I've never been a celebrity groupie and I've never really idolized anyone in the public arena.
And the older I get, the more I realize I've never heard of most of the new pop culture "celebrities" being talked about in the news and entertainment world.
But when I heard that artist LeRoy Neiman died last week, I instantly thought of my brief encounter with the man who once chatted with me for about 10 minutes as if I was the only person on the planet.
And, I'm ashamed to say, I had that conversation not knowing who he was.
The scene was the 125th running of the Preakness Stakes in 2000.
I was covering the race and its infamous infield crowd for the newspaper I worked for at the time. I happened to be standing on the edge of the track near the winner's circle just before the big race was scheduled to run.
I noticed immediately this interesting, rather flamboyant looking man as he stood near me. I remember thinking he must be part of the artistic set, because he just had that "look."
He had a glorious mustache, and he was wearing a scarf around his neck in a style that was more Bohemian and less weather-related.
We started chatting, and it was just that— small talk about Baltimore, the race, my work as a reporter, who we thought would win the Preakness, that sort of thing.
To this day, I am so thankful I didn't say anything stupid like, "So, what do you do for a living?"
And that question could easily have been posed by me after he asked me how I enjoyed writing for a newspaper.
But the Gods were with me, I have decided. They must have decided I had made a fool of myself enough times throughout the years and spared me from adding to the list that day.
So the man and I chatted for about 10 minutes or so, and then an elegantly dressed woman walked up to him, whispered a few words and left.
The man told me he had a few people to go see, and thanked me for the conversation.
Fast forward about 15 minutes later, and Red Bullet was in the winner's circle being congratulated as the victor in the second Triple Crown race.
One of the longstanding Preakness traditions at Pimlico is the painting of the winning jockey's silk colors on a weather vane that sits atop a replica of the Old Clubhouse cupola.
The colors remain on the weather vane— a horse and jockey—until the following Preakness. The painting of the winning colors is a ceremony I have always enjoyed watching.
As the winner's circle activities continued, I noticed the flamboyant man I had been speaking with standing with a group of Very Important People— or at least they looked that way.
The public address announcer then asked the crowd to draw its attention to the weather vane for the annual repainting of the silks colors.
With some literary license these 12 years later, I recall the announcer said something along the lines of "please welcome internationally known sports artist LeRoy Neiman, who will paint the silks colors of Red Bullet on the weather vane of the Old Clubhouse."
And the guy with the scarf and the great mustache climbed a ladder, picked up a paint brush and got to work.
Wow, I thought to myself, I had no idea who I had been talking to. I knew he looked familiar, but I just couldn't place the man.
Which, looking back, is probably just as well. Had I known who he was, I might have been in such awe that I couldn't have held an intelligent conversation.
The fact is, I have admired Neiman's work for years. He's known for his bright, quick, broad strokes and the simplicity with which he implies his figures.
He's been the official artist of several Olympiads, and I own several posters of his work (mass-produced, of course).
So I was saddened to hear of Neiman's death on June 20 at the age of 91.
If how he treated a nobody reporter from a little community weekly newspaper in Dundalk, MD was any indication of how he lived his life, he must have been one hell of a nice guy.