Big Fish in Small Pond Meets Much Bigger Fish from Ocean

Feeling good about myself helped me not be starstruck.

Posted Feb 24, 2014

In 1987, at the age of 44, I ran for town board in my upstate New York town, where I had lived and taught psychology for more than 15 years. I was already well-known in my town as a singer-songwriter and humorist. In fact, my “name recognition” was one of the reasons I was asked to run. Nonetheless, my running mates and I had gone into the race as underdogs. However, as the election approached I began to sense that we just might win

And win we did. I remember thinking that night, What a great town! It elected me, me of all people.

It was all very exciting. I had never won anything before – though I vaguely recalled being elected president of the boys’ bathroom one year in elementary school – and I was about as “up” as I had ever been.

Earlier that day, of course, I had voted. And there at the polling booths was a fellow professor at my college – and a fellow Democrat – who told me that songwriter Paul Simon was going to be at his house that Friday afternoon, to talk with some professors about a former student at our college that he was basing a musical on. (The student was the recently deceased Salvador Agron, a convicted murderer, and the musical became “The Capeman.”) My friend invited me to come.

Paul Simon?! As a singer/songwriter myself, I held him probably in even higher esteem than his non-musician listeners did.

“But I never had that guy as a student,” I said.

“Come anyway,” he replied.

I felt really good about myself after winning – a feeling I that has always come and gone for me – and that feeling was still there three days later when I arrived at my friend’s home. In fact, I felt self-confident enough to bring with me a couple of cassette tapes to give Paul – one containing my songs, the other, the songs of a female songwriting duo making quite a name for themselves in the area.

I walked into my friend’s living room, in which there sat four other professors and a short, immediately identifiable man, who stood up, put out his hand, and said, “Paul Simon.”

It seemed odd for him to say this, for of course he was Paul Simon. But what else could he say?

I was not, as I typically am when meeting someone famous, star-struck. A month earlier, when I had shaken hands with then governor Mario Cuomo at a photo-op during my campaign, I almost fainted. But I was feeling so self-confident three days after my win, so cocky, that meeting this great songwriter, whose Graceland album had some nine months earlier won a Grammy for “Best Album of the Year” didn’t faze me at all.

And Paul was very down to earth, referring to Simon & Garfunkel the way anyone might and just sounding like a regular guy. In fact, he seemed like someone with whom I might have been friends had we grown up in the same Queens neighborhood, rather than several miles apart.

Shortly before the meeting ended, Paul said, “If any of you think of anything else you’d like to add, please call me. Here’s the number.” And then he said it.

Since I had never had that student in my class, there was no good reason for me to write the number down, but I figured that if I wanted to follow up with the tapes, I should have it. So I kept repeating it over and over to myself, so I could write it down as soon as possible – which I did.

Then we were all leaving, and I asked him if I could give him a couple of tapes.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll listen to them on my drive home.” (He had driven himself up in a several-years-old Mercedes.)

And I handed the tapes to him, immediately after which one of the hosts of the meeting took a photo. In it I am standing full of confidence, one hand on my hip, the other in my pocket; Paul is looking down at the cassettes in his hand.

For a couple of weeks I held out hope that I’d hear back from him telling me that he thought I and my friends were great and that he would do everything he could to help us reach the top. The call did not come.

I was in a men’s group at the time, and the guys in the group kept saying, “You have his number. Just give him a call and ask if he’s had a chance to listen.”

“Call Paul Simon?” I said. By now the blush of electoral victory had eased, and I was back to my usual star-struck self.

“Sure,” they said. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

So I built up my nerve, and one afternoon I dialed the number. As I did, I pictured interrupting Paul in the midst of writing his next big hit, or, worse, when he was just coming out of the bathroom. But nonetheless I mentally rehearsed my lines, starting with my standard opening line when calling anyone other than my immediate family, “I hate to bother you, but…”

An official-sounding voice came on the line, saying the phone number I was calling.

“Is this Paul Simon’s number?” I asked.

“Who’s calling and what is this about?” came the stern reply.

“My name is Mark Sherman,” I said, and I proceeded to tell him why I was calling.

“I’ll let Mr. Simon’s assistant know about this,” he said.

Reaching Paul Simon directly? I had reached an assistant to his assistant.

Needless to say, I never heard from either Paul or his assistant.

The experience showed me that just in case my electoral win, preceded by years of positive reinforcement for my songs, made me think I was a big deal, there was no denying the huge gap between me and Paul Simon. I can comfort myself by the fact that along with fame comes fear. Hence, carefully guarded phone numbers, and other safety measures. I remember once watching Rod Stewart emerge from a local bar, surrounded by several large men; all you could see of Stewart was his famous spiky hair.

And yet, it's hard not to be envious. In the years since that memorable day when I met one of the greatest American songwriters of my generation, I have re-watched “The Graduate,” with its wonderful Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, and have heard Paul Simon’s songs countless times on the radio. His gifts continue to amaze me, and the cockiness I felt that day, shortly after winning a local election, has long since faded. Today, when I look at that photo of me and Paul, I think a good caption for it would be, “Does this guy really think I’m going to listen to these tapes?”

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