An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
18th May, 2015

It’s amazing how fast the day – that is, the useful part of the day (and by useful, I mean from a things-being-open point of view) – goes by when you wake up at 12, 1 o’clock. Or, to better get in the local habit, 1200, 1300. Well look, it’s not like I’m sleeping 14 hours a night. I suppose I usually go to bed between three and four. Which is not far off from what I was doing when I had to get up at seven for work.1 But I still have a hard time getting moving in the “morning.” So instead of going on some multi-hour trek, I find it’s easier to just go grab a beer, sit in the park and read for a spell.

What am I doing up so late? Mostly reading Greek and doing this stupid blog-thing. So it’s not like I’m not being productive. But I think this week I’ve got to make more of an effort to get out and see more of the city. So I should set some goals here, publicly, thereby hopefully forcing myself to meet them and report back. I should go see the Olympic stadium.2 You know, that place where Jesse Owens made an ass of Adolf Hitler.3 And I should walk in a direction I haven’t yet walked before.

I went to a group conversation exchange event last week. That was pretty cool. Everyone was lovely. I’m not sure how much it actually helped my German, but it’s a good way to meet people. You know, putting yourself out there and all that. There was only one other native English speaker, an Australian bloke. We got on well and met for a beer a few days after.

Honestly, when I came here I had sort of decided I wasn’t interested in meeting other native English speakers. But it turns it it’s actually really nice to have somebody with whom to compare notes, somebody who’s going through all the same stuff you are. And he’s been here since October, so he’s got some good pointers as well. So I’m going to limit my previous prejudice to Americans.

That said, outside of the conversation meetings, I’m not having the easiest time meeting people. I popped into a bar around the corner the other night which seemed from the outside to have a good vibe going on. But when I got in, I didn’t talk to anybody. I was either too sober or too chickenshit or both, and likely one being dependent on the other. Conclusion: I need to try harder. Or drink more. Or both.4 But, you know, per aspera ad astra5 and all that.

So the blonde girl brought over some cake for us that she had made. And she specifically made it clear – if I understood my roommate;6 I wasn’t home at the time – that one slice was for me. Which is really lovely, right? Except. Blueberry cheesecake. So clearly she didn’t like me, and after one encounter has taken it upon herself to poison me. It’s the only rational conclusion. Right? Maybe I can feed it to the cats.

Oh man, the cats. So, talk about things I didn’t see coming. I kinda love these cats.7 I think we’re becoming friends. Except when I break out the guitar. Then they go running.8 But really, I kinda dig the little fuckers. They’re like semi-sentient animatronic stuffed animals.9 Not that I’m ready to deify them, Ancient Egypt style, but I’m forced to admit, I like having them around.

Tuesday I’m supposed to cook dinner for the roommies (and possibly Blondey). I’m a bit apprehensive, only insofar as foreign supermarkets are always weird. Like, I don’t know how to find – or if they even have – half the stuff I’m used to buying. So I doubt I’ll be able to make something that I know I can hit out of the park. But I can usually improvise pretty well, so I’m sure it’ll be fine. And maybe I can coax these jokers into a pre-dinner ciggy so that they don’t really taste anything anyway.

The last thing worth mentioning is, I’m still trying to get a room sorted for June. It’s starting to become a bit stressful. I suppose, in utter need, I can grossly overpay via Airbnb, but I’d prefer it didn’t come to that. It is strange, and perhaps even a bit ironic, to now be on the other side of this experience.

When we lived on Maiden Lane, it always fell to me to deal with the whole find-a-new-third-roommate situation. Of course I always tried to deal fairly with people: respond in a timely manner and all that. But at some point, I always had to turn somebody away who seemed like a good fit, and that was never a good feeling.10  And now here I am. I’m the one hearing, “Well, you’d definitely be a good fit here, but I’ve a few more people to meet. I’ll let you know.” It’s frustrating, I ain’t gonna lie. But that’s life in the big city, I guess.

I want to shift gears for a moment before signing off. In high school, we had this English teacher, Ms. Young. She was brilliant.11  Anyway, she had this idea about storytelling, namely that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Ok, for the last year or so I’ve been working my way through the Grimm fairy tales.12  And in doing so, you sort of mentally file away the tropes. Now tonight, I’m reading a bit of Herodotos, and that’s where it all sort of starts to tie together.

So, in Sleeping Beauty, the king get some sort of prophecy or warning or whatever that his daughter is going to get pricked with some kind of needle, which will result in her death or long-lasting coma or whateverthefuck. So what does he do? Well, obviously he banns all sharp pointed metal objects and then locks his daughter in a tower, for good measure. And what happens? Some witch or whatever bullshit, but yeah, she gets pricked, and bam: Sleeping Beauty. Nice try, Your Majesty, but it was always a losing battle. Because Fate.

But now here’s Herodotos, in the mid-400’s B.C. And he’s telling this story about King Croesus.13  And in this story, Croesus has a dream that his beloved son14 is going to die at the point of a spear.15  So what’s he do? Well, obviously he takes all his armaments off the walls – because gods forbid they fall off the wall and kill the kid – and locks them away. But of course there’s some wild boar and the kid has to fight it, and well, you know what happens. Anyway the parallel struck me. And meanwhile I get annoyed when they reboot movie franchises. But really we’ve been rebooting our stories for thousands of years.

Ok, so I did that in two half-cocked16 paragraphs. Feel free to call bullshit. But I’m going to jump to a couple of conclusions. 1) Ms. Young, as always, was right. 2) For all the difficulty involved in learning – and then actually reading – Greek, Herodotos is so worth it. And sure, you could read him in English. Just like you could go watch J.J. Abrams take on Star Trek. But man, don’t you just love The Original Series?

  1. Screw you, job!  (Also thanks for the years of employment, insurance, $, etc). []
  2. Because NS architecture is alluringly creepy.  Or creepily alluring? []
  3. Cos that was hard to do, said no one ever. []
  4. Let’s start with drinking more. []
  5. Ugh, this doesn’t mean I like you, Latin. []
  6. Always a big “if”. []
  7. Sorry, Dad. []
  8. Well, you would too. []
  9. Semi-sentient animatronic stuffed animals that sometimes make a break for the open window. Down! What’s the matter with you! Oh, you don’t speak English. Verdammt! []
  10. Actually, I usually stuck Jared with that business. But I didn’t feel good about it anyway. []
  11. Full disclosure: she was never actually my teacher. But I spent many free periods chatting with her when she was on hall duty. []
  12. You know, to improve my archaic German vocabulary. []
  13. Kroisos, would be the better spelling. But why fight it? []
  14. As opposed to his deaf-and-dumb non-beloved son. []
  15. ὡϲ ἀπολἐει μιν αἰχμῆι ϲιδηρέηι βληθέντα (1.34.2). Lit: That he would die being stuck by sharp iron. But αἰχμή, while literally meaning the sharp tip of a spear, is so often used synecdochially (or possibly metonomically; I always get confused with those two) for the spear itself. I know. Nobody cares. []
  16. And let’s be honest, half-drunk. []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
13 May, 2015

The last few days have been somewhat less adventuresome, at least in terms of exploring the city. The weather has been somewhat less favorable, and I have been perhaps a bit lazier.1 That’s not so say, however, that the last few days have been uneventful. They have been, in fact, quite fun. Not fun in the New York sense, mind you. That is to say, I haven’t been out at bars till closing and then eating noodles to sunrise. But fun, all the same.

Saturday night, we had a bit of a dinner party here. Funny thing though, I didn’t know it was going to be a dinner party. Originally, I was going to say: “Nobody told me it was going to be a dinner party.” That’s possible. It’s also possible that they told me and I didn’t understand. Anyway, Mischa, my roommate, cooked up a bunch of food. And as I was sitting in the kitchen, I noticed there were four place settings. I noticed, but I didn’t ask.

Anyway, at one point the doorbell rings and in walks a very nice and well dressed blonde girl.2 Now I mention well dressed only to point out the contrast. As I was unaware that there would be company, I rolled up to the table in a ripped Cheap Trick T-shirt and with my hair a complete mess.3 Whereas homegirl was wearing a lovely black dress which was not unflattering with regard to her natural assets. Fortunately, where American Dave would have made some self-defeating-albeit-humorous remark, Berliner Dave can’t think fast enough in German. Immediate embarrassment averted.

In any case, it was a lovely evening, in terms of food, conversation and company. We all had a lovely time and drank possibly just a touch more than we should have. Or at least I did. I got to know my roommates better. I made the blue-eyed blonde girl laugh. I learned more German. I didn’t embarrass myself. Oh wait, I did a bit.

DON’T MENTION THE WAR!

At one point, we were discussing our ancestry. Anja, my roommate, mentioned that her family originally came from Königsberg. She then explained that Königsberg, though now a part of Russia,4 was once a part of Germany. Whereupon I remarked something along the lines of “Aber alle Europa war am einer Zeit ein Teil von Deutschland.” Which was supposed to mean, “But all of Europe was a part of Germany at one point.”5 Blank stares all around. Dave tugs at his collar. “Krieg Witz?” I offer hesitantly. “War joke?” More blank stares. Silence. Terror. Horror. Now all I can hear is John Cleese screaming, “Don’t mention the war!” I shake my head and wave my hand, since I don’t even know how to say “nevermind.” And we move on.

Now I should point out, these are people are not easily offended. I don’t think they mind war jokes in principal. More likely, my joke made no sense. Or most likely – as I can vouch from 30-odd years of experience – it just wasn’t funny. The joke, I mean. Because the situation, at least in hindsight, was pretty hilarious. However, I made no more war jokes that evening.

In any case, after much wine and perhaps too much absinthe,6 the evening came a to a close. After Blondey left, I sat and chatted with Anja for a bit. And she offered for me to come back for the month of July.7 “We like you,” she said. How fucking nice is that? I’ve only been here since Wednesday. I said that that would be great, but we’d all drank a bunch and let’s talk it over again when we’re sober. Which we did tonight, and there’s been no change. So that’s fantastic. I’ve got July sorted now. All I need to worry about now is June. But that’s for another day.

And what about Blondey? Who knows? Maybe she liked me. Maybe I liked her. Hard to say, with the language barrier. Hopefully I’ll see her again. She’s got great blue eyes, did I mention that? But at the very least, the language barrier was good for one thing. I didn’t “Davey it up,” as one of my friends so eloquently put it.

For Sunday, the day after the dinner party, I had scheduled a conversation exchange. This was to be in a part of town called Charlottenburg. By foot, I’d guessed it to be a solid hour-and-a-half, maybe two. And I’d planned to walk it. But I was in no condition. So I took the train.

A brief aside on the Berlin metro-sitch. There are no express trains and trains don’t run much past midnight.8 But other than these two [glaring] deficiencies, the mass transit system here is actually quite nice. But it’s one of those systems with no turnstiles. If you’re not on an unlimited, be it weekly or monthly, you have to buy and validate your ticket, in case there’s an inspection. My main problem with this is, inspections are so infrequent that you feel stupid for spending money on a ticket. And yet just frequent enough that you really do need to buy and validate. This annoys me. That is, to the extent that anything annoys me here. Which is exceedingly little, given my sate of general-annoyance-for-all-things back home.

But OK, the conversation exchange. Lovely guy. Bastian is his name. And he’s Bavarian, so he has this way of rolling his R’s which is a) really cool and b) hard to understand at first. But his English is great and he’s super patient and helpful with my German. He likes hockey and baseball too. And not just likes, but is actually current on the state of both leagues! So we had a lovely chat in both languages. Now, since his English is so spot-on, there’s really little for me to help him with. Instead, I teach him a bit of slang. For example: “Imma bounce.” And how “I am going to” becomes “Imma.” Or, “Nah-mean?” And how “Do you know what I-” becomes “Nah-.” He got a kick out of that. Anyway, it went well and we agreed to meet again. More importantly, I might have made my first new friend (not counting roommates).

Thus were the two big events of the last few days. The rest is just general contentment. Walking down the street with a beer in hand. Sitting in my Secret Garden, reading Tolkien with my pipe and a beer. Playing music in my room. I even wrote a new song! In my mind, it might be the best I’ve yet done. But even if it’s not “good,” at least it “swings,” which is generally all I care about. But I haven’t written a new song in quite some time. So I’m hoping this is a harbinger of things to come. With virtually all of my stress removed and with more free time than I know what to do with, perhaps the creative juices will flow once more. Time will tell, I suppose.

I suppose there’s not a whole lot else to say. Last night I drank a bunch of wine with Joschka. That’s never not good. And honestly, it’s really nice to have a proper friend here. I hope he doesn’t read that though. But if you do, Joschi, du bist Scheiße.  Tonight I had dinner with the roomies. Hamburgers, can you believe it!? Here I must mention that the generosity of my roommates seems boundless.

You see, I had planned to cook for myself tonight. But as I hadn’t really seen them since the dinner party, I figured I’d pop into the kitchen and just chill for a bit. But Mishca immediately offered me some of what he was cooking. Well how could I say no? And while he was cooking, we had a nice chat. Then Anja came home and we all ate together, which was great. After dinner, Mischa offered wine and schnapps.9 Then he went to bed and me and Anja also had a lovely chat. I love these guys.

After Anja went to bed, I read a bit of Herodotos. And this is something I’m trying to get in the habit of. If I’m home and sober [enough], I’m trying to read a bit of Greek every night. So far, so good. And man, Herodotos is great. Of all the Greek I’ve encountered, it’s the most readable. Not to say I’m anywhere near being able to read it on the subway, mind you. But you really can read this stuff. And he’s such a wonderful story teller. OK, he’s a bit of a ‘drunkel.’ He goes off on tangents. He relates the most impossible tales at times. But it’s a good read. And he is the motherfucking Father of History after all. So that’s my chosen text. But I need to find some way, some time, to get Homer in as well. ABRH. Always Be Reading Homer. For so many reasons, not least of which, I feel a grave responsibility to maintain mastery over all I have learned from the Old Man.

Right, so I’d best draw this to a close. The last thing I want to do is be negative, but there are two small things which have been nagging at me. One, my French is going to shit. I should always have some Jules Verne in my pocket. If I do, I think I shall be alright. But I need to find a French bookstore. There’s got to be one somewhere in this town. The other thing, I’m probably smoking too much. It’s too easy in this house. Anytime we sit at the kitchen table, Mischa’s cigarettes and my pipe come out. So I’ve taken to not bringing it with me on my long walks. And I miss my pipes on my long walks. But for now, at least, I need it more at home. It’s a bit of a crutch, I suppose. Something I can hang on to when the German is flying fast and thick and I’m only catching pieces of it.

Ugh. Even as my german improves daily – and I think/hope it does – it is still full of holes. Full of holes the way a fishing net is full of holes. That is to say, it’s mostly holes, with fine bits of string strung between them. But already tonight, I understood more of my roommates speech than I did on Saturday. So that’s progress!

Well, tomorrow is another adventure. I’m to go to a group conversation exchange. People of all levels in both languages. It might be a real shit-show. But hopefully there will be broads, at least. And worst case, afterwards I’ll go to Joschka’s and drink. And so, all will be well. All will be well…

  1. Well, I’m on vacation. []
  2. Girl: Four years older than me. []
  3. Or, how I look most of the time. []
  4. Kaliningrad. []
  5. I still have no idea how correct this sentence is/was. []
  6. Any absinthe is too much absinthe. []
  7. They’d already booked June. []
  8. Point: New York. []
  9. Cherry flavored. Too sweet for me, but obviously I drank it. #manners #sorrynotsorry []

An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
9 May, 2015

Generally when I travel, I try to keep some kind of journal. This has the twofold benefit of recording things which might otherwise be forgotten in the passage of time as well as of focusing the mind. In the past, I have tended to bring with me a small notebook, in which I might scribble on a park bench or a barstool. However, this being a longer journey than usual, and of an altogether different specie, I have decided to make periodic postings to my blog, that friends and relations, with whom I expect to have less than regular contact, though today’s technology makes connexion so much easier than in former times, might have a way to keep track of my adventures, should they so desire.12

Foregoing the tedious details of the flight, I begin at home, where all stories must begin. For the month of May, I took out a room on Airbnb. Though a reputable site, and vouched for personally by friends, it is still difficult to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. You see some pictures of the place and have some brief exchange via email with the hosts, but that is all. And in this case, all the correspondence was carried out in German. So while I understood what was being said, I was unable to garner any nuance or feeling on my host’s part nor to give any on mine own. And while my intuition presaged something good, it was still only intuition.

Fortunately, any doubts were soon laid to rest. I was meant to show up at 1230, Wednesday. However, I was a bit late owing to getting a bit lost and being further slowed by my (absurdly, I see now) overstuffed suitcase. Lovely. Here I am in the Land of Punctuality, and I’m late to my very first appointment. Well, I finally arrive, and my host/roommate Anja couldn’t be nicer about it. Then, horror.

I begin to lug my case up the stairs,3 when after about two steps the handle breaks off. Scheiße! But I don’t want to ask for help, as this is clearly not her problem. Yet without missing a beat, she offers to grab one end and help me up the stairs. “Das ist einfacher, na?” Yes, much easier, thank you!!

We get inside and she shows me to my room. I set down my bags and heave a sigh of relief. I look around. The room is lovely. It’s old and well appointed. The furniture is all real wood. And there are two bookshelves, filled with books. Besides which, there is a dresser and a wardrobe. At the far end, the wall is all windows, floor to ceiling. Not much of a view, but so much light! I’ve never had so much light!4

Now Anja begins to show me around the place, explaining everything patiently in German. I’m getting most of it, but not nearly all. The most important things, I ask her to clarify in English, which she happily does. And good thing, too. For the most important things seem to be about which windows I can open and when, so that the cats don’t escape. Anything else I might have missed, I can pick up in due course.

The apartment is altogether lovely. Everything is old, but clean. It has the air of an antique or curiosity shop to it. But it’s very cozy. The kitchen is well stocked with pots, pans and spices. Apparently Mischa, the other roommate, who is at work, likes to cook. And I’m welcome to use whatever I like to cook as well. I couldn’t ask for better.

What’s more, we can smoke in the kitchen. That’s where I am now, in fact. At the kitchen table with my pipe and a bottle of wine. In fucking Berlin! I smile just to write the words.

Well, Anja leaves for work and I take a much needed shower followed by a much needed nap. Afterwards, I head out to see about a SIM card for my phone, but the shop closed at seven and I was too late.5 After a brief stop at home, I meet up with my friend Joschka in his neighborhood – Mitte – for dinner and the obligatory post-dinner drinks. Lovely, but nothing new there.

I get back to the apartment around 0030, and for the first time I notice how bloody loud and creaky the old wooden floorboards are. My first impression was, “oh, how lovely!” But now, I thought each step would wake the devil himself. Half drunk and exhausted from my travels, I got myself to bed and passed the fuck out.

The next day, Thursday, I awoke around 1030. Because I could. I left sometime after twelve. Again, because I could. First thing, I stopped into the Vodafone shop on Karl Marx Str. and got my SIM card sorted.

Now that was fun. You see, the clerk was bilingual. In German and Turkish. So we muddled through in German and when we got stuck, we’d see if either of us knew the English word. Well, let’s just say I had to get out my German/English dictionary app more the once. But in the end, we got it sorted. And I learned how to say “thank you” in Turkish: Teşekkür ederim. This last I mention because my ‘hood, NeuKölln, has a big Turkish population. So it seems like a good opportunity to learn a bit of Turkish as well, no that I don’t have my hands full with German. And in any case, omg, all the good foods! Yesterday I popped into a place and got a chicken doenner plate with fries and salad and by gods was that good! Now people who know me will know with what reverence I talk about the sandwich maker who cares about what he is making, who puts love into the sandwich. The guy who will choose for you the best piece of tomato, who will arrange the meat on the bread just so. It was like that. Some sort of powdered spice was added to the salad. There was a lemon on the plate. All was arranged lovlingly. All for seven Euro! Und alles war sehr lecker! It was amazeballz! In a way, I feel like I left Chinatown in NY and found the equivalent here, with some serious differences, which I’ll come to presently.

So this feast came at the end of something like six hours of walking. Berlin is fucking huge. And yet, most of the buildings never get much beyond six or seven stories. Why build up when you can expand?6

But the walk. Berlin is lovely. Parks everywhere. Trees everywhere. Cemeteries everywhere, only the cemeteries are like parks themselves. And birds! You walk down a tree-lined street – Hasenheide, in this case – and you just hear birds singing! Wunderschön! So I wandered through Hasenheide Park, and that was great. But then I found what I was looking for: Tempelhofer Feld.

So Tempelhof (THF) was the main airport in Germany for many years. It’s probably most famous for being the base of the Berlin Airlift. But there’s more to it. You see, much like Volkswagen or Hugo Boss, it has the unfortunate distinction of being essentially Nazi in its design and yet also being generally beloved.   But today, that is neither here nor there. Now, the terminal is simply this magnificent – and massive – concrete crescent that flanks a massive grass field, which is now a park for the Berliners.

But in the midst of this endless grass, wide and open like nothing could ever be in New York, there remain the two runways from days gone by. And over these, the creeping grass has yet to lay any claim. Upon these also, people fly now with their bicycles where aeroplanes once gathered their strength to master the airs.

And so I traversed the concrete boulevards until I came to the far end of the field, which is nearer to my home. There I came upon a grassy path, fenced on both sides. And upon my left stood ancient towers, fighting against time and nature. The woods and grasses grew now about them, claiming them as iron trees in their organic realms. And atop these towers stand lights that no longer see, lights which not so long ago guided the landing aircraft home after so many hours aloft.

The path lets out onto the Hermannstr., which is the westernmost main road to my street. It was there that I found the Turkish restaurant. And from there I made my way home.

When I came in, I met Mischa for the first time. He was cooking and it smelled lovely. I said hello, but I was exhausted, and so went for a nap. But when I came back, I found that he had set aside for me a plate. Dude can cook, let me say that.

In any case, we sat and chatted and smoked and drank for nigh three hours. And he is a character. But he is also a sweet, sweet guy. And endlessly patient with my terrible German.

Now this was a humbling experience. You see, we talked, as I said, for probably three hours. And he did most of the talking. And I must confess, I’m lucky if I understood a third of what he said. And it was exhausting. The power of concentration which is required for such an encounter is uncommon. But I did my best, and he seemed to mind it not in the least. And if after one night I was exhausted and feeling as though I will never learn this language, then perhaps after many nights I will feel the reverse. Such is my hope, at least.

After midnight, Anja came home and the three of us sat and drank for a bit, and they showed me some of their music, which I must say was very cool. All in all, it was a perfectly lovely night, and all the more as it left me with a feeling that in my first month in this foreign city, I am with the right people.

Today I slept past noon. This is the life! I went for another long walk. This time up the Wilhelmstr. towards Potsdamer Platz. This was interesting, having just read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Wilhelmstr. was where the foreign ministry was, and so was central to the story. But of course it was mostly leveled during the war and so was generally not much to look at now.

Except for the Air Ministry Building. For that’s what it was at its conception, though now it houses the Finance ministry. But in the same way that in New York I would refer to the RCA Building or the PanAm Building, I refer to the Air Ministry Building by its original designation. It somehow made it through the war more or less unscathed. It is impressive, yes. But it is a foreboding monolith, a prime example of what somebody once called “Nazi intimidation architecture.”

It is an altogether creepy feeling to consider what this city might have looked like. A brief detour here, if you have the patience. It seems that there were plenty of people during the Third Reich who, while not nearly anti-Nazi enough by our standards, would nevertheless have gladly seen the downfall of Hitler’s regime, if only to secure a favorable peace.   And so, one need not imagine a world wherein the Nazis had won the war, but simply one in which the war was brought to a premature end and so one in which so many of these menacing buildings had survived. It makes the skin crawl even now to think that official government business is conducted within such walls. There is a shadow there, and one which I do not fully comprehend. But it is cold.

But I moved on from there soon enough. And on my walk home I found more parks, and heard the voices of more birds. I bethought myself to stop upon the Kreuzbergstr. for a currywurst. But the line was ridiculous. Not long, just…not moving. And I had this thought: Fuck you. I don’t wait in line for pizza in New York, I won’t wait in line for currywurst in Berlin. So I got a falafel sandwich for 2.50 and it was delicious. Then I went home and had a nap, and here I am.

Some random follow-up thoughts:

You can drink on the street here. I love it. Go for a walk, grab a beer, the world is your oyster.7
There’s fucking parks everywhere. And trees. All of the greens!
I suck at German. I’ve been here since Wednesday. How am I not fluent yet?!
There is definitely a hipster thing going on here. Do I want to be a part of that?
Tonight I sat at the kitchen table, drank an entire bottle of wine, smoked my pipe, read Herodotus and wrote this bullshit. That’s the dream right? Drink and read Greek? It’s going to be a good month…

  1. Though the snarkier of the friends will doubtless – and with all due haste – point out that “nobody cares, Dave.” []
  2. In homage to my new – for however long – home, Germany, I have opened with this ridiculously long and overly cumbersome sentence. Apparently that’s how we roll here. []
  3. Thank the gods we are on the first floor, which in Europe is the second floor; only one flight of stairs is the point. []
  4. Screw you, New York. []
  5. What closes at seven? You win this round, New York. []
  6. This joke makes itself hashtag Germany. []
  7. Oyster? Erster? Örster? Gershwin? Anybody? #illshowmyselfout []

Ἐπιτάφιοϲ – Epitaph

Ἐπιτάφιοϲ

(Epitaph)

 

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…

These immortal words mark the beginning of Homer’s epic Odyssey. This work is many things: cornerstone of western literature; repository and echo of a once rich oral tradition; institutional memory of a war lingering in the mists of time. But for me, these words mark the beginning of something far more important. They are prelude to a friendship. I begin to sing:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μἀλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…

“I’m sorry, Dave. But I have to stop you there.” Uh-oh. Had I already made a mistake? I thought I was nailing it. I looked at him, awaiting his critique. “Why don’t you take your hat off?” Right. The Old Man with old-fashioned sensibilities didn’t like it when I wore my hat indoors. We’d been down this road before. This time, however, I’d come prepared.

“But,” I said proudly, backed by Olympian precedent and divine authority, “Hermes wore a hat.” He looked at me, possibly surprised at my challenge.

“Yes,” he said slowly, in his regal, stentorian1 voice. “But.” Pregnant pause for dramatic effect. “Hermes was a rascal!” I had to laugh. First of all, who uses the word ‘rascal’ anymore?2  But more than that, did I really I think I was going to slip one past the Old Man?

With a reluctant sigh, I removed my flat-cap and placed it on a small table beside my θρόνοϲ.3  I begin again. This time, I make it through the first ten lines of the poem, all from memory and without interruption. This is how we began each session of the Homeric Reading Group.

The Old Man would refer to this as a warm up. It was a way to get into the spirit of things, as well as a way to shake off a week’s worth of rust. But it was more than that also. It was, as it has ever been and as it remains, an invocation to the Muses. Andra moi ennepe, mousa, polytropon. ‘Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways…’

Look, let’s be honest. You can sit down and read Greek and not give a toss for the old gods. But you don’t read Homer the way you read Thucydides. Or, for that matter, Dostoyevsky or Dickens or Fitzgerald. If you do, you’re missing the point. It’s like reading Shakespeare in an armchair. Sure, it’s great. But you’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to feel it. So yeah, when you call upon the Muse, it’s not a mere formality. You are, in a very real way, asking for her help. And if she smiles upon you, if she inspires4 you, you might just bring this 2500+ year old text back to life.

 

“Dave, you wanna get brunch on Saturday?”
“Can’t. Got my Reading Group.”
“What reading group?”
“Oh. I read Greek with a couple of old guys on Saturday mornings.”
“Whatever.”

You see, I rarely had to explain myself. Generally, nobody was interested. And it was an easy thing to chalk up to ‘Dave is into his Greek shit.’ But for five years, September to May, that is how I spent my Saturday mornings. Which is not say that I never showed up hung-over. It’s not to say that I never went there on two hours sleep and possibly still half drunk. And yeah, more than once, I left a very pretty, very naked girl asleep in my bed to go read Greek with a couple of old-timers.

 

It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. Where else in the world, I reasoned, did this exist? Where else did the godsdamned master of all things Homer himself welcome you into his living room and delight in teaching you everything he knew? He was eighty-something when I met him, and I knew then that this thing had an expiration date.   So you make the sacrifices and you say thank you for the opportunity.

Now he’s gone. Now I sleep as late as I damn well please on Saturdays. And I’m poorer for it. The funny thing is, he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to. Even at the end, you never forgot that he was the professor and you were the student. Which isn’t to say he didn’t let me in. He did, but in his own way. We didn’t have the sort of relationship where we might go and get a drink now and again.5

It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. During the first couple of years, I knew, actuarially, that time was going to run out on our little reading group. Of course I would have missed it. I would have missed the intellectual exchange. I would have missed learning at the foot of a master. But in those early days, it was all so academic. And yet, somewhere along the line, he became my friend.

Friend. We throw the word around quite casually. We have friends on the Facebook.   We have friends at work. We have all manner of “friends.” We have old friends and new friends. We have dear friends and casual friends. We have friends we drink with and work with, just as we have – if we are lucky – friends we may bare our souls to, friends who bear us up through the hard times and with whom we celebrate the good. The Old Man was, I think, none of these things. His friendship was, and remains, different, unique. And I fucking miss him. Gods, I fucking miss him.

 

Stephen G. Daitz. That was his name. It does him a disservice to refer to him as The Old Man. He had a name and he worked damned hard to have it mean something. Among students and fans6 he was known simply as ‘Daitz.’ Colleagues, friends closer than I, and family, called him Stephen. But to me, he was simply Daitz.

But I never called him “Daitz,” not to his face. He worked damned hard to have his name mean something. He was the master. And so I always ever addressed him as ‘Professor Daitz.’ I think this speaks for itself, but I want to provide an analogy, which, if it means nothing to others, means something to me. Derek Jeter was a superstar in baseball and a prince of the City. But to this day, he only ever addresses his first manager, Joe Torre, as “Mr T.” It’s like that.

 

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Sometimes Daitz straight-up annoyed the shit out of me. I’d be reading a passage, and in my mind, I’m killing it. I’ve got my haughty Agamemnon voice on, I’m waving my imperious left hand. I’m fucking Olivier over here, in ancient Greek. And he’d cut me off, mid line. Why? I didn’t quite nail the vowel quantity on some-or-other omicron.

C’mon, man! I’d scream in my head. I’m killing this! Tell me about the omicron when I’m done! I’d clench my teeth and take a deep breath. And then I’d cool down. He’s not wrong, I’d say to myself. How about you just get it fucking right? You’re giving him reasons to stop you. Get it fucking right. He demanded perfection. And the better you got, the more he wanted. Well, why shouldn’t he?

On some level, he was preparing you to go out into the world as a master of the craft. He knew – or, at least, he certainly hoped – that one day you’d take what he had taught you and that you would teach it to the next generation in turn. And if the day ever came when you’d say to some future student, “I learned from Stephen G. Fucking Daitz,” that student had better not hear an ill-formed omicron.

The funny thing is, the man had the patience of a saint. If he cut me off to correct a mistake that I never should have made in the first place, I was the one who was annoyed. He never was. That was the beauty of the man. His only concern was, ‘Do you love Homer?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. You made a mistake? Fine, we’ll fix it. I’m just glad you’re here. That said, fix it.

Regrettably, I learned more about Homer from him than I did about patience. When I showed up in the waning winter of 2009, I knew nothing about how to read Homer aloud. Pitch accents, liaison, corrpetion – it was all just academic. But he sat with me, and taught me, and suffered through my period of ignorance. At some point, I mastered these things, and others besides. At some point, we could sit and read Homer together, veteran scholars.

But every now and again, a new student would show up. And I would be annoyed. Great, this rookie – who, let’s be honest, probably isn’t going stick around for more than a month anyway – is going to slow us down, I’d think selfishly. But Daitz wasn’t bothered. He was thrilled, in fact. And I had to sit there, in irritated silence, as he extended every bit of patience to the new kid as he extended to me, years ago.

He loved having new students. He loved teaching. But there were days when it was just the two of us. And at the end of those sessions, he would say something about how nice it was to just sit and be able to read Homer.7  Implied, but unsaid, was the idea that I’d come far enough. It wasn’t a classroom anymore. It was just two people who knew their shit and were rocking it.

 

One of things I liked most about these one-on-ones is that I got to hear Daitz read. He almost never read in bigger groups. That was part of his persona as “The Professor.” It was also a demonstration of his humility and his patience. He knew that for every line he might read, that was one less line for the aspiring student. But when it was just the two of us, we would trade off parts. And when it was his turn, I would just close my eyes and listen.

The funny thing is, I didn’t always agree with his interpretations. He read Hera, for instance, as a nattering, cuckold of a wife who didn’t so much argue with Zeus, her brother/husband,8 as cluck at him. To me that seemed dated. I preferred to read Hera as a headstrong and independent woman, straining against Zeus’ paternalism and chaffing at the ultimate futility of facing off against the king of the gods.

And get this: He loved it. After we’d both read a bit of Hera, he’d lay his book down in his lap and smile. “Well, Dave,” came the patrician basso,9 “You see now the beauty of Homer and the freedom that comes with being able to read Him properly. You and I have very different interpretations of what Hera is like.” (And I’m paraphrasing here). “No two people will read Him the same way. When Horowitz plays Beethoven, he doesn’t sound like Rubenstein. But it is always Beethoven underneath. And so it is with Homer.” When you could take the text and make it your own, that’s when he was most proud of you.

 

But if he gave you wide latitude in interpreting the, shall we say, ‘personality’ of the text, he was much more rigid in his grammatical analyses.   And if I should disagree with his reading, like as not, I’d simply keep my mouth shut. Usually it wasn’t worth the argument. At least from my point of view.

Although, as I got more comfortable, I would sometimes offer up my alternate textual analysis, just to have it on record, as it were. But very rarely would I argue over it. You’d have better luck moving mighty Ajax off the stern of a Danaan warship than you’d have moving the Old Man off his analysis.

Not everybody felt this way, however. Certainly not Nat. Now, this piece is about Daitz, my relationship with him and what he meant to me. I’m not sure it’s my place to be mentioning others by name. But I read with Daitz every Saturday, September to May, for five years. And in all that time, Nat was the other constant. We were the core of the group, at least in my time there. There were others, but invariably they lost interest, or moved away, or had other commitments.

Nat is an expert teacher of Latin and Greek and a bit of a renaissance man. But he knows his Greek, no two ways about it. And he had no problem going back and forth with the Old Man. For me, it got old fast, since neither of them would give any ground. But like the old Achaian warrior facing off against a Trojan of equal stature on the plains of Skamander, they seemed to delight in the contest. You could learn a lot listening to the two of them go at it. You could also, if you were a bit hungover, doze off in mild aggravation.

But as I said, every now and then, I would offer up my own reading of the text. For the first few years, I could tell he didn’t take my analyses particularly seriously. But towards the end, he would at least entertain my ideas. I’d like to think it was because I simply got better at Greek. But maybe it was a respect thing. I honestly don’t know.

In any case, I felt a sense of great achievement when, one day, I put forth a grammatical interpretation which was at variance with his own and he responded by saying, “Well, Dave, that’s very interesting.” Then he paused and rolled it around in his head a bit more. “Still, I think the accepted reading is as I have just said.” I don’t think I ever once changed his mind. But I’d got him to take me seriously. I had arrived.

 

When you meet somebody and he is already an old man, it is difficult to imagine him as anything else. But I remember two things, which called to mind an image of the younger man.

Once, after our session, I was talking politics with his wife. I don’t know what the age gap was between the two, but it was not insignificant. In any case, as we chatted, Daitz stood off to the side, leaning with his hands behind his back against a counter. I’m going to struggle to capture this here. But I could see them when they were younger. I could see his wife in heated political discourse, holding a salon with her contemporaries while the older professor sat by in regal silence, confident in his years and his intellect. He had no need to justify himself, no need to say something clever to show how smart he was. That was for younger folk. His eyes were closed, but there was pride on his face, pride that this brilliant woman was his wife. And all I could think was, “damn, they must have been a sight to see, back in the day.”

I said there were two things. The other was sex. His old age and his patrician bearing could easily mislead you into thinking that he was some kind of prude. He most certainly was not. Homer touches every aspect of life, and he’s not shy about sex. Well, neither was the Old Man. If Homer was talking about sex, then so were we. Sometimes it was just funny.10  But when Daitz spoke about sex, he was letting you know that he wasn’t always an old-timer.

And then there was the advice. He only ever gave me one piece of advice in this department, but he gave it freely and more than once. Surprisingly, perhaps, it had nothing to do with Homer. It issued instead from one of his other passions: French.11  One day, when I’d got there early and we were waiting for the others to show up, I casually remarked that I had lately embarked upon learning the Gallic tongue. He was, of course, delighted.

“Well, Dave,” he began. “Perhaps you can find a nice French girl to assist you in your studies. And I’ll give you a bit of advice, which was given to me when I was studying in Paris.12  Couchez avec ton dictionnaire. It means, go to bed with your dictionary. Since that day, I have dutifully endeavored to follow this advice. I will not have it said about me that I fail to take my studies seriously.

 

It was a strange thing to see Daitz out in the wild. He always seemed a bit bewildered when he’d show up for an academic conference, as he very often did. I’d learn after he died that he was suffering from dementia. Yet you’d never know it sitting with him in his living room, reading Greek. With the blind bard leading the way, and with the Muse bearing him up from behind, he was in full control.

It hit me hard when, on the way out the door one day towards the end, his wife pulled us (Nat and me) aside. She had tears in her eyes. She was thanking us for what we had given him. She told us that the way he was with us, he wasn’t normally like that anymore. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp it. She was saying that listening to him read with us, he sounded like he did twenty years ago.

She was thanking us. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. You’re thanking us? I wanted to say. We should be thanking him! For all he’s given us, we should be thanking him. I don’t remember what I actually said, but I’m sure it failed the moment.

 

Failing the moment. That’s what I did. And when I had second chance, I did it again.

It was only this year that he started to slow down. It was February, or March maybe, when he began to make the sort of mistakes that he never used to make. It was hard to watch. Then one day, he excused himself from walking us to the door. He always walked us to the door. He was old-fashioned like that. But one day, he just couldn’t get out of the chair anymore. He was the old king, too tired to move off his throne. It was old Nestor on his θρόνοϲ at sandy Pylos. The shadows were lengthening, as Nat so eloquently put it at the memorial service.

And in the midst of this, I left. I didn’t leave out of fear or shame or sorrow. I left to do something of which I knew he would approve. I left to study French. The opportunity arose whereby I could volunteer at the office of a French school, and in exchange, I would get to take an 11 week course for free.13  The catch was, the only time I could volunteer was on Saturday mornings, in direct conflict with the Homeric Reading Group.

I put it to him that I was going on a sort of sabbatical. “But hey, you love French,” I said. “And when I get back, maybe we can speak some French together. That’s not so bad, eh?” In my heart, I knew we would never get to speak French together. But I had convinced myself otherwise.

The Old Man knew better. “Well, Dave,” he said proudly. “I’m sorry to see you go. You were a pillar of the group.” Past tense.14  He knew I wasn’t coming back. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, he knew he wouldn’t be there for me to come back to. My own response was weak.

“Aww, hey. It’s only eleven weeks. I’ll be back in the Fall. And then we can speak French together!” I don’t remember his response now, but he probably just nodded. Even at that stage of things, he was above this kind of bullshit. I didn’t feel good when I left that day, I can tell you that.

 

There was going to be a surprise birthday party. Eighty-eight; not a bad run by any stretch. But the game was called on account of rain. He just wasn’t up to it. And this is where I fucked up, the first time. Nat, I’m told, managed to get up there one last time. Nat managed to visit him at bedside and read one last bit of Homer with the Master. Nat, presumably, got to say goodbye.

I put it off. I tried calling a couple of times, to see if I could come up. But I got the voicemail, and I didn’t leave a message. “I’ll call back tomorrow,” I told myself. The thing about tomorrow, it never comes. And so, one day your friend asks you if you want to grab a drink after work. Sure, why not. Another day, you’re just tired and you want to go home. The next day you have French class. And on it goes.

Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t know just how bad it was. You always think there’ll be time. And then one day you get the call. When I saw the name in my phone, I knew instantly. My heart sank like a rock. Mimi, his wife, was pretty composed. It was a Saturday. He’d checked out on Thursday. So a few days had passed. She said she’d been trying to get ahold me. I’d received no emails. It was a helluva time for miscommunication.

She asked me if I’d been away, been in France or something. It was inexplicable to her – to both of them, I have to assume – that I could have been in town and yet not present. I felt like such an asshole. It’s a vulgar way to put it. But I felt pretty damned vulgar. I still do.

Anyway, she invited me to come up to the apartment and pick through his books. He had made it very clear that he wanted me and Nat (and one other regular) to have a chance to claim what we wanted before the rest of the lot was donated to the CUNY Classics Department. I felt a rush of pride, which was almost instantly drowned under a wave of shame.

Filed under ‘M’ for ‘macabre,’ I’d imagined this day long ago. I’ve said how from the beginning I knew that this thing had an expiration date. And when years before I’d laid eyes upon his ancient and well-worn Autenrieth – his Homeric dictionary of choice – I’d dared to think that it would be pretty cool if, one day, it should somehow fall to me. Well, that day had arrived, and I felt sick for having ever conceived of it.

But there I was, in his living room, staring at his empty chair. It didn’t seem real. Surely he’d come shuffling into the room any minute now, just as he’d always done. Mais hélas! Not this time. Instead, I was led into his study cum library. I’d never been in there before. His desk was just as he’d left it. And there on his desk, exactly where it ought to be, was the Autenrieth. I opened it. On the inside cover were scrawled the words “ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων [from the library of] Stephen G. Daitz, 1/24/48.” I asked if I could have it. “Take whatever you want, Dave,” was the answer.

It was the most precious of the lot. I snagged some other volumes, which were important to me insofar as they pertain to my own areas of interest and study. A two volume commentary on Herodotos; a complete Sophokles, three volumes, French edition; a gorgeous little tome dating to 1716, the poems of Anacreon and Sappho,15 also a French edition; a copy of Euripides’ Helen, margins filled with his own notes; and of course, a copy of his own edition of a Euripides palimpsest, which has its own wonderful story behind it.16  But the Autenrieth, that was a treasure. The master’s very own dictionary.17

That was in June. In September, a memorial service was held. There would be speeches by Mimi and other family members, as well as by Nat and a few colleagues. They were all wonderful.

Mimi held it together pretty well. The only time she got choked up is when she mentioned Nat and me by name. She said we’d given him “a reason to live” in the last years. It was a beautiful thing to say. But all I could feel was guilt. Maybe I had given him a reason to live, in some small way. But when the end came, I wasn’t there. I took and took and took from him. And yeah, he gave with both hands. But when he couldn’t give anymore, I wasn’t there. Epic fucking fail.

Nat, in his speech, also mentioned me by name. “I could see the shadows lengthening,” he said, “when he gave Dave Starr and I a piece of pentelic marble from the Athenian quarry.”18  Even now, that piece of marble rests upon my bookshelf, at the end of a long line of Greek texts.

In any case, if you’re counting, that’s two name checks; one from his wife and one from his longest tenured student. That’s all you need to know about the difference between how others saw me and how I saw myself. And all I can say for that is, I was pretty fucking happy that only a handful of people in that crowded room actually knew who Dave Starr was.

At the end, Mimi announced that if anybody wanted to come up and say a few words, they were free to do so. A few did. I was not among them. For one, I didn’t know what I would have said. For another, I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch. I looked left and I looked right. To get up there, I’d have had to climb over several people. I looked around the room. These people, many of them advanced in age, had been sitting for quite a while now. Did they really want to hear one more student say what had already been said, and likely better said? I stayed in my seat.

Afterwards, I found Mimi. A hug and a kiss on the cheek. “It was a beautiful service,” I said. “I thought you were going to say something,” she said. And there it was. I fucked up again. I’d been given a second chance to say goodbye. I’d been given a second chance to be there at the end. This time, I was there and I still managed to not show up.

And so I’ve written this. It’s the best I can do to say goodbye. And it’s not enough. I watched two fat fastballs go by, and now I’m down two strikes. Well, I’m not going down with the bat on my shoulder. I’ve got to say something, Professor Daitz, even if you’ll never hear it.

 

Stephen Daitz has given me a gift. It is a gift that I will carry with me until the end of my days, and one which, if I am lucky, I will be able to give in my own turn. For a long time, I thought that the gift was academic. He taught me how to read Homer, and I’ll be reading Homer till the day I die. But that was not the gift. Homer was just the vehicle.

The real gift was Hope. Hope that the song never stops. Hope that even in the Twilight Years, when the body fails and the mind decays, there is still love. Hope that even when you fuck up, the good outweighs the bad. Only you can abandon Hope. Hope never abandons you. That is what I learned from Stephen Daitz.

 

I’ll never truly know what the Old Man thought of me. But he left a clue. Of all his books, there was one in particular that he demanded I receive. Even in my absence, he did not lose faith in me. Dave must have this book, he decreed. And so I have it.

It is his own working text of the Odyssey, books I-VI. The printed text is a solid column of hexameters, running down the center of the page. But on either side, he had diligently scrawled in pencil his own notes, his own thoughts. He had carefully marked every single verb, noting the tense. He had made notes on the vocabulary. He’d made more scholarly notes, connecting one bit of text to another. His notes begin with the very first line of the Odyssey:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ

And they continue down every page, all the way ‘til the last. But they stop at the top of the last page. He never finished. It was, in all probability, the very last thing he ever labored upon. And he wanted me to have it.

I had failed him in the end, and he looked straight past it. He saw only the bearded kid, full of bad puns and with a taste for French, who showed up every Saturday, September to May, for five years. Whenever I wonder what I meant to him, and I often do, the answer is there in those pages.

 

The Old Man left his mark on me in another, more quotidian, way. I don’t fancy myself a writer. To do so, without a paycheck, is both obnoxious and pretentious. Nevertheless, I do write. Sometimes, I think, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. All the same, I’m not much of a writer. How can you be, when you read hardly any English?19

But still I write. ‘What I have in my heart must out,’20 Beethoven once wrote. And so it is with me, albeit on a plane far below those old masters. Beethoven, after all, wrote 16 string quartets, nevermind breaking the mold on the symphony. Nevermind perfecting the piano sonata to the point where you have to wonder – or at least I wonder – why anyone who came after him even bothered to try.21

But I digress. What I mean to say is, simply, that I write. And when I do, Daitz is always looking over my shoulder. I pay especial care now to the tense of each and every verb. Simple past. Imperfect. Pluperfect. I didn’t used to care. But I do now. He showed me just how much can be conveyed by the mere tense of a verb.

And so, say what you will about my writing. But in every sentence there is a verb. And each one has a thought behind it. Maybe I think Homer fudged on his verbs here and there. But Daitz didn’t think so. What he really meant was, you don’t ever have to put down anything you don’t mean. There’s always a way to say exactly what you want. You just have to find it.

 

And so at last I come to the end. I come to say goodbye. It is a late goodbye and it is, I’m afraid, all too hollow. But then, I was never any good at goodbyes. I have a hard time letting go. And yet, in a way, it’s not goodbye. He’s still with me. He’s with me when I write. And he’ll be with me the next time I try to speak – haltingly, flirtatiously – with the next French girl. And he’ll be with me each and every time I open up a page of Homer and begin to read.

I like to think now that Daitz has gone to the Elysian Fields, the land of heroes, where there is no death, only immortality. Akhilleus died, as we all must. But his deeds live on in song. Without the song, there is no hero. The song lives through me now, and my voice was given to me by Stephen G. Daitz. To the extent that the fallen heroes still walk among us, so does he.

I have not read any Homer since he died. I could not. But it is time now. It is time to start the song again. Goodbye, my friend. Thank you and goodbye. The song goes on…

 

 

 

  1. “Stentorian – very loud and powerful in sound,” so dictionary.com. The Old Man used to love pointing out that Στέντωρ (Stentor), from whose name this wonderful adjective derives, appears but a single time in all of Homer (Il.5.785-6). []
  2. Answer: A man in his mid-eighties. []
  3. Θρόνοϲ (thronos), whence is derived the word ‘throne.’ In Homeric Greek, a thronos was a chair with arms, as opposed to a diphros (δίφροϲ), which was more of a stool. I mention this not because I think the average reader will find it interesting, but because it is a distinction over which we in the Homeric Reading Group expended a fair amount of discussion. In Homer, you see, every word is important. []
  4. The Old Man often enjoyed pointing out that the word inspire derives from the Latin inspirare, which literally means “to breath into.” Thus, it is as if the Muse breathes the song into your lungs. []
  5. But then again, maybe we did. I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch, and interpersonal relationships have always been difficult for me. So now I get to wonder if he ever would have been down for the odd extracurricular glass of wine. Apparently, I’d later learn, he was quite the oenophile. ((Which we should better spell oinophile, since it’s clearly a Greek word; but don’t get me started…) []
  6. He absolutely had fans []
  7. The instinct is to fall back upon that colloquialism, “mano a mano.” But if you ever said that in front of him, he would (pedantically) make sure you knew that it meant ‘hand to hand’ and not ‘man to man.’ []
  8. Eww. []
  9. He always began his comments to me with, “Well, Dave…” []
  10. I remember one time, for instance, when we were discussing the significance of a particular prepositional prefix to a sex-verb. The prefix was ὑπο- (hypo-), which generally means ‘under.’ In any case, he was explaining that this little prefix almost certainly described the position of one of the participants, and what this might say about the rôles of men and women in the bedroom and the broader implications for relations between the sexes in Ancient Greece. It was, shall we say, an interesting conversation to be having with an octogenarian at 11am on a Saturday. []
  11. He was, it turns out, quite the Francophile. Naturally, he studied at the Sorbonne. Of course he did, because he was a fucking genius. In fact, I learned after his death, that he raised his children to speak French at home. []
  12. In Paris. His ego had no need of bragging that he wasn’t just in Paris, he was at the fucking Sorbonne. []
  13. Regular price: north of $600. []
  14. During the last year or so, he’d grown increasingly enamored with Homer’s use of verb tenses. In his opinion, the Poet deliberately chose the tense of each and every verb, thereby to give a specific color or flavor to any given scene. Nat and I were less convinced of this. But for him, in Homer, no word was errant, nothing out of place. So when he spoke of my being a pillar of the group in the past tense, he damn well meant it. []
  15. Je l’adore! []
  16. There’s no space for it here, but the short version is, he went through hell and high water to get his hands on the original manuscript, held in a then Jordanian controlled area of Jerusalem. And when you see photos of that manuscript, you can only wonder at the skills that were required to make anything out of it. []
  17. When I got it home, I immediately began to leaf through it. To my amazement – but not surprise – I found that he had made his own notes in the margins. But more than that, he had made emendations to several of the entries. To put it another way, the man had corrected the fucking dictionary. Needless to say, his Autenrieth now lives on my own desk. And that, at least, I think he’d be happy about. A dictionary belongs on a desk, ready to be used, not collecting dust in some library. []
  18. Again, I paraphrase. For any Hellenists that might read this, I’d say, see Thucydides 1.22 on trying to get down, to the best of your ability, unrecorded speeches. For the uninitiated, just understand that I’m trying to capture as best I can the words that were said. But the phrase “lengthening shadows” was used. []
  19. When I was in grad school, I used to joke that whenever I’d eventually graduate, I’d get back to reading books in English. Only I kind of haven’t. Le Roman de Tristan & Iseult. Kinder- und Hausmärchen, von den Brüder Grimm.   Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, par Jules Verne. (The Romance of Tristan & Iseult ; The stories of the Brothers Grimm ; Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne). []
  20. Ach es dünkte mir unmöglich, die Welt eher zu verlassen, bis ich das alles hervorgebracht, wozu ich mich aufgelegt fühlte. Literally, “Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world, until I had brought forth all that I felt within me.” From his Heiligenstädter Testament. []
  21. It seems fitting here to make special mention of Beethoven. For me, Beethoven was always the greatest. He was rock before rock, metal before metal. But nobody was ever sadder than Beethoven, and nobody ever more elated. Beethoven, more than anyone in the history of music, could throw you up against a wall, kick in you in the balls, punch through your chest and grab hold of our heart, and be divinely fucking sublime about it. After Daitz died, Mimi showed me a portrait of Beethoven, which hung on the wall outside his study. Beethoven, she said, was his favorite. I never knew. I would have loved to talk about Beethoven with him. []

Mooooooose!

I read in the paper this morning that Mike Mussina is on this year’s ballot for the baseball Hall of Fame.  I really liked Mike Mussina.  I liked that he was smart.  I liked that he was low key.  I liked watching the guy pitch.  He was a very good pitcher in his day.  Maybe a great one.  Maybe even a Hall of Fame one.  I kind of don’t care.1

What I want to do instead, is take a brief walk down memory lane.  And by memory lane, I mean, I’m going to give carte blanche to my imperfect memory.  I’m not going to look up any stats or box scores or anything else like that.2  Essentially, I’m going to put metaphorical pen to proverbial paper and just reminisce for a bit.  And since nobody really reads this thing, I don’t think I need to apologize for that.

My earliest memory of Mike Mussina is of an old man in a hospital bed.  No wait, let me back up.  Moose (which was his nickname) was a big deal pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 90’s.  Or so I learned after the fact.  This is the part where I admit that I checked out of baseball after the strike, and only came back towards the end of the ’98 season, when the Yankees did that whole ’98 Yankees thing.3  All this to say, I wasn’t really aware of the guy until the Yanks picked him up as a free agent before the 2001 season.4  This was the same year (if I’ve got the year right) that the Yanks decided to kick Tino Martinez’ golden glove5 to the curb in favor of Jason Giambi, who promptly forgot how to hit for average.6  Point being, the Yanks were making some big changes after losing a simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking World Series to the Diamondbacks of Arizona.  Enter Mike Mussina, stage left.  Or through the bullpen door actually.  So, enter Mike Mussina, stage door left-center, I guess.

My earliest memory of Mike Mussina is of an old man in a hospital bed.  I was visiting my dad in the hospital, who was in on some or other heart business.  And in the next bed, behind the curtain, there was an old man.  Now here’s where things get a bit fuzzy.  In my mind, he’s laying in bed, with a transistor radio on, listening to the Mets.  He obviously wasn’t though, because the Yanks had only just signed Moose, and so it was clearly the offseason.  In any case, it’s more romantic if he’s listening to the Mets game.  So that’s what he’s doing.  And his son is there, visiting.  And the son asks his father what he thinks of the Mussina singing.  And the old man says – and this is the party I actually remember vividly – the old man says, “Damned Hessian.”  He called him a Hessian!  As in the German mercenaries who signed up to fight for the British during the Revolution.  The guys whose only loyalty was to the dollar.7

Well, needless to say, no Yankee fan would ever characterize a free agent signee as a Hessian.  This is why I assume he was listening to a Mets game.  But really what I assumed was, that this old gentleman had to be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.  One of the proud, old few.  One of the survivors.  One of those who is accorded instant respect for having survived the greatest non-genocide related loss of the 20th century.  And I imagined this fellow as an old Carthaginian, wandering the streets of Rome.  And the Romans giving him wide passage and great respect, for his loss as much as his pride.  And knowing all the while that the dude had seen some shit.  The sort of shit they were never going to see.  Whether it was Jackie Robinson stealing home or Hannibal marshalling his troops.  Whether it was the burning of Carthage or the demolition of Ebbets Field.  The man comes with instant respect.  And this man was calling Mussina a Hessian.  Not because he hates Mussina.  But because he hates the Roman Yankees.  That was my first memory of the man they called Moose.

But let me turn now to the good stuff.  The baseball memories.  And as I try to arrange my memories, I start to notice how fact begets memory begets myth.  And so what follows will be mostly myth, somewhat less memory, and hardly fact at all.  But there’s a kernel of truth in here somewhere.

The myth of Mike Mussina is a myth of heroic failure.  In his first year, Moose got the least run support of any pitcher on the staff.  I want to say that there was an early game against Kansas City or Minnesota or some other team the Yankees are never supposed to lose to.  And Moose goes out there and pitches eight innings, strikes out nine guys and loses 2-1.  Most of his starts went like that that year.8  But these kinds of games set the stage for the truly epic titanomachies he would enter into with the best pitcher in baseball, one Pedro Martinez.  Who just happened to pitch for the arch-nemesis Boston Red Sox.

For a couple of years there, it felt like Moose and Pedro would get matched up something on the order of ten times a summer.  And let me tell you, those were some incredible pitcher’s duels.  Those two would go out and match zeros all afternoon long.9  Pedro would strike out the side and Moose would come back and do the same.  It got to the point where the matchups became highly anticipated gladiatorial events.  Now Moose was always classy about this.  When reporters would ask him what it’s like to match up against the great Pedro Martinez, he would invariably say something like, “I’m not pitching against Pedro.  I’m pitching against the Red Sox batters.”  It’s the sort of thing Derek Jeter would say if Derek Jeter was a pitcher.10  So you had to respect that.

But as I say, these were truly epic pitching duels.  If memory serves, and it clearly does not, those two would go out there and toss 13 scoreless innings at a clip, only to win or lose 1-0 on some play that was clearly not their fault.  In actuality, more often than not, they’d both be gone by the seventh, leaving a scoreless game to be given away by lesser arms out of the bullpen.  But it sure felt like they would regularly take shutouts into extra innings.  In the end, the details don’t really matter.  It was the feeling of it.  The excitement of watching two expert craftsman ply their trade.  It was the drama of watching two heroic warriors hold back the onslaught of the other side’s awful firepower.  It was Ajax holding back the Trojans from Achaean ships.  It was Hector defending the walls of Troy.  It was baseball.

However, Mike Mussina’s greatest triumph in pinstripes came during game seven of the 2003 ALCS.  Against Boston.  Against Pedro.  It had to.  People remember a lot of things about this game.  And with good reason.  A lot of amazing things happened in this game.  There was Grady Little leaving Pedro in too long.  There was Jorge Posada hitting that big double.  There was Pedro finally leaving the game and taking Grady’s job with him.  There was Mariano Rivera pitching, like, literally twenty-three scoreless innings in relief.  There was, of course, the Aaron Boone home run in the bottom of the whatever, off Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, his trot around the bases and into Yankee immortality forever etched in the minds of those who witnessed it.  But there was Moose also.

Roger Clemens started the game for the Yanks.  And for whatever reason, he came out in the early innings.  And by ‘for whatever reason,’ I mean he was awful.  So he was awful ‘for whatever reason.’  But his awfulness is what brought him out of the game early.  With the bases loaded.  And no outs.11  Well, who do you turn to in do-or-die game seven when it’s only the third or so inning and the bases are loaded?  You can’t bring in Rivera, because you’re saving him for later, when he’s going to need to pitch, like, literally twenty-three innings of scoreless relief.  Well, if you’re Joe Torre, you turned to Mike Mussina.  A guy who probably had never pitched so much as one out of relief in his professional career.12  And what does Mussina do?  Well, he does that thing in his windup where he bends low at the waist and looks behind him to check the runners.  Then he does that thing where retires the side and gets your team out of the biggest jam of the year.13  Then you do that thing where you just stare at the TV in disbelief at what you just witnessed.  And when you finally put it all together, you jump and yell and high-five the guys you’re with.  And you immediately start talking about how you’ve never seen anything like that, and how you’re going to be talking about this for years to come, and ohmigod, they still need to figure out how to hit Pedro…

But that was the day when I realized I could root for Mike Mussina.  It was the day I realized this guy was fit to wear the pinstripes.  Not in that Andy Pettitte way, mind you.  Because nobody’s Andy Pettitte.  But in the long line of free agents that came through the Bronx in that decade, he was one of two guys who you felt like deserved to be Yankees.  The other, of course, was Hideki Matsui.  The rest were, let’s face it, a bunch of Hessians.

Two other memories of Moose deserve mention.  One was the time he took a perfect game14 into the 9th inning at Fenway, only to have Carl Everett ruin it at the last possible moment.  I wanted that one for him so badly.  Moose could never find his way to twenty wins in a season.  He always seemed to get the short end against Pedro.  He had that lousy run support.  Man, I really wanted him to get that game.  But no, the Red Sox ruined it.  Like they ruin everything.  And of course, I was watching that game in my friend’s dorm room at college.  My friend who happened to be the biggest Red Sox fan I knew.  Yeah, that stung.  But it was still a great game by the Moose.  That’s just how the Baseball Gods work sometimes.  They’re a capricious lot.

The other memory comes at the very end.  His last start in his last season.  Which was, I’m almost certain, also the last season at the Old House.15  And in this, his last start, Moose finally got his 20th win.  First time.  Last time.  It was poetic.  But it was sliver-age poetry.  It wasn’t Virgil.  It was one of those guys who came after Virgil that nobody really cares about except people who are totally into Latin poetry.  But it was still poetry and it was great.  And the whole Stadium was chanting “Moooooose!!!”  We were all happy for the guy.  How could you not be?  He’d given us so many great years of pitching.  So many great stories.  And in the end, that’s what baseball is about.  It’s about the story.  And if Mike Mussina’s story turns out not to be a Hall of Fame story, it’s still a story worth telling.  And retelling.

  1. I don’t care because the standards by which some people are allowed into the hall and others kept out defies any kind of logic.  Ty Cobb, racist, is in.  Pete Rose, gambler, is not.  Barry Bonds, homerun king and juicer is out.  Old rich white dudes who kept black men out of the majors for decades are in.  So I’m not particularly invested in whether or not ol’ Moose finds his way to Cooperstown one day. []
  2. I did, however, look up how to spell ‘Mussina.’  #journalisticintegrity []
  3. ’98 Yanks: Res ipsa loquitur. []
  4. I think.  As I said, I’m not fact checking dates. []
  5. Though he somehow never won a Gold Glove, because, I assume, all people who vote on this award are assholes.  I defy you to show me a more logical, lucid and well reasoned alternative. []
  6. And so, after a lifetime of Mattingly and Tino playing first base, I got to watch this guy stumble around the bag with ten thumbs and two left feet. []
  7. Or Pound Sterling, or whatever the Brits were paying their mercenaries in in the 18th century.  (Also not researched for this piece, world currencies of the 18th century.) []
  8. I think.  Probably one of them was at least.  Probably more than one.  Because every pitcher is going to have a night like that.  Well, not every pitcher.  I don’t think Denny Neagle ever had a game like that for the Yanks.  I mean, that guy was just awful.  Him and his stupid train-whistle gag.  Ugh.  The point is, it must have happened at least a couple of times in order for me to feel like it happened all the time. []
  9. Because in the myth version of this story, every time these two matched up, it was a day game.  Because everybody knows all the best baseball happens during the day.  Or nearly.  On more which later. []
  10. Which I’m sure he could have been.  Because Derek Jeter can do anything he wants.  For evidence of this, see the life of Derek Jeter.  That’s not a book title.  I mean, just look at the guy’s life. []
  11. Or maybe one out. []
  12. If you’re Joe Girardi, you look this up in your Magic Binder.  But this was in the days before Magic Binders. []
  13. Not to be confused with the biggest disaster of the year, which was starting Jeff Weaver in a World Series game.  Or any game, really. []
  14. Or possibly just a no-hitter, but either way, it was a big deal. []
  15. And if it wasn’t, it should have been. []

GEMINI

Castor Master of Horses & Pollux of the Fighting Fists

 

One of my favorite things about Homer is when you read something on the page, something thousands of years old, and then it shows up in real life.  For example, just last week I was reading about Helen and Priam hanging out on the parapets of Troy.  And then, lo and behold, my brother has a telescope.  Who’s with me?

You see, my brother just turned thirty.1  Now apart from being a rather talented musician and a really good music teacher, he is also totally into astronomy.2  None of which has anything to do with him being thirty, except that as a function of celebrating, we3 were over at his apartment for dessert.  And after they had enjoyed their ice cream cake and I had enjoyed my Jack Daniels4 he decided to set up the ‘scope for some amateur astronomy.

Now you’d think you wouldn’t be able to see much of a night sky in New York City.  And you’d be right.  But there are ways around this.5  In any case, he’s got this fancy electronic mount which can track celestial bodies.6  But in order to get it working, he’s got to first align it to a known entity.  In this case, the mounts on-board computer suggested the star called Pollux.  Now my brother just sort of looked up and pointed in a general direction, because he knows about this stuff.  But it took me a second to find it.  But I did find it.  Right next to its twin, Castor.

Well now he was talking my language.7  So I said, “Oh! Kastor and Polydeuces!,” using the proper Greek names.  He mumbled some sort of agreement while he fiddled with his instrument.8  “The Dioskoroi,” I said.  He nodded that nod which means, “fine smarty-pants, whatever.”  “Dude,” I persisted.  “The Dioskoroi.  Kastor and Polydeuces.  The brothers of Helen of Troy.”  Nothing.  “Well?,” I asked.  “What do you call the constellation then.  He answered in a tone that implied the answer was obvious: “Gemini.”9

 

οἱ δ᾽ ὡϲ οὖν Ἑλένην ἐπὶ πύργον ἰουϲαν…
Ὥϲ ἄρ᾽ ἔφαν, Πρίαμοϲ δ᾽ Ἑλένην ἐκαλέϲϲατο φωνῆι…

And they saw Helen moving upon the tower…and after they had spoken amongst themselves, Priam called to her… (Iliad, 3.154, 161)

 

So there stood two figures upon one of the towers of windy Troy, looking out upon the field of battle.  And to Priam, there were many glorious figures to behold, though he knew none of them by name.  But to Helen, each one was known, each had his own attributes which made him wondrous and unique.  And each time Priam would point to one, and ask, “who is that?,” Helen would name him and say some words about him.  The stars of the Greek army.  There was her husband, whom she’d left, Menelaos.  There was his brother, the mighty king of men, Agamemnon.  Crafty Odysseus, stout Aias and the Kretan Idomeneus.  But as they surveyed the field, two were conspicuous to Helen by their absence.

 

δοιὼ δ᾽ οὐ δύναμι ἰδέειν κοϲμήτορε λαῶν
Κάϲτορά θ᾽ ἱππόδαμον καὶ πὺξ ἀγαθὸν Πολθδευκεα
αὐτοκασιγνήτω, τώ μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ.
ἢ οὐχ ἑϲπέϲθεν Λακεδαίμονοϲ ἐξ ἐρατεινηῆϲ,
ἢ δεύρω μὲν ἕποντο νέεϲ᾽ ἔνι ποντοπόροιϲι,
νῦν αὖτ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλουϲι μάχην καταδύμεναι ἀνδρῶν,
αἴϲχεα δειδιότεϲ καὶ ὀνείδεα πόλλ᾽ ἅ μοί εϲτιν.

But I am not able to see the two captains, said Helen,
Kastor, master of horses and the fist-fighter Polydeuces
my own two brothers, who were born to my own mother.
Either they did follow the others from lovely Lakedaimon
or else they came here in their seafaring ships,
but now do not wish to come down to the battlefield
fearing the shame and the many reproaches they will have on my account.
(Iliad, 3.236-42)

 

So there I was, clueless but in awe.  Pointing now to one bright star, now to another, asking its name.  And there was my brother, knowing all of them.  Three thousand years ago, two figures stood upon a parapet of a great city, surveying a field of stars, gazing at them in awe.  One teaching the other about them.  And here we were, upon the 28th floor balcony in a great city, doing very much the same.  But though faithless Helen could find all but her two brothers, there, conspicuous before us, were those very twins.

And connecting these two tales was blind Homer, who never saw a single star, and yet knew them all.

  1. Happy Birthday! []
  2. Follow him on Twitter @UrbanAstroNYC.  And check out his blogue at UrbanAstro.org []
  3. The family []
  4. I’m lactose intolerant. []
  5. Check out this article (pp.44-9) he wrote on the subject. []
  6. And possibly naked neighbors.  If they move slowly enough. []
  7. Ancient Greek. []
  8. Minds out of the gutter, people! []
  9. Bloody Romans. []

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse – Part the Sixth

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse
In Several Parts
This being the Sixth

Which follows upon the Fifth Part, wherein was told the tale of a gruesome death – a murther most foul – and wherein the protagonist was seized by pitiful Terror and gripped by awful Cowardice.  Here resumes the Saga, wherein the reader is brought up to the present day and is discovered as to who really had the last laugh.

 

Weeks went by.  Weeks during which we saw hide nor hair of Chutzpah.  But nobody in this apartment felt like they had won.  Ok, so maybe we had killed The Mouse.  Or maybe it was yet another decoy.  Honestly, I was past caring.  I was numb to it now.  All I know is, after what we went through, I didn’t want to go through any more.  No more killing.

And then, one day, there he was.  Chutzpah.  We knew it was him.  We knew it from the smug arrogance that dared to show itself in our presence.  The other mice – the dead mice – never openly ventured out into the light when I or my roommate was around.  Those mice1 managed to get themselves killed whilst we were out of the house or firmly ensconced in our respective rooms.  They only dared to brave the mine-field of traps2 when their pathetic mouse-brains supposed themselves to be alone.  But not Chutzpah.

No, not Chutzpah.  Chutzpah, you see, would hang out in the corner near the couch.  He’d be chilling3 behind the butcher block or around the stove4 as his fancy took him.  And if we should chance to invade our own apartment to the disruption of his romps and frolics, he’d betake himself to his mouse-hole in plain sight, not giving a whit whether we saw him or not.  That was Chutzpah.

And he knew.  Oh, he knew.  He knew we were beaten.  He knew our horror, and more importantly our despondence, after the botched execution of his dear departed tovarisch.5

Gone now are the snap-traps.  Gone are the glue traps.  Gone even are the “safe” traps, little plastic boxes with air holes and one-way doors.  The sort of trap designed to hold the mouse only so long as until it can be safely released.  These last were a vain hope, a futile attempt at humane relocation.  But Chutzpah was too smart to ever get stuck therein, and so, at last, these too were mothballed.

“So you’re just going to give up?”  My boss was not impressed.  “You’re just going to let him walk all over you?”  I tried to explain that we were just not willing to go through with the brutal butcheries of the snap-traps again.  I tried to explain that Chutzpah was too smart for any of the other traps.  I tried to explain that we weren’t proud of this, but that we’d pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact he was here to stay.

“I’ll bring you some poison,” said my boss who lives in the country.  In the country, he would tell me, mice are everywhere.  In the woods, in the shed, in the garage, in the basement of the manor house.6  I protested.

“And what am I supposed to do with that?,” I asked protestily.  “I don’t need him taking the poison home and dying behind the wall.  He’ll rot and it will smell and we won’t have any way of getting at him.”

“So?”  My boss was not impressed.  “Do you want him dead, or don’t you?”  “I want him gone,” I answered.  “He doesn’t need to be dead.”  He looked at me, probably with disappointment, or else with a desire to get back to his real job.  “Think about it.”

I betook myself home, whereupon the matter was dwelled upon.  I was sitting in my room, when my roommate knocked upon the door.  I didn’t answer.  He knocked again.  I didn’t answer again.  He tried the door, which was open.  “Why’s it so dark in here?,” he asked.

I was sitting in my chair.  The lights were off.  My hands were tented under my chin, fingertips touching, my eyes closed.  “Umm, listen,” he said in a way that said you’re weird, but that’s not why I’m here so I’m going to ignore this.  “I saw Chutzpah again today.”  I sat motionless, offering no response.  “Did you hear what I said?  What do you want to do?”  When I finally answered, I didn’t look up.  I didn’t even open my eyes.

“I know a guy,” I said slowly.  “He can get us poison.”  My roommate nodded.  And then he was gone.

The next morning I strode confidently into my bosses office.  He swiveled his chair to face me.  “So,” he said icily.  “Have you considered my proposal?”  I nodded.  “And?”  “I’m in.”  “I thought you might be,” whereupon he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a small bag, placing it on his desk.  “Just sprinkle some pellets where –,” he began to instruct before I cut him off.  “I know what to do,” I said coldly as I reached for the bag.  As I was about to cross the threshold out of his office, he called after me.  I froze, without turning.  “Good luck.”  I walked out of the office.

That was over sixth months ago.  In that six months, the poison has rested atop the refrigerator in a little plastic bag.  There it sits, stockpiled like some weapon of mass destruction, perpetually “on the table” but with little threat of actually ever being used.  Oh, we talk about putting it out.  It’s just that, well, it’s a nasty business, isn’t it?  And anyway, we’re decent folk, more or less.  We have respect, a sense of community.  Love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, live and let live, don’t leave the toilet seat up, that sort of thing.  As I say, decent folk.

Therefore it caught our attention one day, when one of our friends let it be known that he was having some measure of success in the capture and safe release of his own mouses.  The first time he pulled it off, I’d figured he’d merely gotten lucky.  But after the third time I allowed he might be onto something.  Whereupon my roommate set out to treat with our friend and so learn of his methods and of his implements.

From this reconnaissance mission, my roommate returned with brand new state-of-the-art “safe” traps, and perhaps more important, advanced knowledge on how to use them.  Needless to say, these “safe” traps have been in place for upwards of five weeks and have caught nothing.  Indeed, they are so superlatively safe that they pose no threat even of provoking the curiosity of our venerable Chutzpah.

Whilst on the other hand, our friend has by now, if I’m not mistaken, caught upwards of five mice, all of which he has released to safety in Prospect Park.  Whereupon have I come to believe one of two things.  Either the mouses in Brooklyn are not nearly so smart as those in Manhattan.  Or else, he’s got some breed of hipster mouse7 that is stopping by his apartment for a quick bite before getting intentionally caught so as to score himself a free lift to the park.8

And here we are.  Every day or two, my roommate will move the traps to a new location, hoping against hope that curiosity will have gotten the better of Chutzpah.  But of course it never does.  Chutzpah, as you know by now, is the master of his emotions.  He is bold, but he is cautious.  He is daring, but not reckless.  He is cunning, and his cunning is augmented by the sort of experience you can only get in the field.

It may be that one day we will abandon the safe traps, and with them, the last vestiges of hope vis-à-vis a peaceful resolution to this standoff.  But that day has not yet come, even if it yet draws ever closer.  We still have the poison, its siren call beckoning from atop the refrigerator.9  Yet still we stand frozen, lashed by hope to the mast of our little ship, wherein apparently I can do little more than make literary allusions to the Odyssey.

Whether one day we will succeed in trapping The Mouse, or finally relent and see to its ultimate demise, none can tell.  But today, the score stands thus.  Men: two dead mouses.  Mice: two broken souls of men.

Thus has the reader been brought up to the present day, and likewise thus has it been discovered unto the reader as to who has had the last laugh.  Yet the story ends not here.  The story can never end, so long as Chutzpah the Mouse walks the earth.  It may be that the Fates have long ago measured the string of his life.  They may stand poised, even now, blade in hand, ready to cut.  But they have not cut yet.  And until they do, the last chapter of this Saga can not be written…

  1. May they rest in peace. []
  2. Trap-fields? []
  3. À-la the proverbial villain. []
  4. He knew all the “hot” spots.  #zing []
  5. Was Chutzpah a communist?  Well, he ate our food in common as if it was his own.  He dwelled behind the baseboard radiator as if it were a sort of Iron Curtain.  And once, I even think I saw him curled up in the corner reading a little red book. []
  6. I have no idea how big his house is, but I know how small our apartment is.  And given that he lives in the country and makes “boss” money, I assume his house is practically a mansion.  Or a castle.  Or a feudal manor.  I should note, however, that I have very little idea of what goes on in the country. []
  7. In either case, things really have changed in that part of Brooklyn.  Time was, if you weren’t on your guard, you were likely to have a knife pulled on you by a rather nasty and drug-addled mouse.  Granted, it would have been a small knife.  But now they’ve all got kids, pushing their little strollers up Fourth Avenue, sipping their little lattes.  Gods, I hate hipsters.  Even the mouse hipsters.  Especially the mouse hipsters. []
  8. You might think that if they were in fact hipster mice, they’d not be looking to score a ride to the park, but would probably just ride their bikes.  However, it’s a well known fact among people who study these things, that in the rodent community, it’s the gerbils and hamsters what do the peddling.  Mice see themselves as above that sort of thing.  They’re much more keen to get mazes sorted out. []
  9. Or is that just the fridge’s motor running a cooling cycle?  To be fair, they kind of sound the same. []

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse – Part the Fifth

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse
In Several Parts
This being the Fifth

Which follows upon the Fourth Part, wherein was considered the fate of Chutzpah the Mouse and wherein the reader was privileged to experience the Saga from an altogether different point of view.  Here resumes the Saga, wherein is told the tale of a gruesome death – a murther most foul – and wherein the protagonist is seized by pitiful Terror and gripped by awful Cowardice.

  

Weeks went by.  Weeks during which we saw hide nor hair of Chutzpah.  Perhaps we really had won.  Perhaps he was dead.  Or perhaps not.  Part of me still believed Chutzpah was too smart, too good, to go out the way he seemed to have gone.  But if the mouse we had brought to ruin was not Chutzpah, perhaps he knew from this that our apartment was no longer safe for him.  Perhaps he was smart enough to know when it was time to fold and move on to cheesier pastures, pastures with pasteurized cheese instead of peanut-butter.  Or perhaps he was biding his time, lulling us from vigilance into complacency.

Weeks went by.  Weeks during which I was studying for my Greek translation exam.1  I have odd study habits.  Or at least, I have my own study habits.  If you care to imagine, I’m reading by candlelight, smoking my pipe, sipping whiskey and listening to some loud heavy metal.  Helps me focus.  Also helps block out distractions.  For example, it helps block out the sound of a mouse being tortured to death.  It’s a horrible sound.

There came a knocking.  A knocking at my chamber door.  I rose to answer the door, whereupon I discovered my roommate, looking quite distressed.  “We have a problem,” he was saying.  I opened my mouth to answer, when I heard a sound I’d not heard before.  It was a sort of clickety-clack.2  It stopped.  Then it started again.  Then it stopped again.  “What…,” I started to ask.  But I didn’t finish the question.  I didn’t need to.  “Oh.  No.”  “Dude…,” He started to answer.  But he didn’t finish the answer.  He didn’t need to.

Clickety-clack.  Clickety-clack.  We both turned to look.  And there it was.  Pitiful.  Wretched.  The poor bastard.  He was in no way equipped to deal with the awful fate that had befallen him.  Or, I should say, the fate that was even now befalling him.  A trap, you see, had closed upon his left hind leg.  It was a death sentence.  The leg was ruined.  He could never survive like this.  Did he know?  How could he?  The poor bastard.  Dead mouse walking.

Clickety-clack.  He was scampering for anything that looked like shelter.  He had betaken himself to a space between the garbage can and the wall.  And as he made his way, pulling himself on his front legs, pushing himself with his one working hind leg, the wooden trap clattered against the tile floor.  Clickety-clack.

“What are we going to do?,” my roommate asked.  There was a tremor in his voice.3  “Dude, he can’t survive this,” I responded.  I didn’t want to answer the question.  We looked at each other.  My roommate spoke first.  “We have to kill it.”  I nodded.  “But how?”

Silence.  Not even a clickety-clack.  Perhaps The Mouse, an interested party in the issue of our decision, was listening.  Did he have his own wishes?  Did he want to be put out of his misery?  Did he think if he could just escape the horrors of our kitchen that he’d pull through?  When a horse breaks a leg, we don’t much care about the horse’s wishes, do we?  No.  We just feel bad for it as we reach for the shotgun.4

“Fuck, I don’t know!,” my roommate cried out.  “Smash its head with a frying pan!  Just end it!”  I looked at my friend, a friend I’d known since I was fifteen.  I looked at a man who’d taken clients to the hospital and sat by their bedsides as they expired with all the grace and professional dignity in the world, but who now was entirely unbenerved at the thought of euthanizing5 this poor mouse.  I looked at my friend and posed a question.  “Let me ask you something.  After we smash its head in with a frying pan, are you going to want to cook with that frying pan?”6

“Fine,” he conceded.  “Then drop one of your weights on its head.”7  I thought about it.  That would do the trick, no question.  There was no logical counter to this proposal.  But I damn well didn’t have it in me to do such a deed.  In the Odyssey, the Kyklops Polyphemos was said to dash men’s heads against the ground the way people would apparently dash the heads of unwanted puppies against the ground, which, it seems, is what one did to get rid of puppies one didn’t want.8  But I was no Kyklops.  For one, I had two eyes.  For two, if I was a Kyklops, I probably would have eaten the mouse for breakfast long ago.9  Still, I had to think quickly if I was going to get out of this one.

“F that,” I blurted out.  “It’s your idea.  You do it!”  There.  Logic had been satisfied.  “Absolutely not!,” came the reply.  “They’re your weights.  You do it!”  Stalemate.  I raised my hand in the universal sign of ‘Hang on a second and let me think.’  Clickety-clack.  Clickety-clack.  I couldn’t think.  I mean, what the hell does one do in a situation like this?  “Maybe we can lure it onto another trap.”  That was my roommate.  Good thinking mate!  “Great!,” I jumped.  “Set the trap!”  “Me?”  I think he thought I would do it.  “Your idea,” I offered nonchalantly.  “I hate you,” he said coldly.  Good, I thought.  He’s going to do it.

Now, you must picture what our kitchen looks like.  It’s a railroad kitchen, maybe three feet wide, but at least four times as long.  The garbage can by which The Mouse was hiding is on the right hand wall.  The peanut-butter bait-jar was in an under-counter cabinet on the left hand wall, maybe six feet beyond the garbage can.  So my roommate, upon fetching another trap from his room, shimmied along the left hand wall much the same way a man in the movies shimmies along the ledge of a building.  That is to say, pressed flat, arms on the counter tops, feet always in contact with the wall.10  Upon reaching the cabinet, he looked at me.  I gave him two thumbs up.  Whereupon was he greatly reassured.11  He crouched down, back still against the counter, feeling blindly for the cupboard door.  I held my breath as he swung the door open and reached his hand in.  He pulled out a jar of tomato sauce.  I shook my head.  He replaced the jar of tomato sauce.

Clickety-clack.  We froze.  “He’s suffering,” I implored.  “Hurry up!”  He reached in again and pulled out a box of matzah.  “That’s not even a jar!,” I shouted as I closed my eyes.  “Right!”  He put it back.  Finally he pulled out a jar of peanut-butter and held it aloft.  Angels (of death) started singing O Fortuna as I gave him two thumbs up.  Whereupon did he slam shut the cupboard door and leap back to where I was standing in three great strides.  They were the sort of strides where only your tippy-toes touch the ground because you’re afraid of anything that might be on the ground.  The thing is, you have to remember that all this was before the Bin-Laden raid.  So from where I was standing, it all seemed pretty heroic.12

“Set the trap,” I said as calmly as I could.13  He looked at me with eyes that said, Do you have any idea what I just went through to secure this peanut-butter?  You set the godsdamned trap!  “Ok,” I said.  “Set the trap, and I’ll take care of everything when he’s dead.”  I was hoping he didn’t have the stomach to deal with a dead mouse.

He shook his head in disapproval, as if to say, I thought you were better than this, but which, as a practical matter said, Fine, I’ll set the trap, but I don’t want any part of cleaning up dead-mouse.  So he set the trap.  And he laid the trap.  He laid it right near to where The Mouse was cowering in agony.  And I took one step backward, as if Fear herself had shoved me in the shoulder.14

SNAP!  Oh, no.  Gods, no.  Not this.  Please, not this.

Have you ever heard a mouse scream?  I expect you haven’t.  Look, I’ve never been to war.  If you’re reading this, and you’ve served overseas, you have every right to seek me out and punch me right in my glass jaw.  But me personally, I’ve never been to war.  So this was pretty much the most horrific thing I’ve ever heard in my life.  It was a pitiful wail.  A screech.  A cry of pain.  Unmeasured horror.  If there’s a level of pain where one is inclined to shout, ‘How could you do this to me?!,’ then this was well beyond that.  This was a pain that doesn’t ask why.  It doesn’t even ask for an end.  It just screams.

And we had done this.  We could have ended things before it ever came to this.  A swift frying pan to the head would have done it.  Or a 25lb. weight falling accelerating at 9.8m/s2.15  But no.  We didn’t have the sang-froid.  So it had come to this.  A botched execution.  The criminal was writhing on the bed, strapped down, far beyond caring why the lethal injection hadn’t worked as advertised.  The trap, you see, had closed upon its front right leg.

I proceed now, with all due haste, to the dénouement.  In so doing, I shall skip several particulars, in part to spare the reader any further indignity of reading of my humiliation at the broken hands of a dying mouse, and in part because this tale has grown over-long.

This poor mouse’s final demise was achieved by pushing him with a broom handle onto still another trap.  I’m fairly certain that my roommate was wearing a black executioner’s hood as he did this.  I have no idea where he got such a hood, but it was all very dramatic.  In any case, this final trap closed mercifully upon the poor mouse’s neck.

Only, even this was not entirely merciful enough.  The trap flipped itself, and the now thrice-betrapped mouse, onto its side by the force of its own recoil.  The mouse let out one last pitiful wail.  Then its free arm twitched.  Its tail straightened and twitched.  And it was dead.  Finally.

My roommate walked out of the kitchen, defeated in victory.  I stood motionless for a long time.  It must have been several hours, maybe even days.  The sun rose and set again, and all the while I stood there unmoving, staring at the scene of the crime.  I stood there so long that I grew a beard.16  At last, at long last, I came to grips with had happened.  And I disposed of the dead mouse.  Dammit, Chutzpah, I thought.  Why did you make us do this?  Then I did the only thing that was left to do.  I sought out my roommate and we opened a bottle of scotch.

Tune in next week for the Conclusion of The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse, wherein the reader is brought up to the present day and is discovered as to who really had the last laugh.

  1. A period I sometimes refer to as The Lost Summer of Aught-Eleven.  My days were thus: Work 9-5; nap; shower; dinner; read Greek from around nine ‘til two or three ante-meridian; facilitate the foregoing by consuming stupid amounts of whiskey, tobacco and caffeine.  I didn’t see my friends.  I passed up free tickets to ballgames, including the one where Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit.  I missed plenty of parties and any other kind of fun you could think of.  Well, except the fun of reading some awesome Greek (I’m looking at you, Sophokles).  But I also read some incredibly boring Greek (I’m looking at you Theokritos).  In any event, it was a Lost Summer.  But, if you’re curious, I killed the exam.  And at the end of it all, one of my friends baked me a cake. []
  2. And not of the Tappet Brothers variety.  #CarTalk []
  3. Or perhaps it was in mine own ears. []
  4. I say “we,” but let the record show I’ve never actually shot dead a horse. []
  5. A wicked and perverted Greek word, which the Greeks themselves never used.  A combination of εὖ/eu  – ‘well,’ or ‘kind’ and θάνατοϲ/thanatos – ‘death.’  The sort of euphemism meant to make one feel better about doing something that one ought not really feel good about doing. []
  6. It’s been said that I don’t have a heart.  #FullDisclosure []
  7. I have pairs of 20 and 25 pound dumbbells, because once upon a time, I used to work out.  In those days, I had the strength of ten men.  I would routinely hurl boulders the size of small Volkswagens while simultaneously choking alligators with my legs.  Construction companies used to tell me that they’d hire me to be a crane – not a crane operator, mind you, but the actual crane – if I was only a little bit taller.  Well, thirty stories taller.  But that was years ago.  By this time, my dumbbells were holding down the base of a coat rack that didn’t quite stand up straight. []
  8. ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἀναΐξαϲ ἑτάροιϲ ἐπὶ χεῖραϲ ἴαλλε, / ϲὺν δὲ δύω μάρψαϲ ὥϲ τε ϲκύλακαϲ ποτὶ γαίῃ / κόπτ᾽: ἐκ δ᾽ ἐγκέφαλοϲ χαμάδιϲ ῥέε, δεῦε δὲ γαῖαν – “But he jumped up and reached out his hands to my companions, and grabbing two of them as if they were puppies, smashed them upon the ground; and their brains spilled upon the ground, drenching the earth.”  Od.9.288-90. []
  9. I say probably, but I don’t think there’s any attested occasion of a Kyklops eating a mouse.  Still, it seems like the sort of thing they’d do.  Or, at the very least, the sort of thing they’d not not do.  #litotes []
  10. At least, that’s how I remember it. []
  11. Probably. []
  12. I wonder if there were mice in Bin-Laden’s compound.  If so, I have an even greater respect for our Navy SEALS. []
  13. Which was not very. []
  14. I’d have taken two steps backward, but Pride was standing behind me, blocking my retreat, saying, Where do you think you’re going, Nancy?  (And that was Pride speaking.  The author happens to think there’s nothing wrong with the name Nancy, or with people called Nancy for that matter). []
  15. And thus reaching whatever velocity it would have attained starting from zero and a height of ca.4′. []
  16. At least, I thought I had.  Photographic evidence has since indicated that I had the beard before I ever had a mouse.  In hindsight, it’s possible this period of several days was actually a matter of minutes. []

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse – Part the Fourth

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse
In Several Parts
This being the Fourth

Which follows upon the Third Part, wherein the dead and broken body of a mouse was discovered and a worthy foe was mourned.  Here resumes the Saga, wherein is considered the fate of Chutzpah the Mouse and wherein the reader is privileged to experience the Saga from an altogether different point of view…

 

“Shall we go see Kate?,”1 I asked my roommate as he walked through the door.  It was around 10:30 PM and he was just getting home from work.  “Well,” he sighed, “it is Monday.”2  And so we popped off to the bar, leaving behind us an apartment at long last devoid of any rodentine presence.

It’s dark.  No, I mean, out there.  It’s always dark back here.  It’s a bleeding mouse hole, of course it’s dark back here.  But out there, it’s finally dark.  They must be gone.  Gone or sleeping.  Six of one, really.  And I’m hungry, so that works out well.  They usually leave when I’m hungry.  They must know I like to be left alone when I eat.  I hate when people watch me eat.  Makes me self-conscious. 

“Hello boys,” Kate was saying.  “Johnny Black for you, and Jamey for you,” she said as she poured a drink for each of us in turn.  “So?,” she inquired.  “How are things with The Mouse?”

Right, out we go then.  Just past this narrow bit.  Should be safe now.  Sometimes this metal box I have to squeeze past, it gets so hot.  I mean, it’s like an oven.  Hang on.  Like a what?  No idea what an ‘oven’ is, come to think of it.  But I hear the Biggies say it sometimes.  It’s like an oven in  here!, they say, typically to emphasize excessive heat.  Must have picked it up.  Anyway.  I’ll just squeeze through this little space between the wall and that massive metal box they cook their food in by means of applying excessive heat.

“It’s dead, Kate.  We killed it.”  I tipped my glass back.  “Umm, actually…,” my roommate cut in.  “Actually…what?”  “Well,” he hesitated.  “I think I saw another one.”  “Another mouse?  Are you sure?”  I was stunned.  “I think so, man.”  “No, dude, I bet you saw Chutzpah!  We must have killed some other mouse.  I knew Chutzpah was too smart to fall for the traps!”

Left?  Clear.  Right?  Clear.  Excellent.  Ok, get ready to run across to the far wall.  Always the far wall.  The near wall is where Charlie bought it.  Mustn’t go there anymore.  No, no matter how much peanut-butter they put, mustn’t go there. 

Kate cut in.  “Sorry, let me get this straight.  You killed a mouse.  Now you have a new mouse.  And now – ”  I cut in.  “No, Kate, don’t you see?  Chutzpah must have sent that mouse out as a decoy.  The one we killed, I mean.  I’m telling you, Chutzpah is just too smart.”  Kate was surprised.  “You actually like Chutzpah, don’t you.”  It wasn’t a question.

And we’re off!  Right, I think I’ve made it.  Nobody saw me.  God, I’m good.  I mean, really good.  Much better than Charlie, the poor bastard.  But it’s a cat-eat-mouse world out here.  Never forget – what’s this?  Oh, no, it’s just a bit of dirt.  Don’t these people ever clean back here?  No, of course not.  Hang on, what’s that further down? *sniff sniff.*  Food.  Definitely food.  Welp, food doesn’t grow on trees.  I mean, it does grow on trees.  But I can’t climb trees, so it may as well not.  Although Uncle once said you could find good stuff at the bottom of trees after it’s fallen.  Which would be helpful, Uncle, if I lived in the bloody country-side.

“You know, I bet you’re right,” my roommate said.  “I bet that sonofabitch tricked a buddy into getting caught.  He probably figured we’d take the traps away if we thought we’d killed him.”  “Yes!,” I exclaimed.  “Exactly!  God, he’s good.”

Oh, it’s just a bit of carrot peel.  I hate carrots.  Still though, good for the eyes.  All the best scientists agree.  Rats of NIMH published a paper on that, years ago.  Eat your carrots, they wrote. Good for the eyes.  Maybe if Charlie had eaten more carrots.  Welp, you can’t wear the black armband forever.

“You guys are odd,” Kate was saying.  “First you have a mouse and you try to kill it.  Then you finally do kill it, and you’re sad about it.  And now you think he’s back, and it’s almost like you’re proud of him.  You guys are odd.”

Not so bad, I suppose, this carrot peel.  I’ve had worse, anyway.  Ok then, on we go.  Down the usual route, to the end of the wall.  Run and squeeze, squeeze and run.  And…jump!  Nailed it.  Sticked the landing!  Down on all fours, and off we go.

“You don’t understand, Kate,” I said.  “This mouse is smarter than most people I know.  How can you not root for him?”  “In fairness,” my roommate cut it in, “this guy doesn’t like anybody.”  “He likes me,” Kate said as she topped off my Jameson.  “Factum verum,”3 quoth I.  “Cheers to that,” quoth my roommate as glasses clinked.

Hmm, end of the wall.  And nothing.  Bupkis.  They never leave me any food down this way.  It’s like they only ever eat in the Great Food Room anymore.  And those other rooms, the Sleep Rooms, they’re always shut.  Even I – I of super-mousal litheness and dexterity – even I can’t squeeze under those doors.  I bet that’s where they keep the cheese, the bastards.

“And yet,” said Kate, “ you’re going to try and kill him again, aren’t you.”  “He doesn’t leave us much choice, I’m afraid,” said my roommate.  “It’s a contest of wits, Kate,” I said.  “Yes,” she agreed.  “Against a mouse.”

Right then, back we go.  Maybe there’s something in the Food Box-Cabinet-Thing.  I’ve mostly cleaned it out, but you never know, they have might put something new in there.  These days it’s mostly metal cans.  I’ve got sharp teeth, don’t think for a second I haven’t got sharp teeth.  Like razors, they are.  I’m like the Tyrannosaurus Rex of mouses.  Haven’t seen one of those in ages, T-Rex’s.4  Well, I haven’t seen one ever.  But the stories have been passed down around the campfires.  And I have a cousin who lives in the Museum.  He says they’ve got one there.  Not a live one.  Just the bones.  Not even any meat on the bones.  Not so tough now, are you, without your skin on.  Oooh, look at me, I’m so big and strong.  I’m the king of the dinosaurs.  “Rex” means king, and that’s me.5  Tiny little arms, but teeth the size of two whole mouses.  Oh, but what’s that in the sky?  It’s coming right for me.  Worst.  Extinction.  Ever.  Bet you wished you could adapt to environmental changes like a mouse, don’t you, Mister T-Rex?  Hehe.  Being a mammal is the tits, no pun intended.  Oh, who’m I kidding.  I totally meant that pun.  Nailed it!  Still, I bet a T-Rex could crack into these metal cans.

“Yeah, fine, but not just any mouse,” I countered.  “Chutzpah the Mouse.”

Hang on, what’s this?  A box.  A paper box!  I can work with this, you bet.  *nom, nom nom.*  Aww, come on!  Seriously?  Matzah!?  Blech!  Well, what was I expecting, oatmeal?  Yeah…I was expecting oatmeal.  Oh, but wait.  I smell lemon now.  I do like a good lemon.  Squeeze some lemon into a puddle of spilled Corona, that’s what I like.  So where is this lemon.  Where? 

“And I’m telling you right now,” I continued.  “Chutzpah the Mouse is no ordinary mouse.  He’s got a mind like a steal trap.  He’s got an iron will.  He’s cold and cunning and calculating.  Only a fool would underestimate this mouse.”

Oh.  Oh, I get it.  It’s not real lemon.  They’ve mopped the floor is all.  Mustn’t lick that.  Charlie did that once and he was sick for days.  Ooh, but do I dare?  No, not licking the lemon flavor, of course not that.  It’s just…the linoleum is super slippery after they’ve mopped.  I bet I could…I mean, nobody’s home, right?  Do I dare?  Aah, what the hell.  Running start…jump!…half-turn mid air…belly-flop…and the slide!…weeeeeeee!…spinning down the floor, haaaaaa!

“Sorry,” Kate answered.  “Do you have a mouse, or Machiavelli?”  “He’s like the mouse version of Machiavelli,” I volleyed.  “He’s like…” “Please don’t say Mouseiavelli,” my roommate moaned.  “Mouseiavelli!,” I triumphed.  They both moaned.6

And stop.  How far this time?  Six-and-a-half tiles.  Not bad.  Charlie could never do better than five.  Yeah, that was fun.  The trick is, keep your tail up.  Let your tail drag and it will slow you right the hell down.  Aaand, now I smell like lemon.  Well, it was worth it.  Still, better get back to my hole now.  I’ve found all the food that’s to be had here for now, and the People might come back at any time. 

“Right, well I’d best be going,” as said as I finished off the last my of my I-don’t-know-how-many Jamesons.  “Work in the morning, and all that.”  “Goodnight boys,” waved Kate as I grabbed a lime slice for the road.

Bedtime for this tired mouse.  Maybe if the weather is nice tomorrow, I’ll go outside and warm myself in the glow of the Big Cheese-Wheel in the Sky.

As we stumbled home on-drunk-wise, my roommate put to me the question.  “Do you really think Chutzpah is still alive?”  I paused for dramatic effect.7  “Do you really think he’s not?”

Tune in next week for the next exciting installment of The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse, wherein is told the wicked tale of a most gruesome death.  Could this really be the end of Chutzpah the Mouse?

  1. Cf. Starr, D., “Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse, Part 3rd,” n.1dokeimoi.net, ed. Starr, D. 2013. []
  2. Ibid, n.2. []
  3. Factum Verum: Latin, “true fact.” []
  4. The correct plural is, of course, T-Reges, but then how much Latin can you reasonably expect a mouse to know? []
  5. Ok, so apparently some Latin. []
  6. #nailedit []
  7. Wait for it. []

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse – Part the Third

The Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse
In Several Parts
This being the Third

Which follows upon the Second Part, wherein The Mouse executed a marvelous deed of derring-do and thusly earned himself a name.  Here resumes the tale, wherein the dead and broken body of a mouse is discovered and a worthy foe is mourned.

  

“Shall we go see Kate?,”1 I asked my roommate as he walked through the door.  It was around 10:30 PM and he was just getting home from work.  “Well,” he sighed, “it is Monday.”2

Perhaps it was fate.  Or perhaps I’ve re-remembered events a bit more poetically than they really occurred.  Then again, maybe it was just coincidence.  On the other hand, it could have had to do with some astrological alignment.  Or would that fall under fate?  I suppose it depends on what you think of fate.  That is, if you think of fate at all.  Personally, I tend not to think of fate.  Until things like this happen, and then it seems I do.  So when I say that I tend not to think of fate, I suppose what I really mean is, I tend to think of fate when fate-y things seem to happen, but otherwise not much at all.  Which is how most lay-people think of fate, I rather expect.  And I say lay-people only because I rather expect people in the clergies3 spend a great deal of time thinking about fate.  But then, people in the clergies are probably more prone to seeing fate-y things where lay-people are more prone to seeing coincidences.  Or, alternatively, where lay-people tend to see nothing at all, which is to say most places, as we lay-people are often a mindless and vulgar sort.  As Obi-Wan Kenobi4 once sagaciously-cum-fictively said,5 “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”6

Perhaps it was fate.  On this particular night, as we sat there sipping our second or third whiskeys, which we were almost certainly not going to be asked to pay for,7 we shared with Kate the First and Second Parts of the Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse, albeit in colloquial, conversational English and entirely devoid of footnotes.  In the course of this, Kate shared, in responsion,8 her own story of once having had a mouse.  In particular, I remember her saying how once the mouse had run right over her very own feet, an image which greatly disturbed my roommate.  Whereupon I thought that if she had been somebody else, somebody who did not regularly provide me with free whiskey, I would have been a bit cross with her for this.  But you can’t stay made at Kate.  It just isn’t done.  Because apart from the free whiskey, she also let me have as many limes as I wished out of the little garnish box.9

So perhaps it was fate that on this night of swapping mouse tails10 tales we came home to find what we did.  As I remember it, we opened the door to the apartment and knew immediately that something was amiss.  There was a cold draft, for one.11  For another, all the lights had died.  These first two points may be exaggerations, but of one thing I am quite certain.  Nothing was stirring.  Not even a mouse.

So we ventured into the kitchen.  Slowly.  Carefully.  Using our iPhones as flashlights.12  And then we saw it.  There, spread across two snap traps lay the broken body of a mouse.  One trap had closed upon it’s left hind leg, rendering it disjointed and useless.  The other, mercifully, had closed upon its neck.  I’ve often heard it said that people can look quite peaceful in death.  And so it was with this poor little mouse.  All its earthly cares had been lifted.  No more hiding in the shadows.  No more scurrying down dark alleyways.  No more scrounging for scraps in other people’s garbage.  Perhaps, when the awful moment came, he believed he was going to the great cheese mill/plant/manufactory/farm13 in the sky and gracefully gave up the ghost.

This romantic philosophizing was soon overtaken, however, by the more science-y part of my brain, which may be the left side, but wouldn’t it be ironic if it was the right?  In any case, I bewondered myself just as to how he came to his αἰπὺϲ ὄλεθροϲ.14  Was his leg broken first?  Did he suffer for long?  We’d been gone for hours.  How long ago did this happen?  However it happened, there was little glory in this victory.

In fact, I was a bit disappointed.  I’d fancied Chutzpah was better than this.  How many times had he dared to take a bit of peanut-butter off the trap?  How many times had he carried it back to his little hovel, or more brazen still, sat right beside the trap and devoured his booty?  And now, it seemed, he’d gone to the well one time too many.  And it was not well for him, poor bastard.  In any case, we quickly disposed of his remains, the details of which modesty prevents me from recounting.

The deed being done, we looked at each other, my roommate and I, and silently made sure we were on the same page about all of this.  To be clear, we were on the page where you feel relieved to have solved a problem, but you don’t feel particularly proud of the way in which you’ve pulled it off.15  Whereupon we either retired to our respective chambers for the night or else had more whiskey.16

As I lay in bed, I bethought myself of Zeus, the patron god of ξενία.17  There are ways to behave towards a stranger who comes to your home seeking shelter and sustenance, and these ways do not typically involve murder.  I wondered if Zeus would be offended.  After all, if there’s one god you don’t want to offend, Zeus.18  But then, this depended on what kind of guest Chutzpah really was.  Was he a stranger in good faith, a stranger in need of food and shelter?  Or was he like the suitors of Penelope, a haughty and insolent “guest” who was eating us out of house and home?  In the end, if there is any uncertainty, any at all, one must err on the side of not offending Zeus.

The next Saturday, I met my roommate at the bar, where he was enjoying a drink with some people whom he said were his friends, but whom I mostly thought were not entirely interesting, irrespective of the aesthetic value of several of the females, which was in fairness, noticeable, if not considerable.19  And there, in the (actual) dark of the bar, (actually) lit only by candles, we recounted the demise of Chutzpah the Mouse.  As epilogue, I shared with them my concerns about Zeus and ξενίαI suggested that we offer a small prayer and pour a libation, as a show of good faith.  My roommate, at least, agreed

We raised our glasses, to Zeus, but also to Chutzpah.  Then I prepared to recite an invocation to Zeus which I had only just recently read and so knew well in my mind.  Perhaps it was Zeus himself who had arranged my reading of it, knowing that I would soon need it in order to seek his favor.

With glasses high, I began to speak in a solemn voice:

“Ζεῦ κύδιϲτε μέγιϲτε, κελαινεφέϲ, αἰθέρι ναίων”20 – O Zeus, great and glorious, gatherer of clouds, who dwells on high.  And then I had to improvise, because the next bit was about asking him to help me cast down Priam and sack the mighty citadel of Troy.  “We honor xenia and revere your laws.  We have killed the mouse that lived in our apartment.  Forgive us this transgression.”  Whereupon we poured some of our precious whiskey upon the floor.  We did this believing that hereafter we would see Chutzpah the Mouse no more forever.

Tune in next week for the next exciting installment in the Saga of Chutzpah the Mouse, wherein is made a startling discovery and wherein also is the Saga seen from an entirely different point of view.

  1. In order to protect Aly’s privacy, I shall, for the purposes of this story, refer to her as Kate. []
  2. We always went to the bar on Mondays.  That was the night of Kate’s shift, and she always took great care of us.  Bright girl, and very interesting to talk to.  Easy on the eyes, as well. []
  3. As opposed to a single unified Clergy vis-à-vis the single unified Lay-People.  But of course there is no unified Clergy.  Thus I think the various clergies of the world’s various faiths and religions deserve their own plural to share.  Perhaps if they start with something small, like sharing a plural, they can find common ground on other more important matters as well.  Ooh, I think I just discovered World Peace.  #yourwelcome []
  4. Would you believe “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is in the MS Word dictionary?  To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, I’m finding it to be full of surprises.  #StarWarsQuotes []
  5. And we would do well to remember that the Jedi too are a sort of clergy. []
  6. Lucas, G., Kasden, L. Return of the Jedi, Lucasfilm, 1983. []
  7. Bless you, Kate, wherever you are. []
  8. “Responsion” failed the spell-check.  Apparently MS Word has seen Star Wars, but has never taken a class on metrical analysis.  Always count on Microsoft to bring things down to the lowest common denominator. []
  9. When I was a young child living in Brooklyn, there was an old woman who lived next door that would have me over and give me slices of lime.  Her name was Rita, and this is the only thing I remember about her.  (No, I don’t suppose it’s terribly relevant.) []
  10. Eww. []
  11. Which was odd, as we get about as much circulation as, let’s see…as a bear’s circulatory system during hibernation?  As a meat locker during a power outage?  As The New Yorker in Crenshaw, Mississippi.  #nailedit []
  12. Or possibly in 60 watts of fluorescence.  But this way is more dramatic I think. []
  13. I honestly have no idea how cheese is made, a failing in which I am thankfully not alone.  This despite the fact that I’ve actually read a little bit about cheese making.  The Kyklops talks about in Theokritos 11.  For example, a ταρϲόϲ (tarsos, line 37) is apparently a wicker basket used for drying cheeses, according to the dictionary (LSJ).  Cheese is dried?  In baskets?  Will nobody tell me what the hell is going on? []
  14. Aipus olethros is a phrase used by Homer to mean “sheer destruction.” Quite a lovely and poetic way of referring to death. []
  15. That would page 281, for you fact-checkers out there. []
  16. Or both. []
  17. Xenia, hospitality. []
  18. There are those would say the god you really don’t want to offend is the Judeo-Christian god.  But from where I stand, he’s so easily offended, you can basically write that off as the cost of doing business.  Whereas with Zeus, if you’re not already on his bad side, he’s fairly easy to propitiate.  All you have to do is sacrifice a nice ox or let him have at your wife/daughter.  But as I don’t have an ox or a wife/daughter, I realized I really must tread quite carefully here. []
  19. Though in at least one case negated by a boyfriend. []
  20. Zeu, kudiste megiste, kelainephes, aitheri naion.” []