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Jewish World Review April 13, 2000 / 8 Nissan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The man in the seat across the airplane aisle -- 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 every day.


That's right--Goldberg. The professional wrestling champion.

And the reaction to him by others on the plane was an almost perfect representation of our new fragmented culture.

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 "Seinfeld."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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