Friday, October 07, 2011
The Man from Mid-City
Many years ago I met a man in a New Orleans restaurant. The name of the restaurant was Mike’s Mid-City Café. The name of the man I have long forgotten, though I am pretty sure I have it here, in this room, on an old address list. I have not lost the list. It is, I like to think, just temporarily misplaced. I had gone there that night to meet my cousin Steve and when I walked in, Steve was sitting at the bar. I sat next to him and after we had a drink he told me he wanted me to meet a friend of his. I said sure and asked where he was and Steve nodded toward a booth. Sitting at the booth was a little man, very nicely dressed, reading from a book. A beer sat in front of him on the table. We walked over and Steve introduced me to him. He invited us to sit. I asked him what he was reading and he smiled and said, “You may have never heard of it. It is a book called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. It is in Latin.” I thought a bit and told him that I had heard of it. In fact, I had read it and even translated it in college. I did not tell him that. As we chatted, he told me that he was a Latin teacher in the same school where Steve then taught. We spoke a bit more, then thanked him for his conversation and headed back to the bar. That was twenty years ago. I never saw the man again, though I did write to him and we may have exchanged a few letters.
I had a course on The Nature of Things while in college. Back then, I was not overly impressed. It was a mandatory course and I did not have the fervent love for the book that our teacher, Father O’Sullivan, had. I remember him as very kind and very scholarly. He later fell in love with a lady and shifted his sense of grammar from Latin to his love for her. I thought that was pretty nice.
I remember that there was a final exam. It was to be a translation of Lucretius. We were told that it would be a passage in Latin and we had to correctly translate it into near perfect English. Jack Christell picked me up at my house at five in the morning and we drove over to Seton Hall. The Student Center was not yet open, so we parked in the near empty and enormous lot. We both smoked back then. Jack smoked Raleigh cigarettes because his dad collected and then redeemed the coupons. I smoked either Parliaments or Marlboros. There were no coupons. I liked the taste. So we sat there in the car with a flashlight and clouds of smoke and memorized, word for word, the sections we were hoping would appear on the exam sheet. I remember that it was cold and we had the car heater on full blast. The heater was not that good. We were still cold.
I do not remember what the text was. I do remember that me and Jack guessed the right translation. We both passed and even though I think Father O’Sullivan suspected that we memorized it, he never said anything. We purposefully made a few minor mistakes to give the impression that we struggled through the test. Maybe that worked.
Years passed. Jack and I entered the seminary. Roughly two years after we entered, Jack began to show signs of depression. He went for therapy, then began a regimen of drugs, but his condition worsened and he had to leave the seminary. He returned home and took what began to be a string of low-income jobs. We exchanged letters but he eventually stopped writing. One morning I found a fax at my table here at the monastery. Jack had taken his own life – he hung himself in the house where he grew up and where, by that time, he lived alone. I felt terrible that I had not kept up with him.
I would see Steve every time I went to New Orleans, which was often in those days. And he would make it a point to see me in my various locales. He visited me in every place I lived over the years, including here, at the monastery. I loved him like a brother. He was so easy to be with, though his three wives may not agree with me. But he weathered all that well. We would sit and chat for hours about the nature of the church, war and politics, love and loss, the past and the future….well, the nature of things.
He passed away a few months ago. He had a severe diabetic condition and succumbed to the gradual weakening of his body. I could not go to the funeral – we are limited to such things – but I know he would have understood that. I like to think we were there for each other when it mattered. He was a good and faithful friend. He shared friendship with such a seeming ease and joy.
I think I found the man’s name. The man in the booth from a long time ago. I found the list. Actually, it was right next to me in a pile of papers. I had a hunch it was there. His name was Lane Zellerman. It was obvious that he loved books, loved the past, loved history. I liked him. Looking back, I am glad he found his passion. Steve told me that he never married. His first love was the written word and all that he could give to it and it to him.
In this morning’s New York Times there is a review of a book that brought all this to mind. The name of the book is Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Steve Greenblatt. On the Nature of Things and old Lucretius figure prominently in the mapping of the book. Among other things, Greenblatt is indebted to the ancient text of Lucretius as well as its history. Looks to be a good read. I am not sure I will get to it – I may have already benefitted from it. But, I may get it. One never knows.
Memories came back to me as I read the review. Some good and some sad ones.
We all struggle with this life, with the nature of life as it blesses us, wounds us, casts us aside. There are moments when hope seems as close as breathing and other times when it seems gone, never again to come back. It always does, if we wait for it.
Lucretius dispensed with the need for a God to give all this plausibility. And for him it worked.
And that is good.
For me, life has been a series of hits and misses. Some days I get it, other days I don’t. The best I can figure, even Jesus relied on the common grace of friendship to get him through tough times. No big answers, just friends.
Friends you meet other friends with. Friends who share a drink or two in a bar. Friends who share a cold morning, memorizing some old words that may still ring true. I think of the nature of things all the time. And discuss it with my friends. And share what I can with you.