NEW YORK — This is the kind of place Bill Cosby feels comfortable in, a coffeehouse in the Village, just a belly laugh away from the Gaslight Club, where, half a lifetime ago, Cosby began to take off as a stand-up comedian.
"Real people live here," Cosby said. Idly, he used a napkin to wipe "years and years of wet sugar" off the battered table. "You can leave a place at 3 in the morning, look up at those apartments over the clubs and the restaurants, and you know that real people live there."
Stardom a Mere Hope
Cosby has been hanging out around here almost as long as "The Fantasticks" has been playing, right around the corner. Twenty-seven years ago, when that little musical opened, Cosby was still hoping for stardom. Mamma wanted him to be a teacher, but Cosby thought he could teach the world to laugh.
"I think I'm teaching now," he said. "I'm not in front of the classroom, but I think I'm teaching."
The way Cosby teaches is by sharing. On his wildly successful weekly television show, Cosby shares the vagaries of family life. When he decided to share the joys and travails of paternity, in a book called "Fatherhood," the response was so overwhelming that Doubleday found itself printing an astounding 2.6 million hard-cover copies.
Now, at 50, "the big five-oh, yeah," Cosby is taking the world under his wing as he confronts the conundrum of getting older in a book called "Time Flies." Doubleday is so confident about the marketability of the author and his subject that it has issued an unprecedented first-run printing of 1.75 million hard-cover copies.
Here are some of the lessons "Old Cos," as he playfully refers to himself, addresses in a book so slender and so filled with fat-food-humor that his detractors have dubbed it "McBook":
-- The rest of the world is getting younger, especially the people in charge. "Oh yes, of course," Cosby remembers one youthful TV executive impatiently telling a writer who had mentioned World War II. "That was the one with Japan, wasn't it?"
-- Anything green is good for you, and most of the rest of the stuff is pure poison to the aging body. "Are you eating food?" Cosby said his doctor asked him. When the answer was affirmative, his doctor advised him, "Well cut down, especially the stuff that has taste."
-- Memories play funny tricks, for example, erasing people's names. Counsels Cos in one memorable exchange with his brain: "Don't forget the name of your wife." To which the other half of his brain replies, "Now how could I forget what's-her-name?"
-- That first gray pubic hair is a real shocker. Lately, Cosby writes that he has been wondering, "Would I be too vain if I started using Grecian Formula in a place that only my wife and doctor ever see?"
That last revelation has raised more than a few critical eyebrows, gray and otherwise. The inevitable question, if one can pose such impertinence to a man who has achieved the status of cultural icon, is, why should the world care about Cosby's first gray pubic hair?
Sipping cappuccino from a tall glass, Cosby bristled. There is no hidden message in that disclosure, he said, nor does it venture into the realm of questionable taste.
"What it says is, there is a change in the color of your hair in places you don't think it's going to happen. You never think, 'My God, it's going to happen there , in that area," Cosby said, somewhat testy because one week after the book is out, this is a subject he has already been called on more than he would like. One unkind reviewer even challenged Cosby, champion of the family and so much that is wholesome, for stooping to what he called "genital humor."
'He Didn't Have to Write About It'
"It was as though the person was saying, 'He didn't have to write about it,' " said Cosby.
But Cosby's musings on his private areas do seem curious in the context of a man who has protected his wife of 23 years, Camille, and his five children and his private life with ayatollah-like fierceness.
"That's because people take advantage of a private life," Cosby said. "They like to use phrases like--" and his voice deepened, Mystery Theater-style, "the dark side-- tah-dah ."
"I think otherwise it turns a person into a disposable article," he said.
Cosby's upper East Side town house is his sanctuary. His family, carefully shielded from the press under ordinary circumstances, figures prominently in the new book, to the point that Cosby writes of his wife's forays to a health spa he calls "Camp Happy Thighs," and mentions the difficulties he has in what would politely be called intimate moments.
"In spite of the profound love I have for my wife," Cosby's book discloses, "sex at my age has become exhausting, which leaves me yearning for a younger body, or longing for a good nap."
All he is saying, Cosby insisted, is that at 50, "you're in the strange, uncomfortable position of accepting the fact that your, well, your machinery is not running as well as it used to."