning out to be more sitcom than drama. What a relief. After years of toiling as a child in what I thought of as a prime time legal soap opera—think L.A. Law meets Dallas—I had escaped to New York in my late ‘20s to explore a set of happier storylines. It looked like my so-called sitcom life even had a name—Alphabet City. Had a certain ring to it.
Next on Alphabet City:
Jon Paul’s dream of living in New York doesn’t come easily. “This will be the biggest mistake of your life.”