I'm ashamed to say that when the news of Ray Charles' death reached me last Thursday afternoon, my first thought was not of his incalculable contributions to music, nor was it the void in the American cultural landscape left by his exit.
No, my first thought was how badly I had embarrassed myself in front of Mr. Charles about 15 years ago.
In 1989, I was working in a hotel, biding my time between leaving school (prematurely) and whatever the next step in my life would be. An off-the-interstate establishment, the hotel catered to traveling businessmen and families stopping for one evening on the way from Point A to Point B. Occasionally, a celebrity - a band on the road or actor incognito - would walk in, and for a short period, usually no more than one night, I was able to make myself believe that I was Celebrity Caretaker.
That's how I met Ray Charles.
He walked into the hotel, grasping the arm of his driver, early one evening. Putting on my best (which wasn't very good) celebrity-doesn't-faze-me face, I went through the simple tasks that would transform him from music legend to hotel guest. As I finished, he spoke, his voice a familiar musical rattle of life lived hard but well and asked where, in the immediate vicinity, he could get something to eat.
This is where things went terribly wrong.
Obviously under the influence of his star power, I looked Mr. Charles right in his famous shades and began to gesture.
"Here's what you do, Mr. Charles," I said. "Take a right out of our parking lot and go back down to Washington Road. When you get there, take another right and ..."
Ray Charles stopped me right there.
"You might want to tell my driver this," he said.
That's correct. I had been busted giving Ray Charles, perhaps the most famous blind guy in the world, driving directions. What's worse, I couldn't play it off. I looked up to discover that not only was Mr. Charles laughing, but so were the people behind him and the other hotel employees.
That was actually my first real brush with fame. Since then I have met and talked with the famous and infamous many times, for the most part without incident. But as many people as I meet, as much time as I might spend amongst the celebrity set, I know that the memory I'll always keep is of Ray Charles, head tilted back in laughter, incredulous at the boy who thought the blind might see.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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