I had just turned and was passing a guy in a yellow jersey. I was muttering to myself, reciting the first few lines of The Knight’s Tale, Part I. As I passed, the guy said, “Seth?”
I looked back, then slowed. It was Francis, my all-time favorite murder cop and book nerd. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years.
Some people, when you haven’t seen them that long, you have to sort of warm up to. Remember the old cassette tapes that had the little white strip of feeder tape that didn’t make any sound, and that had to play first before the music started?
That’s how it is with most people. You kind of have to ease into it, catch up on life, feel things out to make sure the person you’re talking to now is the person you talked to last, because you know what? People change.
Except, of course, for the people who don’t. Better put, the people who you connected to not because of things or jobs or mutual hobbies or friend-family networks, but people you connected with because of ideas.
That’s a tiny class of people. They are the people in your life, never more than a tiny handful, whose minds and thoughts are so robust and brimming over with reflection and opinion and fact and consideration and experience that when you meet them you skip all the human shit and get straight to the heart of the idea, whatever the idea is.
I don’t think I have had any small talk with Francis the times we talked, at least not when the conversations lasted more than a brief minute or two. And I don’t think anyone except my friend Barbara was such a compulsive here-read-this-book person, someone who wanted to talk and then have you read the book that somehow added to the idea being beaten about.
Telling someone to read a book and then giving it to them is a big deal. It forces them to lie to you. “Thanks for the book I can’t wait to read it,” or “Oh that was great, I really enjoyed it.”
Or it forces you to tell the truth. “Sorry, I didn’t read it and probably won’t.” Or, “That was a steaming pile but thanks.”
Sometimes it forces you to neither lie nor tell the truth, but to engage, which is always a funny nether-state occupied by ideas and the infinite ways they can be attacked, bolstered, thought about. That’s how Francis’s books were. I’d read them and be affected because he was a careful curator, a careful reader, and most of all a selective recommender. He only gave you a book because he thought it might make a dent in my impenetrable layers of prejudice and opinion. And he gave you a book out of respect, because he thought you were a fair enough reader and a good enough reader to appreciate what the author had written. Whether you liked it or not was up to you.
Francis was finishing up his ride. We had zero time to talk, so in the handful of minutes together we only discussed the first freedom trains from Hungary and Czechoslovakia via Austria into West Germany in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lech Walesa and the great person theory of history, Gdansk v. Danzig, the psycho-ideological difficulties of appreciating a historical moment when you are in the middle of one, the long-term ramifications of the pandemic, and the non-correlation between murder and the economy as well as the correlation between non-murder serious crimes and the economy.
As we parted I asked an embarrassing personal question. “Are murder detectives allowed to hug lefty, long-haired, unshaven radicals?”
He threw down his bike and all the protocols of pandemic distancing and gave me a giant hug shot through with shoulder and forearm muscles that could bend rebar.
I got home and there was a text waiting for me.
“Chatting with you is like riding a bike,” it said.
Highest praise ever.
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