I Met Barry Manilow... I Think
by Ronda Claire
From the first time I heard his voice, I have been a fan of Barry Manilow. Nice, clean, sweet songs sung with an incomparable voice by a guy who wasn't too bad to look at either.
Falling in love with such songs as “Daybreak” (what a positive message!) and “Twenty-four Hours a Day” (well hidden, but so good), I had to have these tapes with me when I took a cross country bus trip from Illinois to Texas one summer.
I made a list of what I wanted to take with me: cassette player, tapes, extra batteries, headphones. While I sorted through my collection, I couldn't get Barry Manilow off my mind. Every time I reached for a tape, I thought of a song. Every time I thought of a song, it was one of his. “Daybreak” kept running through my mind to the point of almost not wanting to hear it for real. Yeah, that lasted until it played while I was packing.
The trip began at 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday and would come to a much anticipated end on Saturday evening. I was ready. Had my notepad and pen; little reading light and my songs.
We arrived in St. Louis just as dawn was breaking. There wasn't much of a sunrise so the misty blue sky offset the last of the city's lights. At the terminal, we changed buses. And that's when he got on.
At first I really didn't pay much attention to the guy. He looked familiar, but many people do--for whatever reason we see someone and swear we know them and either figure out that we do or finally forget about it.
But this guy was different. What on earth was so familiar about him?
He was traveling alone and friendly enough. Not really social, but not rude at all. He sat in the middle of the bus. I was in front. As the passengers boarded a friendly woman stepped up and looked around for a seat. Preferring to sit alone as long as I could, I'd had my bags in the seat next to me. Though it's sometimes unavoidable, I was trying not to have someone too chatty next to me. But this girl looked so nice I invited her to sit down with me.
We hit it off immediately. She was going to Little Rock, and I to El Paso. We had enough of a ride ahead of us to get involved in some good conversations and talked about where we lived, why we were traveling, and what our interests were.
I'd finally realized who the “mystery man” reminded me of. I swore he was Barry Manilow, but why on a bus? He was writing his autobiography at the time and I'd read somewhere he was learning how to drive. When a person lives in New York City or a similar metropolitan area, so much public transportation is available that the need for a car can be minimal. But why on a bus across the U.S.?
But then again, why not? And why was he continually taking notes?
So I thought I'd see if I was imagining things or not. I said to my seat mate, “I have a question for you, but I don't want you to answer me out loud.”
With a puzzled look she said, “Ok. What?”
I wrote on a piece of paper, "Do you know who Barry Manilow is?" I have actually met some people along life's way who did not.
I wrote, "turn around and look about halfway back on the right side."
I'm sure she thought I'd lost it by then judging by the look she gave me, but she turned, lifted up slightly in her seat and said almost too loudly, “O MY . . . God!” then turning back to me with a lower voice continued, “Do you think it's him?”
Trying not to giggle at her reaction I answered, “I don't know. Why would he be on a bus?”
“Well, why not?” she countered.
We tried to keep our suspicions quiet and were fairly successful until we stopped at a restaurant along the Missouri/Arkansas border. We separated long enough to see what we could find out but ended up eating lunch with the mystery still between us.
By the time the bus stopped in North Little Rock we'd exchanged addresses . She got off, but he stayed around for the transfer to the next bus. Luckily, I was also transferring.
We had a layover of an hour and a half and I walked to the nearby K-Mart. After a scary walk back trying to avoid someone I suspected of following me, I arrived safely in the bus station only to find the – if nothing else – Barry look alike – sitting alone.
“Hi,” I said trying not to be obvious while I studied him.
“Hello.” He didn't seem eager to speak, but was polite.
I sat down across from him and started a brief conversation about the bus trip. We talked awhile and the more he said, the more convinced I was that it was him. But still I couldn't be sure.
I kept wanting to say, "You know, you'll think I'm crazy but you really remind me of Barry Manilow," but I had such a strong feeling he'd smile and answer, "that's because I am" that I figured I'd faint dead away and that would cause another situation. So I, regretfully to this day, kept quiet.
Never gave a thought to get a picture. Had my camera with me for those gorgeous southwestern sunsets and beautiful foothills of the Rockies, but never gave a thought to somehow sneak a photo of this guy.
I thought I'd try something and it actually ended up piquing my suspicions even more, yet still not giving me an answer. The town I live in once made a claim that “Barry Manilow got his start here . . .” and being the curious sort I'd read the article in the local daily way back then which told of how he'd worked the circuits before he became famous and indeed had played piano and sung at a long since gone restaurant called The Little Corporal. Because Kankakee isn't exactly nationally known – well for some things, but in general, I decided that if this was him, he'd certainly have a reaction.
As the story goes, he was told he had little to no talent and was fired. What a giggle! Even so, after he hit worldwide success, and would have concerts in Champaign, 70 miles south, it was told that he'd stop in at the Corporal and entertain for a little while on his way down . . . or back to Chicago or whatever.
So as we talked, this mystery guy and I, he mentioned he was taking the bus across country to visit his mom who lived in Bel Aire (at the time, Manilow's mom lived there).
He also mentioned, not that it wasn't obvious, that he was from New York City. “Brooklyn. I'm from Brooklyn,” he'd said, nearly knocking me over. Because guess where Barry's from?
“I'm going to visit my aunt in Canutillo, Texas,.” I offered, preparing myself for the next few sentences. “It's near El Paso. I live in Illinois, about an hour south of Chicago.”
“Yeah,” he smiled, “where?”
The flicker of recognition in his eyes was a Kodak moment. “Really. Huh. Kankakee. Yeah. There's a unique town. Nice place though. The river's sure pretty.”
And it was all I could do not to say, "You know, you remind me of ..." because now I was convinced it was him. But now what? Do I say "I know who you are?" Do I keep my mouth shut and let him have his privacy? Is he, if it is him, wondering why I'm not reacting or asking him questions or for his autograph? Does he wonder if I even recognize him?
“It is. We have a lot of parks by it. Nice to go sit at sunset.” And the conversation continued a little longer about Kankakee, about Brooklyn and New York City and its beauty and dangers, and how long it was taking to travel cross country on the bus.
Finally he stood up and said, “Well it was nice talking with you. Thanks. My bus is here and I got to get to Bel Aire. You know how moms worry when their kids are not with them.” And we laughed and I agreed. Fathers were just as bad.
So we said our goodbyes and I let him walk off. Just like that. Never asked, never mentioned the songs I had with me, never got to know for sure.
But I'll tell you what. If that wasn't him there were enough coincidences to make a person think twice.
I still wonder if that was Barry Manilow on that Continental Trailways bus, and if it was, I hope he enjoyed the rest of the trip as much as I enjoyed talking with him.
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