Justin E. H. Smith
A few nights ago I hosted a reception for an old friend, a respected scholar and most recently the author of Citation Techniques in Duns Scotus. We were celebrating the sale of the 100th copy of his book.
Now ordinarily this sort of event is attended by only the dustiest of academics, so you can easily imagine my surprise when a former colleague of mine –a newly minted global-justice theorist who left academic philosophy in order, as she put it, to 'work the Davos circuit'– showed up accompanied by the prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
The two of them had just come from the opening session of the ‘Mini Davos’ forum, which this year my adoptive city had the honor of hosting. My former colleague (let us call her ‘Juliette’) had just led a session on ‘The Universal Right to Clean Water’, in which her performance was judged by Stephen Harper, Desmond Tutu, and Bono alike to be of ‘Oscar calibre’.
“Water,” exclaimed Bill Gates, “now there's something people can get excited about.”
“She's gonna take this act all the way to Switzerland,” Bill Clinton himself was heard to say.
I had already known Friedman to be a small and twitchy man, and was now able to confirm that this is at best a mild understatement. Yet almost immediately I sensed that there was something unusual, that this man, however awkward he may ordinarily be, was at this very moment in a tremendous amount of discomfort.
“It's a pleasure to meet you Mr. Friedman,” I said smoothly and, I hoped, with just the right amount of ambiguous sarcasm. “I'm a big fan of The Lexus and the Olive Tree. It really captured the moment. When I read it I was like: forget about On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense, it's Friedman who's really got his finger on the pulse.”
“Thanks,” Friedman groaned. “Call me Tom.”
This was all he managed to say, after which he just kept standing there, sweating and wincing. I imagined Juliette might be able to bring him back to life if I were to disappear, so I excused myself and went to mingle among the other guests. Things were proceeding as usual. Reginald, it seems, had read Gunther’s new book, Kenelm Digby’s Qualitative Corpuscularianism. The babysitter-deprived and therefore absent Gunther, Reginald reported to the crowd’s amusement and surprise, had based his study almost entirely upon The Nature of Bodies of 1644 while completely ignoring the Discourse concerning the Vegetation of Plants of 1661.
Thirty minutes in or so, when I simply could not stand to see my most distinguished guest suffering anymore, and when conversation with the others had weakened from Digby to dental insurance to daycare, I leaned in and, in a whispered tone, asked Juliette what was wrong. She knew the man better than I did, after all, and I had long known her to be what Nietzsche would call a penetrating 'psychologist'. Was she ever! Thomas Friedman, Juliette whispered to me discreetly in the elegant Ciceronian Latin she still retained from her years as a scholar of Imperial Stoicism, was in the throes of a fluxus ventris.
It is not for nothing that some years ago I sought out a home with a semi-secret 1/2-bath in the basement, for who has not at some point been at a social gathering, and preferred to reabsorb rank toxins through the intestinal walls, rather than to risk, by the emanation of one's own stench even through a closed bathroom door, being found out as a defecator? This, I've long believed, has been the key to my reputation as a host.
I gracefully led Friedman to the basement door and pointed him down the dark stairs, giving him, for some reason, a little thumbs-up as he began his descent. He was looking much worse by now, and I was worried that he might collapse on the bathroom floor, so I lingered on the stairs and pretended to be busy putting the boxes I'd piled there in order, all the while listening for a thud.
I heard nothing that sounded like that, exactly, but anyway after a good 15 minutes what I did begin to hear was an unusual amount of flushing, repeated in two-minute intervals or so, each time accompanied by a mild curse. After five or six tries I heard one much rougher profanity, the sound of the sink, and of the light being switched off. I quickly pulled a newspaper clipping out of one of the boxes –an old Mike Royko column, of all things, on the disagreeableness of health food– and pretended to read it.
“Your toilet’s backed up,” Friedman announced as he came out, visibly relieved and almost giddy, still wiping his hands on his Dockers. “But you know, I just flew back from Shanghai, and let me tell you, the lavatories in the airport there are world-class. You don’t see anything, you don’t touch anything, and away it goes, right down the modern, rust-free pipes.”
“So you clogged my toilet?” I asked. I was, I confess, a bit annoyed, but also fascinated by the way Friedman's trip to the restroom had brought back what I imagined to be his usual élan.
“Now hold on, let’s back up a bit here. Instead of asking who clogged the toilet, maybe we should be asking why America’s scores on standardized math and science tests are so low. Maybe we should be asking how we lost that competitive edge to a bunch of scrappy upstarts in a call-center in Hyderabad.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Maybe we should be asking why America’s pipes are so rusty.”
“My toilet’s in Canada.”
“Well that’s just the kind of potential I’m talking about,” Friedman replied without missing a beat. “There I was just now, sitting on the commode in Quebec, while simultaneously chatting on my Blackberry with the Prince of Dubai, who was at that very instant sending out tweets about the construction project he’s partnering with Texas A & M to build on a landfill site in the Gulf. And guess who’s doing the building? Filipinos and Bangladeshis, that’s who!”
I confess I was quickly being overcome by the sheer intensity of the Friedmanist line. I knew it was a ruse, I knew there was a toxic pile of shit waiting to be plunged, but I couldn't help myself. “You're right Tom,” I said, prompting him for what was sure to be his most spellbinding performance yet, “but how are we going to have any stability in the region if we don't make any progress on the Middle East peace plan?”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Friedman shot back, “the Middle East doesn’t need a road map. What it needs is a flight plan. You know why? Because when the Israelis and the Palestinians realize it’s in their own interest to get along, they’re going to take off. I’m talking about high-tech companies based in Ramallah texting orders to their supplier in Tel Aviv. I’m talking about firms outsourcing their IT to a couple of upstarts in Bethlehem. How’d you like to get your IT solutions from a Muslim working in the birthplace of Christianity? Because I tell you what: it’s going to happen.”
That did it. I was ready to join up. Just to think of those gleaming towers in the Gulf! Just to think of those IT solutions I could be getting! I wanted to text my excitement to everyone I knew, especially my mom (she won't be around forever). Having lived for years without a car, I had a sudden urge to buy a Hybrid and show those Saudis I'm not addicted to their oil. Ten years out of grad school, I wanted to retake the GREs, just to show Thomas Friedman we could do better. I'd even take the SATs again if that could bring about a little statistical bump for America. Most of all, I wanted to return to America, to reverse the tide of the Bush-era brain drain, and help make my country great again.
And at that moment, just as I was ready to volunteer for some new Service Corps, or to reinvent myself as a scrappy upstart with a can-do attitude, Juliette came looking for her party companion. “Tom,” she said urgently, “text from Soros. Big Malaria afterparty at the Hard Rock. I'm talking about World Bank execs. I'm talking about potential for some serious Clinton exposure. I'm talking about you remember the Dysentery happy hour last year at Señor Frog’s? Well forget about it.”
Juliette had changed, that much was certain. She and Tom said their perfunctory good-byes and departed just as suddenly and inexplicably as they had arrived. I went back up the stairs and looked around the living room. Reginald was on the phone to his sitter, while his wife had made herself comfortable on the couch and was busy grading blue books. My friend the Scotus scholar, bless his heart, had fallen asleep right next to her, holding a copy of the Treatise on the First Principle. One could still hear a few mutterings here about the proper use of semicolons, and there about so-and-so's impending divorce, but this party was definitely winding down.
My work however was not done for the night. I grabbed the plunger from under the upstairs-bathroom's sink and headed towards the basement. And what did I see when I came to the staircase but the ghost of Mike Royko, sitting forlornly on a step, reading his own column. “Oh the celery bit,” I heard him mutter. “I crack myself up.” But Royko wasn't cracking up; in fact he looked miserable, even for a ghost.
I slipped past him on the stairs and continued toward the bathroom, hoping he would simply evaporate. “I wouldn't go in there if I was you, kid,” he called out behind me.
“Did you see what Friedman did?” I asked, exasperated.
“Of course I saw. I'm a ghost. I was hiding in the Glade can, but I got sprayed out when he tried to cover up the smell. That Friedman. He can raise a stink that would floor Slats Grobnik, and Slats was no lightweight, I tell you. But you want to know why Friedman's so full of horse puckee? Well let me tell you a little something about the news biz.” Royko's form seemed now to be bulging in certain parts and contracting in others, like a fun-house mirror. “Come in a little closer, kid. This is a secret we don't want just anyone to get in on.”
And so I began to walk back up the stairs towards the ghost of Mike Royko, who had by now contorted into a sort of spiral, hoping to learn the mystery of what had happened that evening, and also to understand, finally, what it is that keeps me, year after year, so ready to make room in my schedule and in my thoughts for the ordures deposited daily, with no thought of accountability nor any solid proof of any real expertise in anything, by the tenured squatters of the New York Times opinion page…
To be continued. Next episode: 'You Can't Wrap a Fish with Nanotechnology', plus Nick Kristof's Name-That-Fistula Contest.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.