One Wednesday afternoon last semester, I stopped in the Math Dept coffee room to pick up my mail. There were a bunch of faculty sitting around the table eating chips and drinking beer, and I realized that there was a colloquium scheduled. There was an affable (jovial, even) looking guy with a nice bushy (but fairly short) beard sitting among them expounding on the things academics mostly talk about: the funding problems at his university, the unsympathetic and unintelligent administrators, the poor quality of students -- all the usual stuff. This was the guest speaker, obviously.
Somehow he looked vaguely familiar, so I looked at the blackboard where his talk was announced.
My God, it was Alec!
Alec was a graduate student twenty-five years ago at the University of Illinois, where I was a visiting lecturer for a year. I'd had my Ph.D. for a year and had a tenure-track job at the University of Kansas, but for that year I was like a graduate student. I didn't have very much money to live on because I'd left my wife and daughter back in Kansas so my daughter wouldn't have to switch schools. I was living in a tiny little apartment in Champaigne and teaching two courses which didn't take much of my time, and sitting in on several graduate courses and a couple of seminars, and spending a lot of time on Green Street, especially at a bar called Murphy's.
Alec at this point was working on his dissertation in another specialty of mathematics than my own, and the general gossip was that he was pretty good. But he was almost constantly in Murphy's. He had an enormous wild beard that almost totally obscured his face and came down almost to his navel. He looked, in fact, like the ``It's'' character that would later open every Monty Python episode -- the bedraggled derilect that would struggle out of the sea onto the beach or whatever, look straight into the camera, and with his dying breath gasp out ``It's.''
Alec was one of the centers of the night social life on Green Street, drinking pitchers of beer in Murphy's and the other bars, almost always in the midst of a group of people. He had a casual arrogance that some people found attractive (especially women, and sometimes myself) and some people found mildly annoying (sometimes including myself), but mostly he was pretty well liked by everyone.
He was a Vietnam vet and usually wore a faded green fatigue jacket, and in his eyes you'd see a craziness that you knew you should keep your distance from. A few times in the bitter Champaign winter, I passed him on the sidewalk and he looked right through me, seeing something that wasn't there on the street around us, and I knew better than to even say hello.
And now here he was, twenty-five years later, sitting in my department's coffee room and talking the usual bullshit that one hears from academics.
Since I'm somewhat diffident about these things, I didn't introduce myself. He was caught up in being the honored guest speaker and I wasn't sure he'd want to be reminded of those Green Street days at this particular moment, or that he'd ever remember me. I had been a very incidental figure in his life at the time, a minor acquaintance who I sometimes suspected he didn't think very highly of. In a way, though, he'd been a very central figure in my life, especially when I look back at it now.
If I hadn't been otherwise committed last Wednesday, I'd have gone to hear his talk, just to try and get a better idea of what he's like now. Even better would have been just to sit down at the table in the coffee room and listen in on his conversation. But then somebody might eventually have had the impulse to introduce me, and I realized that I really didn't want that. (But like as not, he wouldn't even have recognized my name.)
Besides, I was in a hurry.
I picked up my mail and went back to my office and took a moment to check the web page for the mathematics department of the small Texas university he's now teaching at. And discovered to my astonishment that he's the chairman of the department there. (He has a nice publication list, too.)
A few days later, my friend Brenda called me from San Diego for some reason, and I told her about the incident. I finished by telling her that when I discovered he is now a department chairman, the first thought that went through my mind was, ``What a waste!'' This wild crazy guy, and now he's just another bullshit chairman.
To which Brenda said, ``What you're trying to say is that he's become you.''
After a few moments of silence, she said, ``I'm sorry. That was unkind.''
``No, you're right,'' I said. ``As usual, you've hit the nail right on the head. I was really thinking about what's happened to my own life since those days.''
I will say, though, that I am not and never have been and never will be a department chairman. I may have sold out -- and for not all that much money, at that! -- but I've never sunk to that level.
April 13, 1997