I met a young man of 22, who had blown off his hands and face. He said he was trying to fight evil and needed to understand what it was so he built a bomb and it exploded in his face. His mother was studying a very high level of Scientology, keeping special information top secret from those who “weren’t ready for it.” After the bomb went off in Sergio’s face, his mother threw him out. She claimed the “accident” (which he likes to call a miracle) proved that her son was a negative influence on her. Sergio Obolensky was left to fend for himself on the streets – without hands, a blown-up face, and an awkward disposition.
I met him long ago at a restaurant where I was hostessing. He walked up to me and said that my emotions and vulnerability were so strong that it hit his center dramatically. Later I found out that he was the great-great-great-great-grandson of the aristocratic Prince Ivan Obolensky, of whom Tolstoy had written in Anna Karenina. Prince Obolensky helped to rule Russia with Helena. When Helena died, the prince was thrown in prison where he starved to death. Sergio would always come into the restaurant wondering if he should be there. “I feel like I’m supposed to be here right now. Do you think I’m in the right place?” he would ask. I photographed him for a group art show and the next week he told me that I had opened the doors for him. The day after I took his picture, he met someone from Rolling Stone who decided to use his image as part of a centerpiece for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue. Sergio said that my vision of wanting him to be seen by millions made it happen.
Many times I felt he was superimposed onto the earth. I always ran into him when I asked to see him. Once when I saw him he had twenty books piled on his plastic arms…books about fractals and air conditioner units, soil and space. He had some sort of disease and said he thought he was going to die soon. As he was talking to me, I saw Tom Cruise at a stoplight in a silver Porsche. Sergio smelled so badly that I couldn’t breathe and his eyes were puffy and had liquid around them. I gave him some strawberries and my telephone number and told him to call me the next day if he needed a doctor, but I never heard from him. He talked a lot about God and telepathy. He said that I was like Dorothy – the real Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (but only when I didn’t wear makeup). The next time I saw him I gave him a key to my apartment and he slept on the floor. He wanted to pay me $300, and when I refused he broke down and cried. He said that God asks him to give all these gifts to people but nobody would accept them and he has so many blessings to bestow. So I took the cash. He seemed hungry and penniless although he gave me a ruby and an emerald on my birthday, in honor of “Dorothy.” The stones are real and I still have them. Another time I was walking down the street having just come from Sam French and feeling like an actor. There was Sergio at the corner just waiting. He told me I was a hero and that the picture “I took” was a runner up for best photograph in a special issue of LIFE magazine (the image was, in fact, the photo taken by the Rolling Stone photographer). The issue was dedicated to the best photography of the year. We went to a newsstand and sure enough – the photos of Sergio Obolensky and the singer TRICKY were the runner-ups; the photo of Ben Stiller’s evolution from ape to man had won. Months later, the picture of Sergio was shown at the Guggenheim. Sergio said he had been at the library studying the mathematical equations in DNA and certain movie people as well. He said that when he said the name “Nicholas Cage” it just made sense, that it felt good in his heart: that he knew Nicholas Cage was a true Hollywood person because he was a good person; that he was serene and had virtue. We kept walking together. He said, “It’s amazing how all these people walking by don’t understand how special our meeting is.” I knew exactly what he meant.
I took him to a place called Dragon Talent; I’d been told that they like unusual-looking people. I introduced Sergio as the great-great-great-great-grandson of the aristocratic Obolensky family. I said that, according to Tolstoy himself, “what we look for in a work of art is the revelation of the artist’s soul, a glimpse of God” and that Sergio was loaded with pure light in everything he did and uttered. They said they didn’t need any more clients but thanks for thinking of them. Sergio and I parted ways.
Four years later I pulled out this story, which I’d begun writing after my earliest encounter with Sergio. The next day I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and saw a ragged, matted haired homeless man crossing the street. He was cackling madly and appeared to be in the throes of ecstasy. It was Sergio. I quickly pulled over and stopped him. We hugged in silence for sixty seconds. He had caked-on dirt all over his body and had lost an eye. I asked him how it happened and he said he didn’t remember. He wanted to change the subject to “more important matters” – that silver is the special quality in film that gives it the magic it contains; that HD doesn’t do that. He said we were spending tons of money on our space program because on Mars there is a metal that can be used to build very efficient weapons. He said the same thing can appear in different places at the same time and that’s why I can see him when I wish to do so; because our thoughts travel faster than the speed of light and we can project our energy.
I asked if I could do anything for him. He said no, that he was fine – he just needed a hug. Finally after much pressure he said, ” I guess a sandwich would be okay.” We went to the Standard Hotel. He had lost his prosthetics somewhere along the way and was maneuvering his food with a fork precariously positioned between his wrist and elbow. He spoke of many fascinating things – things I find difficult to articulate but somehow have become deeply lodged in my brain like a bullet. As we parted I asked him where he was going, what he would do. He said, “I’m like the weather. I know which way to blow.” As cool as Jack Nicholson, only without hands or an eye, and a blown-up face. I looked over and saw the singer from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, hugging someone in a heartfelt embrace.
Recently I was thinking about Sergio. I was having a day in which obstacles appeared on every road I took. I was forced to go off my usual path, and of course, there he was, at a street corner. I pulled over and sat next to him. He was rambling about something I couldn’t quite make out and then he said, “Tracey Keilly” and stopped, like the spell had been broken and he could come back. He said he remembered when I worked at that restaurant years ago on Vermont, and that all the stars that came in didn’t realize that I was the real movie star, even though I was in fact making paper baskets for french fries. I said, “Actually you were the star. If you remember, you were at that restaurant when you were chosen by a journalist to be featured in Rolling Stone’s anniversary issue. He wrote that he was deeply affected by your spirituality.” I was almost embarrassed to remind him, like when you see a famous person and don’t acknowledge that you know them. He said, “Well that’s because when I was born Mick Jagger came to me and said I was going to be in the Rolling Stones. It was planned Tracey, don’t you get it?” That’s when I saw that my ego was the last thing I ever had to worry about with him. All the usual insecurities that perpetuate arrested development were gone and I could have a pure dialogue. It was a case of learning important lessons about the human condition. He could project his greatness onto me but when I pointed out his own he couldn’t hold it.
Sergio told me that he could finally go now. He could leave the streets because this was our final meeting, so he didn’t need to be a bum anymore. He took his nubs and pressed them deep into my hands. I was scared; but I allowed myself to feel and say goodbye to him.
He had said he’d like to be a singer one day and to also get married. When he sang, his voice broke down molecules in the air and penetrated to the core of everything.
I don’t feel him here anymore.