HOLLYWOOD -- I'm sipping iced green tea with pineapple infusion at a café on Hollywood Boulevard, waiting for Jessica Biel. You can't imagine the crowds and craziness here, an hour before the red-carpet prèmiere of the remake of the 20-year-old Schwarzenegger kill-fest titled Total Recall.
Directly across the avenue is Madame Tussauds palace of paraffin -- "The Most Interactive Celebrity Experience in Hollywood" -- with its terrifyingly unblinking effigies of Leo, Michael, Clooney, Chaplin, Kobe, Tupac and Shrek. Beneath my feet are the terrazzo stars of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And just down the street is the faux-Fukienese pagoda of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where Jess and I are going to steal a brief, private instant from each other's crazy lives before she goes inside to see the flick.
It's a Wednesday evening, just before the sun sets over Sunset Boulevard, two blocks away. The sidewalks are jammed with gawkers, hawkers, tourists, fawners, hoboes, geeks and bums. There are Japanese girls with pastel hair; ragged panhandlers with cavernous eyes; hundreds of Chinese mainlanders gaggled like geese by flag-waving, whistle-blowing guides. Shills for tours of film stars' mansions hunch like hyenas, waving flyers in the faces of the mob.
Delirious with our proximity to greatness, we trample the inlaid tributes to the once-famous and now-forgotten.
On this side of the street are Dennis Weaver, George Gobel, and Carole Lombard (the Jessica Biel of the 1930s). Elton Britt, an Arkansas yodeler whom my father especially liked just after the war, is immortalized directly in front of my chair. But who else remembers Elton Britt in the year 2012?
The masses stride on, walking all over Aretha Franklin, Veronica Lake, Christina Aguilera, the Munchkins, Godzilla, Kermit the Frog and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
A choir of screams from somewhere between Hooters and the Scientology building announces an arrival at the Total Recall opening. I teeter on Bette Midler on tippy-toes, but I am so far away I cannot tell if the man emerging from the limo is Colin Farrell or the third assistant director.
Now a woman walks up and tries to sell me a window seat on her bus. At Kalashnikov velocity, she rattles off the names of the immortals whose homes -- or at least whose tall fences -- we will see: Katy Perry, Ryan Gosling, Miranda Cosgrove, Kristen Stewart, Mila Kunis, Sofia Vergara, a couple of dozen more. (She might have said Tyler Perry instead of Katy, but who cares as long as they're famous?)
"Why do we love celebrities?" I ask the tout.
"People want to be like them," she answers. "People want to be their best friend, be around them, be in their presence. I tell people that the stars are just like us. They may make more money and live in nicer houses, but they're just like us."
The barker turns out to be a long-aspiring country singer named Shellee-Ann Kellee, trolling for tourists between gigs. ("A combination of Las Vegas, Nashville, and Broadway, Ms. Kellee put on a show that would make nightclub acts Sinatra and Minnelli bow with pride," a reviewer wrote a dozen years ago.)
Some nights, Shellee-Ann performs at the Roosevelt Hotel, right here in the heart of Hollywood. But most days, she drives a van around the hills, seeking out the shacks of the chosen few who made it much bigger than she.
"If a movie star says to buy something, do you buy it?" I wonder.
"Never," Kellee replies.
"If they model a brand of clothing, do you wear it?"
"If they tell you to vote for someone, do you vote for him?"
"They're so left wing, these movie stars," Shellee-Ann Kellee snaps. "They think they have the power to control people's votes. I hate that George Clooney is such a Democrat."
It is not what I expect from a semi-successful crooner from Denver who tells me that she once idolized -- and got to meet -- the delicious (and now 71-year-old) Ann-Margret.
"They should be honoured," she says. "They should kiss their stars on the sidewalk. Instead, they charge money to be in the Christmas parade."
Shellee-Ann Kellee has nothing mean to say about Jessica Biel.
Finally, it is time. I cross the boulevard and shoulder my way to the courtyard of Grauman's, with its famous hand- and foot- and hoof-prints impressed in mid-century cement: Roy Rogers and Trigger; Greer Garson; Myrna Loy; Charles Boyer; Clifton Webb; Abbott and Costello on Dec. 8, 1941, the very day after Pearl Harbor.
"ALL HAPPINESS!" carved Judy Garland, in her soul-deep misery.
A Cadillac Escalade rolls up. My Jessica is inside in a pastel-pink gown and a pearl necklace that Arnold himself couldn't lift.
"Get in! I've been looking all over for you!" she orders.
Watch the trailer for Total Recall and she'll say the same to you.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.