My friend Harvey
Last weekend, I went out to Riverside to do two book events. On the way, I went to a rehab hospital and visited my colleague Harvey. I know Harvey because he was a Linguistics professor in my department at the university where I used to work.
Harvey turned 91 last October. He retired a long time ago from the university, it feels like, but I remember his retirement party well. I remember in particular how snotty the Dean was to Harvey – saying very little to him directly, making a very short, ungenerous speech in his “honor”, and staying just a short while afterwards. He even refused to eat a piece of the cake!
I think the Dean was so mean, because Harvey never made it to Full Professor – which in academic circles marks you as something of a loser. Of course getting to be an Associate Professor at all means you have been “awarded” tenure (great expression) and that certainly signifies something valuable. But staying at the Associate Professor level for too long means that you lost your nerve or your verve or your ability to do research or YOUR AMBITION and are regarded therefore as a somewhat lesser intellect.
Would it surprise you to know that Associate Professors are quite often the hardest working tenured faculty at a university? They concentrate on mentoring students and on administration, because someone has to actually work closely with undergrads and all those MA and Ph.D. students who teach lower division courses and somebody needs to help run the place while everyone else is being brilliant.
Speaking of being brilliant — a lot of people thought Harvey was weird because he talked so fast and changed the subject so quickly. In this he was like another colleague of mine in Anthropology, Steve. Steve does the same thing. But Harvey and Steve talk so fast and move so quickly through topics because they are geniuses. Most of us – me included – can’t quite keep up with them and so the switches seem strange…until we review the number of topics covered at our leisure and realize – yeah, these guys are just super smart.
People kind of forgot about Harvey after he retired. All but my friend Greta, who stayed friends with him. Greta was also an Associate Professor until she retired a couple of years ago. She was exactly the kind of teacher/administrator I am talking about. In fact we couldn’t stay long at the hospital because she had to hurry home to write a bunch of recommendations. She is still helping students even though she doesn’t work at the university any more.
Anyway, it was Greta who brought me to the hospital to see Harvey, because she wanted to be sure I saw him. I think she must be worrying that he’s going to die.
Objectively speaking, Harvey is not doing very well. Over the past month he’s had a terrible infection that resulted in a colostomy. Then his blood circulation to his legs got messed up and the doctors amputated his right foot up to the shin.
I don’t think I mentioned that Harvey also has macular degeneration, and is legally blind. And, right before they chopped off his foot, the doctors gave Harvey a tracheotomy so he talks through a little radio device implanted in him.
I saw the stump of his leg, when the technician came to measure him for his prosthesis.
“They did a good job,” said the technician, who I think was named Frank. Frank took Harvey’s protective stocking off. I kind of took a deep breath, getting ready to be horrified. But the stump looked a bit like a child’s arm. The skin folded around the end neatly. It was oddly beautiful.
“Great,” said Harvey. “It’ll be good to get a foot.” He smiled. “I need to be able to stand up again so I can work in my garden.
When Frank left, Harvey told Greta, and me “You know this is quite an adventure. I’ve never been old before and so everything is new.”
Then I went to do the two book events.
On the way to the first event at a bookstore, Greta drove by the campus while I looked out the car window. I saw a student who was walking very fast and very hunched over with his backpack on the street. He kept looking over his shoulder. That’s when I remembered an essay a student in one of my classes wrote last year right before I retired about what it was like to be a black male student here, and how afraid he was to walk on the street alone in Riverside. He was so afraid of being arrested, he wrote. Or worse. It really worried him.
Then I came home.
And then the Ferguson Grand Jury decision happened.
Thanksgiving came around. As I got ready to greet my relatives I thought about what Harvey said; how I had never been this old before either. I had never lived in this moment before and it all seemed very new and strange. I wondered what I could do as a middle aged white poet/novelist to contribute to a more just society in the United States. Frankly I felt discouraged.
But that feeling passed. After alI, I can see ok, and I still have both my feet and my own original voice box. And I have a Ph.D. And yes, I made it to Full Professor.
And I don’t feel scared just walking down the street either.
I am hoping that I can get older still and see new and better things between people in the United States. I hope I can – in some small way – help them to happen.
Then, perhaps we will look back at these wounds and we will value both those who lived through their hurts and those who did not. And perhaps when our society heals, what remains will appear oddly beautiful.