|The late Buddy Hackett|
It was the mid-'70s, and I was recently out of the Army and in school at the University of North Carolina. Had a room on Franklin Street (Chapel Hill's main drag) across from the campus and a few blocks from Fowler's Grocery, where I'd go once or twice a week for beer, frozen dinners, and similar provisions for a guy living on a GI Bill budget in a rooming house with several other guys, a refrigerator and a toaster oven.
Fowler's was an institution in Chapel Hill. It was famous for its meat counter and its frosty, walk-in beer cooler. It offered the staples, as well as other eclectic items I'd never seen in the grocery stores back home in Stanly County. This was long before the days of Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and similar upscale food stores. You could get things at Fowler's that you just couldn't find anywhere else.
So I was in Fowler's one night, took a left at the end of the canned soup section, I think, started down the next aisle, nearly bumped into this pudgy guy pushing a shopping cart in the opposite direction. Looked up, and I thought "Jeez, that guy looks like Buddy Hackett."
If I remember correctly, his cart was pretty well loaded. There was no one on that aisle except Buddy and me. I went to the end of the aisle, turned right, and headed up the next aisle. There was Buddy again, only by now he'd been recognized by some of the other shoppers. And he didn't seem too happy about it.
I didn't hear what the first person who recognized him said to him, but whatever it was, Buddy launched into a stream of profanity-laced insults. The woman who'd spoken to him just stood there with this sickly smile frozen on her face as old Buddy sailed away with his shopping cart, leaving her in the wake of his hysterically funny, profane insults.
What was Buddy doing in Chapel Hill? I didn't dare ask him, but he was probably taking part in the famous rice diet program that once was conducted at the Duke University medical school. As you probably know, dear old Dook is only about 10 miles down U.S. 15-501 from Chapel Hill.
It was, so I was told, extremely expensive to go through the rice diet program. Many tubby celebrities went through it in those days. The ricers often came to Chapel Hill to presumably escape the confines of the rice diet's restrictions. My guess is that Buddy was playing hookey from the program and had ducked into Fowler's to grab a few off-the-record carbs before heading back to Durham. (The New York Times reported in 2005 that Hackett was known for ordering pizzas for fellow dieters during his visits to Duke.)
Anyway, Buddy caused quite a stir as he pushed his cart through Fowler's, and he was giving everybody absolute hell and you could watch their smiles of recognition slowly morph into this look of shocked horror as they realized they were being sliced to pieces by the sharpest tongue they'd probably ever encounter, and they were powerless to protect themselves or even respond. I mean it was non-stop, take no prisoners. Buddy was talking out of the side of his mouth in that nasal, sort of high-pitched Noo Yawk accent, and he was cutting people down left and right.
I wish I could remember some of the insults he flung at people, but, as I said, it was a long time ago and I wasn't taking notes. I will say this -- he was profanely articulate and funny, and he kept it up even as he went through the checkout line, and I just remember a lot of numb, silly smiles when he left, or, rather, made his exit.
So, bon voyage Buddy, and thanks for a memorable improv performance.
Editor's note: Long ago, in the frontier days of the Interwebs when we were at the mercy of dial-up landline connections and busy signals, I was an occasional contributor to a lively blog called Side Salad. It was produced by Jeff Houck, whom I've known since my days in the South Florida journalism wars of the last century. Jeff is a very funny guy with the quickest wit I've ever met. He's the guy who instantly comes up with the sparkling situational one-liner that you might think of two weeks later. I wrote some stuff that I thought was funny, and Jeff was kind enough to post it on Side Salad. That wonderful blog is no more, alas. But Jeff has agreed to let me dig up some of my stuff from the archives and re-post it on Drye Goods. So here's the first one--a recollection of the time I bumped into the late comedian Buddy Hackett in the aisles of a Chapel Hill grocery store. It was posted on Side Salad on July 9, 2003, shortly after Hackett's death on June 30. Please note that I'll probably tinker a little with some of these re-posts. I just can't leave stuff alone.