It’s an autumn weekend in 1978 and I’m an awkwardly bookish 14-year old with raging hormones to accompany an equally raging curiosity for the world outside of my hometown in New Jersey. There’s a chill in the air on this sunny day. I wish I’d worn mittens or maybe—to broadcast more of my latent worldliness—my new pair of gloves. A man sitting near me on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is better prepared. He has on a puffy orange parka which almost swallows him up whole, revealing just his ears and the upper half of a handsome profile, topped with a reddish mop of hair. He’s quiet, nestled in his coat like a bird, with a bemused smile on his face.
My mother, from whom I’d inherited some of the intrepid traveller impetus, had dropped my friend Randi and me off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan hours ago. We have strict orders not to leave the museum premises and have established a designated meeting time and place for our chauffeured return to suburbia via Volkswagen Vanagon. The glittering city is now ours! Friends since Mrs. Crossen’s kindergarten class, Randi and I have already spent the day alternately comforted and overwhelmed amidst the splendor that is the Met.
Promises be damned, we’ve strolled a couple of block radius around the museum, down Fifth Avenue and up again through Central Park. We’ve taken in the man on a bicycle suited up in a purple wizard robe and hat (a recurring figure on our future visits to the city). We've gazed longingly at the couples holding hands and kissing in the park, and shelled out some babysitting money for a satisfyingly smoky streetside pretzel with mustard and a forbidden Coke. The background of taxi horns and jackhammers, seated people's pleas for change and passionate arguments among gesticulating passers-by struck a chord. The city promised a complexity that allured even as it intimidated.
Back on the cold stone steps of the museum, we’re watching a street performer who juggles, jokes, and interacts with the mostly seated audience. Midstream, he points to the man in the orange parka and introduces “my good friend and fellow Julliard graduate, a brilliant guy who is going to be famous, his sitcom ‘Mork and Mindy’ just started on ABC and he’s going to be big, I’m telling you, please welcome… my friend Robin Williams!”
What?! I felt all tingly as the audience clapped half in recognition and half in anticipation, knowing I’d been sitting next to a budding star of television. Why hadn’t I talked with him when I had the chance?! I berated myself for my shyness, not a winning way to lure myself out of that particular shell. No matter, check this guy out! He’s funny, he’s physical, he’s full of life, he’s brilliant and vulnerable at the same time: all the things we know and miss now about Robin Williams. Dancing across the sidewalk, ripping off his coat to reveal the rainbow suspenders beneath, he talks a mile a minute and Randi and I, entranced, follow every word, every sharp twist and turn in his train of thought, every innuendo and reference. Much later, when the success of the show leads to major movie parts and huge comedy audiences and captivating talk show visits for Williams, they will remind me of these moments in the sunshine on the streets of New York and of Robin Williams the performer. And of those quiet moments beforehand when we sat in the autumn sun watching his friend the street artist perform.
His visit was a magical, quicksilver interlude but it was all we talked about on the ride home. His performance captured something about the energy of the city that we couldn’t put into words. Wizards on bicycles. Comedians on the sidewalk. Anything is possible in New York City!
Or is it? A recent talk with Randi some three dozen years later—she at home in the city of Washington DC and me in my longtime home of Raleigh, North Carolina—reveals that she remembers a much less spontaneous event. I’d read about Williams’ upcoming performance in The Bergen Record, she remembers. We talked my Mom into taking us to see Williams, and the museum. When he was late, we somehow convinced her into circling the block to give us time to catch the whole thing. Don't I remember? I truly don’t remember any of these details. My mind clings to the story I’ve apparently spun for myself over time, of the magical moment when a street performer conjured up the funniest man in the world out of a quiet red-haired man in an orange parka sitting next to me on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anything is possible. Thanks for the magic, Robin Williams.