London was cold and wet. Starbuck and I needed a place to rest, get warm, and have some juice and a coffee. But I was asked to leave one café because it was a betting shop in disguise—no children allowed—and a second because the owner said Starbuck’s collapsible stroller would take up too much room, though the place was empty. On the streets, every English granny in town glared at me for having a toddler out in public. Glancing around furtively, I did what any American under siege abroad would do—I went in a McDonald’s.
Starbuck sat at my knees and sleepily gummed the top bun of my Lamb McSpicy, while I stared out at life passing on Whitehall as if it were on TV. After a few minutes, a guy who looked just like the notorious porn star Ron Jeremy walked past the steamy window. I did a startled double take, and my sharp movement made the man look down at us with equal surprise. This was before Jeremy had reinvented himself as reality-show contestant, documentary subject, or author, and the sighting was so improbable I figured I’d seen some local shopkeeper running an errand.
My sincere thanks to everyone who’s visited my site at Inside Higher Ed this past year. I’ve consolidated my load there so I can work on some other things, and I wanted to stop in and say hi. I missed you. Did you think of me? Wait, why not?
Among the other seven billion people on the planet, many whom we’ve known—or known of—are still out there, saying and doing things: old lovers, former teachers, Vladimir Putin. If we think of them at all, it’s as if they lived on another plane. Mostly, we interact with the idea of people, apparitions of memory and imagination, not the people themselves. Faced with sudden reminders of their bodily reality, we falter.
Recently, my family had the honor to let McSweeney’s author Roy Kesey sleep on our floor for a couple of nights during his book tour. I’d thought I knew Roy from his writing and from our e-mail conversations. I’d even interviewed him at my blog. But one morning he was suddenly standing in my personal library, yanking at the waistband of the silken long johns he’d worn to survive the night in our Victorian house. I tried to ignore him, but it went on too long. “Hey,” I said. “You got blue underwear.”
“Royal blue,” he said, doing a deep knee bend to straighten some things out, and I knew the encounter had changed everything.
Another campus awards dinner: An alumna who’d opened a clothing factory in Hong Kong had pledged part of her fortune to the university. She and her husband were being presented with an acrylic trophy laser-etched with a picture of her old college. The chancellor grinned and shook their hands in triumph. What a day!
But when I looked around the banquet room at the audience smiling and clapping, something strange happened: Ghosts rose up into their shoulders, necks, faces, and skulls, and they became the woodchoppers, hog farmers, nursemaids, foot soldiers, fishmongers, and coal miners their ancestors had been, their ancient hungers, fears, cruelties, and pain visible in their eyes and on their lips. I felt pity for all of us that ghosts keep us in thrall, just when we think our expensive degrees and Hermès bags have set us free.
The whole time I was growing up, my father was a ghost in a sack of old slides. In one, he looked like a fierce young hell-raiser in the Pacific theater. (My parents were old enough to be my grandparents.) Maybe he was the devil, as my mother said. But why then, in another photo, was the devil an affable middle-aged man in a guayabera, sitting on a lawn in Saigon with a monkey on his back?
If you’re the son of the devil, you want to know how these things go, so you can make some choices. When I was 7, we heard he was in Afghanistan, so I imagined him, oh, looking up the Khyber Pass. When the State Department told us a few years later he was in Indonesia, I tried to imagine the tin mines where he advised. I couldn’t imagine why he’d abandoned his infant son.
It’s been said that comedy comes from partial understanding; if you knew too much about someone’s troubles, you’d no longer laugh. By this theory, if I showed you more directly the walking dead that are some college faculty and graduate students, let you experience my status as invisible man, made you worry with my wife and me over money, security, accomplishment, age, and parenthood, these dispatches might threaten to become the opposite of comic, and this is, after all, a humor journal.
But the deepest comedy, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Steve Martin and Bill Murray, embraces a more complete awareness of human life. Back in the 17th century, the Japanese poet Basho visited a shrine that displayed a famous warrior’s helmet “engraved with chrysanthemums and ivy from eyehole to earflap, crowned with a dragon’s head between two horns.” Basho wrote:
a great soldier’s empty helmet,
a cricket sings
(Translation by Sam Hamill.)
This is the comedy of compassion in the face of deep time.
Sometimes I’ll see a light in my side vision and find myself looking for its source. It’s always a stray reflection off the lens of my glasses, a gleam from a mirror in a darkened room, but the ghosts of my childhood remain only a glance away. My mom was a sort of natural philosopher, but she believed in ghosts and used to tell how she’d seen me wandering through the kitchen when I was actually asleep in my bed, how all the heating registers in the house were inexplicably pulled out of the floor and left lying next to their black holes. One of our cats disappeared down a hole, like a rabbit in its warren, and the furnace man had to help it find its way out of the ductwork. There could be only one explanation, according to my mother: Young boys with emotional stressors, such as absent fathers and poverty, unknowingly create poltergeists.
My father was born in 1918, and that he would have lived long enough for the private eye I hired to find him, long-retired in South Florida, seemed unlikely. That he had, showed enormous good manners. I flew down in order to telephone. “You might want to sit down,” I said, sitting. “I’m your son.” It was unlikely any man would welcome me so graciously on a Thursday evening while his third wife listened, that he wouldn’t faint or curse or simply hang up. They’d been out to dinner. “I always knew you’d call,” he said. He was 78; I was 33.
That he’d be smarter, better read, and more urbane than just about anyone else I knew, that he was a folk artist–carver, that he’d been president of Johnson & Wales University for a time, all seemed beyond unlikely. We were so much alike in our views that it did seem odd to me that he disliked fiction and hated photography, but he hinted he had an aversion to artifice. He sat sipping a glass of red wine in creased slacks and a guayabera.
“I was just a teacher,” he said as a way to cut through the knot of stories I’d been carrying. Given his career, the statement seemed a bit of an artifice, designed perhaps to ameliorate years of unpaid child support, health care, and education.
The digital age has let us be as amorphous as we wish, but personality, like murder, will out. Over time, what’s important about a writer can’t be hidden by mere anonymity or pseudonymity.
Some have been bothered by my use of a pen name, but they can rest assured that I thought hard and chose one suited to me. I’m Churm all right, and will continue to be, but I want to reunite body with spirit. My real name is John Griswold, and I’ve taught at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, since 2000. On with the show.
Last time Mrs. Churm, Starbuck, Wolfie, and I were in South Florida, in August, someone had taken down all the “Panther Crossing” signs on the airport road. Mechanical harvesters had clear-cut the sea pines and gathered them like sheaves of wheat to be taken to the mill. Big Cats dozed acres of sand into plots as flat and square as Midwestern farms, and cinder blocks outlined concrete pads of a new strip mall and bank. When I got back, Rory, an administrator, wanted to argue that nothing has changed along America’s coastline.
I said that back during the Vietnam War, if you tried to tell my Aunt Margie the news, she put her hands over her ears and sang “Dixie.”
Rory decided everything’s always changing, and what people like me wish for is the good old days, before change. He didn’t think to refer to Eden, so he said that was when we lived in caves. I was glad he told me. I’d rather not be haunted by the past.
Maybe Ron Jeremy saved his money and was living as an expatriate in London. I wanted to believe such things were possible. Starbuck and I walked to the changing of the Horse Guards, to the river and along its bank, crossed at the Golden Jubilee Bridges, talked about the Eye, toured the aquarium, and walked back through St. James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. I’ll never forget that day with my son.
Mrs. Churm was waiting in our tiny hotel room near Bayswater and offered me a cup of tea. The telly hung off the wall over the bed, and Ron Jeremy was being interviewed on BBC Two. The hosts winked and nudged as they asked about his ability to perform autofellatio. Jeremy was calm and affable and talked mostly about his love for his father. Pressed to sum up his life in pornography, he said tiredly, “It’s just about bubbies.”
When I flew back to Florida in September, I was alone. In the Sunflower Café, the waitresses sat down in the booths with their elderly customers and watched them shuffle photos of grandkids like decks of cards, as if hoping for a good hand. Some early retirees—robust, tanned, and laughing—described the waitresses to me as “booze hags.” The women’s hands shook as they poured coffee. They moved round each other in a practiced dance, hollered obscene jokes over the din, ministered with buttered toast. Three of them said they’d drop by to see my dad on their way out to the bars. They’d be off at 2 but were going to someone’s house to shower and change first.
He was dying in a hospice room that had a view of a man-made lake with a fountain in the center. The nurses said to look for the gator, but the late sun made the water a mirror, and the blinds were kept shut. He was glad to see the waitresses when they came in, loudly, smelling of perfume, smokes, and the shots of gin they’d done before they left the house. Their faces were hard and worn, and showed their disappointments even more now that they’d made themselves up to go out. They cooed and smiled, and one was missing teeth. They were very beautiful.
He and his wife had eaten breakfast at the Sunflower six days a week for eight years. He collapsed, the first time, there a month earlier, and one of the Greek owners, George, had stood over him, shouting to my 90-year-old stepmother, “It’s OK, Alix, he’s breathing, he’s alive!” Now the waitresses sat around his bed and caught him up on all the news. George was still an asshole and took advantage. One of them had walked out after another shouting match with him, then walked back in the next day. A former waitress, whom my dad and his wife might have remembered, had finally lost everything—hard drugs, they said—and had gone away with nowhere to go.
They’d been so purposeful in their gaiety that they were unaware he couldn’t speak. He was embarrassed, so I told them about his service in the war, his work for USAID in Vietnam and in Afghanistan, and the sabbatical he’d done in Paris with a lost-wax gold foundry. “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” they said. “You do get around, don’t you, hon?” They saw he was tiring, and, anyway, they needed to hit the beach for the drink specials. I had to go in the bathroom while they kissed his hands goodbye.
I hadn’t told them how my uncle, a state’s attorney, had once put him in jail for trying to abandon us, or how thrilled I was to get the only gift he ever sent me as a child, a train set that arrived after Christmas one year. My entire childhood, my mom told me that when I grew up to be big and strong I’d beat him up for her. At the very end of her life, she bragged he was a big strapping man whose team members did what he said, no B.S., boy.
He was 2 inches taller than me, and even at 89, and after two months of heart failure, he was heavy. He kept sliding down in the motorized bed that propped him up, and the bedclothes twisted and bunched at his feet. When I couldn’t manage to move him back, I tried to help him sit up. The skin on his back was papery, loose over hard muscle and bone. I was afraid I’d hurt him, but it took some force just to jam pillows behind him. Other than a handshake, it was the first time I’d touched his flesh. The next morning, there were large purple hemorrhages where my palms had been and where he’d leaned against the bedrail. They put him on a drug cocktail to keep the panic from rising as water filled his lungs. Offshore, the shallows blackened with algae blooms.
Since he didn’t like artifice, I didn’t say see you soon, feel better. I kissed his face, a first and last time for everything, and said other things. He wanted to tell me something but didn’t have the breath. I said his wife could tell me later. He smiled and respected me enough not to nod.
I had breakfast at the Sunflower one last time before I flew home. When I went to pay at the counter, George, who mans the register eternally, asked how much I wanted to tip. The bill was 10 bucks, and I said to add 5. George dismissed me. “That is too much. Two dollars, that’s enough,” he said in his accent and started to punch in numbers on the credit-card machine. “No,” I said firmly. “You’ve all been very kind.” He was bald with a fringe, in his 50s, and had soft-boiled eyes.
We stood awkwardly while the transaction went through. “We are sorry about everything that has happened,” he said finally. He ripped the receipt off and put it down for me to sign. “But what can you say? There is nothing to be done. We are born to die.”
I imagined his eyes focusing more deeply to see the younger man’s face in his own. In the chiaroscuro of the window’s reflection, the two were hard to discern, but the eyes stared back at him, and there was a child there, too. Startled, he turned and strode off for Trafalgar, disappointed at being recognized from his ridiculous friction videos, as the porn king of past decades. The Hedgehog, they called him. He felt sad that he’d been caught in the act of being happy. Thousands of couplings, no union.
Riddle: What’s the opposite of a ghost? A golem: all body and no spirit. Golem is to ghost, as porn is to love. He wondered what that guy in the McDonald’s with his son was thinking about, and what he did for a living.
We were on a train to Chicago for a day at the museum when my phone rang. I answered, looked at Mrs. Churm, sitting across the aisle with Wolfie in her lap, and shook my head. She turned to the window and began to cry. Starbuck lay asleep with his head on my legs, and I stroked his hair.
Who will protect us from the news? As a child, I feared loss, unaware it was already present in the absence of my father, in a family too old to remain for long, in the vacancies of poverty and its empty glosses. A world of ghosts, past and present.
But death is only part of the story, friends, and it’s time to exorcise partial stories. Let’s set down fear like a heavy bag and shoulder instead a more complex understanding.
Late that night, my wife asked what I was feeling, and I said it was complicated. I loved my father for a decade, after hating and fearing the idea of him for more than 30 years. I was grieving, but I wondered aloud if he was standing in the lunch line in Hell.
Ronald Jeremy Hyatt, 50-year-old American tourist, former special-ed teacher with a master’s from Queen’s College, catches a glimpse of movement as he passes the flatly shining window of some restaurant on Whitehall Street. His feet are sore from walking all over central London, but he feels good under the cold light rain. He’ll be on TV that night and has a few pounds in his pocket. He pauses to look briefly at the reflection of his face, like a ghost on the glass, which he sees without sentiment. He’s older, tired. Still, he has impish eyes and the kinky comic hair of a putz. Behind him in the glass, he sees Lord Nelson’s column jutting up, the old male lions resting on their granite pedestals, a swarm of cars and black taxis, pine garlands and holiday lights, all the beautiful ugly people passing on the street. The images are warped and complicated because the glass is uneven, and he is suddenly aware of being a new man in an ancient city, as safe and solid at this moment as falling in love and first Passovers, and he can feel in his bones what it means to be warm, well, happy, and free.