Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whatchoo Talkin' Bout Vincent?

While home for the holidays, I once again found myself nestled on my parents’ sofa, surrounded by an array of old shoeboxes packed with endless family photos. It’s a favorite pastime of mine — reliving and recalling the moments that define our lives: photos from past holidays, family vacations to Florida and California, summers at our beach house, my three older sisters’ weddings and my mother’s surprise 50th birthday party with Dennis, the half-naked male stripper. It’s an incredible journey through old memories, new discoveries, lots of laughs and a few tears. This year, though, I discovered something different while digging through those boxes—a letter I had written to Santa Claus.

The envelope was addressed: Santa Claus, The North Pole, New York, New York. No street address. No ZIP code. No wonder it wasn’t mailed. (Besides, when was the North Pole ever located on the island of Manhattan?) The haggard envelope had clearly seen better days and now included a recipe written on the back, but its contents were thankfully still in mint condition. In the upper right-hand corner, the letter had been dated 11/16/79. My rather impressively neat cursive handwriting revealed the thoughts of my then 8-year-old mind.

The letter began: “Dear Santa. I want to be on TV, but my family does not think I will make it on TV. My favorite TV star is Gary Coleman.” As I read it aloud to my mother, I couldn’t help but laugh, recalling my preoccupation with Gary and how I so desperately wanted to be him. It’s true—as a child I dreamt of growing up to become a pint-sized, black sitcom star.

I was obsessed with Gary from the minute he first walked through the doors of Mr. Drummond’s penthouse apartment back in 1978 on Diff’rent Strokes. He was adorable, made everyone laugh, was the center of attention, caused plenty of mischief and mayhem and always had a smile plastered across those cherubic cheeks of his that just begged to be squeezed. Yes, I was enamored by Gary—not in sexual way, but more as a role model.

I begged and pleaded with my parents for months, asking to write to Gary in hopes that he would help get me cast as one of his friends on the show—but we didn’t have an address. Then one afternoon, while eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich at our kitchen table, the phone rang. My mother answered. It was obvious it was my father calling, but I quickly deciphered from her tone that this was a conversation I should pay attention to. As she grabbed a pen and paper, she looked my way with a gleam in her eye and then repeated very slowly and pointedly. “3000 Alameda Avenue in Burbank. That’s in California, right?” I jumped out of my seat in a jiffy with joy; my father had finally tracked down Gary Coleman’s address.

That evening I composed my very first fan letter and mailed it the next day. My mother gently, yet firmly, informed me that Gary probably received thousands of fan letters and maybe I shouldn’t expect a response. As the days, weeks and months passed, I grew more and more impatient and less and less expectant. Then, one day, about three months later, a small manila envelope arrived for me in the mail, the return address read NBC Studios. My heart pounded in my chest as I tore open that envelope and pulled out a black and white 5-by-7 postcard. I almost died with delight.

The front of the card contained that signature image of Gary, hands folded, devilish grin on his face, and the words, “Sincerely Yours, Gary Coleman.” On the backside it read, “Thank you for your letter. Please keep watching our show.” I swore it was personally hand-written by Gary himself as I studied the ink for hours trying to determine whether it was real or printed.

I couldn’t believe it—Gary Coleman read my letter and was kind enough to send me a response. Well, this marked the beginning of a very long mail correspondence and the receipt of several more postcards, some with different images, but all with the same message. I soon realized Gary probably never read my letters, but it didn’t matter—those postcards were prized possessions. I framed two and hung them on my bedroom wall to complement the full-length poster of Gary that already hung above my bed.

Today, we’re all far too familiar with Gary’s sad fall from stardom. Unfortunately, the only time he attracts attention now is when he’s fighting with his fellow residents of Provo, Utah, or marrying a much younger and much taller 22-year-old woman. But Gary will always hold a special place in my heart and in my life, and every time I pop in a DVD of Diff’rent Strokes (yes, it’s another favorite pastime of mine), it’s always a magical journey back to my childhood—a time when a young, impressionable boy first became enthralled with the concept of entertaining others and believing that anything was possible. If Gary Coleman could become a star, so could I.
Well, I’m much older now, my dreams have changed slightly, and Gary’s no longer my idol, but there’s one thing I’ll never forget: “The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum.” And thanks to Gary Coleman and Diff’rent Strokes, I found my own beat.

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