Dr. Johnson loathed death or dreaded it as much as anybody, having more to lose than most, yet in the event he made a pretty exit.
"Let's hear no more of this," he once roared at his friend Boswell, who kept yammering on the subject with that curious obtuse persistance that marks the fine reporter.
And I see I am like Samuel Johnson in this way, at least, that I do not much like having my attention directed gravewise. But at the same time I see it does not do to have a lot of loose ends disturbing the mind, once the subject is raised, and no doubt that is the good reason for those wretched gatherings sometimes convened in which every jack-in-the-box pops up with some further comment about the one who has died.
Our general attention has been called, to get to the gist of it, to the sad death by freezing of a 60-year-old man in an otherwise empty building near the White House.
And it really will not suffice, in a civilized society, to say it's just one of those things. Nobody knows his name and he is identified only as a drunk.
The geography ("near the White House") does not seem relevant, unless there is a reproach there, that the president ought to be out scouring abandoned buildings for drunks instead of making phone calls all night to drum up votes.
But it would be as bad if the fellow had frozen on a loading dock of this paper, or anywhere else.
Our first rage, beyond any doubt, was that somebody should have done something, and in one fine account that I read, I learned many are doing something:
In Boston they fetch the homeless on cold nights and give them hot showers and bed them down in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church.
I know good people are behind it and I know it is a beautiful thing. But why, when I read it, do I blurt out that some things are worse than death?
You should know, perhaps, I have certain affinities with drunken bums, and unless I were helpless physically, I think they might have trouble scooping me up and bedding me down in the White House or a Presbyterian church, no matter how clean the mats were.
Some people really resist being defleaed, and I believe most bums do not identify readily with their colleague bums on the bus when they are rounded up.
Dr. Johnson, as you well know, used to worry in his better moments about his indolence and lack of enthusiasm for clean linen.
And yet it did no good at all to try to help him. I think that Lord Chesterfield once tried, and that his efforts may lie behind the letter Dr. Johnson wrote him, which is rightly considered the most brutal insult on record in our language. It did not really work to partonize Dr. Johnson, or, for that matter, ignore him.
I mention it because Johnson has so often reminded me of bums I have known, though more articulate than most.
Once an old man with white hair came to my house and said he had no place to sleep. He wanted to shack out in the disused small house, once occupied by servants, that faced on the alley.
"I would not bed my dogs down in that ruin," I said, but this man was not above weeping, and he said it was better than a park bench.
Well, several years later through the efforts of several people, he was offered a fine clean place in public subsidized housing.
"No sir," he said, and refused to budge. For some reason he did not like the idea of government inspectors checking on him, as he said they would do in public housing.
There was an old woman who liked to make trouble and found plenty of means to do it, who kept an eye on this old man and often called the cops. They would ransack his little house, throwing his poor possessions from the chest of drawers all over the floor.I never knew what they were after (and they never found it) until the old man told me:
Every day he bought two quarts of sherry and drank one, and sold the other at a quarter a glass to travelers in the alley. As social economy goes, it was not a bad idea. It provided inexpensive drinks for those who could not afford bars, and it kept my ancient "tenant" equable and cheerful.
He did not pay rent or do any work except feed the dogs when the fancy struck him, but then he did not use much electricity or water, so it cost nothing to speak of to have him there.
Once somebody hit him in the head with an ax, and once he caught the place on fire from pork chops that were supposed to be browning while he took a nap.
There were other little things, too, but on balance he was a pleasure to have, and he used to tell the world he was our "butler," though he never even came in the house except for hot water.
I tried getting him jobs, but he had no special relish for work of any kind, except that he liked a Mrs. Boyce several blocks away and she phoned about four times every summer.
"This is an emergency," she would say. "Tell him my caladiums are dying," and he would be seen later that day battering the hell out of her foliage plants with water from what amounted to a fireman's hose. This arrangement suited both parties, but I never knew him to accept any other call to the vineyard. Though laborers were few.
Once when a truck ran over him, fortunately doing astonishingly little damage, I was chewed out in the hospital by a socially oriented lady for not taking better care of him.
And the truth is, if he had turned his life over to me I could have improved his circumstances. But what he wanted from me was a free place to live, for which he would thank me kindly. He did not want (and was quick to rebuff) my fine outlines for the noble life.
However bad off he was, he meant for his life to be his, not mine. And I sometimes think of it when "charity" is discussed.
Of course you know you can't run a shelter without rules. You can't let people stumble around crocked. It's not a Georgetown party, you know.
And I have only respect for those who break their backs to help the poor.
Still, there is enough of the bum in many of us to distrust those clean mats in the church, and (God save us all) some volunteer saint may actually start preaching at you, and never mind that all he knows of the glory of God is his pimples and wet ears.
Ah, a wee bit of hostility surfaces, does it not?
To dispense charity with dignity is an almost impossible art. I think you may even have to lie a little.
Of course in some states they order things better than we do -- the trains run on time, there are no poor, and it is all just heaven. I need not name the great nations where there is no poverty.
But I have seen with my own eyes instances in which the warrants of compassion conceal the handcuffs of freedom. As Dr. Johnson once remarked, every year there are new schemes for delight (and for justice and uplift and mercy) and every year there are new competitors for imprisonment therein.
Drunk bums, even more than the rest of us, are sometimes drunk bums because they do not accept our shackles. It is very hard to imagine, but some of them do not care much for fine folk like us, preferring (in their grave sickness) to go their own way.
Like Johnson, they do not much care for easy charities, and they resist righteous calls to straighten up and fly right.
No man should be allowed to just freeze or starve to death. But there can be delicate matters, there can be grave substantial questions, how far the beamy-faced may properly go in correcting intolerable situations.
Nobody means to, but when a man with no name freezes to death, he becomes no more than an occasion for sharp rebukes to the society at large. We do not know, with the one who died, how far society failed or succeeded with him.
We assume, because it makes us feel fine, that his life was wasted, mainly because other people sat on their tails and did nothing.
What if he were a success and we didn't know it? What if he had a greater dignity, as a man, than to be now the mere occasion of some narrow point we wish to make?
I have heard that when kings of Spain were brought to sepulture the guard cried out, "Who's coming?" and the drill was that the mourners answered:
"The Spanish emperor of the world."
"Who's coming?" the guard would cry again, not caring for the answer.
"The king of Spain," they said.
"Who's coming?" demanded the guard, for the third time.
"A man called Charles," once voice would answer.
So the bolts slid back in their sockiets, the big doors swung, and the king entered in, to his rest.
You learn, but my age, not to say a drunk has died, or a prince, or a bastard. But a guy named Charles or, if it comes to that, a fellow with no name.
There is music, you know, quite fit to say the world is over, or is now begun, but the man who froze to death may not have cared for Bach or the big F Maor.
There are words, fit in splendor to mark the end or the beginning, but the man may not have desired them.
A man ought not be saddled, either in death or in life, with mercies he does not want, with glories he despises, or with little lectures he considered asinine.
But it might be all right, as a mark of friendliness, to hope that if he is in any society at all, it is a society he delights in, or if there is any charity he is compelled to accept, it is such that he would not for one second think of refusing.
Good men have more than once in history turned from society to live (as Whitman says) with the animals. There is an image the mind may allow itself, without imposing anything on anybody, of sheep folded safe with sheep and safe with shepherd, in green fields (as that wineskin, Falstaff, said) by waters still (except where they romp on the yellow shore in sport, as a wit once put it).
Ho, every drunk that thirsteth, let him come. Where no man is sober and no man is drunk.
Peace (as they say) upon him, this night in peace. Still free.