by R. C. Day

A few weeks ago, on the Arcata Plaza, a man stepped up to me. In his late 40s, he had a wispy beard and washed-out blue eyes. To judge by the look of his clothes and the fragrance coming off him, he had slept in a dumpster the night before. He wore a sweat-stained hat and had a cast on his right wrist. He thrust his left hand toward me, and I dug into my pocket for a dollar.

But he wasn't panhandling. He wanted to shake hands. He said, "Professor Day -- good to see you. Still teaching?"

"Retired," I said.

"That class I took from you -- remember?"

I could have sworn I'd never seen him before. "What class was that?"

"World literature. I'll never forget it. You said, 'God is dead -- everything is possible.'"

"Wait now, Nietzsche said that. And Dostoyevsky."

"Whatever. Anyway, I want to thank you. You changed my life."

There wasn't a hint of irony in his voice. I didn't say, "I'm sorry, forgive me." I shook left hands with him and said, "Well, hang in there, and good luck to you." I slid around him and escaped.

The incident, though, got a hook into me. In my teaching career some 5,000 students, give or take a few hundred, signed up for my courses. I knew their names and faces, the way their minds worked, their writing styles. I recall a few who were bright with promise, and a few troublesome ones who infused with misery the time I spent with them. But most of the names and faces have sunk back into the darkness from which they sprang.

Moreover, the academic skirmishes I remember being involved in, their issues of critical importance at the time, now seem like dreams I've awakened from. Their complexities have receded into a kind of twilit mist.

Of course, this is an old song, on the ubi sunt theme. Where are the snows of yesteryear? Where's my youth? Where's the 1955 Volkswagen Beetle I was driving when I first saw Arcata? Gone, all gone. The stream of time runs in only one direction.

In his poem "The Rock," Wallace Stevens, at age 71, wrote:

"It is in illusion that we were ever alive.

"Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves

"By our own motions in a freedom of air."

If the past is so ephemeral as to be unreal, and if the present slips moment by moment into the past, then maybe the present is unreal as well. Maybe, after all, life is but a dream.

But the young man I shook hands with on the Plaza was real, I swear he was. I would like to say that I suddenly recalled his name and the young face he wore before he grew the old one over it. But I can't remember.

I should have asked him who he was. I should have found out something about his life. I guess I should have given him that dollar, or emptied my wallet for him, as partial refund on his tuition. n

R.C. Day taught English for many years at Humboldt State University. "On Rowing a Boat" appeared originally in the HSU Emeritus and Retired Faculty Newsletter.

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