Gerald, as always, bounded into the back room and said, “Holy Shit, I’m pretty sure Steven Spielberg is out front!”
It was Boston, we were in a relatively swanky shopping mall, but there was no reason for an Academy Award winner to be out on my sales floor. Still, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of boredom, I set down my sandwich and walked out front with my beaming sales associate.
“There, there,” the usually far-too-cool seventeen year old blabbered as he pointed in the man’s direction.
I approached the heavyset man wearing a tan knit sweater. As I greeted him, he turned to me and, for a second, I could see why Gerald had been mistaken. The man who faced me had a graying lumberjack beard and soft, gentle eyes. He was not an Oscar winner. Not yet anyhow.
There really wasn’t a protocol on how to handle celebrity customers. Clearly, there were things not to do – no autographs (an archaic form of commemoration in the days before selfies), but no need to pretend not to know the person either.
I asked if I could help a man who was somehow made more serious by his facial hair.
“How about these?” he asked. “Any good?”
I answered that, yes, the shoes he’d selected were fine and, I believe, asked to measure his feet.
Returning moments later with a few pairs of shoes, I sat down in front of him on a stool and began unpacking the first pair of shoes. “In town for business or pleasure?” I asked.
“I’m here for work,” he answered.
“You used to work in my hometown as well,” I stated. When he arched his eyebrows, I mentioned that I had, only three months before, moved from Boulder, Colorado.
“Boulder,” he said with a broad smile. “I haven’t been there in years.”
“It hasn’t changed,” I answered as I laced up his right shoe. Of course, Boulder had very much changed, but the ‘Mork and Mindy house’ and even Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes were still there, just like in the opening credits of the show that made this man a star.
“I just moved here myself,” I continued as a laced up the other shoe. Another customer came in and sat down on the same bench. This forced Gerald back into the picture as my younger associate greeted and began helping this woman of about forty-five.
Undeterred, my customer asked what had brought me to Boston, and I answered that I’d come to attend school. I’m relatively sure I mentioned that it was Harvard, I’m absolutely positive that I left out that it was night classes.
“These will be fine,” he said softly he stood up and smiled. “In fact, I’ll wear them.”
I pulled a few tags from the new Nike trail shoes and boxed up his old shoes as well. We said very little out of the ordinary at the counter – just some small talk that somehow failed to bury itself as deeply as these other memories have. As I returned the man’s change, I came out from behind the counter and handed him his shopping bag.
“It was really nice to meet you. You should get back to Boulder sometime.”
He smiled and shook my hand with his massive paw. “Good luck with school.”
“Good luck with your work as well.”
We said goodbye, and he turned to leave.
As I watched him leave my store another customer called for my attention. I sat this customer next to the older woman. Just then, the woman’s son came running into the store.
“Mom, mom, Robin Williams is shopping in the mall!”
Gerald and I smiled before being interrupted by something unexpected.
“He is?” the woman asked excitedly. “Where did you see him? Where was he shopping? I’m almost finished here.”
Was he so great a chameleon?
Were “we” so sure of how he must have acted when not on stage?
In any event, the gentle, bearded man had gone completely undetected. That woman may still not know that she spent no less than fifteen minutes sitting shoulder to shoulder with an actor she clearly admired.
One year later, I was home – back in Colorado. Harvard didn’t take. I’d seen Robin Williams in the movie he’d been in Boston to shoot. I remember seeing the last show one night with a coworker. I remember attending the first show alone the next morning as well. Sitting there the second time, I allowed Good Will Hunting to truly affect me. It may still be one of my most vivid experiences at the movies. It is worth noting that the Academy of Motion Pictures also noticed Mr. Williams’ performance. I remember feeling joy when he won the award for a movie which had so shaken me. Good Will Hunting is a good film. Still, how much of its impact is down to my having been a terrified kid in that same city at the time that it was being made? I’m not sure. This story isn’t about that. This story isn’t even about saying goodbye. I’m grateful to say that I have a clear memory of saying goodbye to Robin Williams. A smile and that enveloping handshake…
I’m glad I got to experience the star. I’m even more grateful that I got to spend an afternoon with the man.
Farewell, Captain. Rest in Peace.