My friend Len died... and then he wasn't dead.

Roland De Wolk takes a relatively unfunny incident and makes a really funny story from it.

My Friend Len died not long ago. And then he wasn’t dead anymore. “Being dead isn’t so bad,” he told me sitting 20 feet from where he croaked in a Sausalito café along the waterfront. I want to say he deadpanned. But that would spoil the ending. 

Len’s in his late 60s. He has a Ph.D. from Stanford. He taught journalism at San Francisco State University for many years. He was no average professor type. He was universally regarded as the toughest teacher in the department and suffered no fools, gladly or with no gladness. In his fit 50s, when he could have just paid a lot of attention to the hoards of comely undergraduate coeds who seemed endlessly attracted to him, he instead was among the very first academics to understand what the Internet in general and the Web in particular meant to communications. And he did something about it. 

He subsequently made a few extra Federal Reserve notes creating what would become the big marketing company Razorfish, enough skrilla to retire early from teaching – and fools. Len became very involved in the Web. He built a beautiful home in Marin, and started restoring a very cool, very big old boat once owned by a famous San Francisco newspaperman. His business associates bought him a red sports car. An expensive one. He already owned one of those flossy bug-eyed English sports cars from the early 1960s. He was winning in the late innings. That, of course, was all before he died. 

Naturally, he died in a fashion that’s even more extraordinary than his life. Or, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, he stopped being dead in extraordinary fashion. 

I asked him if the actual dying part was disappointing. He conceded it was. No lights, no tunnels, no live-streaming biopic. Just lights out, show over. He had been alive for six decades and then suddenly he wasn’t alive at all. You probably want to know a few things from his eschatological experience such as what does he know now about the living/dying matrix he didn’t know before, how has it changed his life and maybe how he’d choose to die next time and stuff like that. Me, too, I wanted to know. We both stared at our coffees, still about 20 feet from where Len cheated the Reaper. 

Len had been enjoying a black coffee in one of those big European style coffee cups at the café and minding his own business. He does not recall taunting death or taking any other action that might have provoked what happened next. The waters of San Francisco Bay were a close glance away. The cove there in Sausalito, which cartographers call Richardson Bay, was where smugglers allegedly smuggled barrels of hooch back in the day. Now a tiny shot of rum on that popular waterfront costs at least $8. But never mind, what’s that got to do with Len and the fact that he died and then wasn’t dead anymore? Probably nothing. Consequently, I will refrain from expressing too much irritation over the vexing fact that Sausalito requires people pay a parking meter even on Sundays, which is when I met my friend Len, drank coffees and he told me, in some detail, about how he died and then wasn’t dead anymore. 

By the way, and for the full disclosure you deserve, Len’s cardiologist – she’s a heart doctor and not to be confused with guys who make maps – argued with Len about whether he died or not. She said that since he was not dead anymore he never died. Len pointed out that since his heart had stopped, he had no pulse and he wasn’t breathing for a goodly while, he was therefore dead.

The cardiologist, like many wonderful doctors, was not so skilled at conceding arguments, and insisted that even if you die and then you aren’t dead anymore, which of course, describes what happened to Len, you’re never really dead. Len, who knows a few things, pointed out that when he was an undergraduate and very much alive without qualification, had a room mate who was working his way through school as a mortician, which seems to me to be more related to cardiologists than perhaps one might feel comfortable conceding. 

Now before you start pointing out again that this seems to have nothing much to do with the tale of how my friend Len died and then wasn’t dead anymore, I must take issue with any such position. The mortician- undergraduate-room mate informed Len those many years ago, perhaps over coffee or rum, that after a body is very dead – even by the somewhat overly rigorous standards of Len’s cardiologist – the nails and hair continue to grow. Which I know to be a fact, because, as I mentioned to Len, while sitting just 20 feet from where the Angel of Death took him, I, too had learned this from a mortician. Only I was given this interesting information as a young, green and shall I say cubby, reporter for one of those curiously anachronistic publications called a newspaper. 

Back to the story, you are, no doubt, now anxious and impatient to complete: A slight frisson overtook Len that fine Sausalito morning. He was then dizzy and then he was dead. As mentioned earlier, his heart had stopped, his pulse had disappeared, so-on and so-forth as my mother used to say. Or tried to say with her French accent, since she was a native French speaker who came to America shortly after I was born. Len collapsed on the floor, quite dead I assure you. But here is where Chaos Theory meets Guardian Angels on the Karma Theater Stage: 

Two California Highway Patrol officers, also enjoying that fine Sausalito, Richardson Cove, San Francisco Bay waterfront morning, no doubt with a coffee beverage, were sitting not more than two yards away. That would be 6 feet or about two meters for our non-American Anglo friends, who often drink coffee from either those extraordinary large European cups or those little demitasse deals you get in cafes one can find in places such as Sausalito. The officers rose briskly from their chairs and fast as terriers after a rat began the tug of war with the Pale Rider over Len’s prostrate form. One officer began pounding on Len’s chest, reviving his heart and sending blood back to his vital organs, which very much included Len’s big brain, for as you may recall he earned a Ph.D. from Stanford and was a university professor for many years. 

The other officer ran across the street, knowing there was a firehouse just a hundred yards from there – I’m not sure how many meters that is -- and summoned the paramedics to the Death Scene. They had defibrillators and knew how to use them. Not everyone does it seems, or more shocking yet, has any interest in learning to. The house video, which runs continuously in order the dissuade well-to-do Sausalitans from chalking coffees and such, captured Len’s Death Scene with many vivid pixels. Being a reporter who worked in television news for a longer stretch than I had hoped, which ended by the way, some years after my lengthy newspaper career, which I once imagined would soldier on forever,

I was immediately intrigued about the video of Len’s dying and then not being dead anymore. He told me the best part showed a nice coffee-drinking lady who first shielded her eyes from watching him drop dead and then moved to better advantage in the café so as to finish her beverage – I don’t know if it was in one of those big European style cups, incidentally  – and instead watched the lovely waters and boats of Richardson Bay. 

I asked Len how was it watching the video. He sort of snorted and said something pithy, which I will reveal at the appropriate moment. Since you may have, understandably, been among those concerned that I should stick with the straight narrative, as they do in newspapers and television news stories, I shall demonstrate my celerity in completing the chain of events. 

They rushed Len to the hospital. His heart beat with regularity just as wonderfully as his old bug-eyed, flossy English ride after sitting in the garage far too long. His pulse pulsed with pleasure and his breathing returned to its prosaic inhalation/exhalation routine. By the way, his hair and nails appear to have suffered no interruption. 

Len went back to his boat, had it dry-docked in the somewhat less glamorous city of Richmond, across San Pablo Bay (which is, of course another subset of San Francisco Bay in many people’s telling), where the hull, which was also in a death state, was reborn. Len, however, chose to stay in a motel near the Richmond waterfront, which hardly resembles that of Sausalito. Prostitutes, pimps and other former news people knocked on his door at all hours, and there were few spots where he could find a coffee beverage served in one of those extra large European-style cups. The parking, however, was bountiful and, mercifully, free.

His hull and heart back in order, Len is now back on the sparkly shores of Richardson Bay. Where he once might have been intense, he is now jaunty. Where he might have once might have sent a polite email thanking someone for a favor he instead threw an extravagant party for those men who hauled him back to life. At each dinner setting there was a bottle of a very fine Champagne, and with each, affixed a small jump drive containing the video of the incident. I asked him if the movie held up.

“Watching yourself die isn’t so bad,” Len deadpanned.

 (If you're feeling ghoulish, you can watch the video Len got from the café and Roland posted on Youtube.  It's surveillance camera footage and at an odd angle, but the left side of the video is where you'll see the action.)



Roland De Wolk has been a print, broadcast and online reporter for more than 35 years, specializing in investigative projects. He also teaches journalism at San Francisco State University, where he was the co-creator of one of the first online journalism production courses in the nation. He is the recipient of many regional, state and national journalism awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists Career Achievement Award.