Prince, Bowie. These deaths were surprising and surreal, but neither of these left me truly gutted as did the news of Gene Wilder's passing today.
The summer after I studied abroad, in France in 2002, I lived and worked under-the-table in Dublin. It was one of the best summers of my life. I never wanted to leave. It was a summer filled with Guinness, a heart throbbing love affair, hikes on Howth Head, pubs and dancing and hurling games and road trips to Kerry and sunshine and cider on ice and all things gloriously Irish summer.
It was also filled with Willy Wonka.
I had the weirdest summer job working the front desk and bar at a hotel in The Liberties. If you're not familiar with The Liberties, it's the neighborhood whose claim to fame was being the worst slums in Europe during most of the 20th century. As an under-the-table worker, I worked 11 hour shifts starting at 7 am three days per week, and bartended - ahem! Worked as a "barmaid," the other days starting at 11 am. Because my last name was McLean and wouldn't raise any eyebrows, they paid me by check, which I had to cash at the issuing branch of the Bank of Ireland in the sketchiest neighborhood in the city. It was filled with knackers in shiny track suits and gold chains and old women selling grapes and other produce out of prams. I'd wear a cross-body bag and keep the cash tucked snug under my armpit on the walk home. As the weeks went by, I worried that someone would catch on to what I was doing there every week, but luckily I never had any trouble.
My first three days on the job, I literally could not understand my coworkers. Their accents were so thick, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I'd experienced a lot of accents by that point. The first two days, I'd say "what?" and ask them to repeat themselves. Finally, I resorted to asking them to imitate an American accent, but it was nothing but jumbled noise. Finally, on the third day, I could understand everything. It was crystal clear. It was as if they'd never had accents to begin with. My mind was blown.
The desk shifts were mind-numbingly boring. I'd check-in the occasional hen party or tourists from London, but usually it was pretty dead. Knowing this, the manager showed me the remote for the satellite TV. There were tons of cable network channels like FX. One channel had all movies. But instead of a variety of movies, it was the same movies, at the same time, for weeks in a row.
By the time July rolled around, I was in a routine: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at 8. Quantum Leap at 10. Smoke Signals at 11. Then the pub would be open and I'd be busier with the roll over from the old men drinking more than they could handle over there from there on out.
But Willy Wonka though. I had always loved that movie. There, at the boring front desk early in the morning, it really came alive. All of those sideways glances and Shakespearean asides from Gene Wilder. The song lyrics. Charlie Bucket and his Madonna mother. The golden tickets and worldwide frenzy. The purity of it all. I loved it. Every day, I noticed something new and loved it more.
So hearing that he died today, it took me right back to that time in The Liberties. Working nights at the bar and drinking in the little corner that my manager had shown me was out of the view of the cameras. Changing kegs in the back store room. Watching the Guinness delivery guys toss and roll the seemingly weightless kegs into the hatch in the street out front. Numb, hungover mornings at the front desk feeling tired and quiet, watching Willy Wonka work his magic. "The candy man can 'cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good!"
I really didn't want to leave when that summer was over. I pushed back my departure date twice. But in the end, I knew I needed to get back to Eugene and finally finish my degree. Willy Wonka was a part of that decision. Watching him observe and disapprove of those spoiled children touring his factory, it was as if he were looking down on me and disapproving of my love affair with a guy who had a girlfriend up in Donegal. It was as if Wonka were disapproving of my depraved but fun lifestyle of partying, recovering and repeating. By the end of August, I was in deep. I was in some sort of version of love with a guy who loved me back but had a girlfriend. I was two quarters from a college degree a continent away. I knew I had to leave. Wily Wonka's quiet protestations were ringing loudly in my ears. I cashed my last check. I packed my bags and made my way to the airport. I left. Three months later, I met J. In a weird way, I have Willy Wonka to thank for all the beauty I know today.
I'm gutted. I'm so sad he's gone. We're definitely watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory tomorrow. All of us. Together. I can't think of a better tribute.