I lost two of my childhood heroes in the last year:
Robin Williams and Gene Wilder.
I met Robin Williams when I was 10 years old.
Robin Williams was the The Pied Piper of my hometown, Marin County.
He was my fellow Redwood Giant.
I used to memorize his stand-up routines in high school and perform them for friends.
He tried teaching me to do a wheelie once on the set of “Jack” down the street from my house. I failed miserably.
He picked me back up and smiled and wheelied away with a cackle, sending me a photo and a note in the mail a few weeks later.
He was always so generous and so kind.
I met Gene Wilder about 5 years ago.
I was the bartender in the Presidential Suite at the US Open. (Never mind that at the time, I had never made a drink in my life – for myself let alone celebrities and international heads of state. But still, with a bit of mischief, I said sure, I can do that.)
It was a loud, boisterous scene. Mr. Wilder, one of my top five childhood idols, approached me. Quietly. Slowly. He walked with a cane, but no surprise tumbles were to come.
I want to say he ordered a soda water.
He kept his eyes on me as I made him his drink. Quietly. Intently. I’m no good at making conversation with my heroes, so I responded in the same manner. Quietly. Intently.
Images flashed across my mind. 7 year old me on stage, playing Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka. 9 year old me at home, wearing out VHS tapes of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.
I handed him his beverage. He promptly took his wallet out of his pocket.
I said, “Oh no, sir. That won’t be necessary.” Tips were prohibited.
He paused to smile at me. A Mona Lisa smile. It felt as if he was studying me, discovering me. Or maybe he was letting me discover him.
He slowly turned his wallet upside down, holding it high above the bar. Then, he opened it wide. A few singles fell like feathers. Silence. He paused and smiled a little wider. He maintained eye contact with me. I was locked in his gaze.
Then, a few coins dropped out. Plop, Plop. Plop….Plop.
It was like a clown routine. Grace and perfect timing never eluded him.
He put his wallet back in his pocket, took my hand, then held it in his own.
“Sir, that won’t be necessary,” I repeated.
He glanced down for a moment, but only to look at my name tag. He looked back up.
“Michael. It’s very necessary.”
I could barely breathe. In his hands I felt play, vitality, honor, mischief. Great, lovely, wonderful mischief.
He released my hand, pushed $4.63 across the bar, nodded his head, then walked away.