It’s Monday and time to do my essays for class. Gone are the days of churning out a page and a half on “what I did last summer or over the weekend.” For Wednesday I have due: “Discuss the characteristics of Romanticism, using examples from Goethe, Wordsworth, and Keats” and: “In what ways did Hitler pervert and misrepresent the philosophy of Nietzche?” But for Tuesday, thank God, I can actually write about what I did over the weekend.
Saturday night, was a full moon and I was in a bar in Santa Monica. I had been selling Moroccan belts on Venice Beach all afternoon and afterwards, I ended up in a random and very seedy bar, where I was, by far, the youngest person. The crowd was rough and few of them were without tattoos or denim clothing tailored in the distinct style of 1976. The barman seemed to be of Irish decent because of the way that he greeted me. “Shut the door you daft bastard!”
He wore a cowboy hat and an extravagantly dirty apron. The air smelt sweaty and warm and if it had been moving, you could have seen it because it was laden with smoke. A man sat next to me alternately sucking on his beer bottle and a young woman’s face, while on my left side sat an old man nursing a tall glass of Southern Comfort. If I seemed to young for this bar, then this fellow was definitely too old. Noticing my curious stare, the barman leaned over conspiratorially and whispered, “You see him?”
“That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
I was taken aback. Sitting next to me was one of the greatest American thinkers in history. I at least wanted to get an autograph on a cocktail napkin. I turned half way around to listen to his conversation.
“You know what I hate?” He slurred.
The barman grunted and raised his eyebrows while he wiped down the counter
“I hate how in this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”
The bartender tossed his rag into a bucket of slimy water and nodded. “Yes, it’s the blasted recession. “Do you know how much a carton of Marlboro Red’s is these days?”
Emerson exploded, slamming the bar with his wrinkled hand. “That’s not the point! What I’m saying is that man is metamorphosed into many things. The planter, who is man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. The tradesman becomes subject only to dollars, the priest becomes form, the attorney, a statute book, the sailor a rope, the mechanic, a machine and you, instead of being man tending bar, you are a half witted bottle of stale Irish Guinness!”
The barman’s eyes narrowed and he slowly took off his hat “Ralph, I think you’ve had enough. It’s time to go.”
Emerson turned to me and demanded, “What the hell are you looking at anyway, junior?” I answered
“I was wondering if you would sign my cocktail napkin for, umm, a friend of mine?”
He sighed. “This makes me sick. Instead of your generation going out and doing your own thinking, there you are still reading shit that I wrote over one hundred and fifty goddammed years ago and repeating it parrot- like without even lifting a finger or a brain cell to update it or add to it.” I could not believe my luck. Things like this only happen around the full moon. I came just to have a beer, and Ralph Waldo Emerson was practically writing my essay for me.
“Let’s get out of here, there’s a place I have to show you.” He tossed a handful of grubby notes onto the counter and slid on his jacket. It was vintage leather Harley Davidson with “The Original American Scholar” written across the back in white letters. He staggered out the door and I followed. The barman was glaring at us and shouted, “Shut the door grandpa!”
Ralph’s bike was around the corner and had a ticket for parking in a disabled zone. “I never pay them,” he said tossing it into to street. “Officially I died in 1837. What are they going to do, dig me up? Fine me?” He roared with laughter as he kicked the big motorcycle into life.
“Are you sure you’re O.K to drive?” I asked.
“It’s O.K, we’ll drive by braille. Every time I doze off, the bumpy reflectors wake me up before we go off the road!”
We were soon on the 10 West going about mach two. A highway patrol car pulled us over but we were quickly on our way after the policeman recognized the name. I have never seen a LAPD officer so apologetic.
I recognized where we were going and in no time, we pulled up in the U.C.L.A car park and were walking towards the library. I could not help noticing his strange 19th century lacy blouse, which contrasted so much with the stout biker boots and jacket. Combined with his silly pinch-nez and old-fashioned glasses, he looked like a cross between Benjamin Frankin and “The Fonz” from “Happy Days.”
The girl at the desk tried to stop him saying that he needed a student I.D card but just said “Don’t worry about it, kitten, and patted her on the backside, quite patronizingly, I thought. He strode into the main hall and hopped onto a table with the agility of a man half his age (and since he is almost 188 years old, it did actually take him a while.) Many students were looking in horror at the old man on the counter, and more and more gathered as the news spread. There was a din from the angry students telling him to get down so they could study. Ralph pulled on old pearl handled Colt 38 out from his jeans and fired it up into the ceiling twice.
The crowd became hushed as bits of wood and plaster fluttered down from where the bullets struck the ceiling. “Listen up, bookworms, books are the best things well used; abused, among the worst. They are for nothing but to inspire. The one thing of value in the world of value is the active soul- the soul, free sovereign, active. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all man, obstructed, and as yet, unborn.” The shots must have attracted the campus police and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a squad of SWAT men, clad in black, fanning out along the upper level.
He continued, “I am not saying don’t read books, but for God’s sake, read them to inspire you, not to be ruled by them. As the Arabian proverb says, “A fly tree looking on a fig tree becometh fruitful.” The next second there was a flash from behind the Balkan History shelf as a sniper sent a round straight into the back of Emerson’s neck, shattering his spine. I screamed and ran towards the body and lay beside him, holding his bloody head in my hands. I looked up at the police with tears in my eyes.
“My God, you don’t know who you’ve just shot.” Emerson’s trembling fingers reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pen. I had produced the cocktail napkin from my pocket to try to stop some of the bleeding. Emerson took it and with his last ounce of dying energy wrote, “The active soul” and signed it.
Then he died. Everyone was sobbing and even the sniper seemed to have a lump in his throat as he chalked the outline of the body onto the carpet and put the .38 into a plastic bag.
This morning I took my jeans out of the dryer and found a shredded cocktail napkin that crumbled like a handful of earth. The last writings of a great man.