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“She took to writing sensation stories, for in those dark ages, even all-perfect America read rubbish." - Little Women, Chapter 34, “A Friend”
Like every bookish girl who read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women until the covers fell off, I always identified with Jo. Not only was she a tomboy who was constantly putting her hands in her pockets, whistling, and doing other scandalous, gentlemanly things, but she was a writer -- a paid writer. Each time I read the book, I always dreaded the chapter where Professor Bhaer, that paunchy do-gooder we’re supposed to believe Jo falls in love with, shames her for selling sensation stories to the Weekly Volcano. I couldn’t help but think that sending money home to poor sickly Beth was worth the moral compromise of penning a few less-than-edifying tales, even if doing so was “fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature.”
As an adult, my own journalistic career has hardly been pulse-pounding. I mostly cover books and local literary events in Austin, Texas. So when the chance to do “celebrity coverage” of Sandra Bullock fell in my lap, I confess that it gave me a bit of a rush. It was a one-off gig, thrown to me by a friend of a friend who got an email out of the blue from a weekly national magazine of the sort that is ubiquitous in doctor’s waiting rooms, where it soothes the nerves with benign celebrity profiles, red-carpet photo galleries, and the odd baby bump with a circle around it and a question mark. The editor needed someone in Austin who could be available on short notice — the next day, in fact — and turn the assignment around that afternoon. The thought of taking a Friday off of book reviews to interview Austin’s most glamorous part-time citizen (I wouldn’t call anyone with Matthew McConaughey’s reputation for pungency “glamorous”) was enticing.
“You know, Sandra Bullock is one of the only bankable female stars over 40 who can open a movie big at the box office these days,” said my husband, who Knows Such Things. “Her buddy-cop movie with Melissa McCarthy did pretty well.”
Oooh, I thought, feminist angle! Maybe in between cooing over little Louis and asking how she gets her hair so glossy, I could ask her something about being a woman in Hollywood and we could discuss the recent buzz over lady-centric comedies. I began Googling “Miss Congeniality 2,” building a list of questions and imagining the circumstances of the interview I hoped I’d be granted with her "Speed"-iness.
We probably wouldn’t be getting mani-pedis at Milk + Honey, I reasoned, nor was a game of Frisbee golf in Pease Park likely. But it had to be in person, otherwise there would be no reason to emergency-email a random Austin reporter for the task. A surprise premiere of “Gravity” at the Alamo Drafthouse, our local brew-and-view, didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. The editor sent a list of questions specifically about Sandra’s life in Austin — Where does she hang out? Fave restaurants and bars? How does she divide up her time between Austin and L.A.? — and I stopped worrying. No need for further research; I’d be asking her about my favorite place on earth.
If I was inclined to wonder why they would need a reporter on the ground to ask such straightforward questions, I stopped thinking about it after the editor told me how much they would pay me. If you have the kind of job where they don’t let you wear pajama pants to work, $150 — plus expenses! — probably doesn’t sound like a lot of money. But if you’re a relatively new freelancer, you’ve probably had whole months when you made less. Visions of dollar signs danced in my head (okay, one dollar sign), alongside the words “national magazine,” “byline,” and — I’m not ashamed to admit it— “George Clooney.” (“Did you ever forget your lines and just stare into his dimple? How many times a day does he shave? That shade of coral goes great with your cuticles, Sandy.”)
Over the course of the conversation with the editor, however, it slowly became clear to me that I wouldn’t be asking Sandra Bullock any questions at all. In fact, I wouldn’t actually be seeing her. Nor would I even be writing anything. This was a “fact-finding” mission. The closest I would be getting to Sandra Bullock would be sitting in Walton’s Fancy and Staple, the combination cafe-and-flower-shop she owns in Austin, chatting up her employees, trying to get a sense of her life here.
“Aaand it would probably be best if you didn’t tell people you were a reporter,” the editor said over the phone.
“Oh, of course!” I said. “Sure, sure. That makes sense.”
I hung up.
Wait, did it? Make sense?
Well, mine was not to question why. Mine was to find an outfit appropriate for what I immediately began referring to, in my mind, as “subterfuge!!”
I texted a friend at her job. (She has the kind where you can’t wear pajamas.) “How would you like to be involved in some SUBTERFUGE??” I typed, and hit send. She called immediately, and we made a plan. We would meet for lunch at Walton’s, only I would go early, see? And while I was “waiting” for my friend, I would, you know, casually chat up the waiter. Ask a few questions. Customers probably did that all the time! And then my friend would arrive, and we would have a nice lunch, and I would have my report to file. The hardest part would be remembering to keep the lunch receipt for the expense report. I’m terrible at that stuff.
* * * * *
My subterfuge outfit consisted of jeans and a t-shirt, a long, flowy scarf, and fashionably large sunglasses. No subterfuge without sunnies! Besides, I had to look like the sort of woman who lunches with a friend downtown and Cares About Celebrities. I got to the restaurant around 11:30, planning to text my friend to join me when I had thoroughly grilled my unwitting sources, various bored waiters who I imagined would jump at the chance to dish on their famous employer.
First hitch in my plan: there are no waiters at Walton Fancy and Staple. Despite the misleading word “fancy” in the name, it’s an order-at-the-counter place, with a few vintage design elements and a vivid jumble of colors at the back from the flower shop. I would just have to chat with the employees behind the counter while placing my order, while other ladies-who-lunch-downtown-on-casual-Friday waited impatiently behind me in line. No problem.
“What would you like today?” an aproned employee asked, face partially blocked by a canister of something adorable.
“Still looking! Actually I’m waiting for a friend!” I said, suddenly short of breath. “Let me just look at the menu while I wait for her!”
I sat at a nearby table. I looked at the menu. I adjusted my scarf. I stood and approached the counter again.
“Have you decided yet?”
“It’s one of those days where I can’t decide between a mimosa and a latte,” I confessed mischievously.
“Never too early for a mimosa,” he offered. Rapport established!
“Um, I have to go back to work soon. Better make it a latte,” I said, and slunk back to my table.
It occurred to me that maybe subterfuge was not my strong suit. Never mind: I had $150 worth of facts to find. I steeled myself as I awaited my drink.
The latte arrived at my table a few minutes later, borne by the mimosa guy. “Thanks! Uh, hey, this is Sandra Bullock’s place, right?”
“Yes, she’s one of the owners,” he said.
Pause. “So, does she, like, come in here a lot?”
His voice came out a little robotic. “She comes in from time to time, yes.”
“What’s she like? Have you ever waited on her?”
The northern hemisphere of his face went completely motionless. “Yes, I have. She’s very nice. She waits in line just like a regular customer. She’s always very polite.”
I tried a little gushing. “That’s just how I would imagine her. She seems really cool. Like, laid back. Is she, like, really laid back?”
It’s a very particular feeling, getting sized up. It’s not that different from being looked at in an ordinary way, except you can feel it; you can feel the person’s eyes taking in every inch of you, from the flats on your feet to the sunglasses perched rakishly atop your head, and filing it away, putting it in the old mental computer and clicking the keys until the word “SUBTERFUGE” comes up on the monitor, blinking red.
“Yes, she’s very nice,” he said, and turned away.
Just then my phone rang. It was my friend Elise, a former Walton’s employee, calling me back. I’d messaged her that morning, feeling resourceful. Flipping my sunglasses back down, I took the call outside. Elise told me that she had seen Sandra Bullock in the restaurant once.
“What was she like?
“Super nice,” Elise said. “She waits in line, just like a regular customer.”
“So I hear,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. Then she said, “When you start working there, every new employee has to sign a stack of paperwork a mile high. It’s part of the orientation. They make it very clear that if anything you say to anyone ever turns up in a national magazine, and it’s traceable to you — well, it’s pretty scary. Some people won’t even say her name in there. They just say ‘the owner.’”
“Oh.” I thought for a moment. “So, what did she order?”
“I remember perfectly,” she said. “A blueberry muffin — a muffin that I made! I was so excited, I was like, she’s eating MY muffin!”
“Blueberry muffin,” I said. “That’s good.”
[Note: It wasn’t a blueberry muffin. All names and pastries in this story have been changed to protect the innocent. What if I tell you what pastry it was and they trace it back to my friend and she gets sued or retroactively fired or something?]
“Was she with her son?”
“Yeah,” she said. “She just sat very quietly and fed him a piece of the blueberry muffin for a while. And then she got up and left.”
Ever quick with the follow-ups, I said, “So, she fed the muffin to him? To her son? How old was he?”
“He was a baby,” Elise said. “That was a couple of years ago.”
“Do you know anyone who works there now?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
“Anyone who’s worked there recently?”
“Nope. Everyone I knew there quit around the same time I did.”
“Oh,” I said, and hung up.
Inside the restaurant, my latte was ice cold and I was dead to every employee in the place except for the manager, who came up to ask if everything was okay.
“It’s great,” I said. “Oh, by the way?”
“Yes?” He turned around, and I became acutely conscious of my scarf.
“What coffee do you use here? It tastes kind of chocolate-y.”
He relaxed and began telling me about the special blend. By the way, if you ever want to put a restaurant employee at ease, ask about the coffee. Say it’s so delicious, you can’t help but ask. I waited tables for years, and trust me, it’ll be the best two minutes of their day.
* * * * *
My attempts at subterfuge having failed, I called a friend for advice. Nadia ran a weekly paper for four years and is a woman to whom the label “intrepid” affixes itself naturally. Hearing the situation, she suggested cobbling together bits and pieces scavenged from celebrity sighting websites. Then she did some preliminary Googling with me over the phone, which was kind, because she also has one of those no-pajama-pants jobs.
“Looks like . . . uh . . . here’s one . . . spotted at Shady Grove.” Shady Grove is a locally owned restaurant near Barton Springs with a burger-and-Tex-Mex menu and a specialty sandwich called the “Hippie Chick.” In a word: Austin-themed. “That’s old, though. A couple of years ago.”
“Thanks,” I said, and hung up. By now I was at the flagship Whole Foods, which is down the street from Walton’s, scouting around for star-struck employees. “Hey, uh, you ever see Sandra Bullock in here?” I asked at the bakery.
“I haven’t, but . . . Hey wait a minute. Sam! Sam!” She called over another employee. “Sam’s the one you want to talk to. Sam, have you ever seen Sandra Bullock in here?”
Meet Sam, regional PR rep for Whole Foods, eyes already going all squinty in preparation for the look you give to someone you assume has a Taser and a chloroform-soaked rag in her purse. It was a look I was becoming accustomed to. This time I switched the game and threw myself on his mercy. I said I was a reporter, and that I was gathering information for an innocuous fluff piece about Sandra’s life in Austin, and I couldn’t find anything, and could he please tell me if she ever came in the store?
“Yes, she’s come in here before,” he said. “She’s very nice. Waits in line like everybody else.”
“Great,” I said, “So did you happen to see what she—”
“If you’re really interested in a story, you’re in luck!” he said with a pleasant smile. “We have a great event happening in the store right now. Today we’re selling a new brand of fair trade coffee whose profits go to help struggling communities in Kenya.” He pointed me toward a table with a banner over it.
“Oh, great! Thanks so much,” I said. “I’ll check it out.” I spent the next fifteen minutes asking a very kind woman about sustainable coffee culture and quality of life in Maai Mahiu, scribbling her answers illegibly in my notebook, which I was holding upside-down, and saying, “That sounds like really important work you’re doing.”
* * * * *
My next stop was HEM Jeans, a nearby store that calls itself a “denim bar.” My reasoning? Maybe Sandra B. came here for her designer jeans, and I would learn whether she was a classy, understated, AG-Adriano-Goldschmied type of lady or a fun-loving, Seven-for-All-Mankind kinda gal.
Besides, for reasons best left unexplored, I really needed to see myself in flattering jeans just at that moment.
The owner of the store was puzzled by my questions and looked at me suspiciously. However, detecting the edge of hysteria in my tone, she eventually offered up that she had once eaten at Sandra’s other restaurant, Bess. About five years ago. More recently, her friend’s ex-boyfriend had seen Sandra at Shady Grove.
“About two years ago.”
I was starting to get the feeling that maybe the reason it was so hard to get any information about Sandra Bullock’s life in Austin was that Sandra Bullock did not want anyone to know anything about Sandra Bullock’s life in Austin. I was starting to wonder what it must be like to have a public break-up with a guy who cheated on you with a Neo-Nazi, to see paparazzi hiding in the shrubbery waiting to click a photo of your toddler’s face, to worry that unhinged stalkers with bedrooms wallpapered in pictures of you lurk on the sidewalk outside your business. I wondered what it was like to have blown-up pictures of your face scrutinized for tiny wrinkles, your upper arms inspected for cellulite, your abs in a bikini circled next to the words, “Baby Bump or Beer Belly?” And finally, I wondered what it was like to have a magical place where you felt like you could get away from all that, a place known for cowboy boots, breakfast tacos, and the refusal to sell its weird old hippie soul.
Here is what I filed:
Sandra keeps a very, very low profile here – as you know. By all accounts she is very kind and keeps to herself; comes into Walton as a customer, waits in line like everyone else and eats there with her son (blueberry muffin: confirmed!). Other sightings of her are at low-key restaurants like Shady Grove and the flagship Whole Foods down the street from her restaurants; again, she is quiet, goes in and out quickly, and is always polite. Austin is her place to relax and be a non-celeb as much as she can. Working on more, will let you know if I get anything more detailed.
Needless to say, although I made several more stops and a few quite painful phone calls that day, I did not get anything more detailed. What I did get that day was very, very clean. As soon as I got home, I stripped off my subterfuge duds, hopped into a hot shower, and started scrubbing.
Oh yeah—I also got a pair of last year’s J Brands on sale at the denim bar. My ass looks great in them, and they cost just under $150. Don’t tell Marmee.