Even the death of "minor" celebrities bring on a wistfulness, like that of Munchkin Margaret Pelligrini, and Cosmo Allegretti, who created and performed the Mister Moose and Bunny Rabbit puppet characters on Captain Kangaroo, as well as the oddly endearing Dancing Bear.
But the death of Sean Sasser denotes a different sort of celebrity. As the real-life boyfriend of Pedro Zamora on the first season of the MTV show The Real World, Sean and Pedro provided viewers with a pair of young, handsome and understated examples of gay men in a media world at the time still rife with stereotypes and homophobia. While Pedro brought a face to youth in the midst of a pandemic, Sasser's supportive nature supplemented that realistic media image with a hope that PWAs weren't always alone.
I struggle with including the famous in my fiction. But sometimes the inclusion of celebrities places a novel, and since most of my work takes place in the past, it's difficult not to include such references. I don't often care for books that take place in "Novel World," a universe devoid of pop culture references. If it's a contemporary work, such references not only share who were were, but when we were.
Here's a scene from a chapter in my debut novel, PINS. Joey has been separated from his friend and teammate Dink, after some tragic events separate them. Joey visits Dink's divorced mother under the ruse of a church fundraiser, but he really, desperately needs to know where Dink is, and how to communicate with him. Set in the time before email or common cell phone use, the news of a celebrity's death comes to him vicariously.
Mrs. Khors didn’t look quite so perky. She wore a loose sweater, jeans, two different-colored socks. “Oh, Joey. Um, look, I’m really–”
“Can I come in?”
“Um, well…All right.”
The house smelled like nothing. There were blank spots on the wall where he remembered some scribbly pictures. A few empty boxes sat forlornly along a wall. Was she moving? How could she abandon this place, the shrine where he and Dink had come together in a holy bond of goo and sweat?
“I was just actually, I had to wait for a very important phone call, so if you, well you may have to wait for a few…Um, can I get you something?”
Your son. “No, thank you.”
She mumbled, running her words together, not really talking to him, but to the sofa, the wall, the tube, anything nearby. She wouldn’t stop moving, so he didn’t sit down.
“I wanted to know how Di-Donnie was.”
“Donnie?” she said, pretending surprise. “Oh, Donnie’s fine. He’s doing his best. He…we’re trying to get the panel, or board, people, advisers, these sharp pointy-headed people with lots of forms, anyway, they’re saying maybe summer, or if he gets in another fight, three years. He’ll be visiting. I’m sure he’d like to see you. You know, I was just watching one of his favorite shows, the MTV one, with that poor boy who died.”
“Oh you know, that Cuban boy.”
“Oh. Right.” Pedro died?
“Um. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–”
“Oh, no, that’s okay, Joey. It’s okay.” She swooped toward him, gave him the shortest hug, too fast for him to even think about getting his arms around her.
Mrs. Khors seemed suddenly embarrassed by the display. Her eyes met his. “Do your parents know you’re here?”
“They’re out now. My dad’s at work. Actually I was just selling raffle tickets for–”
“What is it?”
“Raffle tickets. For the Catholic League Raffle? We got prizes and you don’t have to be in the church to win? But the money goes for the victims of a drought in Zaire.” He was goaded into another of the sisters’ activities by his mother to ‘take his mind off his own problems.’
“Oh, I’d be happy to, Can you just wait one minute while I get my checkbook?”
He stood, tying himself to the door, fending off the urge to just race up the stairs, into that room again, just to smell it or steal something.
Pedro died? He hadn’t even seen the show yet.
Perhaps it's odd to construe why such a reference is worthy without reading more of the book. I just know that every time I've read that passage, it makes me sad all over again. While I never met the other mentioned performers, I did meet Sean and Pedro at a few different events in San Francisco. I don't remember what we said, other than that I thanked them, for just being themselves.
Each of these celebrity deaths marks the end of an era, the end of childhood, of innocence, of real people who made our world different and better.
We can't bring them back, but we can remember them. And we keep on dancing through this brief ballet called life.