When I heard that Sidney Poitier had died, like so many fans I was sad that such a talented actor will no longer be among us. I loved all his films, from Lillies in the Field, for which he won an Oscar, the first Black performer to do so in the best-actor category, to In the Heat of the Night, to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and, my favorite, To Sir with Love, which I have watched probably a thousand times.
But I had a more personal story that I focused on. Many years ago, Mr. Poitier lived in my apartment building in New York City. We didn’t share an elevator bank, so I didn’t see him a lot. Often I would be aware of his presence in the building when I would see one of his guests waiting in the lobby to be sent up to his apartment. (Paul Newman, on one occasion.)
On Halloween, I would take my children trick or treating around the building. One year, he opened the door – much to my surprise – and gave my son and daughter sugarless gum. (Of course he did!)
My mother frequently visited me and one year she was in the lobby when he walked in. I hadn’t told her he lived in the building, not because I was hiding something from her, but because it didn’t really seem that important. When she saw him, being a big fan, she quickly scurried after him into the elevator. Asking him for an autograph, she produced a tattered envelope which he graciously signed. When she came upstairs, I tried not to show her that I was upset. There’s a well known rule in New York, and particularly in apartment buildings, that celebrities are left alone. My mother, not living in the city, hadn’t gotten the memo.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that my mother was in the beginning stages of dementia. I thought it was a little out of character for her to be chasing someone famous. She barely remembered it years later. And I was grateful that Mr. Poitier had been so understanding, perhaps being aware, more than I was at the time, of her condition.
When I texted my children that he had died, my daughter said, “Grandma is tracking him down in heaven.” My son was even more specific: “She’s waiting for an autograph at the gates.”
If she is, I know he will be as gracious as he was so many years ago.
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