A Professor Learns that Every Man Is an Island… For Better and Worse

Bubble-Wrapped Professor

Arriving at SUNY-Buffalo in the midst of the anti-war movement and counter-cultural atmosphere (festive and communal), I assumed I would be joining a department in which colleagues would be eager to share knowledge about their inner and professional lives. Hadn’t we all read “Howl,” knew about the Primal Scream, and thought that Eros and Civilization had joined hands in learned satiric dances?

Bubble-Wrapped Professor at the University at BuffaloI was quickly disabused of my illusions in this area and learned that there were several ways in which many of my colleagues might vanish, seem confused, or act as if they weren’t present at all.

In fact, I wasn’t sure at some points who, exactly, was still in University at Buffalo’s then fabled English Department; and, in one case, it turned out that someone I assumed to be in the department wasn’t a member of the faculty.

The friendliest presence of all in the aluminum corridors of our Quonset hut offices was a traveling book salesman who had meant to be a novelist, but too often found himself in his Greenwich Village years, late 1930’s, as he told me once, asleep with his head resting on the letter “I.” Discouraged, but realistic, he returned to his hometown, Buffalo, made some serious money in the scrap metal business, and then went on the road selling books.

On the eve of leaving UB for a year (1983-84) almost two decades later to teach American Literature as a Fulbright Lecturer at Ankara University in Turkey, I turned over my office with some apprehension to a Senior Professor who kept a low profile. I couldn’t predict if he would be a responsible keeper of my books and papers.

With some reservations, I turned over the key to Professor X and told him in as diplomatic terms as possible that I was pleased to leave him a neat office so he could carry on with his, I assumed, confidential, work: writing about underground theater in Eastern Slovakia, still part of the Soviet Union. If he was CIA, I thought, so much the better. If so, he’d be tidy.

When I returned ten months later somewhat changed, but not wearing a fez, I retrieved a key to my old office and hoped that it had been left in good order. Everything was just as I had left it, except that Professor X had left some unopened mail from the Pentagon.

I set them aside and left a note in his mailbox informing him that he had left some possible “classified” postal material in my office. I kept emphasizing “my” since it occurred to me that he might have begun to think of the room as his office.

I next saw him a few weeks later. One never knew when he would appear or where he had been in-between sightings. In seeing him, one felt like a bird watcher who has spotted a member of an alleged extinct species.

He approached me in a hallway. That is, I thought I saw him approaching, because he had a splayed (<>) way of walking, each foot pointed in a different direction, each at a different angle that created an impression that he was walking in several directions at once. Professor Stanislavsky smiled or seemed to smile, each lip, like his feet, seemed to have an independent movement.

But, yes, he was walking towards me, and when we were face to face, I shook his hand. At least it felt like a shake, so little a sign of presence was there and said jokingly, “Nice to see you. By the way, you left some mail in my office.”

He looked perplexed.

“Really,” he said, “where is it?”

Now I was flummoxed. Had he forgotten me, the office, or both? But always cordial and aware of professorial propensities for losing themselves in time, space, and consciousness, I said, with a trace bewilderment, “437 Clemens.” Not sure if I had been clear enough, I added, “Fourth Floor, next to the Freudian specialist, I’ll be there for the next two hours, stop by.”

He said “okay” and walked away, or so it seemed that it was away, and I heard him murmuring, “Fourth floor…fourth floor…” He had been lost, it seems, in inner and outer space.

Well, he did stop by and picked up his mail, and I invited him to pop in any old time. I didn’t want to give him the impression that I thought he might not be able to remember who I was or where he had, apparently, met with students, if he did, for ten months.

As I looked into his eyes as he left, they seemed at once clear and on fire, an unusual combination. The intensity and illumination of his gaze suggested neither dementia nor delusion.

It occurred to me that he was lost in thought most of the time, preoccupied with the inventiveness of small theater productions in Budapest, Prague, and Tirana. If this was the case, how could I fault him?

This vignette illustrates one of the ways in which a professor can be creatively confused. Some add something to the sum total of human knowledge; some just float away and dissolve like soap bubbles.

Howard R. Wolf started out writing what he hoped were humorous columns (“Mann About Town”) for his high school newspaper, Horace Mann Record (Riverdale/Bronx, NYC). He thinks he has improved.

Howard R. Wolf
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