Last year, several magazines proclaimed David Beckham the most recognized man on Earth. That was probably true everywhere but in the United States.
My wife, Irene, and I were on a flight to London at the time, comfortably ensconced in business class. Nature called. The bathrooms on this flight were situated between business and first class, and I found myself lining up next to a scruffy looking young man. He wore a T-shirt that could have stood a wash and torn jeans. A baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes. He caught my attention only because I thought he was a poor candidate to be in first class.
I have flown often enough to know that his was the preferred dress of many high rollers, though. So I decided he was either a Wall Street wizard or a rock star.
Our eyes met for a split second as I sized him up. He flashed me a quick smile. It was a smile that celebrities use to say, "Yes, it really is me." Then he disappeared into the bathroom, leaving me totally unenlightened.
I thought no more of this until we landed at Heathrow. On our way to the exit, my wife and I found ourselves directly behind the young man and his family. Next to his stylishly attired wife, the man's shabby dress stood out. She was very slender, with the sculptured look of a model. She balanced atop five-inch-tall stilettos, wearing a Cockney style hat and large amber-colored glasses. This exotic-looking couple had two lovely children.
In the scrum that precedes the plane exit, we were shoved tightly against the couple at the cabin door. As it opened, we were swept along in that group egress that resembles a cattle drive.
Nothing could have prepared us for what happened next.
The moment we reached the lobby, an explosion of camera flashes blinded us. A cordon of police surrounded our group and the officers urged us to keep moving. Microphones were thrust at us from all directions. Photographers continued to blast away.
We now knew that the young couple in front of us were major celebrities of some sort. What the police did not know was that my wife and I were accidental participants in this caravan. The officers were chanting a mantra now, "Keep moving, keep moving," so we did. Several film crews walked backward while firing questions at the scruffy young man, who took it in stride. Obviously, he was used to being mobbed. He walked straight ahead, answering questions as he went.
As we walked, smiling at the cameras, my wife turned to the nearest policeman and quietly asked, "Who is that?" The officer gave her a raised eyebrow and then laughed. Seconds later, he realized that we really didn't have any idea who it was we were walking with, and ejected us from the entourage. "BECKHAM!" he cried. When this drew a blank, he tried again, "FOOTBALL!"
With that he ran off to join his comrades. We watched the sea of paparazzi disappear into the terminal.
So now we knew the young man's name was Beckham and he played football. To an American, "football" means large hulking brutes wearing 50 pounds of body armor. We had no idea this 20-something man was the captain of the English national football (soccer, to us) team and a midfielder for Manchester United. He was being traded to Real Madrid, another pro team, for some $41 million.
We picked up our bags and made our way to the subway. The "Tube" now has TV monitors on board showing BBC news 24 hours a day. Irene and I settled into our seats and were suddenly staring at ourselves on television walking with David Beckham. Not five minutes had passed since this had happened; yet there we were on national television.
I found this quite amusing until I noticed the fellow across from me staring intently as he looked from TV to us and back again. Then I realized the entire car was doing the same. An older gentleman rose and started to approach us when our stop arrived and we hurried off.
We had a good laugh about it until we jumped into a taxi to go to our hotel. The driver was wearing a soccer jersey with the number 7 and the name Beckham emblazoned on the back.
That night in our room we watched the BBC, endlessly seeing ourselves walk along with Beckham. After that, CNN was kind enough to explain to us that his wife was a former Spice Girl and together they were more popular than the British Royal Family.
In the morning I stepped outside to pick up our complimentary copy of the Daily Mail and there we were on Page 1, just David and us.
I kept a copy of the Daily Mail as a souvenir, but the photo is so grainy our friends joke that it's not really us.
Our story has made for endless dinner conversation, but I wonder: Do Mr. and Mrs. Beckham ever ask, "Who were those people?"