Twenty minutes later, though, Bennett realized his son was playing in the sandbox—with Conan’s kid. “As you may know, there’s an unwritten rule in New York that if your kid plays with someone else’s kid in the sandbox, it’s absolutely fine to strike up a conversation,” says Bennett. And, sure enough, Conan turned to him and started chatting. “We talked about the school system, living in the city, the usual stuff parents talk about,” says Bennett. “And I kept this fiction going that I didn’t know who he was. I asked him, ‘Where do you see yourself if you have some more kids?’ And he said, ‘Actually, we might have to move to L.A.’ And I was like, ‘What would you move to L.A. for? That city’s heinous.’ And he said, ‘I’m getting a promotion.’ The whole time we’re having this coded conversation. And I said, ‘Oh, what’s your promotion?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to take over Jay Leno’s job.’ ” At which point Bennett nodded, looked back at their kids in the sandbox, and said, “Ah, yes. Jay Leno.”
I suggest to Bennett that this kind of interaction—neither gawking nor ignoring but simply hanging out as two dads in the park—is probably the exact reason Conan likes living here. “You mean instead of me trying to pitch him on putting my 91-year-old mambo artist on the Conan O’Brien show?” he asks. “Now, that would be an L.A. interaction.”
There are signs, however, that our contract with celebrities is fraying. The first might be called the Heath Ledger Moment: when the Brokeback Mountain star and his partner, Michelle Williams, bought a house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill. This news was greeted with both pride (they could have lived anywhere!) and dread (they’re taking over!). It was as though an alien species that had lived quietly among us, unremarked upon for eons, finally stood up and declared, “You know what? We like this planet. We think we’ll take it.” And we knew we were powerless to stop them.
Then, of course, there are the paparazzi. Stars will tell you that it’s still worse in L.A., a city more conducive to high-speed car chases and long lenses perched in high trees. But New York’s catching up. There’s a booming market for candid shots of stars slurping coffee, curbing dogs, wearing sweats. The more tugged-down the ball cap, the better. “They can’t run into a Duane Reade to fill a prescription without someone following them inside,” one celebrity publicist complained to me. Which is a brutal irony: All the things stars could once do in New York—because no one bothered them, no one cared—are now the very activities the shutterbugs value the most.
And then there are these: Kirsten Dunst looked skinny, pale & sweaty, her hair askew and scraggly … At Montmartre, Brit [Britney Spears] in a black wig, no shoes, Sean Preston, 2 guards & some nanny. Used the stroller primarily as a shopping cart. I snapped some pics when Mr. Security told me this was a private moment. I said, Really, in a public space, how interesting … Saw Jon Stewart in Washington Square Park with his son. They were playing underneath a tree. He was very protective when he saw I had a camera on me.
You know the drill: Ignore the star as she walks toward you, then start texting all your friends the moment she’s passed you by.
These encounters are, I admit, not so different in flavor from my own. But, like a good New Yorker, I collect my sightings in secret, like a philatelist in a basement lit by a single bulb. The reports above are snatched from the Internet, random samplings of recent posts on Gawker Stalker, the most notorious—but certainly not the only—place online to find detailed accounts of minor brushes with New York fame.
Gawker Stalker has existed as long as the site itself, which launched in 2002. But last year, the site added a new feature, a product of nifty technology, really, that allowed it to instantly map the locations of celebrities, as reported by anonymous readers. This innovation was hardly earth- shattering—it showed you Astor Place on a map, rather than just saying “Astor Place”—yet some people treated it as the breaking of the apocalyptic seventh seal. “A shocking new Website that shows exactly where stars are, right now, in real time,” intoned CNN’s Showbiz Tonight. “Tonight: coast-to-coast anger.”
Jessica Coen, the site’s co-editor, countered that if you are using a Google map to find celebrities, then “you are a really bad stalker.” But there was something unnerving about the Gawker Stalker phenomenon. Not the safety issue—seriously, is anyone going to jump in a cab to race after Kate Bosworth because she was spotted ten minutes ago outside Pastis?—but the fact that it revealed a secret. We notice. We collect. We care.