A Hermit in The City
“No, I didn’t mean ‘hermit’ as a metaphor. At least it isn’t to him.”
Larry Darrell was chatting with his friend in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel.
“Blue is one of my regular passengers.
“Blue, that’s his name, holds lettered degrees! He’s a physicist.
“He chose to give up work on the bomb.
“So, for decades he’s been living as a hermit.”
Somerset Maugham couldn’t resist, “How in the world – a hermit?
“I mean, – umn, umn – a hermit – in the busiest city in America?”
“Well yes, I can see how ‘hermit’ would conjure up – living off in a desert somewhere.
“But not Blue. He does live in The City – in a really seedy section.
“it’s not far from my place, though a good bit slummier. He’s in the toughest part of the Lower West Side. I avoid driving down there because of the characters roaming the streets.
“Blue just up and cut off connections with all things materialistic. Calls it ‘living off the grid.’
“You know, William, I thought I lived frugally! I’m actually wealthy by comparison. I’ve learned a lot from Blue. A lot that I adapted to my own life.”
Maugham said, “Really?”
“Well, my taxi, for instance. I hadn’t realized. But yes, owning it is something of a shackle. As I said, I happen to now own it because my boss left it to me when he died. After paying off gift taxes, I simply maintain it. Still, I feel it has a grip on me. And to tell the truth, I’ve come to enjoy having it.”
“But it is yours. And it seems a modest enough possession. Isn’t it about the only thing you own?”
“True. I live in a furnished room. So I actually own barely anything other than my clothing and a few personal items – comb, toothbrush, razor – other than a taxicab.”
“So, Larry isn’t that going a bit overboard, considering the upkeep of your taxi as its owning you?”
“Right. Actually, I consider all things that I have and use as only on loan to me. After all, couldn’t any sort of calamity, any sort of disaster, take it all? At any moment?”
“It makes it easier to live my days. And I do consider I have just ‘days’ of life left.”
“That’s grim!” Maugham grimaced and added, “You were telling me about that chap, Blue?”
“Yes. Brilliant fellow. But you asked how I met him. He was an occasional passenger. I first picked him up late one Sunday afternoon at Union Square after the close of the bazaar, an Arts and Crafts fair tucked into a corner of the farmers market.
“Every once in awhile I picked him up with his little knapsack of jewelry. That is how he earns a meager living. Making jewelry.”
“Splendid,” Maugham said. “Please continue. Why did his story come to mind?”
“On those occasions that I taxied him to his rooms he related a tale – relate is probably not a good way of putting it for it implies he told it as a continuous narrative. It was more in little ejaculatory bursts of chatter. He wove a story though, that in many – bizarre and cockeyed ways — somehow made sense.”
“Your imagery fascinates.”
“Thank you. I’m sure I’ve not at all conveyed, just how colorful he is. Blue always looks as if he did actually emerge from a desert.” Larry laughed. “I’d expect him to be eating wild locusts and honey! He has a long graying sandy- beard. Down to his stomach. Scraggly eyebrows and a long mop of darker hair, down to his shoulders.
“He’s a skinny fellow, but muscular. He stands tall with sparkly grey eyes that give off silent words of wisdom.
“You ask why. How come he came to mind just now? It’s because of an ‘attitude’ I liked about him. One from which I gain considerably.
“I’d never regarded Blue a spiritual man, though in his ludicrous way he was. I don’t even believe he knew that he was spiritual. But, to me, I was always grateful that he chose my cab.
“As I say, the fellow looked the no-account outcast. But he was more brilliant and well read than any professor I’ve ever known. You know, I never knew many professors – only those in my brief years at Yale. So I do mean, professors I’ve heard about.”
Maugham said, “Don’t the professors – umn – ‘you’ve heard about’ – umn – include a good many noble sorts?”
“I’m sure you’re right. Bad comparison. I was trying to emphasize the hermit’s erudition.”
Maugham smiled permission.
“Blue doesn’t trust science. He’d say that most scientists get the bulk of their knowledge of science from books. And gain their reputation from writing about books and articles about books and other articles. He’d say that barely any of them actually conduct experiments in their field on a regular basis.
“He knew this from his own academic achievements as well as the work he did in the field building bigger and more lethal bombs.
“He more than once quoted J. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment, the one he’d made at Trinity Place, when he observed the mushroom cloud of the first Atom Bomb exploding, ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
“As you know, that bomb was the prototype of those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They killed 170,000 civilians.”
Maugham nodded acknowledgement.
“My friend, Blue, didn’t limit his disapproval to scientists’ who created weapons of mass destruction. He distrusted all uses of university learning – all except for medicine. And even there he said there was very little honesty.
“I don’t know how true it is, but Blue used numbers. He told me that physicians were correct only half the time they made diagnoses of internal disorders.”
“And you agree with his opinions?” Maugham interjected. “I’m surprised!”
“I don’t know that I’d say I agree. I was very curious why Blue arrived at his cynicism. And I couldn’t help agree with his dismissal of those scientists who built the bomb.”
“Blue’s outlook led him to that lifestyle that fascinated. He quoted Shakespeare.
“Blue said, ‘and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. . . . Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage – and then is heard no more.’ Blue would laugh, shaking his head from side to side, wagging his beard.”
“I see where you are going now. ‘It’s a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury – signifying nothing!’ Is that it?”
Larry waited a few beats, studying his friend for clues to what he’d further have to say.
“Probably,” he said. Then, taking a moment to return to the direction of his thinking, went on, “Blue said he was like a blank canvas. And not part of the show that was going on in front of him. That the players acting out their roles in life’s drama could not help themselves, could not change the plot of the drama in which they act out their parts.”
“I see. Their appointments in Samara?”
Responding to Larry’s puzzlement, Maugham said, “It’s an ancient Persian story.” Larry still seemingly confused, Maugham said, “Sorry. Let me tell you that story.
“In a nutshell, a merchant in Bagdad sent his servant off to buy provisions. After a while, the servant came back, white and trembling. He said, ‘Master, when I was in the marketplace I saw it Death look at me and make a threatening gesture. Please, Master, lend me your horse. I want ride away from this city to avoid my fate. The merchant lent him his horse. The servant mounted, dug in his spurs and rode away as fast as he could to the far away city of Samarra. When the merchant later went down to the marketplace he too saw Death in the crowd. He went over to him and said, ‘Why did you threaten my servant this morning? Death said, ‘that was not a threat. I was only going to tell him I was surprised to see him here in Bagdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
They both chuckled and Larry said, “Yes. I suspect I have something of a fatalist in me.”
Once they returned to stillness, Larry said, “You see, William, I also have been on the sidelines. I too observe the players as they take my cab. They are all heading out hither and yon on their busy business. Making their exits and entrances. Sort of seeing them all from backstage. As they move – from one scene to another. As Shakespeare would have it – ‘players strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage – and then heard no more.’ ”
Maugham, smiling cat-like, added, “It’s a tale told by an idiot – umn, umn – full of sound and fury – signifying nothing.”
“I’m not so sure I’d be so cynical as the bard. Though at times, it does seem I am the screen upon which their ‘sound and fury’ is projected and yet is not stained. Film images of fire do not burn the screen and floodwaters do not wet it. That’s me! Like a movie screen, I listen with great interest, feel for them, but allow their tales to remain with them as they leave my cab.”
“Good analogy. You very likely have a calming effect on the fury of their tales.”
“I hope so. It does keep me calm, of course. And perhaps serves as a bit of a palliative for them, as well.”
“Indeed, Larry. You are an elixir for their woes. Unlike me! I use their tales –umn – as you say; I embellish them as stories for other players to enjoy.
“Thank you, William.”
A dark veil seemed to drop across Larry’s visage as he said, “I suspect – the only way out of the play is . . . for one to consider . . .”
Maugham leaned forward, laid his hand on Larry’s knee, said, “No. Don’t go there!”
“I know,” Larry added. “Actually I do see it a bit differently than that. Really. Isn’t it all – in words? I mean don’t we all give reality to the words we speak – to what we say? Even to what we think?”
“That’s all we have,” Maugham said. “We only have language to express ourselves. Even to ourself.”
“That is what I like most about you, William. Your depth. How you stand back – and just relate your stories. And leave them at that.”
“It’s just serving a market. Knowing what readers want. That is, the meat in their stories. I’d guess I’m sort of an amanuensis – for the readers’ archetypes that they hold deep within, at their most subconscious levels. Those archetypes that want out!”
“That’s rather profound.”
The two remained pensive a few minutes, not realizing they too were allowing this exchange to settle into their own subliminal being.
Larry broke the spell.
“May I ask a rather personal question, Mr. Maugham?”
His friend nodded, a quizzical expression at the edges of his lips, wondering why the sudden formality.
“Have you ever wondered – questioned why – or how come we are conscious beings? We humans, I mean?”
Hesitating a moment, but without time for an answer, Larry went on, “I mean, do you ever think about what it is that makes us conscious – like gravity keeps our feet on the ground? Like sun gives us light and shadow?”
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