"Existentialism? You want me to give you the definition of existentialism?" Arthur said in his crisp, condescending voice. "Okay, here it is: Existentialism is when you are passed by your own shadow while riding a motorcycle under a street light at 2 a.m."
He was wrong, of course, but our philosophy professor, who had posed the question, laughed as heartily as the rest of us. If Arthur couldn't disarm you with his considerable wisdom, we learned, he'd do it with his considerable wit. He was a true double threat.
Arthur was lanky and lean and had a body any budding athlete would have envied, but the only exercise he ever got was kick-starting his 250cc Ducatti Mark II road racer, a motorcycle he dwarfed. His most distinguishing feature was a magnificent full beard that was as black as his eyes and as curly as his steel-wool hair.
Before I got to know him, it seemed to me that Arthur thought of himself as some 19th century European intellectual who carried a chip on his shoulder for having been catapulted into the final third of the American 20th century.
That perception proved incorrect. His act was only a mask for his shyness, which he fought with a desperation that bordered on mania. Unmasked he was charming, and very wise about the ways of the world.
It was Arthur who introduced me to the philosophers Buber and de Chardin; to Dry Sack, a wonderful Spanish sherry from Jerez; and it was he who showed me that a steak doesn't have to be cooked outdoors to be great.
School was nearly out and the Florida weather had not yet become oppressive, so Arthur decided to throw a backyard dinner party for our small circle of friends. We would soon be heading in different directions, he said, and he wanted this to be "an occasion."
"I wonder when he's going to light the fire?" someone asked from the other side of the large wooden table in Arthur's back yard. I went inside to fill my wine glass and repeated the question to him.
He was standing at the counter gently pounding a steak with a mallot and, without missing a beat, he responded: "This is peppered steak, and has nothing to do with charcoal. Nor should it be confused with pepper steak, which, as you know, is prepared with green peppers. This is pan fried, black pepper steak."
"Oh?" I said.
"Oh indeed?" he barked, making me laugh. "I'll bet you a bottle of $10 wine that this will be the best steak you've had in the last two years."
The following morning, as I walked out of the store with a bottle of $10 wine tucked under my arm, I wondered why he said it would be the best steak I'd had in the last two years. When I delivered the wine I forgot to ask and, unfortunately, I never saw Arthur again. Maybe that's existentialism. PEPPERED STEAK (4 generous servings) 3 pounds chuck steak 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper Salt 4 tablespoons butter Hot pepper sauce Worcestershire sauce Lemon juice 1 to 2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley 1 to 2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
Sprinkle the pepper on both sides of the steak and beat gently (with a tenderizing mallet) into the meat. Set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Cover the bottom of a large iron skillet lightly with salt and place it over high heat. When the salt begins to turn brown, toss in the steak.
When the bottom side is well browned (30 to 60 seconds), turn it over. Add the butter and, to taste, the hot pepper sauce, worcestershire and lemon juice, and reduce the heat. When the steak is done, remove it and stir the sauce briefly. Pour the sauce over the steak and sprinkle with parsley and chives.
Serve with a salad and baked potatoes.