“Let’s tell them we met Billy Joel!” I say to Sally, my skinny and tall-for-her age friend who wore her oversized glasses everywhere.
“We can get Poppy to sign it.”
“Do you think he’ll do it?” I say fully knowing that her suggestion might be the single best idea we had ever come up with. Besides, “Poppy,” Sally’s kind grandfather was an adult. He was someone we could trust and his signature was sure to be more exact than our middle school ones.
“We can just walk along the beach towards his house. We’ll get as close as we can and it will be almost the same thing as meeting him, right?” My 11-year-old mind was really something I was growing proud of.
Sally and I made the trek along majestic Noyac Bay. It was late in the day, a crummy afternoon, with a sky that was not very memorable. Most of the other kids were tucked away reading overly flexible paperbacks from the library or mixing vowel and consonant pieces together during a game of Scrabble. We were adventurers and knew that a celebrity sighting in the town of Sag Harbor could add sheen to any kind of inclement weather.
“That’s it! Billy Joel’s house!” Sally pointed and squealed with delight, as we looked up towards a cliff hugging, hedge-covered home constructed mostly of dark wood and white windowpanes. Surely what we were looking at was his estate or at least his rental for the summer of 1990. It was beautiful, a rare gem in our neck of the woods and more like the sprawling homes near the ocean. We lived less than a mile down the road in a middle class enclave full of station wagons and yellow bug retardant lights that illuminated our front porches. Billy’s was the real Hamptons, the essence of luxury and glamour that we often saw from the backseats of our cars but never touched.
“Can we go back now?” Sally nudged as I looked for the best way to climb the small dune and get closer. The tide was starting to rise and the trail of seaweed and shell that outlined our journey was no longer visible.
“Just a sec!” I said as the younger, more Ponyboy-like one who knew that trespassing was definitely something that could get us grounded or far worse: put in jail.
“Let’s just go back!” Sally urged. “Poppy should be home by now.”
I hesitated because I wanted to feel the tennis court clay and peek in the oversized windows in search of the piano man’s own baby grand. Instead, I retreated and followed Sally as she ran along the dark blue water towards our clamshell-scattered beach that lay just across the way from Shelter Island and a distant North Fork.
When we got to her grandfather’s house, he sat reading a newspaper in the screened in porch with only the light from the grey outdoors. Sally knocked quickly and let us in.
“Poppy, can you sign Billy Joel’s autograph?” His granddaughter asked with ease knowing that he might do anything for his cherished young cutie.
He looked at her and then at me and slowly took our piece of cut loose-leaf, which we agreed, was easy enough to be the memorabilia Billy would sign if and when we “ran” into him along our shared shore.
The signature was plain, almost sloppy and intended to look like Billy was just a regular guy who happened to make it big. How could anyone deny we met the real singer? Besides, Poppy’s print made it almost true. It didn’t matter if the sun never dared to come out that day because that piece of paper instantly cured our midsummer ennui. A few days after we paraded our signed treasure around we began to get questions. Somehow our stories didn’t match up and we got caught in our adolescent lie.
Years later I heard that it was only a rumor that Billy rented that house. Still, I consider his signature to be my very first encounter with the rich and famous of the Hamptons. When I finally saw the real Billy Joel in the town of Sag Harbor, I was an adult who had outgrown my star-struck days. As we passed one another, sandwiched between the iconic American Hotel and a lineup of liquorish-colored sports cars, I realized that he was just a neighbor who also was drawn to the East End for its unparalleled sunsets and azure beaches. He was simply one of us.
When news of the Sag Harbor Cinema fire spread, I was devastated. It seemed like the entire seaside town would just fall apart without the iconic pillar holding it up. When I discovered that Billy Joel stepped in to help and donated hundreds of thousands to repair the landmark, he became more of a superstar than ever to me. I think back to the autograph and how much we wanted to be in the presence of a big shot. Now if I ever had the honor of seeing Billy walk along Main Street, I might stop him to say, “Thank you for saving our cinema. Oh, and your songs are pretty darn good too.”