Sunday, June 18, 2023

There's a hole in the world

 In the fall of 1973 I arrived at Syracuse University as a graduate student in the English department and almost immediately found my way to the graduate student lounge, a room in the basement of the Hall of Languages featuring pieces of cast-off furniture, among them a repulsive couch the color of spoiled salmon. 

There I met Ed Voytovich, tall, smart, generous, and funny. He was playing bridge with other graduate students. In time I came to see that he was one of the smartest among us, perhaps the smartest, but blessed with an easy geniality that endeared him to everyone in the department. For the next six years I enjoyed his company, making jokes, comparing obscure literary allusions, talking about books and authors, gossiping about the faculty. 

Now he's gone. He died two weeks ago today after several years of fading gradually away from Alzheimer's, and there is a gap in the world that cannot be filled. 

Ed completed an honorable dissertation in 17th-century Jacobean drama (so much stuff there) and made two hundred unsuccessful attempts to find a faculty position, because of the oversupply of Ph.D. holders. So he gave it up. He had made some money by painting houses in the summer, and so he set himself up as a housepainter. 

I joined his crew in 1979, before leaving Syracuse and abandoning my own Ph.D. (though it was some years before I realized I had made the decision and put my notes and drafts on the curb to be pulped into cardboard). 

He was skilled in painting, but his confidence in his abilities led him into more elaborate projects. "I need to have the chimney pointed. Can you do that?" "Sure." And he would read how to point a chimney and do it. During that summer we built a study in a basement with a sloping floor and constructed bookcases for it. He made himself a new career in contracting and gave good value wherever he was engaged. 

He married Marie Sprayberry, another graduate student and friend (she was my best person at my wedding to Kathleen), and over the years they would visit Baltimore or we would visit Syracuse, to eat good food, drink, talk about books, gossip, and jointly recite Philip Larkin's "This be the verse." We were friends for more than forty years until the illness took him from us, and now we mourn. 

I told you he was smart and literate, no one more so. I told you he was funny. But what I need you to understand is that he was even-tempered and the most humane human being I have ever known. And it is left to me to repeat what the Romans said: Sit tibi terra levis. May the earth lie lightly on you. 

Saturday, June 17, 2023

The stone the writer accepted

When writing about Baltimore, please keep in mind that those quaint streets in places like Fells Point are not cobblestoned. 

Repeat: Do not write about Baltimore's quaint cobblestoned streets. 

Cobblestones are round, like cannonballs. Cobbles are typically formed naturally, by erosion in rivers.

Those quaint Baltimore streets are paved with Belgian blocks, or setts, which are quarried and rectangular. Those in Baltimore sometimes arrived as ballast in ships. 

Mistaking streets paved with Belgian blocks for cobblestoned streets is sheer carelessness.