I’ve had a bit of writer’s block lately. So today I decided I will simply tell a story about an extraordinary day in my childhood. Actually, it’s more like a very long overdue (31 years to be exact) thank you.
The year was 1986. The place was Long Island, New York. I was turning 16 that June and later that summer my family was moving across the country to Southern California. Because of these momentous occasions, my parents were treating me to a very special birthday celebration and were taking myself and my three best friends to Montauk (a fancy beach town at the tip of Long Island) for the weekend.
So rocking my 80’s hair with my “wings” that never quite flipped properly, thick black eyeliner, boxy t-shirts four sizes too big and many Billy Joel CD’s (damn, now I feel old because they were actually probably CASSETTES), we set off.
Let’s talk about Billy Joel for a minute. The six-time Grammy winning, 150 million world-wide record selling, songwriter/singer is one of the best selling artists of all time. And in the 80’s he was at perhaps the peak of his fame…truly huge. But in the 80’s on Long Island he was absolute ROYALTY. Forget Madonna, forget Michael Jackson – there was no one bigger than Billy. And like any self-respecting Islander, I was a diehard fan.
Of course I owned all of his albums, but I also had all of his sheet music and his songs were the only saving grace of my years of tedious piano lessons. Being able to pound out “Piano Man” on the keyboard – man, I should’ve been the life of every 80’s party I was never invited to. To top it off, Billy Joel was from Hicksville, the town where I attended school my whole life. He was our high school’s pretty much only claim to fame, and what fame it was!
Getting back to Montauk….one of my friends on our trip owned a boat docked at the local marina. He had told us that Billy Joel had a boat in the same marina, not far from his. He had never seen him there so I didn’t even want to consider the possibility that Billy Joel himself could actually be there. He probably had TWENTY boats all over the globe. But I was excited just to see one of them.
Saturday morning we went to the marina to check out his boat, the “Sea Major” (clever, no?). If it’s possible to be star-struck by a boat, I was. Here I was, standing in front of something that Billy Joel OWNED. That he TOUCHED. That he maybe LOVED.
After Billy Joel boat stalking day one had ended, we went and ate and played and had a great time in Montauk. I’m assuming. Because I can’t actually remember any other part of the weekend that didn’t happen at the marina.
On Sunday I just wanted to go back and stare at Billy’s boat some more (remember, diehard fan). We went to the marina and noticed that the door to the cabin on Billy Joel’s boat was open. And – get this – there was a maintenance guy on the boat! I could not believe my luck at being able to get a look at Billy’s Joel’s maintenance guy. So my friends and I all go strolling coolly and casually by. Right as we arrived at the front of the boat slyly trying to peer in, the maintenance man turns around in the doorway of the cabin and says, “Can I help you guys?”
And, as I’m sure you have already guessed, this was no maintenance man. This was Billy Joel himself, in the flesh, alone, standing six feet in front of us, talking to ME. One of my friends grabbed my shoulders and pushing me forward slightly, exclaimed, “she’s your biggest fan!”
I wish I could say I remained cool and casual. I wish I could say I at least smiled and said hello. I wish I could say I did anything but what I actually did – which was to turn and run away down the dock like a bat out of hell.
And I guess because they weren’t lunatics like me, my friends stayed and chatted up Billy Joel while I hyperventilated a few slips down. Apparently, telling him we went to Hicksville High School was all the common ground we needed. They came to find me a few minutes later, begging me to go back to his boat. “He’s SO nice!” “You HAVE to talk to him!” “You will never forgive yourself if you don’t go!” Mortified, I finally caved and mustering up what little dignity I had left, headed back. Upon my sheepish return he asked, “You guys want to come on my boat?” and held out his hand to help us board.
In total disbelief of what was happening, I grabbed his hand and we all hopped onto the Sea Major. He invited us into the cabin, told us to have a seat and just started talking with us about Hicksville, about high school, about California, about other stuff I can’t recall now. He had just had his daughter months earlier and he asked if we wanted to see his photo album. So we’re sitting on his couch, flipping through his photos and he’s like, “that’s us at the park” and “that’s my wife giving the baby a bath”. Mind you, his wife at the time was Christie Brinkley. The whole thing was totally surreal.
He was truly the most genuine, most humble, most gracious guy you can imagine. Meanwhile, my parents had gone for a walk earlier and returned to find us gone. Suddenly, I looked out the cabin door and saw them walking past the boat. “Hey guys! In here!” we yelled. They stopped and turned, “What? What are you guys doing in there?” “Hanging out with Billy Joel!” we yelled back. Billy went outside, introduced himself to our parents and then invited them on board as well.
After some more chatting with everyone, he happily took photos with all of us before our parents finally forced us to leave. We thanked him and said our goodbyes, then went back to my friend’s boat where I promptly and completely freaked out all over again.
I remember insisting that only Billy Joel music could be played on the two hour drive home and my dad surprisingly obliged. I’m sure even my parents were impressed by the events of the afternoon. Over the years I’ve thought many times about writing him a thank you letter for being so incredibly cool to us that day. And not that he’ll ever read this but I just want to say thank you, Mr. Joel, for being everything I always thought you were. I couldn’t imagine a better 16th birthday gift and end to the the New York chapter of my life.