Ben phoned me on a Tuesday to tell me the news of his brain tumor. I went straight from work to his hospital floor. My first glimpse, before getting to his room, was of him shifting to a prostrate supine posture—he had obviously glimpsed me first and was up to something. I got to his door and this poor character weakly signaled for me to come closer, using two fingers of his left hand—the only things, apparently, he could move. I played along, creeping closer, as his pitifully beckoning fingers continued their urgent request. When I was finally standing over him, he reached up and pulled my head close, and rasped, “my vocabulary did this to me!”
He brought this off a week or so prior to his first operation, the one that would reveal our last wish. But after even this worst of bad news, the levity didn’t stop. A few weeks later, after he had been discharged, I arrived at one of our dinner dates at Mizutani’s on California Street to see him dressed to kill in a sharp pinstripe suit, dark Raybans (in spite of Mizutani’s already dusk-like interior), and to top it off, a fabulously snazzy fedora (to cover his operation scar.) Again he beckoned me with small grave hand gestures, this time in the guise of a feared crime boss. One of his favorite shticks. He loved to clown around. If readers found themselves caught short whenever he folded Lou Costello and Groucho Marx into otherwise straight-path arguments, it can only be because they didn’t know him personally. Inside that serious and sober and oft-troubled person, a Borscht-Belt comedian ached to be let out from time to time. “Offisaw! Offisaw!” he would yell in outraged Brooklynese during our many evenings in North Beach, possibly hooking it onto something happening as we walked but mostly just going into the mode.
But when he wasn’t channeling his inner tummler, he was resolutely soft-spoken. This uncalm man had the most calm (and calming) of voices. It was never complacent, like some calm voices; it was certainly not the voice of someone “on top” who could afford not to raise it. It was, rather, the voice of inquiry—of the probe. A discussion or argument with Ben might rise in intensity, but through increases in persuasiveness and fresh thinking rather than volume. And to sound calm is not to be mild. His manner, secure but questioning, was almost already a critique of its temperamental opposites. He disliked easy conclusions, mass-media simplicities, catchwords, groupthink, knee-jerk positionality, liberal smugness, and the independent-sounding but ultimately conformist pseudo-views that comprise what Curtis White called “the middle mind.”
More than once I brought to a discussion something I had recently read and admired, to find that Ben was already, and eerily, “prepared.” Not only was he fully acquainted with it but had different grounds for liking it, or—just as often—had not liked it at all. In either case the probe would begin, and before long, an unexpected nuance or revealed import would re-site the discussion—usually to a better-lit place, always to a more interesting one. Did his pitching seem eccentric at times? It did, at times. Did he always convince? Of course not. He didn’t want his take on things to be yours. But even when you didn’t agree with him there were still the arresting logics, the extemporaneous eloquence, the once-in-a-lifetime “you are there” sentences. You would witness these scaffolding forms as they were spoken, and a beautiful structure would rise into the air. Actually, there was a midrange voice. It was the voice with which to greet strangers, or known acquaintances, and proceed full strength into schedule-shredding conversations. These chats, and the chances they gave of turning strangers into acquaintances, were the manna of everyday life: democracy’s candy store. He talked everybody up—grocers, crosswalk painters, people living in doorways, EMT techs, baristas. And not just how’s it going but drop-everything-and-talk. We both lived in the Richmond district and he was usually my ride home after readings. But I had to be prepared for the stop-chats, and not with other attendees but with anyone we might pass on the way to his car. The creaking buses would have got me home faster more often than not, but then I would have missed hearing and participating in these impromptu town hall forums. He was particularly drawn to folks who, like himself, came from elsewhere. Did he have a romance of the “melting pot”? No. Was it solidarity with fellow immigrants? Maybe. But I wonder if it wasn’t because he thought their consciousness was different—or rather, was still different. These folks would not, perhaps, move as quickly toward the blandishments of a new “nationality,” or have the chance to move toward them, as their children and grandchildren might eventually have. Their social complex was far less resolved; they had to bring a full mind to the hazy channels of their adopted country. Nothing encountered could or should be taken for granted. That each still wore his or her place of origin in a multitude of different ways, that their pre-arrival histories still inflected their perceptions and judgments—these were crucial and necessary graces, stays against monoculture. Ben had his own version of this consciousness, and if he thought he detected some other version of it in someone else, an engagement began immediately. He would have liked to feel it in everyone.
He was a born teacher, with a born teacher’s respect for learning’s unpredictable schedules—for its magic, that is. In the last few years he had become concerned with the encroachment of consumerist paradigms (as he called them) into the schools. Students were not encouraged to follow ecologies of learning wherever they led, and so open themselves to those processes-of-becoming that turn out to be intangibly precious rewards. They were dissuaded from trusting experiences of gnosis, from voyaging into paths they had both found and made. Instead, they were increasingly coaxed toward circumscribed, end-target “achievement goals.” They were expected to become canny about the job niches that might be had after handing in that last essay test or manuscript thesis. (Someone with a creative writing MFA, for example, could always stay inside the apparatus as an instructor, or get a gig writing promo material for a startup.) That they were often in identity-fostering and diversity-celebrating environments obscured the neoliberal designs being made on their futures. Even “critical thinking” as handed out by someone inside the paradigm might turn out to be more ready-to-wear than exploratory. Some of Ben’s later writing was pure advocacy journalism, aimed at the teaching industry and its capitulation to the market. One such piece can be read here:
Dennis and I were in New York when I got a message from Steve Dickison that a second tumor had been found, larger than the first, and Ben’s state was suddenly more precarious. There were things we’d planned to do that morning but I didn’t want to do them now. I wanted to sit somewhere outside and let my mood go wherever it swung. We went to that dependable midtown commons, Bryant Park. Here, among chess players, jugglers practicing under trees, stage carpenters (BP is big on outdoor galas and promotions), employees with brown bag lunches, site workers, salesfolk in temporary kiosks, people starting the books they’d just checked out of the main Public Library (of which the park is a big side yard), we looked for a resting surface. Everyone was involved in particular pursuits but no one was an island. All was interruptible and answerable; anyone was a potential new involvement. We found a table and chairs— green, metallic, near-miniature. (We knew them well.) It was October, and a latelingering Indian summer, and we faced a small ping-pong court and its game in progress. An African American guy in (I guessed) his mid-twenties, in green tee and blue jeans, was playing a tiny bird-like man in (I guessed) his late seventies or early eighties, in red polo shirt and shorts. Old Jewish guy. Or old Italian guy. Or both. The younger guy played decisively, the older guy attentively. I watched these two each time their turn came around, and each of those times I felt the angle of my surroundings widen. It was as if these two stood in for the myriad concentrations of body and soul transpiring everywhere around them, just as the individuated striving of all those bodies and souls was finding composite expression in the game. It was an impression rather than reality but it was intricate and thorough. Whether she or he was sitting or standing or playing or strolling or studying or talking-and-listening, I felt as if I were taking in the inner fastnesses of everyone in the park. The leaden space I’d been in since Steve’s message was finding a momentary haven in which to change itself.
This was Ben-world. This was the candy store, the small-“d” democracy where thinking’s vortices actually register and people are sharp and open and ad hoc. Not Whitmanic mayonnaise but keening difference in real time: individual marks and sounds, achieved styles, good raps, best attempts. I didn’t want to exist anywhere indoors just then, maybe ever again. I wanted to be with the enlarged environment. The mild weather kept up—in fact it got warmer, allowing each and every just that extra bit of unfettered movement. But eventually we had to stash our jackets in our backpacks and go off in search of the 2 subway for an appointment downtown. Before crossing the Avenue of the Americas and thus leaving the park, I almost looked around to see if he was there. I’d accumulated some responses and rebuttals to our last bottomless talk. I wanted to lay them on him and hear what he said.