It’s 1990 and the city is San Francisco. I’m in the middle of my studies in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. I’ve got a ponytail, a leather jacket, some tight jeans and some Doc Martens boots. I’ve also got a job managing Proxy Message Center, the city’s largest answering service.
Located in the deep dark basement of 1540 Market Street, I and my motley crew of wonderfully diverse operators would be there, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, to handle both the profound and the mundane when it came to phone calls, because hey – people always needed their phone answered.
It’s decades before the iPhone and other smartphones would do away with the necessity of an answering service, but right now business is booming and we’re busy serving San Francisco’s movers and shakers and celebrities.
One of those celebrities was Robin Williams.
It’s Not Rocket Science
I never met Robin (he always said I could call him that, even though I always started our conversations with Mr. Williams), but I talked to him on the phone at least once or twice a month. It was never an easy conversation for either of us.
The service that we provided Robin and his wife was ridiculously simple. Whenever they wanted us to answer their phone, they would pick it up, hit *72 and then dial their dedicated number here at the service. Once one of my operators answered, completed the connection, and confirmed that they had dialed the right number, anyone who wanted to talk to Robin would get one of my people instead.
When they wanted to cancel call forwarding and pick up any messages, they could hit *73 and then dial the service’s pick up line and have their messages read to them.
For Robin’s wife, not so much.
There always seemed to be some part of the above equation that she couldn’t grasp. Sometimes she would forget to forward the phone. Sometimes she would hit *72 and then dial the wrong number, thus forwarding their calls to who knows where. Sometimes she would come home, forget to cancel the forwarding and then wonder why they weren’t getting any calls at the house.
When things went wrong, she got mean.
Yes Ma’am, We Know Who You Are
She would call the service and immediately start screaming at whomever answered.
The operator would apologize, then escalate the call to me, the Manager.
Then she would start screaming at me.
At first, we’d try to explain just what went wrong, not to find fault, but to educate.
Finally, we’d just sit there and take the abuse, because it would always circle back around to how important Robin was and how important she was and how important every single call was and we needed to quit fucking around or they were going to leave us.
The crescendo of the performance piece was always the slamming down of the phone and a dial tone in our ear.
Minutes later, we would get another call from the Williams residence.
It was Robin.
His voice was always soft and kind and very, very apologetic.
This was a man who could impersonate anyone on the planet, but the voice was always his. His true voice. The voice of Robin the man, not Robin the celebrity.
This was a man who could talk a mile a minute, jumping from subject to subject with the lightning speed of a true genius, but when he spoke to us, there was only one subject at hand: I’m sorry.
Everyone in the call center knew him by his fame and reputation, by his films and television shows, but in the end he earned our respect and admiration by this one simple action.
If his wife caused the waters to churn, Robin always calmed them. Robin always wanted peace between us, always used kindness to achieve it. Everyone in that center felt that they knew the man behind the comedy.
It’s been decades since I spoke to Robin; a lot has happened between now and then, and I’ve told this story over beers dozens of times, but I always made sure that the object of the story was not that I “knew” Robin Williams, but that Robin Williams was a kind, gentle man who always did the right thing by us at the answering service.
Kindness costs nothing
This is a man who could have easily played the “Do you know who I am?” card all day long, but instead he played the “I’m sorry” card. That’s the card that connects us all to one another.
With his untimely death, there is a large hole in the human consciousness. He brought laughter to millions, but he also brought kindness to several dozen.
Remember this story as you go about your business each day. Remember that as a man, you always have the choice of responding with anger or kindness. With a loud yell or a soft voice. You always have that choice. I hope that you will always choose the latter, because it always makes this world and our connection to each other a much better place.
I, along with the rest of the world, will miss Robin Williams, but I will never forget the kindness that he showed to a bunch of misfits working in a basement for barely more than minimum wage who answered his phone.
Thank you, Robin.