Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Meet Rocky

"Sign of the beast" -- Sylvester Stallone appears at the Barnes and Noble on Walnut Street, Philadelphia, May 13, 7:00pm

Stallone is running late, and there’s a gaggle of standard-looking "Rocky" fans in lines wrapped around the bookshelves on Barnes and Noble’s third floor. There’s a little blond girl with thick ankles and bad skin and an airbrushed “Italian Stallion” shirt with Stallone’s face, but she’s the exception. Most of them are well-to-do looking South Philadelphians, the kind of people who go out to restaurants and pay completely in cash and converse loudly, ask the waiter’s name first thing and tip 20 percent.

Security is tight, there are a dozen members of some type of poor man’s secret service with headsets corralling fans and media into their respective pens, informing book buyers that no memorabilia will be signed, just the book, please, and asking people “Can I help you,” in a way that says more “Can I help remove your body if you in any way become a problem,” rather than, “Would you like help finding the restroom?” or “Can I assist you with that heavy and cumbersome bag?” I would call them “intimidatingly gracious.”

Word spreads that Stallone is on his way up, and the crowd tenses and a hush falls over it. Mothers tell their little girls, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” As flash bulbs pop, Stallone poses for a few pictures as the press snaps away, then sits down at the book table and says, “Let’s do this.”

He is a machine. I start timing him as he signs—one, two, three. Fifteen books every minute. One every four seconds. Nine hundred books an hour. He cannot be stopped. He burns through the first blue sharpie in under 10 minutes. An assistant hands him another and he doesn’t miss a book. People try to stop and chat and are hustled along by assistants and the Barnes and Noble staff who seem to have been co-opted into his entourage of efficiency. About ten minutes into the assembly line, I have a realization. Stallone is wearing the exact same outfit as on his book cover. The black sweater, pushed up at the sleeves, the black pants and casual black leather shoes. Even his hair is the same, he just looks a little more tired and the lines in his face are a little more evident. He is remarkably handsome for a man with no discernable cheekbones. He pulls the double-threat of signing a book at the same time as shaking a hand. His signature looks like two “S” curves joined top and bottom, and, later, Sean Barr, Silvio Ilisko and Sal Cavalier, three fans from Southwest Philly, remark, “It’s a dollar sign. He’s just here to make money.” Even the security guard working the front door says how cheap it all is. “That’s a shame!” she tells one parting fan. “For $25, that’s the best he could do? $25!? It looks like your son wrote in the book!”

Amanda Harper from Center City waits downstairs in the “Staff Picks!” section. “I’m totally indifferent,” she says. Her friends made her come. One has an orange t-shirt printed with Mr. T that says, “I pity the fool!” Stallone told him he liked it. It’s one of a dozen shirts that range from the idolatrous to the ironic, hipsters blended with the painfully, worshipfully earnest. I ask Harper to sum up what her friends were thinking when they brought her along. “Let’s skip dinner and go get Sylvester Stallone’s autograph.” She has dark black hair and looks sort of jaded, and I’m becoming rapidly aware that this particular experience won’t help that. She also pities the fool, I think, so maybe her and Mr. T aren’t very different in that respect. Disappointingly, she does not channel Clubber Lang and call anybody “Chump!”

Thirty minutes and 450 books later, Stallone is gone, an old man is throwing up outside on the sidewalk and the press is smoking cigarettes. Howard Wiener, a photographer, has returned the copies of the books he bought for Stallone to sign. “It sucked,” he says.


Portions of this essay first appeared in Philadelphia Weekly in May 2005, as part of this column.

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