Years ago, I used to live at Mrs. Robinson's rooming house on 19th Street. And in the evenings, upon coming home from my mail clerk's job, I was obliged to listen to the Major and the Old Man talking. They too had rooms on that third floor of Mrs. Robinson's, and the walls were so thin that there was no way to keep from hearing them, especially since they had voices that were as strong as their opinions. And what they talked about was politics.
The Major, who was a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, sported a nifty little pencil mustache, was always nattily attired, and given to wearing an expensive pork-pie hat with a shiny green feather in it. And the Old Man, who was husky, bald and elaborately courteous in his address, had been administrative assistant to a senator for many years.
This was back during the Eisenhower administration, and the Major did not like the way things were going in Washington, and he emphatically did not like the way they were going on Capitol Hill. Each night he would come home engorged with rage at having witnessed a spectacle he took to be appalling, and each night he would purge himself of indignation by splenetic tirades that went on for hours. People were stealing things up there, he said; the were stealing huge sums of money and passing laws that were hurting the country; and the good men were all getting savaged while the bad men were getting ahead. "You can't live in this town without losing your soul!" he would repeatedly maintain. And the Old Man, who was a pretty slick customer, would chime in now and again with an anecdote of how things had been even worse back in, say, 1922 -- which was his way of suggesting to the Major, in an indirect way, that he should cool it with the choler; and if he could not control the city, control himself.
I would lie on my bed, breathing carefully, and listen to the Major's astounding, continuing saga of corruption and savagery, which was so authoritatively delivered that one could not doubt that all those things were actually going on. And for a while, I too became indignant and began to look forward to that last, triumphant installment of his tale, in which the good guys would finally win.
However, as summer lengthened into the cool, exciting days of fall, it gradually became evident that they never would. As the Major raged on Lear-like into the successive nights, it at last began to seem that he was leading a stupid life by allowing himself to become obsessed like that. I reasoned to myself that, had he taken care not to know about politics, he would not have been so tortured. And so, wishing to be happy, I resolved on the spot to know as little about politics as possible.
Having made that decision, conversations on the other side of that wall became intolerable, and by way of escape I would go to Brownley's Bar and Grill, or the Texas Chili Parlor or, increasingly, as the place began to pull on me, would stroll down to where the Lincoln Memorial loomed massively in the blue moonlight, to stand there or just sit on the steps being alone with that aloof, silent, untroubled building; either that, or I would play penny-ante poker in the guard room until dawn. I loved the Lincoln Memorial and wanted to be like it -- off to the side somewhere -- and believed that my chances of doing so were best served by knowing as little as possible of what really went on around here.
What happened to this resolution, how it crumbled, is still somewhat of a mystery. But somehow, gradually, I found myself noticing more of what was in the newspaper than just racing results; and the more I learned, the more concerned I became, and then appalled, until at last, during this Carter administration I've become continually enraged. And sometimes, I have remembered the Major and thought to myself that he must be dead of apoplexy by now -- that he would have to be.
But I ran into him on the street just the other night -- little moustache working indignantly, pork-pie hat at a rakish angle, bright green feather shining as if new. And immediately, as if it had been only 20 minutes since we'd seen each other instead of 20 years, he launched into a diatribe about the terrible things that were going on. And concluded, as always, by saying that a man couldn't live in Washington without losing his soul. "Not and know what goes on!" he said vehemently. Then put a finger to the brim of his hat and strode away. But I felt good because he, too, had survived.
Later that night, I read in the newspaper Alfred Friendly's good poem on the Lincoln Memorial that concludes with these lines: His life bedeveled, torn In memory made whole. Where else has stone more surely Discerned, disclosed the soul?
And I thought about that: having a soul in our town, and how it is won or lost. Certainly Lincoln, who knew and endured all the worst, in a bad time, kept his. And indeed, so too had the brave old Major -- although he would possibly deny this and, while caring passionately, would maintain stoutly that if they didn't watch out, one of these days he was just not going to care anymore. In fact, everybody with any kind of a soul at all seemed to have gotten that way by caring enough about something to risk something for it. Which it was necessary to do if you wanted action, or even just to stay in the game. And he was no true poker-player who would not tell you that.