“Famous People I Have Touched” by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala)


by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
First published in Under the Sun



I was ten years old and my sister was eight when our parents took us to the White House

Jimmy Carter

Fourth of July picnic in 1977. Jimmy Carter was scheduled to appear on the White House lawn to shake hands with his 300 or so guests — mostly reporters, like my father, and their families. Walter Mondale, the vice president, would also be present.

My father, who worked in the Washington bureau of The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, prepped us on what to expect. Guests would line up to shake the president’s hand and a photo would be snapped. The process would be orderly and easy.

If orderly and easy were synonyms for chaotic, he was right.

In the early evening, the president appeared on the lawn, surrounded by four secret service agents. Some guests rushed toward him as others raced off to where Mondale had appeared on a different part of the lawn. I sprinted toward the president, but others reached Carter first, bunching around him. I could only see him when I jumped. He wasn’t flashing his famous, and often-lampooned, smile. On the contrary, his expression was grim and resolute, as if he were a quarterback facing a ferocious pass rush.

I slid past a few people in front of me and secured a spot in the inner circle. The president grasped a few hands before his hand met mine. It was smaller and fleshier than I expected. An instant later, he moved on to the next person.

I thought to head back to where my parents were sitting. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do — I’d shaken the president’s hand! At the same time, I realized I could do it again. No one was monitoring the number of presidential handshakes guests indulged in. Holding my position, I again reached my hand toward the president’s. His hand grabbed mine, squeezed, and let go. I shook his hand a third time before I returned to my parents’ picnic blanket.

Soon thereafter, my sister showed up, ecstatic. She’d shaken Walter Mondale’s hand five times! I told her about my tally of Jimmy Carter handshakes. “A president’s handshake is worth twice as much as a vice president’s,” I said.

She argued with my logic, although when she confessed to having shaken Mondale’s left hand on three of the five occasions, I said, “A left hand doesn’t count. I win!”

As I raised my arms in triumph, she sobbed.

My mother turned to my father and said, “When are the fireworks supposed to start?”

. . . 

I conceived of this essay during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when touching anyone, even a member of one’s family, carried the risk of catching the virus and therefore of sickness and death. If I touched a stranger during the early days of the pandemic, it was by accident: my fingers brushing the fingers of the cashier at Kroger as she handed me my receipt; my shoulder grazing the shoulder of a man exiting the bathroom of a Sheetz as I entered. Oddly intimate and transgressive, these brief, tactile encounters were memorable because, in such strange times, strangers had become even stranger, more distant, more unapproachable. Because of our fear of contact, even of stepping within six feet of someone, strangers could seem as much specters as people, ghosts in a devastated world.

Famous people, too, can seem like phantoms. On concert stages and behind podiums, on computer screens and in magazines, they are unreachable, untouchable. Yet from interviews with them, profiles of them, and via their social media platforms, it’s possible to know a great deal about them — to know them better, in some ways, than we know our friends. To encounter them in the flesh — to touch them — can be both an extension of a familiar experience and a shock, as if we’ve pierced a wall between worlds.

. . .   

Soon after my eleventh birthday in July of 1978, my father drove us to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles play the New York Yankees. We arrived early to watch batting practice. Pat Kelly, an All-Star outfielder with the Orioles, was in left field, shagging flyballs. A tall, graceful Black man with powerful legs and a smooth batting stroke, he was only four years younger than my father and was heading into the last few years of his career.

With dozens of other fans, I was in a section near the left field foul pole. Whenever Kelly, whose last name was printed on the back of his uniform, fielded a ball, everyone around me shouted down to him: “Throw it up here, Kelly.” “Come on, Kelly, let’s see you hit my glove!” “Right here, Kelly!” To their disappointment, he inevitably hurled the baseball back to the infield.

Toward the end of batting practice, another ball was hit his way, and he raced a few yards to his right to catch it.

I knew all of the Orioles players’ first and last names — and even most of their middle names. As a devoted fan, I doubtless thought of the players in familiar terms, as if I was their ball boy or mascot. “Pat!” I shouted from where I stood, high up in the section, my glove open in hopeful anticipation. “Pat!” Incredibly, he turned to look at me. There was a mesmerizing intimacy to his gaze. It was as if I was standing in front of him rather than 100 feet away. Enchanted, entranced, I didn’t see him pull back his left arm and throw the baseball.

As the ball flew toward me, I looked not at it but at him. I continued to stare at him even when the ball smacked into the deep pocket of my unmoving glove, a throw so precise I am awed even now when I think of it. He smiled as if he understood the paralyzing power our exchange had had on me.

Pat Kelly died in 2005, as my father did. I was surprised to learn he suffered from depression, as I do. It would be presumptuous to read anything into these coincidences. A mere baseball connected us. Of course, “mere” wasn’t the word I would have used when I was eleven. I’d held what he’d held. It was a gift from a god.

. . .

During the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984, my father and several reporters interviewed Bob Dole, at the time a senior senator from Kansas and a former Republican Party vice-presidential candidate, outside the city’s Convention Center. When the interview was over, my father introduced me to him.

Although I followed politics, I didn’t know about the injury Dole had suffered as a soldier in World War II, and I reached to shake Dole’s right hand, but the senator quickly stuck out his left. I grasped it awkwardly between both of my hands, pumping it enthusiastically, as if to make up for my ignorance of his disability, which I saw clearly then. Dole’s right hand, which held a pen, was shriveled and immobile.

Later, from Dole’s autobiography, I learned that he carried the pen to make his right hand seem less damaged. I learned, too, about the toll that meeting people took on the senator. “After shaking hands with a few too many folks,” he wrote, “my left hand starts turning black and blue.” Here I was, one in a long line of “too many folks.”

I wonder if each oblivious stranger Dole met approached their handshake in a distinct way. Might someone have grabbed his right hand anyway, plucking the pen from his grip accidentally? Might someone else, with no place to put their right hand after Dole extended his left, have grabbed his elbow or shoulder? Might another person, flustered by the unexpected invitation of a left-handed shake, have failed to touch him at all?

. . .

I was twenty-eight years old and recently back from Guatemala, where I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer, when my father took me to a White House holiday party in December of 1993. We mingled at a reception in the East Room before joining the line to meet Bill and Hillary Clinton. Guests were restricted to less than a minute with the President and First Lady —  time enough to exchange holiday wishes and pose for a photo.

Each twosome was asked ahead of time to choose who would stand next to Bill and who next to Hillary. I chose Bill because I wanted to share a story with him:

Sitting in my courtyard in Guatemala, I’d heard, via Voice of America radio, his speech at the 1992 Democratic Convention. If John F. Kennedy, who’d founded the Peace Corps in 1961, had inspired Americans to serve the world, I planned to say, Clinton, who shared Kennedy’s youthful magnetism, was stirring up a similar spirit.

My little speech was self-serving and sycophantic, but I hoped it might prompt him to ask me what I’d done in Guatemala or thank me for my service. My wilder hope: He would invite me back to the White House to hear more.

I didn’t tell my father about my plan.

We stepped from a hallway into the Blue Room, where Bill and Hillary stood between a pair of Christmas trees. Before long, our names were announced, and we assumed our places next to the Clintons. My moment had come. As I turned to speak to the president, eager to touch him with my words, my father spoke before I could.

I don’t remember what he said or what the Clintons said in response. A photographer told us to smile, a camera flashed, and as suddenly as we’d stepped into the Blue Room, my father and I were walking out of it.

. . .

I’d met John Glenn, the former astronaut and senator from Ohio, on several of the occasions my father interviewed him. The last time I saw him was at my father’s memorial service, in July of 2005, at the National Press Club in Washington. Glenn was to give one of the four eulogies. When he stepped to the podium, the audience of 150 people fell quiet.

I hoped to hear Glenn reveal something I didn’t know about my father, even something small: a column my father wrote that Glenn admired; a song they both liked; helpful advice Glenn had given him or, less likely, helpful advice my father had given Glenn. A workaholic, my father hadn’t been a complete enigma to me, but I didn’t know him as well as I’d wanted.

At the March 1999 Gridiron dinner, Glenn had spoken exclusively about how my father tried to convince him to sing  a series of comedic, musical sketches print journalists put on every year for politicians, including the president. My father had told me the story: Glenn—a busy man, of course — had tried to decline my father’s invitation, but my father persisted until, months later, the senator capitulated. Glenn’s performance had been a hit.

Now I had to rely on others to fill in portions of his past unknown to me.

In thinking Glenn might illuminate even a small shadow of my father’s life, I might have expected too much of him. He probably had hundreds of relationships akin to the relationship he’d had with my father. It wasn’t his fault that the story he’d told about my father had been mostly about himself and that he’d left me unmoved, unenlightened, untouched.

. . .

It’s a rare writer, and maybe only Emily Dickinson, who doesn’t want fame — or at least a best-seller’s bevy of readers. My eleven-year-old self’s dream of becoming a professional baseball player eventually gave way to a fantasy of success in the major leagues of literature.

My sole moment of literary celebrity occurred on December 11, 2012, when I appeared on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show” to speak about my short story collection The Incurables. I received dozens of appreciative emails and phone calls from listeners whom I’d reached with my candid revelations about my experiences with depression, and my book briefly appeared in the top 100 in Amazon’s sales rankings. Half a decade later, I acquired a local, and less happy, renown.

. . .

While working as a professor of English at West Virginia University, located in Morgantown, I won a seat on the city council, from which I advocated for the purchase of a local 42-acre forest, envisioning it as the jewel in an otherwise inadequate municipal park system. The forest’s owner had recently filed plans to demolish it and build townhouses, but he was willing to sell the property. To convince the public that the $5.2 million price tag was worth it, I led nineteen tours of the forest, appeared frequently on local radio and TV, and wrote numerous op-eds and social media posts.

I’d suffered from depression since childhood and had been hospitalized in my mid-thirties, but only one of the several psychiatrists I’d seen had suggested I might be bipolar. She proved prescient. My impassioned effort to save the forest catapulted me, at age fifty-two, into mania. My wife and daughters, frightened by my extreme energy and uncharacteristic emotion, withdrew from me. Soon, they would leave our house to stay with a family across town. I felt lonely and freakish, abhorrent and untouchable.

On the night before the decisive council vote, which I knew I would lose — opposition was fierce, vociferous, and occasionally malicious — I slipped into the forest and wrapped my arms around dozens of trees. I was a cliché — a literal “tree hugger” — but I knew no better way to say goodbye than via this tactile connection between living beings.

Toward the end of my campaign to save the forest, in July of 2018, the singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis came to town to perform at Morgantown’s Metropolitan Theatre. I’d liked Lewis’s music for years — in addition to being a solo act, she performed with the band “Rilo Kiley and Nice as F**k,” and in the duo “Jenny and Johnny” —and I’d asked the Met Theatre’s manager if I could watch her sound check, and perhaps meet her. He’d gotten the OK from Lewis’s manager.

Usually, mania is accompanied by euphoria, but beneath my sleepless energy and relentless drive, I felt a dark uneasiness. Something was wrong with me, I knew, and would become worse. I noticed a familiar deadness in my extremities, a prelude, I feared, to my entire body retreating from sensation as depression commenced its painful assault on my brain.

It was in this state that I watched Jenny Lewis’s sound check. She played “Silver Lining,” my favorite of her songs, and although there is nothing sad about it, tears crowded my eyes. I knew there would be no silver lining in my forest fight.

Mark and Jenny Lewis

After Lewis finished her sound check, she stepped down from the stage and met me in the far-right corner of the theater. She had red-brown hair and was shorter and thinner than I expected. I thought she might see talking to me as an obligation and want to keep our conversation short, but her laidback, easy manner suggested otherwise. We spoke for ten minutes. Afterwards, I asked if she would pose for a photo with me. She said she would be happy to. I handed my cell phone to the theater’s manager, who lined up the shot.

I stood rigid, my body as stiff and stoic as it had been in my councilor’s chair when speaker after speaker stepped up to the podium to condemn the purchase of the forest. When Lewis put her arm around my waist, I relaxed. It had been a long time since another human being had touched me.

In subsequent days, as my life splintered and I tumbled into depression, I held on to the memory of her touch like an ill child clings to a favorite stuffed animal.

A few months after the city failed to purchase it, its destruction began.

. . .

We tend to remember our singular encounters with the famous and forget our singular encounters with the people we love. Go ahead: Try to remember a particular instance when you hugged your partner or your mother or your father or your grandparents or your children. Now remember five such instances. Ten. Twenty. There might be hundreds of such occasions, but their frequency obliterates our memories of all but a few of them.

While the famous have the same singular encounters with us that we have with them, it’s hard to imagine that, unless we’re famous ourselves, they’ll remember us in the same way we remember them — or even remember us at all.

And it doesn’t seem right that our encounters with them should outlive our memories of all but a few times we’ve touched or been touched by people we love.

. . .  

My mother didn’t move in the same professional circles as my father. For thirty-one years, until she retired in 2013, she was the executive director of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association, and the editor and publisher of its monthly magazine, Hammer and Dolly. A woman in a blue-collar field dominated by men, she faced all the challenges implicit in this distinction.

My parents divorced in the winter of 1982, when I was fifteen. Subsequently, I became an angry, sullen, and contemptuous teenager, with most of my wrath directed at my mother, if for no other reason than because she had custody of me and my sister, and I spent far more time with her than I did with my father. But even when we were at odds, I contributed to what my mother referred to as “the family farm.” From my tenth-grade year until my mother’s retirement, I wrote and edited stories for Hammer and Dolly, even as I held full-time jobs.

Mark with his mother

In December of 1989, the two of us attended the industry’s premier event, the International Auto Body Congress and Exposition, in Dallas. My mother was a year shy of fifty, but although her hair had gone gray and her face had been touched by the ordeals of twelve-hour workdays and single parenthood, she had a youthful smile and radiant blue eyes.

. . . 

One of the speakers at the convention was Frank Abagnale, the author of Catch Me If You Can, later made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. A con artist from the ages of 15 to 21, Abagnale amused and delighted his audience with tales of his bad behavior, including his successful impersonations of an airplane pilot, a lawyer, and a doctor. Eventually caught, he was imprisoned for five years. After his release, he was hired by the FBI to work undercover on fraud cases. He married and had three sons.

A lowkey speaker with sparse hair, a long face, and an endearing, lopsided smile, Abagnale ceased joking toward the end of his speech about his youthful misadventures and spoke with poetic earnestness about the joys of being a spouse, a parent, and a friend. He urged members of the audience to cherish the people close to them, to appreciate and honor the gift of their family’s and friends’ love, and to celebrate the good fortune of not walking the world alone. “After our conversation here today,” he concluded, “I urge you to pick up the phone and call someone you love. Don’t hang up without saying ‘I love you.’ And if you’re with someone you love now, don’t leave the room without giving that person a hug.”

Cynically, I wondered if this was just another of Abagnale’s cons, his sly way of priming his audience to buy copies of his memoir. I was about to whisper my theory to my mother when she looped her arms around my waist and pulled me toward her.

. . .

As my mother and I grew older, our physical contact become rarer. During the pandemic —my mother spent most of it in her basement apartment in New York City — I was especially conscious of its absence. Sometimes I frightened myself by thinking I’d hugged her for the last time.

My mother died of complications from a stroke in May of 2022. I’ve forgotten a thousand occasions we were together. But I have this consolation: While I must have shaken Abagnale’s hand after his talk, it is my mother’s embrace — urgent, warm, fierce — I remember.


Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93) is the author of eight books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award; The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize; the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and the 2001 Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Fiction Award for Steal My Heart.

 His stories, essays, and poems have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, Witness, Guernica, Under the Sun, Beloit Fiction Journal, Poetry East, USA Today, and elsewhere. 

A former Peace Corps Volunteer and technical trainer, he is a professor of English at West Virginia University, where he directs the Creative Writing Program and the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.


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  • Mark— thanks ever so much for the insights from your encounters with famous people ( Presidents no less) but more mportantly the hug from your mother. I grew up in a Minnesota farm family that never hugged or said I love you—yet. Knew my mom and dad loved us kids working the farm relentlessly to Feed and clothe us and set us up for the future . Like ke your mom, they were good people!!

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