There she sat, across the room. Maya Angelou.
Regal and lovely, she held court with other VIPs in a Columbus banquet hall, where I was working that evening in 2001 as a corporate photographer for a direct sales company. We’d had the phenomenal luck to hire Dr. Angelou as the keynote speaker at one of our conferences.
I kept a sweaty, respectful distance. In awe of this woman since reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in my AP English class at age 17, I’d devoured many of her other books in the years since. I admired her creativity and her ability to overcome unbelievable difficulties – racism, poverty, childhood rape – struggles that have killed others, but only left her stronger.
As a news and corporate photographer, I had encountered several celebrities over the years, so you’d think I’d have grown used to meeting the occasional famous person.
But the truth is that whenever I saw one, I always managed to make a blithering idiot of myself by either A) Gaping in openmouthed shock (the Aretha Franklin in the elevator incident); or B) Gaping in open-mouthed shock, and then shouting “Holy crap!” (The Peter Gabriel backstage incident).
As if the ridiculous random swearing wasn’t bad enough, I also had some kind of affliction that made me tremble during important events I photographed. This in turn caused me to move the camera at crucial moments and blur the picture. And, if I managed to get past all the involuntary gaping, swearing and shaking, my camera would sometimes short out – probably the combination of terrified neural firings and profusely wet hands.
So the desire to meet this famous lady was counterbalanced with a hefty case of nerves and fear of my celebrity-induced Tourette’s Syndrome. Avoiding the VIP area, I busied myself taking other sales convention pictures, secure in the knowledge that the other, more senior corporate photographer, Tom, would likely photograph any needed pictures of Maya Angelou. I figured it was better for everyone if a short, perspiring white woman didn’t shout “Holy crap!” and faint in front of a national treasure.
Heavily engaged in ignoring the situation, I almost didn’t notice when the chief executive officer of the company tapped my shoulder.
“Dawn, can you take some pictures of Dr. Angelou with us?”
I turned to the CEO, another female who both intimidated and impressed me, hoping maybe she had just forgotten that senior photographer Tom was there.
“Um,” I stammered. “Don’t you want Tom to do that?” I glanced around the room, feverishly hoping to locate him.
She shook her head. “They said he left for the day – he’d been working since 7 this morning. You’re the only one here.”
My heart dropped to my feet, and the faucets in my fingers switched on.
“Sure! Yeah! OK!” I yelled, my voice already inappropriately loud.
Dang it, Tom.
I followed her across the room for what felt like days, glancing repeatedly from the camera to my dripping hands. I prayed my body wouldn’t cause another freak equipment failure.
We drew near Maya’s chair, where she sat talking to another VIP. The boss pulled me to her side.
“Dr. Angelou, we were hoping to take a couple pictures with you,” she said. “This is Dawn, the photographer.”
Dawn the photographer stood in front of a living legend, and concentrated very hard on keeping her mouth shut, her hands dry and her heart beating. Better to say nothing, Dawn figured, than loudly shout expletives.
Maya Angelou turned from her conversation to our CEO, whom she’d already met.
Then, without hesitation, she rose slowly from her chair, grasped both my cold, damp paws in her warm, soft hands, looked me in the eye and said:
“It is such a pleasure to meet you!”
She held my gaze as I stood, saucer-eyed and speechless, at her kind, genuine, loving greeting. I wondered if she thought I was someone else. When wearing a business suit, I was often mistaken for one of our company’s owners due to our close resemblance. But this particular evening, I wore my de rigueur photo-lackey uniform: black pants, tons of camera gear, raggedy ponytail and lunchspattered polo shirt.
I found some words. Eventually.
“It’s . . . so . . . nice to meet you, too!” I shouted.
She smiled even broader.
“Thank you for . . . your . . . your everything!” I added intelligently.
Meetings out of the way, I shuffled everyone into position. Trembling as I raised the camera, I positioned my sopping index finger over the button, and said a silent prayer that my gear wouldn’t short out on me. Again.
“Smile!” I hollered, with more inappropriate loudness.
The shutter slapped, the flash fired, and I breathed a little sigh of relief.
“Thank you very much for doing that!” she said, grasping my hand again as I nodded vigorously in an attempt to stay quiet.
And she walked away.
I went back to shooting the banquet, but snuck glances her way the rest of the evening. I still felt flabbergasted at her amazing, genuine demeanor and wondered if it was a fluke. I’d not had such positive experiences with other famous folks. Though there were exceptions, the celebrities I encountered had generally brushed through rooms, avoiding eye contact and stifling eye rolls if asked to stop, meet, and – God forbid – take a picture with a fan.
With Maya Angelou, it was a whole different ball game, and I watched as she talked to anyone who approached, and snapped a photo with everyone who asked her. From executive to sales consultant to A/V staff to the guy filling her water glass, she treated everyone . . . the same. Exactly, unequivocally, wonderfully the same.
I finished the rest of my work, and drove through the evening feeling good, but not without reservations. Though I’d managed to muddle through the all-important executive shoot with Ms. Angelou, it remained to be seen whether I had a usable photo – these were the unfortunate days before commonplace digital photography, and I’d need to get the film developed to find out if my nervous hands had failed me.
I dropped the canister off at the camera store, hoping for the best. And in an hour, I rushed back, paid for the prints and ripped open the packet.
For once, the photo gods had smiled on me. I’d managed to take a steady, in-focus picture of an important person and irreplaceable moment, accomplishing this with the added bonus of maintaining consciousness and (most of) my bladder control.
I flipped slowly through the pictures of Maya. She stared straight into the camera, her expression reminiscent of a friend, or even a beloved aunt. She was tall, elegant, kind, self-assured, and the color of a warm cup of coffee.
Then there was me, on the other side of the camera. Short, pasty-white, tragically sweaty and hoping to keep my mouth shut.
I put the packet aside, the car in drive,and smiled to myself on the way out of the parking lot. We were very different – weren’t we? – she and I.
But somehow, also the same.
Exactly, unequivocally, wonderfully the same.
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Dawn wanted us to note that “Holy crap!” isn’t the precise phrase she uses when spotting celebrities. The “Holy” is the same, but the other word is far more inappropriate. Apologies.