"just another worker"
By Morris Heldt
(c) 2000 by Mopam Publishing
Steve in one of his old biplanes Santa Paula, CA 1979
It was early 1979 about five o’clock on a Ventura County, California winter afternoon. Steve McQueen was back home from filming Tom Horn, and doing some prep work for his next movie, The Hunter. However, on this Friday, Steve, and his caretaker/right-hand man, Grady, were out and about doing what Steve loved: shopping for antiques and old toys in second hand stores, garage sales and flea markets.
Steve loved old things, especially from the 1930s. Since relocating to Santa Paula, California he had become a collector of 1930s memorabilia. He and his last wife, Barbara, decorated their Santa Paula ranch house in 1930s style. This was in addition to almost filling his airport hangar with old artifacts, motorcycles, and two biplanes. The more authentic the machine, gadget, piece of furniture, or toy was the better Steve liked it.
This particular Friday’s outing started no different from many others the two had taken since Steve moved to Santa Paula: Steve dressed in an old lumber jacket, jeans and wearing a baseball cap—along with a couple days beard growth was barely recognizable. He and Grady would visit every little shop they saw that looked as though it might have some authentic pieces from the past. Most people had no idea that Steve McQueen, a one-time number one box office attraction in the world, and still at the time a major movie star, was scrounging through their old items.
Many can speculate why he did this. Grady once told me, that Steve had told him, his childhood was so miserable, he wanted to recreate it with the best money could buy. Things he wanted as a child but could never have. Regardless what the reason, it was evident by his enormous collection of items, that he loved the search. In fact, he seriously considered purchasing a semi-trailer truck and travel across country to find and buy pieces from that era.
Steve loved the fact that no one recognized him. He said many times, "as Steve McQueen, I’m always asked to pay the `movie star tax'." As just plain Joe citizen, he got the same price as some guy walking in off the street. Steve made it clear he hated being taken advantage of because of his movie star status. I suppose one could believe his attitude related back to his youth, when he had nothing. Conversely, when he became rich and famous, he did not want to lose it.
This particular Friday afternoon was no different in regards to their outing. However, after their last stop at an old gun shop in Oxnard, California Steve talked Grady into stopping by for a beer at a local cocktail lounge. In Steve’s words, Grady recalled, "The old lady’s outta’ town. Won’t be back till tomorrow night, lets stop for a quick one."
Friday night at the Lobster Trap, a very nice restaurant and cocktail lounge located on the Channel Islands Marina, in Oxnard, California, was not unlike many other happy hours in such places. Men and women would congregate in hopes of meeting someone. Steve and Grady, both looking though they have just gotten off working a long, hard day of unloading trucks, or cutting down trees, took a seat at a table and ordered a couple of beers. In the background, under a spotlight, an entertainer played the piano and took request. The longer Steve and Grady sat there the more interesting it became. As more and more people came into the bar, not one person recognized Steve McQueen.
The waitress who brought them another round of beers did not even look twice at Steve. The situation prompted a conversation between Grady and Steve. Steve told Grady that he always felt that the projected image of power, and imagination, was what made movie stars popular in public. Not simply the man himself. He said if you are not in the environment to project such images, or make an effort to, in most cases you could go completely unnoticed.
It was only a few minutes later when a couple of young women sat down at a table near Steve and Grady. They were able to overhear the young women’s conversation. They spoke about meeting men who had a little money, but more importantly, a future. Grady wanted to see if Steve was right. He leaned over and introduced himself and his friend, Steve. He then offered to buy them a beer. They both refused. Steve just looked at Grady and laughed. The two young women acted so offended by the offer they got up and moved. A few minutes later, when Grady excused himself to go to the restroom, he overheard the same two young women speaking to a couple of guys. They were telling them how a couple of old workers were hitting on them—offered to buy them a drink. One of the young women stated she bet they didn’t have enough money between themselves to buy each other a drink.
Grady went back to the table and told Steve. Again he just laughed. He wasn’t the least bit bothered because he knew, if he wanted to, he could walk up to the microphone, with the spotlight on him, and instantly become Steve McQueen the movie star. However, for two young women on that Friday afternoon in 1979, they will never realize they turned down having a drink with one of the biggest movie stars of all times. Steve and Grady finished their beers and walked out of the Lobster Trap without one person knowing who had just been there.
This is a true story told to Morris Heldt by Grady Ragsdale shortly after Steve McQueen died.
(C) 2000 by Mopam Publishing
and Morris Heldt
Not to be reprinted without written permission of author.
Picture of Steve's hangar in 1979 after buying some stuff from the swap meets, garage sales and flea markets.
Another Steve McQueen article by Morris Heldt
A letter to Morris Heldt by friends of Steve's
We suggest that you go to stvmcqueen/index.html for more information on Steve McQueen
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