The park was small, just a patch of grass and a statue, and empty this early. A fall chill was in the air, and the trees, full of copper leaves, shook delicately in the breeze. Tyler Newmark had resolved, now that he was in college, to become an early riser. He had been more than successful. He’d come to enjoy the mornings. The dorm was never more silent than when he woke, and the silence itself was a spur to thought. Everything in this place was. He took a book out of his backpack and began to read.
The book was the Meditations of Descartes. Tyler did not have a plan for his professional life; he did not have a plan for his intellectual life. He had assumed that a philosophy class would provide clarity. Instead, he had found doubt and confusion. Descartes himself doubted; the French philosopher claimed his doubting was the way to overcome confusion and reach, after careful analysis, certainty. Tyler had plenty of confusion, far more than when he’d begun, but no certainty. He wondered if he would ever have any.
The instructor, Professor Picket, a gray, formal, unspontaneous person, had done nothing to help with Tyler’s professional and intellectual crises. Maybe that was not her job; maybe it was not Descartes’. Whether he had a crisis or not was also an open question. Not knowing was itself supposed to be a kind of crisis, according to Descartes. And Tyler did not know. He did not know his passions, talents, limits, usefulness, attractions, or shortcomings. It was supposed to be troubling, not knowing, yet inexplicably Tyler was happy. Happier, in fact, than he had ever been.
His new world was in a sense the opposite of his old world. Sensations, ideas, and opportunities besieged him from every part of the campus and the town. Right here in this tiny park, for instance. The park was hidden between a bank and a church but he, Tyler Newmark, had discovered it. Of course Tyler knew it was a public place, known and used for decades, probably centuries. But it appeared, this bronzed morning, to be displaying itself for him alone. An illusion but a delightful one, and it produced in him a hard-to-control intellectual ecstasy. To calm himself, he distinguished internal perfection from the imperfect world. Even here, in this small patch in a small town, the tragedy of America was visible. The statue in the park was of James Madison, founding father and slaveowner. The shame of slavery was palpable; Tyler welcomed it; he savored the guilt it caused. Shameful history was also part of the cornucopia of experience, maybe the most important part. And over there, beside the broad mottled trunk of a tree — only now did he see it! — slept a man with wild hair and a beard long enough to touch the dirt. Unconscionable! And in this rich country!
Yet Tyler had trouble feeling disturbed. For help, he thought of a large pillared house on a flawless acre with a circular drive leading to a porte-cochère. Beneath the porte-cochère a Bentley was parked. It was his house, or more properly his parents’. More and more, Tyler had willed himself separate from the world he’d grown up in. His regimented, privileged, unchallenging world! They were not bad people, his father and mother. They were progressive in some ways, and yet — could they not see it? — protected by wealth from the consequences of wealth.
He opened the Meditations and began to read: But what then am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.
The words brought him no closer to clarity, not about Descartes’ ideas, and not about the inevitable questions in his own life. Yet they were extraordinary words. They stimulated and liberated. They were the permission he needed to think, really a summons or command to think. Tyler rose to the challenge and discovered in himself a glimmer of an idea, not perhaps fully formed, certainly not a system of thought. He reminded himself that he needed to be patient. He was nineteen.
Just then Tyler noticed that a few feet away, on one of the other benches ringing the statue, sat a man in a tweed jacket reading a book. Tyler tried to see which book. This was a university town; the chance of meeting another intellectual was high. That the man was middle-aged didn’t matter. Ideas transcend age. Tyler particularly liked this formulation. The man’s book was a paperback, like Tyler’s copy of the Meditations. He held it in such a way that its spine and cover were concealed.
Failing to see what the man was reading, Tyler went back to his own book.
I have been so constituted by nature that I can easily deceive myself even in those matters which I believe myself to apprehend with the greatest evidence and certainty. The words were crisp and clear on the page but blurry in the mind. Tyler closed the book slightly, so the cover might be visible to the other scholar, and strained once more against the weight of Descartes’ argument. By a side glance he saw that the man’s hair was a wavy salt and pepper. Jeans flared over his deck shoes. Half the male professors dressed like that.
Tyler picked up his coffee, a large, for a boost. The cup was empty. Evidently the coffee hadn’t helped, since it wasn’t yet nine in the morning and he was sleepy. The day ahead was heavily scheduled. There were lectures to attend, a paper to write, a meeting of the Freshman Multicultural Society. He closed the book. He did this quickly, producing an attention-getting pop.
“Are you in Picket’s class?” the man asked.
“How do you like it?”
“It’s okay.” His answer embarrassed him. Juvenile words from an earlier period of his life. A few months earlier, actually, when he had been in high school, but it felt to Tyler as if years had passed. In his intellectual maturity he imagined he would say things like, “Ideas transcend age.” Instead he’d said the experience of studying philosophy was “okay.” Attempting to repair the damage, he added, “Descartes can be a little opaque.”
“You might want to save that opinion for Kant.”
“I can’t wait.”
“A freshman, are you?”
“Tyler Newmark, freshman, at your service.”
“My name is Russell Whitehead.”
“Professor Whitehead, I assume?”
Tyler nodded. “Are you in the Philosophy Department?”
“I have a relationship with the Department.”
Several pigeons pecked at the base of the monument. Tyler watched them as he made up his mind. Then he said, “I’m sure what you’re reading makes Descartes seem simplistic.” Tyler leaned closer for a look, and just in time: the professor was in the process of putting his book away, as if he too had something to be embarrassed about.
“A weakness of mine,” the man laughed.
“A detective novel?”
“A cheap detective novel.”
“Ideas can be found anywhere,” Tyler said, refusing to judge. “They transcend genre.”
“You are a philosopher!”
“I wish I could believe that, Professor Whitehead.” As he spoke the man’s name he heard in it something familiar. The man might be well-known; the university was very prestigious.
“Don’t forget,” the professor said. “Descartes may seem like a great figure from the past but he was once a sensitive and reflective young man. As you obviously are.”
The compliment emboldened Tyler. “Don’t you think the age we live in should determine our philosophy? I was reading the Meditations just now and thinking how we need something that fits the times. Descartes talks about how we can’t have certainty, that our senses fail us. But our senses have been extended since his day.” He glanced over, to gauge the professor’s interest. The worn, wise face was keen with concentration. “We can see tiny structures and enormous distances. We can calculate using tools and techniques Descartes and all the other old philosophers couldn’t have imagined.” Tyler was surprised by the feeling of certainty his own words produced. Could this be what Descartes meant? “Even in the social realm we see with a speed and accuracy that would have astonished a seventeenth century thinker.”
“So true, so true.”
“Which means philosophy somehow has to take this into account. All this, this…” He swept his hand over the park, as though the key to the new philosophy lay among the pigeons, the befouled statue, and the homeless man beneath the tree — who, Tyler noticed, was now fully awake and looking in their direction. But there was no key. The certainty had left him just as suddenly as it had come on.
Helpfully the professor offered, “The social realm?”
“Yes! Injustice and…and inequality, and…”
“What I believe you are reaching towards is a practical philosophy.”
“A philosophy that reflects not how we are but how we wish to be. A philosophy of our better angels, so to speak.”
Tyler almost replied, “I guess” — he came as close to saying it as the leaf that had just brushed past his head — but managed to remain silent. Tyler understood he was in the midst of one of those quiet encounters that form a person. His job was to not sound foolish, to listen and take in what he could. He had found himself in these situations often during the few months he had been here. It was called an education for a reason. Among the lessons he had learned was that the process was never easy, and rarely painless. Suddenly he knew what he had to do.
He rose, walked the few steps to where the filthy man sat propped against the tree, and took out his wallet. As he wordlessly handed over several bills, the image in his mind was of pillared house, porte-cochère, and Bentley.
When he returned to his bench Professor Whitehead was sitting on it. Tyler was flattered. Also uncomfortable. The former distance, from one bench to another, had served as a buffer for his ignorance. Now it would be available for close inspection.
“We can have a better conversation this way,” said the professor.
Tyler had to agree. He even decided he would share a long-held, inchoate belief — an extension as it were of his philosophy. This man, this professor, somehow drew it out, made the telling of it safe. He said:
“Sometimes I wonder if they’re better than us. The people our economic system has left behind. The others, the fortunate people, they’re the ones who are corrupt. Even when they fight against it they can’t get rid of the stain of wealth.”
He thought of his venture capitalist father, of privilege and leisure and the best schools and the very real danger that the corruption would afflict him. And it would, if he wasn’t careful. Tyler was the sole heir. He resolved to think of his future wealth as a social trust he would manage not for his benefit but for the benefit of humanity. And would he see, looking back, his gift to the homeless man beneath the tree as the trust’s inaugural bequest? He corrected himself: not a gift, a loan. The first of many loans that would allow people to better themselves, so they could in turn loan to others.
He was about to put the plan to his wise companion when the professor said:
“You have a generous nature.”
“My better angels,” said Tyler.
“We all have them. They live in here, right next to our devils.”
A gust of wind brought the leaves down with almost frightening abundance. Tyler wondered what his devils would be like, and when he would meet them. Or had he met them already, so long ago they had become too familiar even to notice? He asked a natural question.
“Would I know your work, Professor?”
“I certainly hope not!
“But you’ve written things. Your name rings a bell.”
“I’ve written too many things, and not the right ones.”
“You’re being modest.”
“I assure you that I’m not. It’s a tough business.”
“What is your field, exactly?”
The professor laughed. “I’ve been asking the same thing lately.”
Time had slipped away. Tyler had an economics lecture soon, and looked at his watch. It was a Rolex, a graduation gift from his father. The professor glanced at the ridiculous object, a symbol of the inconsistency between theory and practice. Mortified, Tyler rolled down his sleeve.
“I have to get to class,” he said.
“It’s been a pleasure. Newmark, right?”
The professor extended his hand and Tyler took it. The man’s grasp was two-handed, like that of an old friend at an affectionate parting. Tyler was touched.
When he had gone, the older man rose and walked over to the tree. He stood there with his arms crossed looking down at the man propped against the trunk. This man stroked his beard and muttered, “Wha?”
“You know what.”
“Kid gave it to me.”
“He gave it to us. We have an agreement.”
Very slowly the man on the ground reached into a torn pocket and took out a bill and put it in the other’s outstretched hand.
“Don’t fuck with me.”
“He gave you five twenties.”
“Gave me two.”
“You think I’m blind? Sixty-forty, that’s the deal. I have expenses that you don’t.” He fingered the lapel of his tweed jacket. “Two more.”
“Or I go to the next place alone and you go back to begging for spare change.”
The threat caused the man on the ground to produce two more bills. He handed them over and asked, “Where we goin’ after this, boss?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Possibly Madison. I want to hit the northern schools before it gets too cold.”
“Whatever you say. Hey, who the hell’s Russell Whitehead?”
“It’s two philosophers and you wouldn’t know either of them.”
“How do you choose the name?”
The man tucked the bills inside his tweed jacket. When his hand came out it held a watch, which he examined for a moment and carefully put back. It was the Rolex. “I make it up on the fly,” he said. “It depends on what they’re reading.”
“Like yesterday with those two girls. Said you were Ernest Fitzgerald. Ha! Even I got that one.”
“A reflection of your deep erudition.”
“And that artist kid. You were a soldier, Sergeant somebody.”
“Sargent Winslow.” He smiled as if at some scholarly triumph. “Sargent is a name, not a soldier. John Singer Sargent was an American painter, a great one. Portraits and landscapes. Winslow Homer is known for his paintings of the sea, although he was much more than that.” He offered this information with the patience of a good teacher.
The man on the ground attended closely, and when the impromptu seminar was over he asked, “You really were a professor, weren’t you?”
The other man looked through the colored leaves at the wide street that ran from the park to the campus gates. Up and down the thoroughfare, banners with the university’s coat of arms hung from the lampposts. Outdoor restaurant tables were starting to fill, and a bookseller arranged her wares on sidewalk shelves. A fit young woman on a bicycle pedaled past, and somewhere in the distance the bells of a carillon began to ring. Softly, his voice all but lost to the autumn breeze, the man said, “Almost.”
Image: “Leaf on a Bench” by Jonathan Kriz, licensed under CC 2.0.