Richard Verstegan 5 a.m., March 12
My Brunch With Yoko
Instead of a lawsuit, I was served brunch...
Yoko's personal secretary called me early on a Friday afternoon.
"Miss Ono and her companion will be arriving in Dalton Georgia around 3pm tomorrow. She regrets that she won't be able to accompany you to your residence, the demands on her time during this trip are overwhelming. She would, however, like to meet with you for brunch. Do you know a suitable establishment where the three of you might be guaranteed a modicum of privacy?" I gave the name of the fanciest restaurant I know within driving distance, so the secretary could call ahead and make reservations for Yoko Ono and her two companions.
How did an obscure underemployed writer-cartoonist end up having a brunch date with Yoko? An old friend of mine, Rickey, a rock memorabilia buyer and appraiser, did some work for a law firm hired by Yoko several years ago, when she was suing a company called the International Collector's Society. He gave expert testimony about the value of items Yoko claimed the firm had sold and owed her money for (more than $160,000 worth) and ended up befriending the diminutive pop culture icon, continuing to advise her about the art resale and collector's market to this day.
It turned out that he was traveling with Yoko to look at potential exhibition sites for the Art Of John Lennon gallery tours, and they'd be passing near where I was staying in rural Georgia. He offered to "drop by" my house with Yoko on their way to the city and I said "why not?" thinking he was surely joking. A week before they were due to arrive in Atlanta, he called to say "It's on, me and Yoko will be there Saturday."
I spent the next week maniacally cleaning and re-arranging my home. I became obsessive over my typically unspeakable bachelor-pad bathroom, experiencing something akin to waking nightmares at the thought of Yoko Ono using my toilet for reasons I still can't (or would rather not) understand or explain. I'm talking bugfk crazy, I was scrubbing chrome-like sparkle onto all the surfaces with Lysol every quarter hour at least, nearly 'round the clock, and even went so far as to price having a new toilet installed the day before Yoko's arrival. My plan was to relieve myself in the woods behind my house (bears do it) until AFTER Yoko's visit, to insure a pristine seat for her mind-bogglingly famous ass cheeks (dude, her house has white walls and carpets! My bathroom USED to be white…)
Luckily, since Yoko's secretary informed that we'd be meeting at a restaurant instead of my house, I could finally use my toilet again without stressing over whether my careless aim could end up being Yoko Ono's predominant memory of meeting the guy who worked on the UNofficial Beatles comic book series.
About that comic, Yoko knew about it and had graciously neglected to sue our Hillcrest-based publishing company, Revolutionary Comics. We'd been targeted in another of her lawsuit roundups because our comic covering the Beatles' lives together and apart was published without her authorization.
Luckily, Rickey intervened and provided Yoko with copies of all eight issues, along with an entreaty to read them before pursuing litigation. I'm told she was impressed with the research and effort that went into the comics, as well as the obvious love and affection shown for its subjects and for her (writer Todd Loren liked Yoko second-best among the fab-five, ranking her in adoration just behind her late husband). Yoko instructed her lawyers not to press against us, that there was nothing libelous, inflammatory or even copyright-infringing in our comics, so I was already feeling pretty indebted to Rickey long before he set up this informal meeting between the three of us.
Our brunch was arranged for 1pm Saturday at the Dalton Depot, an upscale place about 45 minutes down the mountain from where I rented a cabin while on sabbatical from San Diego, working on some writing projects. The restaurant is built in an old train depot which dates back to 1847, with the railroad theme extending as far as little model trains that circle the interior of the restaurant on a scale track lined with miniature trees and zooming thru tiny tunnels. Its historic pedigree and blue chip atmosphere made it seem the perfect place for an informal meeting with one of the world's richest women.
At about 9AM, I got a call from Rickey on his cell phone. "Hey, Jay! We're in the car right now! Wanna say hi to Yoko?"
"Herro, Jay! Richard has told me a lot about you! I understand we'll be eating at an authentic Joe-jahhh railroad depot?"
I was vastly unprepared for her humorous/ghastly attempt to fake a southern accent on the word "Georgia" and I have no idea what I said in response. Probably "Er, uh, well, um, errrrr…."
She said something like "Well, we'll see you soon," and put Rickey [Richard?] back on the phone so I could give him directions for their driver. I told him I'd be waiting out front and to look for the guy who appears to be seconds away from actually crapping an actual brick.
I don't even want to dwell on why I then scrubbed my toilet down one more time before leaving for Dalton, despite the fact that Yoko (thank whatever gods watch over lunatics like me) would not be squatting within thirty miles of my hermetically sealed commode.
My watch said exactly one minute before one o'clock when a sleek towncar (not a limo) pulled into the driveway in front of the restaurant. I started walking up to the car to open the back door for them but their driver beat me to it, getting out and stepping around to open it. Rickey got out first, nodded in my direction and then bent over to hold his arm out and help a teeny tiny Asian woman out of the car.
Yoko has fairly short hair, upswept, and she was wearing a pair of tinted glasses that covered approximately half her face. She had on black slacks and a kinda glittery blouse that I think was purply-black, short sleeved. Not at all flashy or "odd" looking, except maybe the giant glasses tinted so black under the sun that her thin mouth looked like the horizon of a darkening night.
I was struck by how small she was – like a child, really. Rickey, standing next to her (who knows or cares what HE was wearing), isn't exactly a giant, but she still looked like a schoolgirl next to him.
I stepped up, I'm sure looking as nervous as I felt. I was glad I hadn't overdressed – just my nice gray Polo short, dress gray pants, a stone necklace with a white onyx elephant (John and Yoko's first band was Elephant's Memory) and a new pair of black Italian loafers I'd bought just for this occasion.
Rickey shook my hand and introduced Yoko. She reached out to offer her own handshake, saying "Nice to meet you, Mr. Sanford." That's when I first became aware she was wearing membrane-thin clear surgical gloves, almost invisible to the eye. I only noticed because her hand crinkled as I shook it. I must have looked down at her hand with the evident fear that I'd cracked her fragile flesh or something. "Oh, I wear these everywhere. I hope you don't mind."
Why she thought I'd mind, I don't know. Maybe some people get offended and assume Yoko considers us all germ-infested untouchables. Me, if I had the entire world reaching out to shake my hand everywhere I went, I'd probably wear burlap gardening gloves every time I leave the house.
To my surprise, she crooked out her arm as if expecting me to take it. I looked at Rickey, he nodded again and I linked my arm around hers - the next thing I knew, I was squiring Yoko Ono into the Depot.
There was an unusual amount of people in there for lunchtime, nearly a full house. The staff was clearly expecting us. I suspect they spent the night and morning before our arrival notifying everyone they knew that Yoko was coming for brunch, that's how uncharacteristically large the crowd was. We were escorted to a nicely placed table at the rear of the restaurant (boy, I never got to sit at that great table on the other two occasions I'd been there…).
Yoko ordered unsweetened tea, Rich and I ordered sweet tea and we made small talk while looking over the menus. Yoko was asking me about the area, how long I'd lived there, what it's like, were there a lot of restaurants like this. Rickey said my torso-length hair had grown even longer since he'd last seen me (I wore it down that day) and suddenly Yoko was reaching out to stroke my hair! Indoors, her glasses had cleared so I could see her eyes and, even though they were Asian-thin, I could see she was looking at me really intently. Staring, even, as she ran her fingers lightly up and down the length of my hair.
I had a split second thought - "Jeez, is Yoko Ono coming ON to me?!?!" – but then I could tell the little 70-something-year-old lady wasn't thinking at all along those lines. "Why do you wear your hair over your face like this? I'm sure he and everyone else here would rather see what you look like!"
That's when it dawned on me that, to her knowledge, since our mutual friend Rickey was gay, she assumed I must also be gay. I doubt she ever would have stroked the hair of such an epically heterosexual male, especially one she'd just met, in such an intimate studying manner, though I can't say for sure why I feel this way.
I think I "ummed" and "errrred" and "ahemmmed" a bit more but I somehow managed to crack a little joke and said "My ears get cold real easy," and she let out a little hiccupping giggle.
Somehow, having made Yoko giggle put me immensely more at ease than I had been up until that particular moment. My back unstiffened, my toes uncurled (I hadn't realized how tightly they were clenched in the grip of my too-tight new shoes) and I managed to sip the iced tea our waitress dropped at the table without choking or spilling anything down the front of my most (and only) expensive shirt.
We talked about the menu. I told her I'd chosen the place because I knew she was vegetarian and they had a great selection of specialty salads. She mentioned a restaurant they'd found the previous day that specialized in gourmet vegetarian food and I sort of regretted not having done more research before recommending the Depot as the ideal place for us to eat. On reflection, it was probably fine – she ordered a vegetable plate, I ordered pasta primavera, Rickey asked for one of the specialty salads and we were left to nibble on our rolls amidst a mildly awkward silence for a moment before Yoko looked me straight in the eye again with that unnerving look of hers.
"So, you're an Aquarian?"
I should have expected this, having read about her fixation with astrology (and having been asked my astrological orientation when first contacted by her assistant). She said "That explains your creativity. Did you draw the comic books I saw?" This took me by surprise, I didn't think it would come up, Rickey having given her that set of Beatles comics quite a few years previously.
"No, I only edited those. I was still teaching myself to draw then."
This seemed to fascinate her, to discover that I learned illustration only AFTER getting into the comic biz, and this became the topic of our discussion until dinner salads arrived a few minutes (seemed like hours) later. Rickey told her about the comic strip I do for the Reader's music section and she said "Well, you know, nobody ever encouraged John to draw either, not even the other boys in the Beatles, and it wasn't until we started meeting art gallery people that he realized his art actually meant something, that it wasn't just John scribbling again."
I'm not sure why this sentence literally took my breath away. I couldn't breathe for a moment, it felt like my blood entirely stopped circulating.
I'd been instructing myself all week to NOT bring up John, to NOT mention the Beatles. I wanted to congratulate her on her #1 single she had at the time, "Walking On Thin Ice" (the dance remix), to talk about her own music, her own career, thinking this would surely be more rewarding for her than the endless discussions people want to have about her husband, dead twenty three years, and the band she was not only never a part of but that the world had long accused her of ruining.
And here she was, mentioning John and the Beatles in the same sentence, all the while staring into my eyes as if my reaction would be the basis of whether she likes or dislikes me from that moment onward.
I'm not positive exactly what I said when I was finally able to breathe again, but it was something like "If great artists are never recognized for their art until late in life, then there may be hope for me as an artist after all!"
Yoko's entire body seemed to smile at this, not just the perfect white teeth she fleetingly flashed (dentures? Why was I suddenly picturing Yoko's teeth in a glass of fizzy water and sitting atop a Romanesque white pedastal?!). I think I heard another of those disarmingly girly chuckles, just barely audible, with the slightest shudder of her shoulders as the only proof I can offer that the chuckle really happened.
I was awash with marvel at how surprising my brunch with Yoko was already turning out to be.
Our dishes were served and I finally did get to congratulate her on that #1 single. Neither John nor the Beatles ever came up again, I suspect to everyone's relief.
We talked a bit more about self-taught musicians and artists and I mentioned being close to a young woman in prison who's using her time to followup on her own artistic aspirations, like writing short fiction, poetry and children's books. This brought a raised eyebrow and Yoko said "Is that your sister?"
"No, she's, uh, well, we talked about getting married, but she got in trouble and she's going to be in prison for, well, a long time."
"Why? What did she do?"
"She was involved in a robbery and things went really bad so she ended up in a lot of trouble."
Yoko nodded and didn't seem to want to pry, but she still stared at me with a curious expression (possibly trying to decide if I was gay after all). I took out my wallet to show her the photo I always carry around of the young lady in question, along with her lipstick-print on a piece of paper I keep in the same photo slot.
"She's very beautiful," Yoko said softly. "Tell her I said that, and that her life can always be as beautiful as she is, if she wishes it."
I rambled on for a few minutes about the young lady's accomplishments, how she's keeping her head together and remaining true to herself and her ideals even in the midst of so much sociopathic, aggressive humanity. Yoko listened and nodded, seeming to be genuinely interested.
"We have many friends who end up in jail for wrong reasons," she said (making me wonder who she meant by "we" – surely not her and Rickey, they're only casual acquaintances…does she still refer to "we" as in her and John Lennon, I wonder?). "That doesn't make them any less our friends, and we look at them for who they are, not where they are, and for what they are doing rather than what they've done." I think I'm quoting her fairly closely here, if I'm off it's only by a few words.
Her wisdom and warmth, the words she said and the way she said it, filled my heart with appreciation for the tiny little Asian woman with the giant glasses who was once accused of breaking up the world's biggest rock group. I felt renewed respect for this most singular of artists, one who's always held her head up high in the face of indifference or outright ridicule, who followed her own muse and screeched to a different drummer and maintained extraordinary dignity through and beyond the assassination of the love of her own life, John Lennon.
I can honestly say that, at that moment, I decided I loved Yoko Ono. Loved who and what she was. Yeah, I'll never be able to listen to her caterwauling "Don't Worry Kyoko, It's Only Mummy's Hand Bleeding In The Snow" without blowing chunks, and you couldn't force me to listen to "Baby's Heartbeat" again with a gun to my head, but just because I don't "get" her art, doesn't mean I don't love and respect the artist.
We all passed on dessert and Rickey said they had to head back down to Atlanta. Yoko didn't say another word the whole time we packed up to go, while I paid the check and chatted loosely with Rickey. She just watched us and took it all in, not speaking again until we were all outside and their car was pulling back into the driveway (where had it and the driver been while we ate, I wondered, and how did the driver know precisely when to pull up?). Rickey thanked me for brunch and then the driver was coming around to open the car door for them.
Yoko reached out both her crinkly hands (she'd changed gloves twice that I noticed – once before eating and once after) and took both my hands into hers. "Thank you for the lovely time, I very much enjoyed meeting you," she said, I'm sure giving me that penetrating gaze even if I couldn't see her eyes now that we were outside and her glasses had darkened again. "Perhaps we can do this again sometime."
"Next time," Rickey piped in, "maybe we'll make it up to your mountain cabin."
Unlikely, I know, but I'll start hording a few extra shekels anyways, just in case I suddenly need to buy a new toilet.