Custom Cars, Pitttsburgh Penguins and the Autograph Nazi


It was a carnival of airbrushed wonders... Of whirling hubcabs and wheels... Of buxom bumper babes and NASCAR jackets.

It was the 1997 Pittsburgh Custom Car Show and I'd taken an on-ramp to the Unexpected.

My friend Scoobie and I looked around us with an uncertain gaze. Er... were we in the right place? Was this really where Pittsburgh Penguin Ron Francis-- my beloved hockey hero-- would be signing autographs?

I watched a fellow with a Dale Earnhardt tee stretched over his broad belly, his Earnhardt jacket over that, his Earnhardt hat topping off the ensemble of pure Earnhharted glory...

He chatted with a guy who'd taken months to paint intricate skulls, wings and barbed wire on his Harley. He smiled with teeth that resembled a large jagged gear.

"You're a good friend," I told Scoobie. "If it weren't for my deep Ron Francis appreciation..."

"I know.... I know," Scoobie nodded, patting my shoulder reassuringly. While I had my dear Penguins jersey draped over an arm, she cradled my other piece of Ron Francis memorabilia to be signed. I owed her big-time... Possibly of the chocolate bribery variety.

This would be the closest we'd ever gotten to actually meeting anyone from the team. I mean, sure, my friend Weasel had once gotten stepped on by Mario Lemieux.... Largely because, as a human skyscraper, he didn't spot Weasel in the dark canyon below.

But that wasn't exactly a feel-good moment for anyone.

This, this was my last chance to have my jersey signed before Ron would be traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Being more girlie than gearhead, I knew the event itself wouldn't be quite my scene. But with there being a Pens signing, I guess I'd just expected more... Er, less... er...

I averted my gaze from the virtually-naked booth chick standing there giving out fliers.

"And to think I left my leather string bikini, cowboy hat, and boots home today," I told my friend, looking at my poet blouse and jeans.

"If only 'bikini casual' had been written on our tickets," Scoobie said philosophically. "It's so hard to dress appropriately these days."

We got in line behind some fellow Pens fans and wound our way past the displays. Here was a replica of the Addams Family car-- both creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky. Well-done, folks-- 10 out of 10 for ookiness!

And, why, here was another Penguin-- well, the Penguin from Batman Returns, anyway. Along with the mighty Batman and the lady Cat, Danny DeVito's black-toothed Burtony likeness peered out at us from the side of a motorcycle.

We wound around A-Team vans and the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee... We shuffled past leopard-print, hot pink steering wheel covers and fuzzy dice... We marveled at muscle cars covered in sparkles and classics licked with flames. We even spied a mural of a hairy, hunky Magnum P.I. before a palm-treed Hawaiian landscape.

And then we could see the end of the line. There, at a table, on a podium, sat centerman Ron Francis, focused, just signing away, some official-looking dude next to him, moving the crowd forward.

And move us forward he did. What the process had in speed, it lacked in... well, humanity. We were brought one by one to the signing area, where we stepped sideways, handed our item to the Event Manager Dude, who handed the item to Ron Francis who, in turn, passed it back to us.

The manager was silent, stoic, a cold marble expression on his face. One look at him, and you knew he meant business.

He was a drill sergeant, a schoolmaster, or a cop who'd just pulled you over for speeding... He was an NHL referee or Seinfeld's Soup Nazi. He had no time for tomfoolery and he knew than any moment someone would try to fool the tom...

He wasn't about to have it.

You could see my fellow Pittsburghers tense. All the jovial fuzzy-dice-molesting and booth-babe-jibing of moments before evaporated from us all like hockey game beer buzz by the fourth quarter.

We became quiet. We turned into ten-year-old students queuing for a gym class scoliosis check...Or citizens accepting that ticket from Sheriff Little. We were tense, sullen, grey.

Finally, it was my turn. This Stern Schoolmaster, this Soup Nazi, this NHL referree took my jersey from my sweating fingers and presented it to Mr. Francis. And I knew any word but "thanks" would result in my speedy dismissal...

My "No Soup For You" of hockey encounters...

My expulsion from Custom Car Elementary School, empty-handed, hopes dashed.

Barely able to even glance at my favorite hockey player for the tension, I got my autograph, stepped sideways out of the line and waited for Scoobie, who also made the nervous sidestep to the exit and handed me my signed goods.

The air seemed to lighten. We'd made it through, mission accomplished.

But now I wonder... If Ron had gotten all jiggy and started actually chatting with the masses -- would he have gotten put in the penalty box and given five minutes for interference?

I think so, somehow... Ze Autograph Nazi, he had vays of making you Not Talk.

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11 comments:

Da Old Man said...

Those signings are rather impersnal, usually. Though, in the past, some turned out pretty interesting. One time, the Spawn and I went to one where a Yankee ss/3rd baseman was signing. He wasn't the most popular player, so the crowd was rather sparse. After signing a couple autographs, he spent the rest of his contracted time, about 2 hours or so, entertaining the Spawn and his kids. It was fun for them, but I doubt the player was very happy.

I did attend an event once with a famous hockey player from the Devils. As luck would have it, we both answered the call of nature at about the same time. So, I was one stall over from greatness. I didn't ask for an autograph, nor ask to shake his hand because that would have been weird.

Jenn Thorson said...

Da Old Man- I hadn't been to anything quite like that before, so I had no idea what to expect. This was definitely unusual. Now when I went to the Bruce Campbell book signing, that was different... he chatted with everyone and it wasn't like he had management pushing him along, either.

Cool about the Yankee baseman. As for the Devil's meeting... I think you were wise in the route you too. :)

freetheunicorns said...

I meet Gretzky once in his hometown (which is also where my parents are from). I was so frazzled all I could say was "Hey, you're great". How cool am I? I still got his autograph, but I felt lame that I didn't say more. Still do in fact.

Jenn Thorson said...

FreetheUnicorns- Well, Chowner, don't feel too bad. Honestly, there's not much you CAN say that probably either hasn't been said before or wouldn't be especially meaningful. Gretsky's certainly a big name to have an autograph from! Pretty cool!

Mr. Condescending said...

autographs are awesome!

Jenn Thorson said...

Mr. Condescending- T'is pretty groovy. It made my discount jersey all that much better!

jay said...

I know they have to keep their charges safe, and I know there's usually limited time, but does it hurt to exchange a smile and a word or two? Johnny Depp does it. ;)

I'm glad to hear you got your autograph after all that uncertainty though! Good for you!

Jenn Thorson said...

Jay- Yes, it just was a weird atmosphere. There were some other hockey guys there too (different lines) which had the same sort of regiment going.

Oh, I've heard how Johnny's terrific about signing autographs. Alas-- it has not yet been my pleasure to meet him. I think I would be at a loss for anything valuable to say.

Shawn said...

Reminds me of when I stood in line for Don Maclean's autograph. You might think that a star of Maclean's dubious status would result in a more personal signing, but you would be wrong.

Of course, when Kate Gosling has people lining up around the block for her autograph, it's hard to know what to expect.

Chris @ Maugeritaville said...

Signings can kinda go either way. I was at one back in '92 in L.A. Dave Taylor was signing and he took time with everyone, especially kids. The line took a while but Dave made it worth it by treating everyone like they were a friend. I also met Gretz when he and his wife came into the theater where I was working. Janet went in to the movie and Wayne ended up in the lobby for about half an hour signing and talking with anyone interested.

And I'm sure Kevin Stevens would've kicked Autograph Nazi's behind.

Jenn Thorson said...

Shawn- I suspect some of the signers are given rules before signing about keeping the line moving, etc. For Don McLean, they might have been concerned he'd spend as long signing autographs as he would singing "The Day the Music Died." :)

Chris- Ah, I liked Kevin Stevens, too. Heh, that would have been fun.