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A Night At The Holy City Zoo Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

13 August 2014

Some stories have to be told without pictures. This is one of them. Close your eyes and imagine you can see what we're talking about.

It was many, many years ago when the black bakelite phone in the hallway rang long after dinner. It was Ross.

"I'm gonna do it, Pasini," he began.

For a long time we'd tried to encourage our childhood friend to put together a stand-up comedy act. He had a talent for it -- like some people have for making salad. It just came naturally to him to riff hilariously on any topic you brought up. All night long.

He had no good reason not to get up on a stage and see if it flew.

On the phone that night, we could tell he was serious. So we replied, "Where? Tell me where and I'll be there. Guarantee, you'll get a laugh."

But he wouldn't tell us. "No time, Pasini. I'm going on now!" Click.

We'd always had this telepathic communication line. We'd met when we were nine yaars old at the clubhouse of our local playground. Playing caroms. Silliest game ever invented for kids. Tiny board the size of a briefcase with red and green plastic rings you used a cue to knock into a hole in each corner.

But we were both very good at it. We went home and told our parents we met this kid who was very good at caroms.

Each of our parents told us the same thing. His father said, "Don't tell Pasini but I know his mother." And our mother said the same thing about his father.

Turns out they were friends in high school.

So looking over the carom board the next day we stopped play, looked at each other, laughed and both said, "I know something you don't know." Then we broke up. We didn't even have to explain.

Friends for life.

So knowing he was going on stage finally, we grabbed a coat and quickly made our way to the only comedy club that mattered, the Holy City Zoo. Fortunately it was only two blocks away so we didn't miss a thing.

The Holy City Zoo is gone but in those days it was a door on Clement St. with a long bar and little stage with some chairs by the restroom. Dark, dingy. Loud, stuffy. No more than 80 people tops. Open Mike night every night, it seemed. That night was Open Mike night.

So 80 people could pick up the story from here. But you're stuck with us.

We elbowed our way in to the crowded bar looking for Ross. He wasn't there. We learned later he was somewhere south in some mall where everybody in the bar was drunk and throwing little umbrellas at him because he didn't tell dirty jokes.

At the Holy City Zoo, on the other hand, Robin Williams was on the stage. He had just dropped in.

We thought we'd stick around.

He went on a 45 minute routine that started with socks, if we remember. It was insane. We laughed ourselves silly, never bothered to buy a drink and went home to bed. The holy trinity if there ever was one.

You'd be hard pressed to find a San Franciscan of any long standing who doesn't have a Robin Williams story.

We never failed to take our out-of-town visitors by his Sea Cliff home where he lived with Marsha to show them the magical creatures growing over the garden wall.

But we would also run into him on the street. We always thought he was going to the Green Apple Bookstore, which we'd just exited but he was probably on his way back to the Holy City Zoo. Short guy, always smiling.

When we acquired a mountain bike we realized we needed a stand to keep it upright when we weren't riding it. So we went to a bike shop where the clerk advised us that, "Don't know if it matters but this is the bike stand Robin Williams uses." We bought it. We called it Robin since it was a stand-up thing.

Ross never made it as a comic but we've had a lot of laughs since then anyway. Somehow he managed to have a life, raise a few kids, make a living and stay out of jail. He's been, well, real.

Which is really all you have to be.

There's an industry that spins up around a celebrity when his life ends. And it's a little unreal, even sickening. Everyone with a cause to grind, gets grinding. Overtime.

The person's life becomes an illustration of something. One thing or another. Depends on which bird of prey you listen to. You know, to give their life meaning.

Holy. City. Zoo.

Williams's gift was undeniable. The work he put into it is less appreciated. He was a smart man, well read, whose improvisations were based on complete thoughts. Not magic.

But he was a real person, after all. Someone you might run into on the street after coming out of a used bookstore.

We'll let Grouch Marx, consummate clown, put it back in perspective:

I'm sure most of you have heard the story of the man who, desperately ill, goes to an analyst and tells the doctor that he has lost his desire to live and that he is seriously considering suicide.

The doctor listens to this tale of melancholia and then tells the patient that what he needs is a good belly laugh. He advises the unhappy man to go to the circus that night and spend the evening laughing at Grock, the world's funniest clown. The doctor sums it up, "After you have seen Grock, I am sure you will be much happier."

The patient rises to his feet, looks sadly at the doctor, turns and ambles to the door. As he starts to leave, the doctor says, "By the way what is your name?"

The man turns and regards the analyst with sorrowful eyes. "I am Grock."

We might have run into Grock walking down the street but, as it happened, it was Robin Williams. He smiled hello and we nodded, two human beings passing each other in the night.

We don't have a photo of it but some stories have to be told without pictures, if you see what we mean.

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