“MAYBE I’LL TRY that special,” my new pal Joe said, a sardonic smile on his face. The six of us had just lingered outside a moment to laugh at the sign in the diner’s window. The Baseball Special consisted of a hotdog and two hard-boiled eggs. Needless to say, as witless college freshmen, we swapped some witless humor about what may after all have been intentionally ribald humor on the part of the place’s owner.
None of us yet knew that owner’s name, because this was our first wee-hour foray to the United, part of a timeless freshman rite: the first All-Nighter. Eddie Witten insisted he’d pulled one in high school, though the rest of us, innocent of any such experience, were loudly skeptical. Our little group shared an odd exhilaration –unspoken but obvious, at least to me– at the prospect of hitting the books until the sun came up. It felt like an initiation into independence from conditions so lately abandoned. None of us now needed to consider household rules or curfews.
We did quickly come to know the name of the United’s only waiter; Gus was stitched in raveling red on his pocket. He seemed ancient to us as any pseudo-Gothic or pseudo-Federalist building on a Yale quad. Stooped and flat-footed, he wore an expression, bored, world-weary, or both, as he took our orders, turning an ear, presumably the better one, to each speaker in his turn.
At last Gus gathered up the ketchup- and coffee-stained menus and limped back to the kitchen. No one had asked him for the Baseball Special. The old man wrote down none of our very varied requests, and I marveled, thinking he must be what my Dad meant by an old-time waiter, a real pro.”
Gus soon returned with a tray of food, none of it bearing the least resemblance to anything we’d asked him for, but for whatever reason, nobody thought to complain.
The week just past in New Haven had held other novel experiences for me. During Convocation, famed art historian Vincent Scully, the sort of spellbinding speaker I’d never heard, assured the students assembled in Commons that they represented “a thousand future world leaders.” I concluded, instantly and instinctively, that the description couldn’t possibly apply to me, and I likewise remember looking around at the other 999 freshmen, and having similar doubts. Fifty-odd years later, my inference still feels right.
In the case of those who did become leaders, most, with honorable exceptions like my classmate Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, became leading money men, not moral nor cultural exemplars.
On the day after Convocation, I’d been far more taken by Professor Scully’s lecture. His was the first art history course I’d ever taken, one starting with classical Greek sculpture and architecture and ending, at year’s end, with the modern abstract painters. There in the United, I fancied that if I squinted my eyes, I could almost make the images of Greek monuments on the diner’s walls blend with those in Mr. Scully’s slides. During lulls in our boisterous conversation, I did a lot of such squinting, because for all my greenhorn irony, I enjoyed being imaginatively transported in that or any other way.
My daily schedule at the start of college days was about exactly opposite to the one I’ve adopted for most of my life since. Once I moved on from lowly freshman status, I’d gotten most of my required courses out of the way and could elect ones that met in the afternoon or, at worst, at 11 a.m, which allowed me to sleep in, even if, so far as a liberal education was concerned, this scarcely represented a good premise for selection.
As a freshman year, however, I couldn’t duck those morning classes, including ones on Saturday, so as soon as the last was dismissed, I would usually return to bed. On awakening from my afternoon siesta, I’d think of something to amuse myself until suppertime. Sadly enough, alcohol– a demon I later had to struggle hard to exorcise– played a progressively prominent part in such amusement, more, say, than hockey practice, swims at the gym, or simply reading.
My obligatory schoolwork waited until after dinner, and it often took me well into the early hours of the next day. I soon, therefore, became more or less an habitué of the United, going there for a break at least three times a week, sometimes in company, more often on my own.
Every college freshman likely tries at some point to dope out a schedule that will allow him (we were all hims at early-sixties Yale) somehow to beat the system. Most of my friends soon discovered there was no such magic formula, and went back to saner modes of behavior. I either failed to make that discovery myself, or, having made it, persisted no matter. I honestly can’t remember which.
Becoming a regular led to frequent contact with Spiro, the United’s proprietor, a soulful-visaged Greek who dressed, invariably, in blue suit and dark, solid tie. Spiro assigned himself the night shift at the register, for reasons I shortly divined: he had another daytime enterprise.
I’d sometimes be the diner’s only customer in the wee hours, and so it was that, after about three weeks of showing up at his establishment, I was let into a real confidence from Spiro. He stressed that his revelation was not to be shared with anyone. The man’s dearest wish, it turned out, was to complete the epic poem he’d long been working on, Sixty Steps from Yale. He’d accumulated more than seventy pages of manuscript, all of them in Greek, and all composed, he claimed, in genuinely Homeric fashion.
Spiro had cultivated a manner of discussing his undertaking in what can only be described as blurbese, an idiom that favors antithesis. Sixty Steps from Yale, he announced, was a tale at once sweet and dark, despairing and uplifting. It concerned a beautiful Greek girl, recently arrived in America and a Yale student from an old Connecticut family, who had fallen in love.
Spiro would insert a Byronic hand between shirt and jacket front, lean his head back, and proceed more or less like this. “The young Greek woman is of humble origins but born with a noble spirit. She meets her lover at her father’s restaurant. The two look at each other from separate tables. How great is the distance that separates them, yet how much greater the attraction that blooms in their hearts.”
Spiro always spoke at whatever length I had time for. I don’t quote him exactly, I’m sure, but I do catch his manner. “The poem is both light- and heavy-hearted,” Spiro might begin. “The couple’s destiny is written in heaven, but every force on earth seems to interfere with it. The boy’s parents disapprove, the girl’s are suspicious of the Yale man and his airs. At times wildly comic, at others gloomy, Sixty Steps from Yale is not only a love story but also a look at two cultures, one ancient and one young.”
However flowery, his speech was every bit as articulate as I indicate.
Today, half a century later, I wince at how I betrayed my pledge of secrecy. The very day after first being sworn to confidence, I shared what I’d heard from Spiro with my closest companions. I’d ape the old man’s book-jacket rhetoric, and my cohort would obligingly guffaw.
I should instead have felt honored to be Spiro’s interlocutor. There seems to have been something in me, specifically, or so I like to think, that Spiro considered congenial, perhaps even poetic, no matter that the notion of becoming a poet would have struck even me as absurd. No, I liked booze, girls, and ice hockey, in descending order of preference. I certainly had no epic intentions, no ambition as a writer of any kind, none in fact as anything. I’d genuinely rejected Professor Scully’s prognostications of my future.
As a sophomore, I moved far from where I’d been billeted that first year. My schedule didn’t become much saner, and yet my sorties to the United became ever rarer. The Connecticut drinking age being 21, I’d befriended another local merchant, who served as my liquor dealer until graduation. Now my wee-hour diversions tended to involve nothing but liquor, until my trips to the United ceased altogether.
Thus it was a good while after it happened that I learned of Spiro’s death– and only by way of scanning the obituaries in the New Haven Register. I assumed that the old gent’s magnum opus remained unfinished, that it would never be discovered, save, perhaps, by some family member, who’d stash it away with other keepsakes from the writer’s life, not to be considered again.
As I write, I’m older than Spiro was in those days. I may even be older than our waiter Gus, who back then struck our company as unimaginably ancient.
Unlike him, unlike Spiro, I find no orthodoxy, Greek or otherwise, fitted to what I believe. And yet just this morning, prompted who-knows-how, I found myself praying to God, scarcely for the first time, that He forgive me for having once shown qualities so often joined in the unworldly young– stupidity and arrogance.
How, after all, can I know that Sixty Steps from Yale was fit for ridicule? I never read it, of course, having, in Ben Jonson’s words, little Latin, less Greek. Still with all the confidence of immitigable ignorance, I imagined the work to be farcical, sentimental, and overwrought.
Unlike poor Spiro, I’ve published twelve collections of poetry. I’ve won a prize or two, garnered this or that sweetheart fellowship, taught in various higher educational institutions (Yale among them) for over forty years. At the same time, of course, I remain a stranger to the vast majority of citizens, bookish ones included, even within my tiny state of Vermont. After I am gone, my obscurity will in all likelihood become as complete as that of the United’s owner. The diner itself lives only as a sketchy memory of people my age and older. With no false humility, I can say that I’ll lack the sort of accomplishment that Spiro could have pointed to. He did manage the United, after all, well and for a long time.
Perhaps I’m the sentimental one these days, but now it strikes me that there was real poetry in Spiro’s merely composing what he did of Sixty Steps from Yale, given his need to keep his diner going, to keep Gus more or less content, to keep serving what was, after all, pretty good food. And as I recall all this, it seems that Spiro’s very authorial effort was epic in and of itself.
— Sydney Lea
Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.