My first time on an airplane was in 1987. It was a DuShane family trip from San Francisco to New York City.

My family didn’t have a lot of ideas when it came to vacations. Most were spent in my grandpa’s cabin in South Lake Tahoe, walking through smoky casinos to cash in our coupons for the prime rib buffet. Dad would plop money down on big ticket dinners if they included a cultural event, like seeing a Sha Na Na or Helen Reddy performance. During the day we sat near the Tahoe shore. I was bored out of my mind.

The New York City vacation was a complete fluke. Some friends had to cancel their trip because of an emergency and gave my parents three tickets to New York. Since I was the family after thought, I had to purchase my own ticket from my hard earned money working under the table as a janitor at an office building in San Mateo.

Of course, my family even made New York City utterly pathetic. Drop the DuShanes in a city during a time of artistic amazingness, and we’ll squeeze the lifeblood out of it. We’d look for a cheap prime rib buffet or if we were lucky, stop into the Hard Rock Café to buy t-shirts that said, “Hard Rock Café New York” on them. Something that could show our sophistication when back in San Francisco.

After our invasion of New York City, mom, dad, my sister and I left from Newark Airport. The Five Buroughs stopped holding their breath at the stench of our pathetic tourism and went back to whatever happened when we weren’t around.

Flying from Newark to our stopover in St. Louis was my third time on an airplane during those few days. We buckled in, the smokers stubbed out their cigarettes and even Newark, New Jersey breathed a sigh of relief at our departure.

On the plane we couldn’t sit together as a family, so I was stuck with my sister. My parents were a few rows behind us. In 2009 she’d be diagnosed with a severe personality disorder, but in 1987 she was just a screeching pain in the ass. I careened my neck so I could enjoy the exquisite cinematic art of a film called “Outrageous Fortune”, starring Bette Midler.

As the smokers smoked and my sister infringed on more territory of my armrest, I drank as much coffee as I could since it was free. Then, I turned around and saw flight attendants around my parents. Dad had more white in his eyes than I had ever seen before. He looked like he was having a heart attack. Mom assured the stewardesses that everything was fine, but they weren’t taking her bullshit. It was dad’s first time flying that week as well and his brain flipped a switch…the one that says, we should not be this far up above ground, we’re all going to die.

My sister started asking what was wrong with dad, which turned into screaming at me for no reason, and completely losing her shit. Of course, no stewardess came to my rescue since dad was now the flight risk that may have to rent a car to get from St. Louis to San Francisco.

These days, all it takes is a reeky burp to get you thrown off a plane, but in 1987, you pretty much had to sexually assault four people, go to the bathroom on your fellow passenger and steal the captain’s hat while running up and down the aisles screaming, we ran out of gas, get ready to die.

The look on dad’s face said, I’ve got nothing to lose. His fists were clenched and he was upgraded to a passenger safety issue.

My sympathy turned to absolute fear and then turned into hatred for my family. My sister was still acting out, my dad was about to bring a plane to an emergency landing and nobody served me free coffee since all the flight waitresses were trying to figure out what to do with dad.

We landed as scheduled in St. Louis. I never really asserted my independence and would have stayed with the rest of the DuShanes while in an unknown city, waiting three hours for our connecting flight, but I had finally had it. I was done with this DuShane family shit. I whispered to my mom, “I’ll see you at the gate for the next flight,” and left my family to deal with their own psychosis.

If they didn’t make the flight, I didn’t care. In fact, I just didn’t care about anything. I was frazzled and walked around St. Louis airport, wondering if I could see the famous arch from the parking lot.

Walking to the food area I saw a crowd of people on the second floor and there were lights and cameras. I made my way up the escalator, hoping there was a football team or something newsworthy happening.

I walked right in the middle of a bunch of equipment and cameras and people were buzzing around me. I felt a rush of adrenaline while trying to figure out what was going on. Then I caught the eye of Steve Martin.


He was a few yards away so I walked right up to him. He had dirt all over his face and his clothes were ripped.

Steve, remember me, I said in my brain. I couldn’t form words. I completely forgot that when you’re watching a film on TV, the actors couldn’t see you watching them. It was a one-way communication.

Steve looked down at me with a questioned look. I was less than one foot away from him and my brain was screaming, Come on, remember when I watched you at the gas station and you were saving all the oilcans? Remember when you had that arrow in your head and told me you were a wild and crazy guy?

He talked to someone behind me and I finally figured out that he wouldn’t know me. So I just stood there, between Steve and whoever he was talking to. After the conversation, Steve looked down at me again. He didn’t smile. He just looked confused. He turned around and walked away and I was THAT close to Steve Martin.

“Extras, come this way,” a short man said.

Extras. I knew what that meant. Background people for a movie.

I followed the man with my game face, like I had been an extra for years, like this was all old hat to me, like Steve and I went way back and he actually called his agent earlier that morning to make sure I was an extra.

I stood outside with about 80 people. It was a warm day in St. Louis, but fake snow was all over the place because they were filming winter scenes. I had my trench coat on since we had just come from New York City.

I stood tall and proud. I’m one of you, I thought to the crowd of people who just looked bored.

So, I hunched over a bit and tried to look bored. Yeah, this shit sucks. Where’s the caterer when you need her, huh?

The short man came back and pointed into the crowd.

“I need you, you, you and you.”

I was one of the yous.

We were brought down to the food court that was now completely flagged off from the public. He placed me in the middle and said, “I need you to walk into the bookshop, hold for 10 seconds, then walk towards that column and off the set.”

I took my blocking like a professional.

Yep, this happens to me every day. I’ll just stand here and wait until you call action and I’ll do my scene. If you need me to stand next to Steve, just let me know. He’ll remember me.

A crowd gathered to watch what was happening in the filming area. They were the public. Joe and Jane publics. I was behind the velvet rope to stardom. There was about 30 minutes until our connecting flight to San Francisco. No problem, it was the film business. These things happen fast and I’d have time for a cup of coffee before leaving St. Louis.

It was 20 minutes before our flight. My parents and sister shimmied their way to the front of the crowd and saw that I was in the middle of the action. I couldn’t hear them, but they had big smiles on their faces. I held my blocking instruction and didn’t move. My dad pointed to his watch. I nodded.

The stewardess gave him something to calm his nerves. A hefty vodka and tonic can go a long way.

15 minutes.

I looked around and my director wasn’t in the area so I took a moment to go to where the fans were and talk to my parents.

“I’m about to be in a film,” I said.

“The flight leaves in 15 minutes. Did you want to take a later flight?” Dad asked.

I was shocked at how cool he was. Dad on vodka was pretty good.

“I don’t know, this might be done by then.”

I walked back to my mark. Right on top of my mark. Ready to go. Walk, 10 seconds, walk. And; scene.

The clock ticked. Nothing was happening. All I wanted was to be a movie star, but I really wanted to just get back to San Francisco and pretend the trip to New York never happened. I wanted to listen to Steve while he played the banjo to me later, but I was also concerned about dad flipping out again.

“10 minutes, we have to go,” dad yelled.

It was that moment in life. Do you choose to live the adventure of life, throw caution to the wind, say fuck it all and become what you’re supposed to be? Or do you take the easy way out. The decision that puts you right back where you were yesterday.

We ran as a family across the airport, the DuShane family, full speed ahead to the gate. We made the flight just as they were about to shut the doors. The flight home was uneventful. I drank more free coffee and ate peanuts.

I was THAT close to making the big time. Thus ended the DuShane family vacation and my brush with fame.

When the film, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was finally released. I recognized Steve and the dirt on his face. I saw my scene. It was the scene where Steve finally snaps, and F-Bombs the clerk at the counter. It was funny. It was a close up of Steve to a close of up the actress who also played a role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that year. The extras weren’t only out of focus; they were completely blocked by Steve’s close up. They were blurred movements. But, I was there.

The best part of my vacation to New York City was St. Louis.

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TONY DUSHANE lives in San Francisco. He's the author of Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk, published by Soft Skull Press.

He hosts the radio show (www.drinkswithtony.com) and his column Bandwidth, appears every Thursday in the San Francisco Chronicle. He also has written for The Believer, Mother Jones, The Bold Italic and many other fine publications.

DuShane is a novel writing teacher at San Francisco Writers' College, his next class starts in January. Full details will be announced next week on www.tonydushane.com.

Upcoming readings:

November 17, 2010 - Space Gallery, San Francisco
December 8, 2010 - Bawdy Storytelling at Blue Macaw, San Francisco

He also likes taking long walks in his walk-in closet.

10 responses to “Planes, DuShanes, and Happenstance”

  1. lance says:


    I’d say that was your start there pal… fame wants you in the game!

  2. Zoe Brock says:

    I’ve had a few of those confusing celebrity moments too, where your brain can’t compute that the face it’s seeing isn’t actually an old friend, but a complete stranger you’ve been watching on TV or print for years.

    Nice story. Hope your sister has mellowed out with age!

    • Tony DuShane says:

      no, unfortunately she has just gotten worse. a failed suicide attempt lead to even worse behavior. the only way i could really write about it is as a cartoon character b/c it’s that absurd.

      interviewing celebs has been a trip…..some are cool, some are a disappointment. and celebs i had crushes on, like miranda july and parker posey….i had to try not to jump their bones and just continue to engage with questions. catherine keener….if i ever interview her, i’ll jump her bones.

  3. Oh NO! So close! SO CLOSE!

  4. Hi Tony: This is hilarious. I love Steve Martin and would probably get all geeked out being around him, too!

    (I live in Oakland and read at the Clarion Alley open mic thing you hosted at Litquake. Hope to see you around!)

    • Tony DuShane says:

      very cool…i was surprised at how talented the writers were during the open mic. i thought it was going to be bearable –> horrid. i had planned to make fun of bad poets, and no one gave me any material to rip into them.

      i’m reading at rumpus monthly on feb. 8th and city lights on march 3rd. actually, i need all the people i can get to the march 3rd reading, so come out with friends and feel free to make fun of me during the q & a if i blow it.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Oh Tony,
    The accidental extra! I love it!
    This is such a great story. The details are great (what was it with Outrageous Fortune?? That movie was so damn popular) Airplanes were such a big deal back then too. Whenever you’d go away somewhere, the first thing your friends would ask was: “What movies did they have on the plane?” The second was always: “What did you eat on the plane?”
    And the line about wanting Steve martin to remember you was just perfect!

    • Tony DuShane says:

      what’s funny, well sad, but since i grew up a jehovah’s witness, we couldn’t watch R-rated movies, so being able to see the edited R-rated films on a flight was a real big deal….and we could tell all of our jw friends the story of the film when we came home. it was so taboo.

      i finally found the work around, go see films at film festivals before the MPAA rates them. oops, didn’t know that was nc-17.

      but, the final work around was getting the hell out of that kooky religion. wrote a book about it.

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