OK, so I’m in Joe the Art of Coffee, the one on 13th Street near Union Square, it’s early Saturday morning, like 8 or 9, and this is the first thing that was kind of odd, because it’s a popular place, and typically there’s a bunch of people in there at that time — at all times, really — but on that day, at that particular moment, there’s nobody else around except the two baristas, me, and a guy at one of the small tables next to the back wall, near the bathroom, who’s just sitting there doing what people do in Joe the Art: drinking coffee, nibbling on a scone or something, and messing around with his iPad.
I notice that the guy is Willem Dafoe.
I’m not kidding, it was him. Look, I snapped a quick pic with my iPhone:
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m cool about celebrities.
Not like some people, the kind who go nuts when they see one, get that stupid, shellshocked, ga-ga look on their faces and just gotta go over and start babbling like an idiot, spouting profundities like: “Wow, it’s you! It’s really you! JOE BIGSTAR! … I just want you to know, you were so great in __________________ and, and, and I’m such a big fan, I’m your biggest fan …Hey, can I take a photo with you, do a selfie? … Could you autograph my forehead?”
Shit like that. Which I find sickening. I mean, come on, have a little self-control. Don’t act like such a total yokel. Give the guy a break, let him have his privacy.
That’s how I feel about this sort of thing.
This is Willem Dafoe sitting there. Like only 15 feet away.
Willem Fucking Dafoe.
So without thinking I start walking over to where he’s sitting, and then, trying to play it as casual and low key and polite as I can, I say:
“Excuse me. I just want thank you for all the great performances. So many of them, too… Right from the beginning of your career you just crushed it in every picture: Rick Masters, To Live and Die in LA – what a fantastic character. Spot-on portrayal! I still love watching that movie. And the others … Bobby Peru , Wild at Heart – insanely great! The look, the voice – “Like a big ol’ jackrabbit bunny, jump all around that hole. Bobby Peru don’t come up for air.” Wow – you deserve a lifetime achievement Oscar for that one alone. Or Max Shreck in Shadow of a Vampire, “I don’t think vee need the writer any longer.’ Priceless! Perfect delivery. And Light Sleeper, man it was so, so –“
“Wait,” he says, putting his hand up like a traffic cop, but much slower. “Please. Stop for a minute. And take a deep breath, will you?
OK. Willem Defoe is speaking to me, and he’s telling me to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. So, sure, I do it. And wonder what he’s going to say next, considering the possibility that he’s going to blow me off. Which I wouldn’t blame him for, now that I’m thinking about the way I must have come across.
Which would make the important question at this point: if that’s what he’s going to do, how is he going to do it? Because if he gets nasty about it, that’s going to just ruin what I think about him and every one of his films from now on. I’ll never be able to look at a photo of Willem Dafoe or read his name, much less watch one of his fillms again, without feeling some discomfort, recalling the painful memory of how he put me down that day in Joe the Art 13th Street and made me feel like such a schmuck.
But life is what happens while you’re thinking things are going to go differently.
What he actually says is:
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“How’s that?” I say.
“I am not Willem Dafoe.
This throws me. Does not compute. You saw the photo. He’s not Willem Dafoe? No. That’s … No. How can that be?
“You’re kidding, right? Hey, I’m sorry. I was coming across like a gushing moron, is that it? It’s just that I really do love your work and what you did in those —”
“No. That’s not it. It’s because I’m not Willem Dafoe. You’re referring to that actor, yes?”
“What?!? That actor? Who else? How many other Willem Dafoe’s are there? Is it a name like Bob Smith or Steve Cohen? I can’t believe this – you’re kidding me, right? ‘Winding me up,’ like the Brits say?”
He gives me a wry half-smile, says:
“It‘s really heart-warming to hear how much you’ve enjoyed Willem Dafoe’s performances over the years. Really. I can appreciate that. And you sound like a real film enthusiast, so I understand how you feel. But I do wish you could comprehend this basic fact:
“I am not Willem Dafoe! NOT-WILL-EM-DA-FOE. Got it?”
The two baristas are observing all this, along with a young couple with a toddler in a stroller who just came in and are standing at the counter, about to order, and I’m feeling pretty self-conscious with all eyes on me, including the kid, whose enormous, cartoonlike blue peepers are somewhat unnerving, but… I just can’t believe what’s going on here. Or let it go.
“All right,” I tell him. “I’ll be glad go away and leave you alone, but please.
Please don’t keep telling me you’re NOT Willem Dafoe. You are obviously Willem Dafoe. Unquestionably Willem Dafoe. Anybody can see that. The only possible non-Willem Dafoe scenario here is if you’re his identical twin brother. But I don’t recall reading or hearing anywhere that he has one. He’s got a brother who’s a transplant surgeon, but not a twin.
A scene from the movie Twins comes to mind as I’m speaking: the bit where Arnold Schwarznegger says to Danny DeVito “My name is Julius and I am your twin brother” and Devito replies “ Oh, obviously! The moment I sat down I thought I was looking into a mirror.”
But no, I don’t think I’m dealing with a separated at birth scenario here.
“Wait a minute. If you’re really not Willem Dafoe, this kind of thing must happen to you all the time. You look more like Willem Dafoe than Willem Dafoe does. Like that guy at the Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest who took the top prize over the real Charlie Chaplin, who also showed up and came in third.”
He looks me in the eye and says:
“No. I never get that.”
Cue the Twilight Zone theme music. This is too bizarre. Unreal. And it gets worse. Because then he tells me:
“This is the first time anybody’s mistaken me for Willem Dafoe. Ever. And frankly, I don’t like the association. There’s something strange about him… in a menacing, unhinged, sinister sort of way. Looks a bit… unbalanced – yes?. Reminds me of the Joker in Batman.”
“WHAT? That’s exactly what the screenwriter of Tim Burton’s Batman said about him. I don’t believe this! You are winding me up.”
“Oh, come on.. Really, I’ve had enough. Why don’t we just agree to disagree on whether I look like Willem Dafoe. Or not. And you can leave me alone and let me enjoy the rest of my coffee. Back off, buddy.”
At this moment one of the baristas, the friendly girl with the tasteful, delicate pastel tattoos and gold nose ring who frequently serves me, speaks up, glaring in my direction:
“Sir? Sir! If you don’t stop harassing that gentleman I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I turn to face her – and the other barista and the young couple and their kid – and as I speak I feel like I’m doing one of those Woody Allen bits from Annie Hall, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly.
“I’m not harassing him. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know it’s more like he’s harassing me! Look at him. Are you going to tell me he isn’t Willem Dafoe, too?
“I… I couldn’t say. But that’s not the point. Whoever he is, he has the right to enjoy his coffee and pastry in here without interference. And if you don’t stop making a scene we’ll have to ask you to leave.”
We stare at each other. Then she calls out:
“Bob! Bob? Can you come down here for a minute?”
Behind the counter there’s a little balcony or mezzanine thing up a short flight of narrow stairs, where they have a small office or something, and I see what look like at least size 14 Doc Martens coming down those stairs, followed by approximately 6 feet 8 inches and 250 pounds’ worth of what must be Bob, the Incredible Super Hulk Barista. He, too, has an interesting assortment of tats on both arms and his neck, plus the requisite gleaming facial piercing – in this case, a gold hoop jutting out of his left eyebrow.
As soon as he’s reaches the main floor the female barista makes eye contact with him and gestures in my direction.
He fixes me with a serious stare.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
I hate all these “sirs” being directed my way. In that tone cops use, which actually means: I’m addressing you using this nominally polite word, but you’re on thin ice jackoff, and you better do what I say or there will be dire consequences.
Fortunately, the often less than reliable self-preservation app installed somewhere in my brain starts kicking in, flashing alerts:
Step down! … Step down! … Calm …Calm … Smile and do ‘Compliant’‘ …Compliant’… Compliant’….
And I hear my own voice speaking calmly, saying;
“No, no problem. No problem at all.”
I walk back over to the counter and stand behind the couple with the toddler. Everybody’s still still watching me intently. I smile in a friendly way.
“Hey, I’m cool. Just want to order an Americano – larger, more water version, please – and chill out at the front table. OK? Look – I’m a frequent flyer here.” I produce my Joe the Art Perc Card [11th drink’s on us…gratuity’s on you] with multiple punch holes in it, and show it to them.
They serve me, after which I do as I said I would and take my Americano up to the table in front, sitting down in a chair facing the street.
More customers have entered the place at this point and the atmosphere has returned to normal.
But the close encounter with what I’m sure is Willem Dafoe is still on my mind, like in the moments just after you wake from a particularly vivid, unsettling dream. Something occurs to me: The way he called me “Buddy.”
I’ve heard him say that word before, in the very same way. In To Live and Die in LA. The early scene outside a warehouse out in the desert. His character, the artist and counterfeiter Rick Masters, finds a Secret Service Agent hiding in a dumpster, and the moment before Masters shoots him dead, he says:
Buddy, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yeah, maybe that was me, too. Wrong place, wrong time. Fortunately, it wasn’t as fatal. After a while I leave off thinking about it and my mind drifts along to other subjects.
Until I notice someone standing next to me. I look up and it’s him. Willem Dafoe. No mistake about it. His maniacal eyes stare at me for what feels like a very long moment, until he finally says:
“Today and tomorrow I cast out demons and work cures. On the third day, I will be perfected.”
Then he leaves.
I look around. The place is really crowded now, but nobody is looking at me, or giving me any indication that they saw what just happened.
That was one of his lines from The Last Temptation of Christ.
I look around again to see if anyone else noticed.
No. Nobody’s looking at me or staring out the window at the departing actor.
Well, that’s OK.
I know what happened.
And it was better than a selfie.
Photograph © Willem Dafoe in David Lynch’s, Wild at Heart, 1990
About Noah Lakritz