As insignificant as the conversation had seemed at the time, the actor's words had proved prophetic.
I was back in L.A. for the second time in the same month. One of the hazards of being a freelance PR flack for Paramount. It was Friday night, and I was taking in a bit of dinner at a not-too-trendy West Hollywood nightspot, when River Phoenix walked in with a small entourage.
He and his friends chose a table not far from mine and, as he was waiting for those ahead of him to seat themselves, he looked around and caught my eye. Having worked with him only once before, several months earlier, I never expected that he would recognize me. But he smiled and gave a small wave before sitting down. I returned the wave and returned my attentions to the meal before me and the band onstage.
Some indeterminate time later, the beer I'd been drinking became insistent. I walked into the small men's room to find River standing at the sink next to a lone urinal, washing his hands. In the mirror, he saw me enter the room and smiled.
"Hello again," he said.
"Hi," I replied. "How's it going?"
He shrugged and tore a paper towel from the dispenser to dry his hands. I straddled the urinal and began my business. Glancing over at him, I saw that he was staring at me with a sly smile.
"You cut your hair," he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "I'm surprised you noticed--nobody else here has."
He nodded with a serious look on his face. "That's Hollywood for you. How long had you been growing it?"
"Only four years," I replied. "I could have it back in three if I let it grow again."
"It's a different look," he said, turning to appraise his reflection in the mirror. "Everybody thinks I should cut mine, but I won't. I'm gonna look like this forever." He stepped away from the sink and turned to go.
"See you around, man."
"Yeah," I replied in that annoying way people have of understating an expression to appear "cool." I wish now that I had said more.
River walked out to rejoin his friends. I washed up and did the same. The next day I flew home, and he spent his last remaining days rushing headlong toward his final destiny.
The following weekend, I was sitting sucking down a Fosters in my Phoenix home and trying not to fall asleep in front of the tube, when a news flash caught me in mid-doze. River Phoenix had died of a drug overdose in front of the infamous Viper Room. I went numb.
As insignificant as the conversation had seemed at the time, the actor's words had proved prophetic. He would look just like that picture on the screen forever. Sometimes life is like that. Pointless. Ironic. Tragic. And worth savoring, no matter how trivial the exchange. That's what an unexpected encounter with a doomed movie idol taught me.