"Tell me when strangers start recognizing you," I whispered to Levi Johnston in the noisy foyer of Glacier BrewHouse last week. He lifted his chin and let it fall in agreement but didn't make eye contact.
"Most of the time," he said, "they just stare."
Levi was dressed up for dinner with me, photographer Marc Lester, and his advisors, criminal defense attorney Rex Butler and private investigator Tank Jones. He had on nice leather shoes, slacks and a designer T-shirt under a gray North Face jacket. Up close under the restaurant lights, I could see that his facial hair was patchy and his cheeks were round and soft. He's only 19, but that's easy to forget.
Of all the story lines in the Palin family soap opera, I have a soft spot for Levi's. Part of it is because he's so familiar. He could be my brother or my cousin or a thousand other Alaska hockey boys winding their way through adolescence right now with their frayed ball-cap brims and muddy pickup trucks and Copenhagen back-pocket rings.
It's a twisted, Wasilla-style Cinderella story. A regular kid, dealt an unlikely hand, becomes a celebrity.
First he and the governor's daughter got pregnant. Then the governor became a vice presidential candidate and he found himself in a suit for the first time on stage at the Republican National Convention. Then his mom happened to be charged in a very high-profile prescription drug case. And then he and Bristol Palin broke up and it made international news. Now paparazzi stalk him, and teenage girls scream after him in airports and it seems the world can't get enough of his relationship with the Palins, his Tiger Beat looks and all the things he might be thinking but doesn't say.
And he's taking full advantage of it.
He did "Tyra" and "Larry King Live" and "Today." He was photographed shirtless for GQ Magazine. He called a press conference attended by the New York Times. The day after our dinner, he was flying to New York for a photo shoot with Vanity Fair. After that it was California for a cameo for a television show. Guiding him through it all: Rex and Tank.
Mainly I've gotten to know Rex in a courtroom, listening to him defend his clients, rough young men from Mountain View and Fairview and Muldoon charged in high-profile cases, drive-by shootings, homicides. I've seen him remind judges about his clients' mothers and church attendance and babies at home. I've seen him take control of their story lines. I asked him how he talks about Levi.
"If I had to pick a theme for where he's at now, I'd say coming out from under the bus," he told me.
The Palins used him for image purposes. They discarded him. But he was coming back on his own terms.
Rex likes to explain Levi's situation parable-style. The
story begins with a man in a house. It starts to rain. Then comes a flood. The National Guard comes by in a truck. They ask him if he wants to be rescued. The man says no. The Lord will take care of him, he says.
The rain continues. Water rises to the second floor. Along comes someone else in a motorboat. The man refuses help. The Lord, he says, will take care of him. The rain keeps up.
Soon the man is standing on his roof. A helicopter appears overhead, dangling a rope. The man doesn't take it. He drowns. In heaven he asks God why he didn't save him.
God says, "I tried three times. Why didn't you save yourself?"
As unlikely as it seems, the Palin attention is Levi's helicopter, Rex says.
"And he is taking the rope."
Tank, Rex's right-hand man, is one of the largest and best-dressed human beings I've ever encountered. The first time I met him, years ago during a murder trial, he was wearing a suit made of enough white pin-striped material to construct a very stylish two-person tent. Like Rex, Tank is a brilliant storyteller.
The dynamic between him and Rex is kind of like a cross between Perry Mason and Def Comedy Jam. Levi is the perfect straight man. All three of them carry BlackBerries and Rex has a Bluetooth headset permanently in his ear. A few times I thought he was talking to me, but he was actually on the phone.
"You get used to that," Levi told me.
While we waited for our table, Rex riffed with the hostess about Tank's size, which has been noted by so many reporters, it's become an ongoing joke. Rex queried the hostess. Did they have extra food? Because Tank could eat. He's a big guy. She led us to a table in the back of the restaurant. Let Tank go first, Rex told her, to clear the path.
Levi met Tank and Rex at Fred Meyer in Wasilla while they were representing his mother, Sherry Johnston, who was going through court proceedings for felony charges for dealing Oxycontin. Sherry asked them to help. Tank approached him first, but Levi ignored him. Two weeks passed with media camped on his lawn in Wasilla, and then Levi dialed Tank's number.
Tank held his hands four feet apart. "He had a list this long of people who had called."
They are still getting calls several times a day from across the globe.
Now Tank and Levi talk a half-dozen times a day. The first time I met with them, Tank was late and Levi wouldn't talk to me until he got there. He just kept re-dialing his BlackBerry. Rex told me that Tank will take Levi's calls even when he won't take his. When Tank finally arrived, I could see Levi relax.
"When you hang out and watch them you can almost think they grew up together," Rex told me.
After we got to the table, Tank went to the bathroom, and Rex ordered a beer pitcher full of coffee instead of Tank's customary cup. Tank came back and raised his eyebrows wearily at his super-sized coffee.
"There's some funny-ass people 'round here," he said.
Rex was laughing so hard he was making choking noises and Levi was red and tearing up. He could barely get out, "You want some cream?"
A busboy came by and filled our glasses. He and Levi knew each other from before Levi got famous. They exchanged heys. He told Levi that he tried to call, but that his number didn't work. Levi told him that he has to change his number a lot. As the boy walked away, I caught something a little sad in Levi's expression. A lot of friends have sold him out, giving details about his life to reporters, Rex told me. I asked Levi about it.
"I lost all the friends that are trying to do that. I let 'em go a long time ago," he said. "I know which ones I can trust now."
That would be Tank, Rex, a cousin and a couple of old hockey buddies, he said.
Over all the months of watching Levi on television, I kept waiting for him to seem fake or say something stupid. But he kept coming across as himself. He was critical of the Palins, but not mean. He avoided pettiness and he stayed on his "a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell" message. For a kid from Wasilla who isn't fond of talking, his public persona had some polish.
And that came from taking advice.
Rex only has a few rules. Speak from the heart and don't lie. Take care of the people at home, because they're the ones who matter. Don't be petty. Don't engage with your critics. Be organized. Stay connected to your roots.
By the time our food arrived, I noticed the people at the table behind us had stopped talking and were eavesdropping full-time. Levi kept looking at his BlackBerry. I wondered if he were texting a girl. Earlier, when I had asked if he was single, Rex jumped into our conversation and said, "he's not married, you can put it that way." I resisted the urge to go into Bristol territory.
Levi calls Wasilla "the 'Silla." Paparazzi don't mess with him in "the 'Silla." He says he feels most normal there. He works out a lot. He goes to a roofing job and spends time with baby Tripp, who is crawling now. I asked if he was nervous when he went on television.
"You go in there, and say the truth, and it's actually pretty easy," he told me. "I know pretty much what they are going to ask."
First, they mainly wanted dirt on Palin and Bristol. Tank, who goes with Levi to all of his interviews, developed a set of signals to help if Levi is having trouble on camera. There's an array of stock answers. A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell. I just want to take care of my boy. No comment. And, if it's really getting uncomfortable, ask Tank Jones.
He doesn't like getting his make-up done, but cameras don't bother him. He's thinking about becoming a model or an actor.
It was time to order. Levi got a cheese pizza and salad with ranch dressing. I asked him if he thought acting would be hard.
"Naw," he said. "Ain't nothing hard if you put your mind to it."
The waiter came by and asked if we wanted dessert. Rex pushed back his chair. They needed to go home and pack for New York.
It's not easy to get an interview with Levi. Tabloids are out. Rex turned down The New York Times because they were too pushy. He also didn't appreciate it when a reporter ambushed Levi with a microphone. "We're CNN! We're CNN!" Rex recalled them saying.
"Our position was, 'We'll be seeing you. We'll be seeing you,' " he said.
Being selective is part of maintaining mystery around his client, Rex said. He didn't allow him to sit for too many interviews because there were some parts of the story that wouldn't be revealed until he writes a book.
So far, Levi hasn't turned his fame into serious cash, but Rex and Tank think he's poised to change that. Journalists are asking him more about himself now, rather than focusing on the Palins.
"People want to know more about what Levi knows," Rex said.
I asked Levi what he thought people wanted from him. He was quiet for about 15 seconds.
"I don't know," he said.
Tank came to the rescue. Americans love an underdog, he said.
"People might criticize him and say, "Well, hey, he is trying to get his 15 minutes of fame. If I was him, I would get 15 and an hour and a week and month and a year. Because he did not ask to be put in this situation. This is the cards that was dealt to him. So now what do he do? Go work at McDonalds? So people can ask him, as he makes $8 an hour, "Hey, how's Sarah Palin? How's Bristol?"
No, it wasn't going to be that way. Levi didn't want revenge, he just wanted to make something of himself, Tank said.
Levi glanced sideways at a table behind us where some might have been taking pictures of him with their phones. I asked them what kind of offer they were hoping for. They started throwing out ideas. A book. A movie. Levi wasn't opposed to modeling underwear for Calvin Klein. Maybe he could host something, he suggested. But on second thought he didn't want to do it alone.
"We gonna make our own show one day," he told Tank.
"I don't know what it's gonna be, but it's gonna be sweet, I'm telling you."