Jewish World Review April 13, 2000 / 8 Nissan, 5760
The man in the seat
across the airplane
WE WERE SITTING at the gate at the
Atlanta airport, ready to pull away for our flight to
Las Vegas, and about five minutes before the doors
closed a passenger walked on and took the seat
across the aisle from me.
Now, there aren't many people I would get all that
excited about being on the same airplane with. Tom
Cruise? Nothing to get worked up over. Julia
Roberts? Not really. Robert Redford? Fine actor,
but the point is, everyone's got to travel, so from
time to time you're likely to encounter well-known
people. No big deal.
However . . . .
The person across the aisle was someone I could
not believe I was flying with. This was a person
who, in my mind, existed only on television screens,
not in the real world the rest of us plod through
That's right--Goldberg. The professional wrestling
And the reaction to him by others on the plane was
an almost perfect representation of our new
For a certain percentage of people on the flight--I
would say less than half, perhaps 40 or 45
percent--the presence of Goldberg caused a
palpable buzz. You could see the mouths forming the
two syllables--Goldberg! Goldberg! Goldberg!--and
those passengers made excuses to walk by his seat
to catch a closer look.
The rest of the people sensed that someone
celebrated was on board--but they couldn't quite
figure out who the person was. A passenger in front
of me apparently worked for Delta, because he
placed a call on an in-flight telephone and asked the
person he reached--evidently another Delta
employee--to look at our flight manifest on a
computer, and tell him who was in the seat assigned
to Goldberg. This fellow knew that someone of note
was in the seat--now he was asking a colleague on
the ground to find out who it was.
And an elderly woman asked Goldberg who he was
and what he did. Goldberg reached into his pocket,
pulled out a World Championship Wrestling business
card with his photo on the front, handed it to her, and
said, "Read this. It will explain everything."
Well . . . almost everything. The new rise of
professional wrestling--not to mention the rise of
Goldberg himself--is not easily explainable. The
WCW, of which Goldberg is the biggest star
(although recently he has been injured), is not quite
as popular as the World Wrestling Federation, a rival
group. Yet--in an American entertainment universe
of 100-plus cable TV channels, in which competition
for the nation's attention is fiercer than ever
before--only the most garish, the loudest, the most
instantly indelible, stand out. Quiet voices have little
chance--perhaps back in the days of three television
networks, subtlety and nuance could hope to find an
audience, but today it's a nonstop dogfight. And
wrestling is doing quite well.
Goldberg (his full name is Bill Goldberg) was once a
journeyman professional football player with the
Atlanta Falcons. The NFL used to be where
guaranteed stardom awaited, but if Goldberg were
still a football lineman, he would not have been
recognized on this flight. The smartest promoters
know that to grab the attention of the public, an
enterprise's leading men and women must be willing
to become flesh-and-blood cartoon characters.
Wrestling, right now, is accomplishing that better
than virtually any other business. The pie that is
America's attention span is being sliced into
ever-thinner pieces; Goldberg might have been
familiar to only 45 percent of the people on this
flight, but that's a bigger percentage than almost any
baseball or football player these days would get.
I don't like to bother people on airplanes, but I knew
I had to speak at least briefly with Goldberg. He
was pleasant, polite, soft of voice (in contrast to his
on-screen bellow); he was going over some material
he carried in a briefcase. He never could have made
up the gimmick that has propelled him into a
respectable portion of the national consciousness--a
pro wrestling champion called Goldberg?--but while
it lasts he does the shows and gets on the planes and
feeds the insatiable public hunger for constant
amusement, the hunger that pays his salary.
At one point the pilot announced that, down below
us, was the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. I
looked around the cabin; more eyes were on
Goldberg than were on the Grand Canyon. There
was in-flight entertainment on the plane's TV
screens; reruns of television shows were being
presented. Goldberg, earphones on, was having a
beer and laughing out loud. He was watching
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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