An Enigma

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The night, a cold wintry one in New York.  The air is biting and raw on Riverside Drive when we get back at 2:00 AM.  No doorman on duty.  The last shift ended at 11:00. 

looking in

After the key to the front door breaks off inside the lock, no one could enter or leave the building. Elizabeth and I feel plain stupid stranded out there on the stoop.  

As we weigh our growing frustration, a man, who walks as lightly as a cat burglar, suddenly lands behind us.  He has on a long, dark-blue overcoat that conceals his pajamas.

Drawing ever closer, our presumed bandit smiles disarmingly. He then pats me on the back.  I’m relieved to see Jack our host with his warm inviting twinkle that lights up his eyes.  “Hey Rob!  I bet one of these should help.”  He whips open his coat to reveal a full set of tools. Each protrudes from a pocket within.

FOR THE OCCASION

For starters, Jack extracts a pair of long-nose pliers.  But the lodged piece of metal appears too short to grip. So, Elizabeth intuitively reaches for a hair pin. Inserting it in the lock, she somehow manages, after half a dozen or more tries, to dislodge that tiny tip.  The lot of us, herself included, are impressed.

“Sorry guys!” Jack utters a sigh of relief as he pulls out his set of house keys. “I obviously left you the wrong one…  Better go on upstairs and get some rest.  We can catch up in the morning, not too early, for some coffee.”

In no time, the outer door eases shut behind him.  A second later, Jack vanishes back into the night.

CREDENTIALS

Jack was a preeminent American intellectual historian, a renown pragmatist, a man of ideas, an avowed centrist, a natural contrarian,

He attacked both left and right with equal passion.

What a remarkable, free-spirited friend.  Ever a contradiction.  Yet a constant inspiration.  With a terrific woman and kindred spirit.

six-years earlier

Then Jack was tenured at University of California, Irvine.  We both lived in Laguna Beach. Orange County, California.  A beachfront paradise – bathing suits, flip flops and gulls galore.  Happy-hour with pink orange, sunsets.  A breath-taking, fifteen-minute drive to campus.

Married twice.  Divorced twice.  Jack had a pair of grown kids with his first wife.  His second marriage, a fantasy one, ended after just thirty-six hours.  Flash forward, he’s finally found happiness with a fellow author.  As to me, a young aspiring writer, I’d been in several long-term relationships but not ready to take on the responsibility.  Just wasn’t the right time, nor with the right woman.

Despite Jack being a highly acclaimed scholar and author, his big regret in life was not being tall.  His height at 5’8” ruled out life as a basketball player.  He managed to play point guard in high school but didn’t play at college. Later in grad school, he’d grudgingly settle for shooting hoops in the local school yard.

alternatives

He found more passion in cinema. Jack enjoyed going to the movies. He would love to break down the contents.  The more substance and ideas the better.  He’d always watch attentively. Always eager to analyze the impact.  The Italians: Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti and Pasolini held a special place.

Jack relates how Antonioni recognizes the emptiness we all feel.  “Ever notice Monica Vitti expressing herself when she doesn’t speak.  She was amazing in L’Avventura.  Watch her reactions, her movements, her facial expressions.  They communicate with such clarity.  Much more than her voice.  Her self-confidence as it starts to suddenly vanish. Her growing anxiety.  Claustrophobia.  Fear.  A sense of no escape.”

The first time I saw L’Avventura, I too felt something missing.  When I saw the movie again, however, after Jack’s insights, my mind wandered with the characters, partaking in their journey.  I stepped away from their void and questioned what my eyes had missed.  

times change

Today, we stream a movie at home.  No theater.  No adjusting the focus.  We no longer hear the hum of a projector.  There’s no rewinding.  No changing reels.

In between, people watched home videos and then DVDs.  Prior to these options, one could catch foreign-language films at a choice art-house theater. Either in a big city or college town. Much, however, has steadily evolved. 

Back then, when an interesting flic was playing, Jack and I would grab a glass of wine and head up to a funky festival theater to catch old movies on Balboa Peninsula.  Near Newport Beach.

not a showcase

The Balboa was the only local theater to view one-night stands of hard-to-find, foreign classics.  Inside, the seats were worn, the drapes shabby, the a/c shoddy, the prints scratchy and the popcorn too salty.

That said, taking the old auto ferry across the harbor made it all worthwhile.  The sound of its foghorn signaled time to shove off and set sail.

Once after we drove on board, Jack headed for the men’s room.  So, I hopped out of the car and walked up to the bow to get a better view of the crossing.  At first, I didn’t notice the police car sitting in front of the cue. The policeman, his foot up on the fender, was standing alongside.

subtle signals

Across the deck, with that trademark twinkle in his eyes, Jack smacks his forehead in disbelief.  “Rob!  Move on, man.  What’re you waiting for?”

Reacting to Jack’s directions, I abruptly sign off with the small talk.

As I do, the officer lifts his foot from the fender, his eyes locked on the approaching shore.

JACK’S CAR

Within moments, I caught up with Jack at the back of the ferry.  His eyes reflected their trademark twinkle as he flicked a spec of dust off his classic Jaguar sports car – the one he first saw sitting, under a pile of leaves, in a driveway next door.  He’d quickly sought out the owner, made a deal, bought and restored it.  All in less than ninety days.

After we both hopped inside, Jack explained how most of the parts imported from Mexico were, in fact, better than the originals.  He added how nationalists randomly blame globalization for every economic woe we encounter.

I conceded accepting responsibility can be a hard pill to swallow.

confession

Jack recalled an earlier ride on the ferry after having had one too many. He described how he had gotten stopped just after driving off. 

They had him cold.  Had to show his license, get out and take the sobriety test that no thoroughly sober person can pass.

After having to make his left and right forefingers meet and touch, he had to walk a perfectly straight line, one foot in front of the other.  No wobbling.

PASS FAIL

By then, I had one helluva headache coming on from not having eaten.

“We’ll get you something,” said Jack, reassuringly. He went on about that night, years earlier on the ferry, when he was with this woman named Jenny: “Terrific in so many ways. But totally crazy.” As Jenny was driving, they quickly switched seats before the cop came up alongside.

The second the cop began to test Jack’s sobriety, Jenny hastily rolled down her car window.  She shouted to the cop for him to just lock Jack up. And throw away the key.  Jack, grinning as he recalled the episode, shoves his pink-lensed eyeglasses back up from where they’d slid down his nose.

VERDICT

It felt forever that Jack and the cop stood there, face-to-face until the cop asked: “She your wife?” Hesitating a full thirty seconds, Jack silently nodded as if this were true.

When Jenny shouted again to lock him up, the cop apparently glanced back at Jack and muttered: “You, poor bastard!” then turned to walk away.

Within seconds, Jack had his license back and stood there alone trying to figure what was going on.

morning after

“Rob, we just had luck on our side.   But you should’ve seen ol’ Jenny and me the next morning.”

I was glad I missed them.

Jack confessed he was too.

got there

That morning after, Jack had plunged headfirst into the ocean. He made this polar bear move that worked great.  The dip in the Pacific revived and sobered.  Jack made it to his first class refreshed and reinvigorated.  Raring to go.

What’s more, he went on to deliver one of his most memorable lectures.  He broke fresh ground in stressing the importance of the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the more commonly accepted embrace of the Constitution.  Civic virtue stood alone on far higher ground than ownership of property.

Jack always probed for the big questions explained historian Paul Berman, another of Jack’s close friends.

…and back

Standing on Balboa peninsula before the movie, my headache eased.  Jack and I bantered over fries about our reactions to Francis Fukyama’s: The End of History.  We both shared the author’s initial optimism. We then jointly took a deep breath, same as the author, to absorb the crushing impact of time.

Fukyama was convinced that, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the world would bask in unity and a prosper in a sea of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. But, long term, both proved unsustainable. 

Political landscape, however, does evolve.  Even though human anxiety and moral resistance hold firm.  They block any convergence of ideals.  Or acceptance of contrarian thought.  So, in the end, history can only repeat itself.

About the Article

A look at the personal workings of an accomplished intellectual historian who critically attacked both left and right with equal passion.

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