My best friend's name was Roland. Throughout my childhood, he and I did pretty much everything together. We lived in a run-down apartment complex that had two buildings that mirrored each other; he and I lived in the same mirror apartment of Apartment I, as in the letter. At the time, our neighborhood was quickly transforming itself from a place of the poor, slightly indigent population of Santa Monica into a full-blown crack neighborhood where the difference would be represented by an apartment that used to house a small band of prostitutes replaced by a den of drug dealing hooligans who would end up preying on the rest of the neighborhood. When we weren't listening to sirens and random gunshots, we were trying to find new places to stash what little food we had where the swarms of cockroaches might not find them (but never really succeded). My mom, an uneducated diabetic who was slowly dying because she could never afford the medication she required, tried to make ends meet for us, but she lived a hard life right up until she no longer had the energy to continue trying.
As a result, Roland and I spent a lot of our time away from where we lived, getting ourselves into childhood trouble that never really amounted to anything bad. We were both good kids, so the shop owners tended to ignore us, focusing more on the real thieves and criminal elements that tended to inhabit these areas. Childhood was often a continuous search for some place safe, and this often brought us to the local mall, which had just been built, catering to the wealthier segment of this city that was slowly fighting a battle against the element from which Roland and I emerged.
Next to the super structure new mall was an old Sears building that was still struggling to remain somewhat relevant in an age that was ushering in Banana Republics and "soon-to-be-opening Starbucks" coffee shops. This was the place where Roland and I used to play hide-and-seek. The employees left us alone, as we were pretty much harmless, and we had the run of the store to do as much playing as we desired. At one point, we discovered the large men's clothing section was a great place to hide, often sneaking into the middle of the racks of clothes, where Roland always failed to look for me. It was then and there that we started to notice there was one customer who was always shopping in the men's clothing section. He was hard to miss because he has one of those faces and statures that is so memorable. I am talking about Dom Deluise.
Dom Deluise, for reasons that were never revealed, shopped at Sears almost every day during the summer Roland and I used to play in that store. And he would always recognize us and smile. We thought nothing of it because it was so cool seeing someone who was pretty much at the top of his game. My mom was definitely a fan because even though we could barely afford it, she always managed to take me to any movie that had Dom Deluise and Burt Reynolds in it.
After Roland and I were done playing games in Sears, we always walked down the street to McDonalds where we would often ask for a cup of water and then try to sneak Coca Cola from the soda machine. Every day it was pretty much the same routine.
And then we started to see Dom Deluise show up at McDonalds. Every day he would come in and eat lunch. I don't know when it started, but at one point, we were invited to sit with Dom and he would always buy us sodas. So every day for an entire summer, we had lunch with Dom Deluise, where he would talk to us about all sorts of things, none of it Hollywood related. Years later, I think what caused him to take an interest in the two of us was that we never once talked about his movies, yet he knew we had to know who he was, but all of our conversations were more about us, and the conversations were always interesting. Sometimes we'd talk about space travel, about different types of cars, and about anything that seemed to be of interest at that moment. And it was always so much fun.
Then he would part ways with us, and we'd continue on with our usual antics, and I'm sure he went back to his real life that an adult was often required to lead.
My mom could rarely afford to eat out, but every now and then she would take me out to dinner at a fast food restaurant. One evening, she decided we were going to eat at Carls Jr, which was one of our favorite fast food restaurants back then. Anyway, so I remember ordering my food, getting a tray and then walking with my mom while we were looking for an empty booth to sit. The place was somewhat crowded on this evening, and as we walked down the aisle, my mom got suddenly stiff and stopped me, pointing surreptitiously at a booth. "Look, that's Dom Deluise, the actor who is in all of those Burt Reynolds movies."
I had seen him, and at that instant, he had recognized me, his face lighting up. He stood up and said magnanimously, "Duane, so good to see you. And this must be your lovely mother."
My mom just stared at him and then back and me, not sure of what to say. But Dom continued on. "Duane and I are good friends, Mrs. Brown (he had remembered that my mother and I had different last names from our many conversations). Please join me."
So, my mom and I joined Dom Deluise for dinner, who spent the entire evening engaging my mom in a joyous conversation. My mom was obviously very nervous the entire time, but she was obviously having a great time nonetheless. When the evening was over, and we were walking from the restaurant, my mom hit me hard on the shoulder and said: "Why didn't you tell me you knew Dom Deluise!?!"
My mom got very sick and died a few years after this, but I'll never forget how wonderful of a time we had that evening. I had to move away from Santa Monica after that, so my lunches with Dom tapered off a little before that until they were just fond memories of childhood. But I have to say that they were wonderful memories.