"How could that be possible? A year? No...can't be. Seems like it just happened."
That's what people say when I tell them: George Carlin died on June 22 -- a year ago.
A fact that is, indeed, hard to believe.
Celebrity sightings in Los Angeles are as ubiquitous as skinny palm trees. Pick the right coffee place at the right moment and you, too, can wait for a cappuccino behind Michelle Pfeiffer or Ed Harris. I've seen Mel Gibson furtively wolfing down a chocolate tart, glimpsed Robert Duvall at a parking meter. I've scooped steel-cut oats from a bottom bin at Whole Foods while looking up at John Turturro. At the frame shop, I pondered matting materials alongside that bald actor -- you know the one -- from Sex and the City. While driving up 26th Street near San Vicente, Martin Short gave me the finger. Such frequent approximation to celebrity can become humdrum (finger episode excluded), or lend misplaced hope to the show-biz schemer, oblivious to celebrity body language -- hat pulled down over forehead, eyes fixed on the floor -- a silent plea: "Do not let me know you recognize me."
I met George Carlin the week that he died. He didn't care who recognized him. I was seated at the empty family-table of the just opened bakery/café annex to the vegan restaurant, Real Food Daily, in Santa Monica, as haggard employees struggled to cope with the ragged transition.
"They just opened and they're more than a tad disorganized," I said to a smart-eyed, amiably attractive customer, who looked like she coped just fine.
"What are you eating?" she asked.
"Miso glazed tofu tartine."
"It looks good...is it?"
The woman joined a man at the take-out counter, as he said to me: "You should try one of these."
I recognized the voice. I looked up from my glazed tofu and there he was -- George Carlin...pointing to a jar of ginger cookies on the bakery display-case. He ran down the merits of the cookie, and I liked him immediately.
The new guy, at the new lime-green counter, handed George a large brown bag of vegan food, and said: "Awesome."
"No..." George said. "Picking up vegan food to-go is not awesome." Then he rattled off a couple of examples of what was awesome. Something about the sky and the sun, I think. I can't be certain, because my mind was busy reaching a conclusion: George Carlin talks exactly like, well...George Carlin.
He wasn't walking it like he talked it--he was living it like he talked it. Nothing patronizing in his tone. He was just setting a guy straight, his voice an invitation to awareness; an almost-playful alerting to the ridiculous misuse of the word: awesome.
I remembered that, recently, in the ladies room of another restaurant, I'd noticed the brand name, scripted in bold black letters, on a package of toilet seat covers -- AWESOME. Awesome toilet seat covers.
"Awesome...an absurdly overused word," I said to George, as I plunged a carrot into wasabi mayo. "Did you know when George Bush met the Pope, he told him he was awesome?"
He walked over to me, shook my hand and said: "I'm George Carlin."
"I recognized your voice," I said, then introduced myself: "I'm a writer...words are important to me." He asked what kind of writing? I explained that I'd stopped writing for movies and TV to write my first novel, which I'd just finished (blissfully unaware of the many drafts yet to come.) His appreciation for the achievement was genuine. The woman stepped outside. But George stuck around, long enough for us to talk a little bit more about words.
I expressed my bafflement over the phrase: "Your problem is you're taking me literally." We talked about the word "guest"...as used by tellers and clerks: "Next guest in line please."
Then we shook hands, goodbye, and he left.
A few bites of tofu tartine, some baby bok choy...and there was George, again, entering the café. "My wife, Sally," he said to me. "She's a writer too. We've been together ten years...and it's been great," he said, as if he were marveling that it truly was great. "She's out in the car, now. She wanted me to ask you if you'd written for Tom Hanks."
I knew that writing with Tom Hanks, in mind, didn't count, so I said, "No. I've never written for Tom Hanks."
"Sally thought maybe she knew you."
"I thought you were coming back to tell me I was awesome," I said with a laugh.
"You are awesome," he said.
I asked if he and Sally lived in Santa Monica. He said, yes. I mentioned a slightly loony restaurant on Main Street. George recommended a new one on Montana. "I'll look for you two around town," I said. As he stepped outside, I told him: "Stay awesome."
George said that he would.
A couple of weeks ago, while walking down Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, I had an urban epiphany: everyone walking on the sidewalk -- both sides of the street -- was on his or her cellphone...everyone but me. Then I saw an Asian woman, walking toward me; she wasn't on her cell, either. "Yay!" I said to her. "You're not on your cellphone...you and me -- we're the only ones who aren't talking on her cells."
She looked blankly at me and said: "I no understand you."
It was eerily isolating...like a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Meeting George had been the exact opposite: a connection with a like-minded human that had lifted me. I've been thinking about George -- his classic routine on stuff -- while dealing with my own stuff, in storage. Thought about George when a Verizon supervisor informed me, on the phone, during a bill-dispute: "Ma'am...you've already been 'educated' by Verizon." And when an employee at the Apple store rammed his shoulder into mine, hurrying past me with an unapologetic "I'm sorry"...two smug Apple Guys explaining his rudeness like it made perfect sense: "He's a genius--he's on his way to the Genius Bar."
"Yet, he doesn't seem to possess the attributes of a genius," I said.
"He's a tech," they said with disgust. And I imagined what verbal circles George could spin around those Apple-knuckleheads.
Maybe when people die, our memories of them are distilled, allowing us a glimpse of their essence. Maybe that is why we can imagine someone, who is no longer living, advising us. I am making a mental note to myself, a cerebral mission statement: take the time to talk with the people you want to talk with while they're here, on this earth. And when you talk, pick your words carefully so you express exactly what it is you wish to say. Because connecting with kindred spirits while they're alive is truly--awesome.
A message has suddenly appeared on my computer screen:
Do you wish to save "Carlin"? it is asking me. Yes...no?
I am imagining George, advising. He is saying: "Too late."
But I click: "Yes."
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