I didn’t know Robin Williams. Sure I’d met him a couple of times, waited on him a dozen or so, saw him perform locally and ran into him in the general environs of the small town that is Marin County. Plus, working in a substance-providing industry probably elevated my exposure, unfortunately. For every feel good story in every bar there is an equally painful one. Every pleasingly served chardonnay to Robert Redford is tempered with every time I’ve had to cut off Steven Adler. Booze can be a pleasant respite or an unshakeable curse. It’s one of the realities of the service industry. What follows are two experiences I had with Mr. Williams.
The last time I saw him, he sat anxiously at the table in bar waiting for someone. He wasn’t drinking alcohol and was enjoying some non-alcoholic concoction that I no longer remember. He seemed uncomfortable, but truth be told, every time I have seen him offstage he always seemed uncomfortable. In this business you learn to notice these things.
The bar was moderately busy, one deep as they say, not so busy that there wasn’t ample room to mill around. And mill around is what people did. Mr. Williams’ guest finally arrived and took a seat. Mr. Williams was always a gracious guest, perhaps his years of restaurant service at the Trident and the Sausalito Food Company still clung to him, or perhaps it was just because he was a nice guy as so many have reported. Unfortunately, just because you are nice to people doesn’t mean they are nice to you.
At any rate Mr. Williams’ guest finally arrived and sat. Unfortunately someone else also sat. For some inexplicable reason a circling lounge lizard walked over and plopped his behind right on the edge of Mr. Williams’ table. I have never before or since seen anyone do anything like that. In crowded nightclubs that sort of thing happens, but in an upscale restaurant? And to a celebrity no less.
Mr. Williams didn’t cause a scene; in fact he didn’t say anything. He simply left, followed not long after by the lounge lizard. Although that second departure was by request of the management.
Another time I was standing in line at a downtown coffee shop. In front of me stood a bicyclist in sunglasses and helmet whose clip-clopping cleats and padded shorts caused him to walk in that funny fashion so typical of bicyclists. It was just the clerk, me and the bicyclist. And all was fine. Idioms were exchanged about the weather, the mountain, etc. All was perfectly normal, except for one thing; the bicyclist was Robin Williams. But it wasn’t the comic Williams: there were no funny voice, no jokes, no rapid-fire delivery. Just a guy out on his bike on a beautiful day. Then two people came in, and everything changed. Gone was the mild-mannered bicyclist and in his place was the rapid-fire jokester complete with funny gestures and everything. Witnessed as it was from just 2 feet away the display felt awkward, forced, like he was compelled to perform for us. I left that coffee shop feeling profoundly sad, which was in sharp contrast to every single other Williams performance that I had ever seen.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• “In 1969 when I turned 21 and started bartending, Robin Williams, 18, was hired as a bus boy. He was an excellent worker and when he received his Juilliard scholarship he continued to work summers at the Trident for four years. After he achieved fame, when I ran into him at the yearly Steve Jobs-era MacWorld conferences in San Francisco he was always gracious and friendly,” said Bobby Lozoff, longtime Trident bartender and inventor of the tequila sunrise.
• Robin Williams met his first wife while he was working as a bartender in San Francisco, and later he became involved with a cocktail waitress much to his detriment. Not really an unusual story in the restaurant business.
• There’s a joke about a man who goes to a doctor to be treated for depression. The doctor advises him to go see Pagliacci, the world-famous clown, and that should cheer him up. The man bursts into tears, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci!”
Not so funny these days.