I always had a soft spot for Derek Walcott, the poet who died on Friday. In the mid-80s, on a gray winter’s day in Philadelphia, I had drinks with him and Joseph Brodsky. I had gone to a reading the two men had given, accompanying a friend of Hania’s – a tall, striking African-American woman – who had befriended Brodsky in New York. After the reading, the company headed out to a hotel bar, and I was allowed to tag along.
Brodsky was already quite full of himself. This was a couple years before he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Walcott would get it five years later. Walking up Broad Street, I told Brodsky that his throaty recitations of poetry sometimes reminded me of Okudzhava, the great Russian singer-songwriter, thinking he’d be impressed by my worldliness. He gave a short, derisive laugh.
At the bar, the two men ordered Scotch. At one point Brodsky handed Walcott a new poem he had written, and Walcott read it with pen in hand, correcting a word here, a punctuation mark there (the privilege of the native speaker), before handing it back to him. Then, sensing I was feeling a bit out-of-place, he turned to me and asked, “What do you do, Tom?”
I answered the question – I was writing feature stories for the American College of Physicians – and the conversation quickly moved elsewhere. But I’ve never forgotten his unnecessary kindness.
Saturday I was sitting at Paul’s at Sawgrass Mills – Hania and our house guest had gone off shopping – reading an email from an editor expressing his desire to publish the essay I had sent him. The joy of modern communication, I thought: At any moment, even on a Saturday afternoon, your world can be made bright.
Sunday night we sat with our houseguests at Thai Spice. As they studied the menu, I checked my emails. There was one from another editor at the same magazine; the first editor had mentioned that he would give my essay to a colleague for some ‘slight’ trimming. This editor said that he had narrowed the focus of my essay, and because of that it would require a new ending.
I slipped my phone back into my pocket and silently cursed the immediacy of modern communication.
A High Life columnist has got me thinking about human societies. In a recent issue of The Spectator, Taki, the magazine’s resident bon vivant, wrote admiringly of Japan, where life is so agreeable, in his view, because the social fabric is based on respect and good manners. These are the qualities that make for a successful society, Taki claimed, not inclusivity and diversity.
For Americans, the ideas of inclusivity and diversity are almost as sacred as those of freedom and democracy. We are the country made up of people from all countries. Years ago I asked a visiting German journalist what struck him most about the United States, and he said it was the fact that all these people from dramatically different cultures managed to get along, for the most part, and work together for the common good. Animosities that had existed for centuries on other continents disappeared within the confines of the U.S. border.
But now intolerance, and hatred of the Other, seem to be appearing. I say ‘seem’ because these attitudes are definitely being stoked. But it’s got me wondering if people are sadly reverting back to their more primitive natures, becoming peasants again, eyeing the stranger with loaded-gun suspicion. Has the American experiment in human evolution come to a halt? Was the ideal of inclusivity and diversity as utopian and doomed as Communism?
Today is the day people have been asked to bombard the president with postcards. As soon as I heard the idea I liked it, not just because of my feelings toward the commander-in-chief but because of my feelings about postcards. As you would expect of a travel writer, I love them. When my nieces were little, and I was traveling a lot, I sent them postcards from every place I went. My refrigerator is covered with postcards, some received from friends, some purchased by myself. There are Arkansas pigs, farm workers in Cuba, masked revelers in Ecuador, traditionally dressed children in Merida, France’s Canal du Midi, Warsaw’s Aleja Jerozolimskie, as well as a number of cards of old travel posters: Bern, San Sebastian, Holland America Line, Pan American Airways. There is a postcard of Carlos Gardel and one of koalas in a tree.
I love postcards so much that, as soon as I got the cover of my new book, The Joys of Travel, I had it made into 750 postcards. Perhaps I’ll send one to the president, with no message on the back, hoping perhaps he’ll take the hint.
For 27 years Hania and I have been driving down to Miami to catch a movie, browse in a bookstore, have dinner, watch people, savor the feeling of being in a big city. Though each place we go – Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Miami Beach – has more of the air of a village (leafy, Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco) than of a great metropolis. Even urban, gritty Wynwood, a recent addition to our Miami trinity, hardly reminds you of Manhattan or Tokyo.
This past Saturday I got the feeling I'd been missing, ironically, in a place that is actually called a village: Brickell Village. Imposing towers – finished and unfinished – rose all around us as we made our way to 1111 Peruvian Bistro (where I ate the most delicious lomo saltado of my life). After dinner we made our way through another upstart canyon to Brickell Center, which was lively even though half of its businesses have not yet opened. A band played on the second floor, in the open-air concourse that spans S. Miami Avenue, and you got that big city thrill of finding life – people, music, the impromptu – in the middle of concrete and glass.