Ah, the things you find out via Twitter. @Bobzuercher, a dear friend/colleague, made me aware that @MarioLopezExtra was going to be at the Fayette Mall today in Lexington. I had to resist the urge to jump in Cindy Rae and make the drive back up I-75 to see him. I'll explain why in a moment.
But now, I will pause for a moment for those of you who already know my Mario Lopez story to laugh. If you were to write a collection of short essays summarizing my life, this one would definitely have to go in there. It's classic. My friends still laugh at/with me about it. Bob was unaware of the story, and it's too good to write down and not share with the world. So. Here goes the story in its entirety, for the first time in printed (sort of?) word.
The Mario Lopez Story
It was December, 2001. I was a junior in college, on my way to visit a friend in Columbus, Ohio, that I visited just about every Christmas break since we'd met in 1998. (For the record: I no longer visit this person, which is another story for another day.) I was already distracted for two reasons: (a) I was really, really excited to see the person who'd meet me at the airport, and (b) I was reading, for the first time, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. I was enthralled. It's a brilliant book, and it kept my mind occupied during the flight (this is also back before I got motion sickness while reading on a plane or in a car).
My flight that day took me from Nashville to Cincinnati, and from Cincy to Columbus. I made it to Cincy just fine, and boarded my connecting flight, which was on a very, very small jet and a very, very short flight. I had seat 1B - and it wasn't first class! The plane filled up, and right before we were supposed to take off, a very good looking Latino man stepped on board, looking a little frazzled. I remember what he was wearing: dark purple Nike windsuit pants, and a gray UCLA sweatshirt. He had jet black hair and was gorgeous. I looked up from my book, noticed him, and noticed the fact that seat 1A was the only empty seat on the plane. He sat down, and smiled. All I saw were dimples and big, white teeth.
Now, the first thing that popped into my head was, "oh, I bet he's a football player since he has on a UCLA sweatshirt, and he's so big, tall and muscular. Too bad I don't keep up with college football; I'd probably know who he is. I bet I can get him to tell me who he is."
The conversation that followed went *exactly* like this:
ML: Hi there. **big smile with dimples again**
LB: Where are you from?
ML: **still smiling** I'm from LA, and where are you from?
ML: **raises an eyebrow** Ohhh.
Still totally unaware that I'm SITTING BY MARIO FREAKING LOPEZ, I feel stupid. I think, "Gosh. I should KNOW who this person his; he's probably like a Heisman winner or something, what an idiot. Why didn't I spend more time memorizing sports trivia in scholars' bowl? Darn." (this is also before I was ADPi president, and subsequently, learned to curse without feeling guilty.)
Being the people observer that I am, I noticed stares. In our direction. At me, especially. That kind of stare that says, "why aren't you talking to him? And fawning over this person?" I'm still oblivious, and go back to Postman. Ten minutes after takeoff, the flight attendant came over, and asked for his autograph. Mario graciously provided his signature on the back of a boarding pass, and was very polite.
Now, I think, I really should know who this guy is. I try again.
LB: **smiles my best, sweetest smile, which is actually quite awkward at this point** Now, I KNOW that I've seen you somewhere before. I just can't place who you are.
ML: **smiles, in disbelief** Well, I've done some acting. And I'm co-hosting this show called "The Other Half" with Danny Bonaduce.
LB: (having never watched "The Other Half," thinks he's a wannabe.) Oh, ok. Well it's nice to meet you.
ML: **smiles and goes right back to reading his US Weekly**
We sit in silence the rest of the flight. He smells really, really good. His arm is touching mine the entire time. He handed me peanuts with a smile. I'm still oblivious.
The flight lands, and Mario bolts off before anyone has a chance to notice him. For some reason, I got stuck waiting on everyone else to disembark, and I was the very last person off the plane. As I left, the flight attendant started this conversation:
FA: Oh my gosh, how did it feel to sit next to someone so famous??
LB: *puzzled* what are you talking about? I had no idea who that guy was. Who was he?
(all the FA's stare in disbelief, start shaking their heads) FA: Um, that was Mario Lopez.
LB: **blank stare**
FA: You know. AC Slater, from Saved by the Bell?
At this point, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I stared out into the jetway, feeling like a complete and total moron. I SAT BY MARIO LOPEZ?! And DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS HIM?! I wanted to run, fast, to catch up with him, tell him I loved him, and his work, and what was Mark-Paul Gosselar really like? And what'd you think about Elizabeth Berkeley in Striptease? And did you ever hook up with Tiffani-Amber Theissen in real life? But no. These, and other relevant, important questions, would have to wait for another lifetime. I missed my chance.
Words cannot express the level of stupidity I felt at this moment. Nor can I offer any explanation for how I never figured out that I was sitting next to a favorite childhood star. But I can tell you this: I promised myself that someday, somehow, I would run into Mario Lopez again. And I would explain myself. And apologize for not knowing who he was. I believe he'd remember me. And probably accept my apology. And then ask me out for a drink or two, and we'd become friends.
Apparently, I'm going to have to check his travel schedule and make that happen this summer.