The man I knew but never met


The best are beloved because they transcend the medium. They are sitting next to us on a park bench, riding shotgun on a road trip or sharing a bag of peanuts flying coach.

Robin Williams was one such entertainer.

Over the last 24 hours since word broke of the actor’s passing, everywhere I look I see people recounting run-ins with the man they knew so well but didn’t know at all.

Robin Williams walking into the Embarcadero Starbucks and ordering coffee, the crew writing his name on the cup without having to ask—him giving a wink and a good tip for the effort. Robin Williams helping put Jessica Chastain through Juilliard, his alma mater, because he recognized something special in someone special. Robin Williams dressed in scrubs bounding into pal Christopher Reeve’s hospital room cheering him up with a Russian accent looking to exam his backside. Robin Williams’ senior yearbook photo—the only kid who wore white in a sea of black. Robin Williams at a Giants’ playoff game belting out Take Me Out to the Ball Game in front of his embarrassed children. Robin Williams at a Mill Valley spin class sweating profusely. “A one-man answer to Northern California’s drought conditions,” as described by a buddy.

I grew up in Marin County near where Mr. Williams was raised and eventually took his own life. It’s a place that has changed over time by refusing to change much at all. Still no easy way to get there from the City, neither by boat nor bus nor bridge. Marin is its own rarefied island with a clogged artery that is the 101 and blessed veins stretching to the western-most point of the continent. Emerald pastures to frame the blue.

Marin is also ground zero for the sustainability movement which should connote good things, but to most, that Brigadoon north of the Golden Gate Bridge is for the few and its inhabitants always more aloof than self-sufficient—crossing the subtle divide between eccentric millionaire and disconnected hermit. Disconnected in ways other parts of the country can only ponder and make light of. Marin’s residents are a little off, even when they’re on, similar to how Mr. Williams himself was oft described, or at least perceived.

Long-time San Francisco Chronicle gossip columnist Leah Garchik dashed off a quick tribute to the man whose comings and goings she occasionally covered for more than two decades with a story today about attending the same dinner party as Mr. Williams several years back.

When they met face to face, he launched into a sort of stand-up routine by the fireplace mantle. He shifted the mood in the room and quickly quieted conversation. He enraptured an audience of a couple dozen—so lucky to have been treated to such a delight that night.

The legendary riffer, a bluesy virtuoso of the double-entendre and the rapid fire impression, Mr. Williams took down the room with a single brush stroke and created, like all artists do, an overwhelming canvas that must be approached, observed and then left be until a journey back in memory unearths more layers.

Upon consideration, Ms. Garchik decided the joker wasn’t necessarily having fun in public hyperspace mode, not that evening anyway. Yes, he held the room, and that’s perhaps what he was born to do. But if you’re the kind of artist who feeds off the energy of others, as he was, the invisible glow and hum of captive attention eventually becomes a job, an obligation, a chore.

Sometimes those for whom the spotlight shines brightest only want to step back into the dark. To enjoy their eggs and toast in peace. Garchik got the feeling Mr. Williams didn’t have many such opportunities. A comet streaking across the sky, even when hiding in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, can’t disappear for long.

And so, life eventually became too overwhelming for Mr. Williams. I’m not surprised. It’s hard to be the person he became for an hour, much less six decades.

Read the posts, tweets and comments in the wake of his immediate absence, and it seems everyone he touched, he left a piece of himself behind. That’s one person split into a million tiny little crumbs. I think most of us are carved into two, maybe thee or four large slices by the time we go—parts of our soul gobbled up by those we care about most: spouse, siblings, children, closest friends.

But I can’t fathom one being, one bright light, segmented and divided and then rolled up into a smaller mound and cut up again so many times. In the end, I’m sure Mr. Williams looked in the mirror and wondered where exactly it was he went.

Maybe he just wanted to step onto the ship and go find that man again.

I never did meet Mr. Williams. There were close calls. The time a bunch of coworkers at my first job in the City went to the Punch Line on a Thursday and were treated to 90 surprise minutes of spontaneous jubilation from the recent Oscar winner. The time I came into a shift as a server at Marin Brewing Co. in the early 2000s and he had just been there, enjoying a tall glass of fresh-brewed ice water and a veggie pizza—still clad in his bike spandex. And there he sat, about 352 seats over from me at the Giants playoff game, pumping up the crowd before the first pitch with the fervor of a true fan and the reluctance of someone carrying the burden of expectation of all those in attendance.

We all go sometime, he just pointed his bat and hit one out. While suicide is the most unthinkable way to extinguish a flame so bright, early returns show we are going to give Mr. Williams a pardon just this once. He stepped into the dark on his terms, before the spotlight shut off. And maybe the remaining flicker of him deserved as much.

True humor always teeters on the edge of tragedy and nobody walked that line better than Robin Williams. There just came a point where he’d shared enough. He’d had enough.

And maybe that was it. Maybe he saved his best joke for last.

I can see him saying, on behalf of all those whose daily burden is too much to bear, “Next time, show me how much you love me when I’m still around.”