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Whoopi Goldberg: an eclectic life

(ran TP edition)

It's early. Really, really early. And there's this dreadlocked woman with an instantly recognizable mug sitting in the window, waving at folks as the train whisks through the gray Indiana morning.

That's right. Train. As in choo-choo.

"I love trains. I always feel like Elizabeth Taylor in Giant," Whoopi Goldberg says, looking at once serene and impish, trademark dreads pulled off her makeup-free face. Two packs of cigarettes sit next to her, virtually ignored. "I like waving to people out the window. Then about 10 minutes later, you know it hits them (that it's me)."

A hush hovers over the train, a suspended sort of peace not normally found on airplanes.

Which is exactly the point.

Because while Goldberg is open to just about anything, she does not dig planes. At all. And even though she's not as bad as Aretha Franklin, who refuses to board a plane _ ever _ her fear of flying is quite real. So, to pump her new book, the 41-year-old actor and grandmother is doing the whistle-stop thing, crossing the country from New York to L.A., riding caboose in a private Texas Cannonball car.

"I always think if the train rolls off the tracks, I could, like, jump, maybe break a leg," she says. "But if some s--- goes wrong on a plane, you're just up there."

She waxes philosophically on everything from her racial identity "(In my family, we're Seminole Indians. We're a couple of Jews from Russia. We're black and white. There's even some Chinese . . . I'm as American as Chevrolet") to her spiritual beliefs ("You couldn't really believe there was one religion that was the right one . . . I learned that there was a Higher Spirit who I had to assume had a sense of humor . . . I mean, look at the platypus") to her musical tastes, which range from the hip-hop stylings of the Fugees' Wyclef Jean to classical to Motown to African high life to seriously ethnic. ("I like a good polka.")

Her book, dubbed, appropriately enough, Book (Rob Weisbach Books/William Morrow & Co.), speaks to her eclectic approach to life. Skating between standup and soap box, Goldberg's essays are punctuated with cryptic titles highlighting the themes that obsess her, from Love ("Ain't it grand?) to Death ("I want to go doin' the do.") to Eggs ("No eggs have passed these lips. And no egg ever will.")

The book, her second (her first, Alice, a tale for the under-12 set, was published a few years ago), is at once irreverent, scathing and terribly uninhibited.

Of course, Book is funny. But beneath the humor, righteous anger is always percolating, bursting forth when the former Catholic schoolgirl takes on the pope, welfare reform and the foes of affirmative action. Politics has always informed her work.

She started out as a performance artist writing her own material. But recently she suffered through a serious bout of writer's block. Performing on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, gave her a creative buzz. She was pumped to do a book, but wasn't up for the standard celebrity memoir. ("I'm too young for that.")

Instead, she sat down with a group of friends and a court stenographer and started blabbing. When Goldberg stopped talking, she had two volumes' worth of transcripts. Then she tried to wrestle the monster of non sequiturs into something readable. But, she says, nothing made sense. Nor could she make sense of it. And so, with a two-month deadline

looming, she called in Dan Paisner to play word doctor.

If her collaborative approach to writing personal essays was a tad unorthodox, who cares? After all, this is a sister who's spent her life blowing raspberries at convention.

Sometimes, she gets in trouble. Usually, it's her mouth that does the trick. But talking is what she does. Wind her up, and she lets loose, spinning her theories on the world and how it should be.

Still, beneath the outrage, the idealism and the save-the-planet urges, there is serenity.

"You might have to phrase this in a different way," she says delicately. "But basically, I don't give a f---."

Oh, sure, there have been hurts. Like the white studio execs who touched her hair and said, "What are we going to do with this?" The directors who erased love scenes from her flicks, since she wasn't, as they put it, "sexy." The black folks who looked at her eyebrow-free, mahogany visage and dubbed her "funny looking."

The remarks stung. For a minute.

"Folks will dog you if they think you're ugly," Goldberg says. "There's nothing wrong with this face, with its pockmarks, lines and no eyebrows. In our country, to be yourself as an individual is a dangerous thing. You're supposed to go with the crowd. But it wasn't as though I went home black and came out as something else. I've always been proud to be who I am."

Just don't call her African-American.

She's American. Period.

"Black folks are really p----- off by this African-American thing," she says. "So I want to pose a question: Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier are from the islands. Are they African-American even if their background is from Trinidad or whatever? What do we do about the descendants of American Indians and free blacks in Oklahoma? African-American is a phrase that allows people to visually identify you without finding out anything about you. This bothers me tremendously. Rosa Parks . . . all those folks who got bitten by dogs and sprayed with firehoses weren't fighting to be called African-American. They were fighting for their rights as Americans."

And don't give her grief for her choices in mates of varying hues, the latest being her live-in love, actor Frank Langella.

"Why don't the brothers ask me out (instead of complaining)?" Goldberg says. "Arsenio wasn't knocking on my door. Eddie Murphy wasn't knocking on my door.

"(The tabloids) aren't going to tell you when I'm running with a brother, or with a Puerto Rican guy. "Cause that's not what's going to incite you, make you crazy, make you think I'm trying to be something that I'm not. I've been out with a lot of different kind of men. And the ones that people know about are the really famous people, who happen to be white."

She grabs a ponytail holder, working the elastic through her masses of hair, yanking and pulling, yanking and pulling, until at last the band settles into a headband along her hairline, the dreads hanging softly around her face.

Voila.

She pops out of the train, strolling through Union Station, head down, engrossed in an Internet printout charting her astrological life, looking up briefly from her reading as railroad workers grin shyly at her. She slides into the waiting stretch limo, ready to carry her through a battery of interviews and book signings.

The limo crawls down Chicago's Michigan Avenue, as Goldberg squints in the sunshine, taking in the construction and the skyscrapers and the flowers in Grant Park.

"I feel Frank Sinatra coming on. Judy Garland," she mutters, breaking into song, "Chiiii-caaaaa-gooo . . ."

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