A humiliating run-in with Cary Grant

Written By: Tim Kelly

Get a rush from spotting celebrities in unguarded moments out and about doing everyday things, you know, like shopping? If so, best stay clear of Center Moriches, my dear, old, hometown.
It’s a nice little village, just a mile or so across Moriches Bay from the unspoiled eastern reaches of the Fire Island National Seashore. Still, chances are you’ll never spot Billy Joel climbing into his car outside the CVS, or Jimmy Fallon cradling a tinfoil swan “doggie bag” from the Sea Cove Restaurant. And that’s just fine. Besides, chances are they would have come and gone unnoticed.
Still, I can’t help but think that had I come across someone of note every now and again, maybe the 17-year-old me wouldn’t have made a complete fool out of himself in front of movie icon Cary Grant.
Uh huh, that’s right. I said Cary Grant, he from “North by Northwest,” “The Philadelphia Story” and “To Catch a Thief,” to name just a few of his better-known films.
No, not in Center Moriches, in a Westhampton Beach supermarket.
In the summer before college, I worked at the Bohack’s market on Main Street. Although “Bohack’s” sounds like a digestive disorder, it was, in fact, a chain of grocery stores in the New York metro area before its 90-year run ended in 1977. RiteAid currently occupies the old WHB location.
In shirt and tie and a white-ish bib apron extending south of the knees, I worked at first in one of the non-perishable foodstuffs aisles, stamping prices on cans. All. Day. Long. Hardly got any rest the night after my first day since I dreamed all night of stamping cans, stamping cans, stamping cans.
When the opportunity arose to drop can-stamping for the produce section, it was a no-brainer. The manager, Al Spano, diminutive and mustachioed, was kind, good-natured man and loved kibitzing with customers. Any kid who came by while he carved up a watermelon always got a slice on the house.
I helped Al keep the angled displays full, often helping myself to handfuls of white grapes, the ones off the stems and rolling about the bottom the crate that no one would buy. When not so occupied, I stood at the scale, a boxy white-ish enameled porcelain thing with a narrow horizontal window on the side.
Shoppers placed their plums or peaches or peppers in small brown paper bags, hand them to me, I’d put ‘em on the scale then check the horizontal red line in the glass for the intersection of price per pound and bag weight. I’d scribble on a price and send them on their way.
Cary Grant? Relax, we’re almost there.
During one of the allotted 15-minute backroom breaks, I inquired of some of the older guys if any celebrities ever came in. I mean, it’s the Hamptons, right? Yeah, every now and then, one of ‘em said.
Like who?
Like sportscaster Howard Cosell. Remember “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” No? Ok, Google it.
Then another coworker piped up with, “And Cary Grant.”
Cary Grant? The movie star?
No, stupid, Cary Grant the mass-murderer. Of course the movie star.
Wow! Sure, he was a bit before my time, but even I knew who Cary Grant was. Mr. Suave and Sophisticated with killer looks and that swoon-inducing British accent.
Summer wore on, I continued putting out celery and carrots, and weighing apples and pears. As for celebrities, I saw Gene Wilder by the checkouts one Saturday. Some weeks later, a man holding a small bunch of greens approached.
“This is …” he asked.
“Parsley,” I replied with confidence and authority. Well, as much as I could muster when face-to-face with Orson Bean, a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Who knew he appeared on Broadway and in films as well?
Then one day in walked himself. The Sultan of the Silver Screen. The Master of Matinees. The King of … Fine, I’ll stop.
The store went silent — no kidding – obviously something was up. Then I heard a customer stay in a reverenced whisper, “Cary Grant is here.”
So it’s true!
Suddenly women descended upon the produce section, each grabbing a brown paper bag, not for beefsteak tomatoes, certainly, but for a once-in-a-lifetime autograph opportunity. Or so they hoped.
Didn’t get the chance to gauge their success, or to search the aisles myself and, when finding him, casually yet confidently, walk past him like I had a work-related reason to do so. While watching the brown bag supply quickly dwindle – What was I going to do? Put up a hand and say, “Ladies! Those bags are for fruit and vegetables only!” — the loudspeaker carried the manager’s voice with the one command I loathed.
“Kelly! Round up carts!”
What’s the big deal? Listen, I had a good thing going working indoors in air conditioning, away from the heat, humidity and sun that brought out long-dormant freckles, sweat rings and left my skin the color of a summer sunset. My ancestors did mountain mists, fog and rain, and on clear days we dip ourselves in SPF Infinity.
Out the south-facing back entrance I went, into the parking lot across from the old Grimshaw and Palmer hardware store, next door to the Westhampton Free Library.
Awash in self-pity over the harsh changeover from dry and cool to tropical atmospheric conditions, I dutifully collected carts. And then …There he was! At the end of an aisle! Examining a can of who-knows-what!
Never had I ever seen a more handsome or striking man. On in years, sure, yet his slim, straight frame easily carried a loose shirt and matching pants of what I guessed were light, white cotton. Not eggshell, not ecru, not ivory, white as new-fallen snow.
His deeply tanned face perfectly set off his oh-so-shiny silver hair. If a spotlight suddenly appeared, accompanied by a choir of angels, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.
But no such music overpowered the clanking of carts as I manhandled a train of 10 or so through two sets of steel and glass doors and into the store.
Should have had my mind on the task at hand, but didn’t. Should have noticed a single cart standing at an awkward angle between those I was pushing and a cigarette machine, but didn’t. Should have stopped, ducked through the other doors and moved that cart, but didn’t.
No, I kept on pushing, eyes fixed on the archetypal Hollywood leading man. It was inevitable, then, that my carts hit the one cart, sending it ricocheting off the cigarette machine and against my lead cart before landing on the floor on its side.
Bang! Crash! A multi-note, high-pitch metallic crunch assaulted the store, and there was no way C.G., or whatever his friends called him, missed it.
He didn’t. He turned slowly toward me, face screwed up in disgust, put down the can and walked away.
I never saw him again.
If only it hadn’t been so quiet. If only it had been Orson Bean. HE probably would have thought it hilarious.
Can’t say how long I stood there, both hands still gripping the last cart’s push bar, smiling a stupid smile.
Well, there goes any chance of being “discovered” in a Westhampton Beach grocery.
After clearing away the mess, I retired to the onions and oranges, red-faced from sun and celebrity exposure. Sadly, no spray or crème could protect me from the latter.
Eventually the sting wore off, the memory squashed under the weight of so many others.
But it bubbled back up during Turner Movie Classics’ recent homage to director Alfred Hitchcock. In our decades together, my wife and I watched only one Hitchcock film, “Frenzy,” and that while dating. But now she wanted to view ‘em all and, wouldn’t you know it, Cary Grant features prominently in several Hitchcock works.
I confess Hitchcock just doesn’t do it for me. I mean, he’s no Scorsese or Tarantino, is he? That was safe to express, but, “Hey, aren’t the Yankees playing? I’m just sayin” not so much.
And so we watched them, together. But C.G. never once tripped over his own feet or slipped on a banana peel, at least not under Mr. Hitchcock’s demanding direction.
Cinematic satisfaction, it seems, will have to wait.