The Five People I Almost Killed
FOLLOWING UP ON PREVIOUS SATURDAYS I have decided to post another piece from my catalog.
This was written as a performance piece to be done in front of a live audience.
I think it is important to stress that in the title of this piece I say “almost killed,” and not “killed.” To the best of my knowledge I have never actually killed anyone. I just tend to come close. Sometimes very close and I’ve done so five times – so far. The five nearly “dearly departed” have all shared one characteristic: they are, or to a large degree were, famous. Let me explain.
Neil Sedaka -A pop singer and songwriter and almost the filling for a chalk outline on the pavement.
I was driving on California Street in San Francisco up the steep grade to the top of Nob Hill. While motoring legally, staying in my lane, I noticed a fellow in a bright orange track suit jogging down the sidewalk. Under other circumstances, dressed like that, one could easily have mistaken him for a small-time Mob Soldier with poor taste in casual wear. The way things were progressing there should not have been any cause for alarm. Then Mr. Sedaka made his almost fateful move.
Without warning or, I suspect, even a sense of awareness of his heavily urban surroundings, Neil Sedaka, early Rock and Roll icon and current attraction at the Venetian Room in one of the swank hotels on Nob Hill, decided to make a sharp left turn. He veered from the safety of the sidewalk out into the street and directly into the path of my three thousand pound piece of American Steel.
I slammed onto my brakes and my Ford began to slide on the steel Cable Car tracks. That wasn’t helping the situation. When I at last managed a complete stop and unclenched my teeth I was able to enjoy an extreme close-up of Neil Sedaka, who stood no more than six inches in front of my front bumper. I have to admit that I’ve never seen eyes that wide open on anything this side of seafood. His mouth was drawn into a grimace that was probably halfway through pronouncing something like, “Oh, crap,” or “Please God, not while I’m dressed like this.”
To say we made eye contact would be a severe understatement. I imagine that in his eyes I looked pretty scary too. I do recall that we both made a quick Sign of the Cross and I’d wager that we both pinched a sphincter as well.
After what seemed to be several hours, but was probably no more than three seconds, Neil Sedaka, the great, and nearly late, singer of 1950s popular tunes, finished crossing the street and headed back to his hotel, no doubt for a stiff drink and a change of clothing. I continued on down California Street. I have no idea where I was headed after that. All I knew was that I came very close to having my name finally appear in the pages of Variety.
And then there was the time that I almost killed Hollywood legend Henry Fonda.
I was in New York City for a long weekend. I flew in to catch a few shows and see some old friends. I was not there to end the life and career of one of this nation’s finest actors. I just came close, that’s all.
It was Saturday night and I was attending a performance of “American Buffalo,” starring Robert Duvall. The theater was just down the block from Times Square. My seat was in one of the side boxes up above the sold out orchestra section. It was a good place to scan the audience for celebrities. I spotted both Kevin McCarthy of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” fame and Henry Fonda. Both were resplendent in very handsome tuxedos. I was not. Put me in a tuxedo and I begin to resemble a black-tie bowling ball.
After the final curtain, as the audience was shuffling out, I was directed to join a flow of other folks and exit the theater by a side door. I guess they didn’t want us mixing with the better dressed people who were probably heading off to the Rainbow Room or some other fancy nightspot – not to Howard Johnson’s for fried clams.
When I got through the exit door I found myself on a very crowded sidewalk, filled to overflowing with happy theatergoers. I turned left and quickly headed up the street. I hadn’t gone more than fifteen feet when I collided with another impatient audience member who was hurrying to get into the long black limo parked at the curb. We slammed into each other with enough force to rock us both back on our heels. Instinctively, we both reached out in an attempt to steady ourselves and prevent falling to the ground. I grabbed onto the nearest person, as did he. I grabbed onto Henry Fonda and Henry Fonda grabbed onto me.
When we steadied a bit we both shouted, “Are you alright?” After all, Mr. Fonda was getting up in years, speeding toward his role in “On Golden Pond.” He had his entourage behind him pushing him back to a fully upright and locked position. I had him.
I’m sure the look on my face must have been a mixture of pain, shock, and “Uh-oh, I will be hated by the movie-going public forever if he dies.” The look on his face also reflected pain, shock and, “Uh-oh, this could cost me a bundle if this guy sues.”
For a remarkably skinny older gent he seemed pretty strong. He had ahold of my jacket with both hands and pulled me back up straight.
We stood there just looking at each other for a few seconds until our eyes stopped rattling. We both apologized for the collision and then we shook hands. At that point his “People” hustled him to his limo like they feared I was some sort of clumsy assassin with three names.
Kevin McCarthy was nowhere to be seen. I guess his body had been snatched safely out of my reach.
And then there was the time I almost killed Rock Superstar Graham Nash.
One of the stellar attractions of Washington D.C., aside from the ability to vent one’s frustrations by standing on the Mall and being able to shake your fists in the direction of both Congress and The White house simultaneously, is visiting the Smithsonian Institution. There you can experience both American and World cultural treasures.
A few years ago my wife and I were in D.C. and enjoying strolling through the exhibit halls of the Smithsonian. While there we saw a sign by the top of an escalator announcing an event having to with “The Greats of Rock and Roll.” I think you can see where this is going – up the escalator.
The collision, while not seismic in magnitude, certainly made an impression on both of us – actually on all three of us. This time it was my wonderful wife, Dawn, and I who “met up with” one third of Crosby, Stills and Nash. We had a two-to-one advantage.
My first impression of Graham Nash was, “Who the heck is this clumsy oaf?” My second impression was that the answer to that question was, “Me.” I have to admit that I really wasn’t paying attention to where I was going as we stepped off the escalator. I was busy reading the sign about the “Rock and Roll Greats” who were going to be visiting the Smithsonian and I turned directly into the path of the tall guy in the really nice suit.
As the pattern established in my previous near homicidal experiences, he and I grabbed each other to steady ourselves. Actually, I think we both grabbed out in an effort to steady just me. Graham Nash was much younger than Henry Fonda and I was now considerably older than I was when I rammed into Mr. Fonda.
While Dawn and I were there to just casually roam the halls, it appears that Graham Nash was there to participate in a scholarly seminar on “Woodstock, Flower Power and How David Crosby Has Managed To Still Be Alive,” or something similar.
Once we disentangled ourselves, Graham Nash and we all apologized and asked if any of us were mortally injured. Assured that we would all survive to collide another day, he hurried off to be scholarly-like and Dawn and I gazed after him, wondering out loud, “Who was that guy? He looks familiar.” Dawn commented that he certainly had a nice head of snow-white hair and I said that he was quite tall and had a great tailor. “Nice suit.”
It wasn’t long until our mutual light bulbs flashed on. “That was Graham Nash,” we both said, almost simultaneously. And we were both right. Of course, by then it was too late to prolong my grabbing hold on him and pose for some snapshots. Instead I have to be content with the memory of our brief encounter and to add him to this pantheon of my proximities with other people’s passing.
And then there was the time I almost killed well known actor Danny Glover.
I was minding my own business, not bothering anyone, when all of a sudden I found myself seatbelt deep in another near-manslaughter experience. And this time I had the feeling that at least one of us was truly going to buy the farm – and it was more likely to be me. Size matters.
I was living in San Francisco, in the old Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It is an area, in a city known for being crowded and not motorist-friendly. The streets are narrow and clogged with cars, buses, trucks, and out of work performance artists steering pedal-cabs through traffic hauling around frozen tourists from Indiana. You can always spot the tourists in San Francisco. They are the blue people. They come to California expecting it to all be sunshine and surfs-up weather. Instead they find polar current powered gale force winds and hordes of eager sweatshirt vendors.
I was in my compact Ford approaching the intersection of Haight St. and Masonic Ave. – one of the busiest intersections in the area. I was planning on going straight up Haight. Unfortunately my plans meant nothing to the guy in the huge woodland green Range Rover coming the other way who decided to make a left turn onto Masonic. I must assume that Range Rovers did not come equipped with turn signals for that model year. Either that or the other driver had never mastered the complicated ritual involved to activate his turn signals. Luckily both vehicles had good brakes. If one of us had not had them we would have ended up sharing a front seat.
The sound of screeching brakes brought all other traffic, automotive and pedestrian, to a halt. It was a shame that I had left my celebrity autograph book at home because, in that moment, I found myself bulging eyeball to bulging eyeball with Danny Glover. I enjoyed him in “The Color Purple.” I enjoyed him in all six hundred of the “Lethal Weapon” films. I did not enjoy him looming over me, with a death grip on the steering wheel of his six thousand pound chunk of British Status Symbol inches away from my car window. Danny Glover has a very large head. Perhaps it just looked that way because he was so close.
That Range Rover is a legendary off-road vehicle and Danny Glover came within inches of taking it off-road and “On-John.” My car would have, maybe, left a smudge on his bumper if we had collided. The Ford and I would have been reduced to a wet spot.
Sitting there in the intersection, Danny Glover, grimacing down at me, I felt, just for a moment mind you, like Oprah felt in the early reels of “The Color Purple.” Danny can be an imposing figure. I feel that I can call him Danny since we were so close.
Finally, other drivers on the street began to honk their horns. No one was dead. There were no flaming infernos blocking the way – just two guys who had come close to crashing. “Nothing to see here – move along, people.”
Slowly, after his blood pressure subsided and his eyeballs receded back into their sockets, Danny Glover finished his ill-advised left turn and exited both the intersection and my life. If Danny and I ever meet again under more sociable circumstances I will remind him of our first meeting and tell him that he holds a special place in my list of the five people I almost killed. And that he owes me for the cost of having my upholstery professionally cleaned.
And then there was the time I almost killed, lead guitarist of The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia.
“What a long strange trip it has been.”
Why, why, why do these things continue to happen to me? Is it just a case of being in the wrong place at the right time? Am I meeting these people or are they meeting me? Is it all some sort of a sarcastic, dumb as a box of rocks, Kismet?
I never meant to almost shuffle off Jerry Garcia’s mortal coil. It’s not like I was stalking the man. After all, our coincidental meeting took place in my neighborhood, not his. Actually, it took place at the same intersection where I shared a special moment with Danny Glover.
This time I was the one making a turn. I was in the right-hand lane. My car had turn signals and I knew how to use them. I indicated my intention to go right onto Masonic Avenue and I started my turn. It was at this point that Jerry Garcia almost joined “The Suddenly Dead.”
While Danny Glover was at the wheel of a large off-road vehicle, Jerry Garcia, a Rock and Roll icon, adored by a huge, fanatically loyal following known as “Deadheads,” and incidentally, a very wealthy man, was moving through San Francisco traffic on a bicycle. That is a dangerous thing to do – even if I’m not nearby.
I began my turn onto Masonic, heading downhill at this point, when from behind a vehicle coming uphill, a rather chubby, bearded man on a bicycle pulls out into the downhill lane, pedaling furiously. At this point we were no more than twenty feet apart. While riding a bike in heavy traffic is risky business, doing so into the face of oncoming traffic, with me headed right at you, is just asking for it.
Calling upon my gazelle-like reflexes I hit the brakes and Jerry, with the sudden realization of the situation all over his face, swerved his bike toward the curb. I have to admit that he had a pretty good reaction time for a man his age. He threaded that bike out of traffic, over the curb, narrowly missing a tree and a large bus shelter. He skidded to a stop, across the busy sidewalk, up against the side wall of a local brew-pub. The people seated inside must have been surprised to see a real, luckily alive, rock star outside the window gasping for breath and, undoubtedly, with the pulse rate of a hummingbird.
If I had hit him with my car, he would not have qualified for my list because of the modifier “almost.” Jerry Garcia would have died several years sooner than he did.
As an afterthought – I was still living in that neighborhood when Jerry Garcia actually did die, without my involvement. The street was quickly besieged by news crews wanting to photograph Deadheads in Mourning. On the corner of Haight and Ashbury, ground zero for misplaced and discarded youths, CNN and a couple other news contingents were crowded around a young woman who was sitting on the sidewalk tending to several lighted candles. She appeared to be weeping and wailing. Surprisingly, she stopped suddenly, looked up at the cameras and said, “You want more, it’ll be twenty bucks.” The cash quickly appeared from the networks and she resumed her sobbing and keening for the Evening News.
I can’t help but think that if Jerry had died underneath my Ford, instead of while in a drug treatment center, it would have been more dignified.
Three of these near-misses with death took place while I was living in San Francisco – a quasi-risky place under the best of circumstances. Graham Nash was in Washington D.C., while Henry Fonda and I met in New York City.
As of this writing two of my semi-victims are, quite positively, dead. I had nothing to do with it, I swear. I have alibis, or at least really good plausible deniability.