A Stab at Perfection: Rick Lemberg Can't Afford to Be Less Than Excellent

Rick Lemberg is a nondescript guy. He's short and stocky and, several years ago, threw in the towel and shaved off his thinning salt-and-pepper hair to stave off "the Albert Einstein look." He toils in a nondescript and largely abandoned low-rise on Market and Van Ness, a vice president at a company called SQLstream doing "big data real-time analytics."

Your humble narrator has no idea what that means. We didn't ask, and he didn't tell us. Regardless, Rick Lemberg may be the most talented person in this city. He may be the most talented person you'll meet in this lifetime. If he weren't, someone's lifetime would have been cut short by now.

By day, Lemberg wings "big data real-time analytics" — whatever the hell that entails. But, by night, he wings 13-inch knives within inches of human beings, at freeway speed. For the last three decades, Lemberg has tossed these hard metal objects at volunteers' soft, exposed flesh. If the two were ever to meet, it would be his eternal legacy. But that hasn't happened.

With a knife in his hand, Rick Lemberg is not a nondescript guy. In his world, adequacy and excellence and perfection meld into a singularity. And he's all of them.


With the Godzilla heels, the Tammy Wynette wig, and the rakish little fedora, Alexis Von Fierce approaches 7 feet tall. She's a big target, but, in Lemberg's world, the object is to miss the target. He spends hours each day missing targets, dutifully planting knives a whisker from the painted circles on the woodpile in his backyard.

Up on stage at the DNA Lounge in SoMa, there are far worse things to get on your knives than a glob of paint. As the clock strikes midnight, the DJ blasts "Pump Up the Jam" — which is as fitting a background track as any to witness a man pitching daggers at a drag queen the size of Shaquille O'Neal.

Within the profession, hurling knives around (but not into) a human target is, grimly, known as "an impalement." Lemberg impaled NBC anchorman Raj Mathai. He impaled aging heartthrob actor Omar Sharif. But impaling Von Fierce was several degrees of difficulty beyond all of those. Event-goers were practically writhing underfoot. Striking targets ever so slightly to the left or right of the drag queen's long body required Lemberg to rapidly shift back and forth; his footwork resembles a boxer's. It was so loud he couldn't hear the knives striking the board. The crowd roared, the music blared, and strategically placed glitter-bombs exploded.

Lemberg thunked 11 different tosses between Von Fierce's spread legs. A museum in upstate New York "that tracks these things" reported to him that this was some manner of new record. In five sweat- and adrenaline-soaked minutes, Lemberg put 63 knives around Von Fierce's body. But that's par for the course. He has impaled 160 people. Back-of-the-envelope math indicates around 10,000 knife tosses to within inches of subjects' prone bodies. None has suffered a scratch. Not Mathai. Not Sharif. And not Alexis Von Fierce, aka Alex Lemberg, aka Rick Lemberg's oldest son.

There was no medical professional on hand that night. Not even for Lemberg's own flesh and blood. But why would there be? "I never miss," he says.


There's an old adage about how newspapers never deign to write about all the jets that land safely at the airport. It's a bit of a story when one doesn't, however.

After Asiana Airlines Flight 214 scraped to a fiery and deadly halt on July 6 at San Francisco International Airport, the flood-the-zone coverage focused, understandably, on the bizarre and deadly wreck. Come Friday, the charred husk of the ill-fated flight is scheduled to be removed from SFO and hauled off to parts unknown. It's difficult to take the long view and put things in context in the immediate aftermath of a sudden and violent tragedy. But, as pilot and author Patrick Smith wrote for Slate shortly after the crash, this was the first multiple-fatality accident involving a major commercial air carrier in North America since late 2001 (not counting regional partners). In that time — nearly a dozen years — some 20,000 passenger jets took off and landed, safely, every day of the year. Very little in the realm of humanity can so closely approach perfection.

Lemberg, however, flirts with perfection in a way few can. In a field in which nothing short of flawlessness is satisfactory, he has been flawless. That's a difficult concept to grasp, let alone achieve. But it's not something he thinks about. You can't think your way to perfection. There came a day seven or eight years back when he woke up — and he knew. No more thinking.

And that's why Rick Lemberg has never missed.


Throwing 11 knives between his son's legs with no warm-ups as his wife watched from the front row "wasn't something I can top," admits Lemberg. That's about as good as it gets on this earth. There is, however, always the specter of blasting off to worlds anew.

That's not an option for Lemberg. It is, however, for his newest students. Earlier this month he trained half a dozen International Space Station-bound astronauts on the finer points of hurling sharp, pointed objects. All of them threw with astonishing skill — yet claimed they weren't very good. Years ago, your humble narrator tossed knives at Lemberg's backyard woodpile. He smiles at the memory. "But you really weren't very good," he says with a laugh.

After many of your humble narrator's errant tosses, Lemberg was able to coach this remedial student into piercing the logs with a satisfying pop. "Great!" he said at the time. "Now do it that way for the rest of your life."

In Lemberg's world, nothing less will do.

 
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