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Stranger shares a talk with Robin Williams

Updated 7:31 pm, Tuesday, August 12, 2014
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It's Monday night, and I've been sitting here at my desk all afternoon, every minute since the awful news came, trying to be part of a team and collecting other people's thoughts about Robin Williams. Often, those thoughts are interwoven with hindsight. That's only human; we try to make some sense out of unexpected death so that we can tell ourselves it'll never happen to us.

The people closest to Williams, at least the ones I know and could reach, said they were still too upset to talk. And there are people I can't bring myself to contact.

The news is raw, and I respect their grief, so I slink away, a bit embarrassed to be wearing the black cloak of the news vulture. Others have come forth with stories; they saw him on a plane, they shared a glance walking down a San Francisco street, he smiled, they chatted. Their stories may be told later in the week.

Meanwhile, this: We were dinner guests with Williams one night. I had never met him face to face but, in the course of my job, written about him many times. Sometimes, much to my delight, he'd even acknowledged that from the stage. Perhaps, in keeping with the generous soul that so many of his comic friends described, that was his particular gift to me.

But this was a private event, a dinner for 20 or so people, and although I knew we'd been invited to write about it, I wasn't going to do a Lois Lane and approach with notebook in hand. We circulated around the living room, drinks in hand, and finally, as though casually, I came face to face with Robin Williams. I tried to hide my excitement.

But if my wish was for casual one-on-one conversation, that wasn't happening. The people who knew Williams best, as I found out this afternoon by collecting their memories, saw him offstage as "just a guy." Standing in front of the fireplace in a private home, talking with a journalist, however, he wasn't relaxed. He did a one-on-one stand-up. I didn't feel the conversation drew us closer; in fact, the distinction between performer and listener was underlined.

And it was a challenge to listen. As others said Monday, anyone listening in a theater could "get" as much of Williams' brilliant repartee as they could, with no penalty. There wasn't going to be a test afterward. In face-to-face conversation, though, failure to follow every lightning-fast nuance leaves the listener feeling guilty. Here he was, giving it his all, a virtuoso making jokes that would have left a roomful of people laughing, and although I was astonished - as one would be at a public performance - I was not enjoying it.

The question I asked myself Monday night was whether he was.


Agostino Crotti, an owner of Tommaso's in North Beach, is a devoted stamp collector and subscriber to Linn's Stamp News. It was there he learned that the conservative American Family Association marks every piece of mail (including donations) that arrives bearing a Harvey Milk stamp "Return to Sender."

P.S. Tommaso's patron Nicolas Cage's image adorns a signed poster newly hung at the restaurant (if they hung it, he said, he'd sign it). The Crottis debated which of Cage's movies would be appropriate, and then he suggested "Moonstruck," in which he plays a pizza-maker.


-- The line for "Boyhood" at the Rafael Theater in Marin was so long," says Matt Regan, that "by the time I got in they were screening 'Manhood.' "

-- As to that pro-BDSM license plate, a reader who spotted it about four years ago and was mighty offended "dropped a dime on the guy." She called authorities and spoke at length with someone who "was in charge of dealing with this sort of thing." He assured her it would be taken care of. More than a year later, she saw the car again, with the same plates. "There is no decency standard in California when it comes to license plates," she says.

-- OJ and Gary Shansby welcomed pals on Saturday to their new Napa home, which sits on a rise overlooking rows of vines owned by the Kramliches, their friends. Among the guests was Sandy Walker, who as architect of the house had a chance to bask in admiring sighs.

Norman and Norah Stone were just back from seeing the Jeff Koons retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum, to which they'd loaned two works, one on the cover of the catalog. Norah Stone's handbag was black leather with an image of a Jeff Koons balloon dog printed on the outside. H&M, she said, out-chic-ing the Kelly and the Birkin.

Public Eavesdropping

"Yeah, it's the only thing kept me from going crazy. Studied the Bible and smoked hash for weeks."

Young man at 16th and Mission, overheard by Elaine Molinari

Open for business in San Francisco, (415) 777-8426. E-mail: lgarchik@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @leahgarchik

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