Posted by: Peadar Ban | March 3, 2011

Remembering Peter, A Friend Who Died

It was more than five years ago I am sure of that.  How long exactly I cannot tell.  Beyond five years, like the New Yorker magazine map of the country from a New Yorker’s perspective, everything fades into flat and hazy sameness, a few odd details standing out above the haze.

This night was one of them.  We were on our way back from a trip to New Jersey to go to confession and meet with our Spiritual Director, a Polish priest who had brought a new ecclesiastical movement called The Families of Nazareth here from Poland. The woman who had introduced us to this movement was with us, a bright young lady who had spent five years in Poland teaching English, and had come home to take care of her dying mother.

I had spoken to Peter of these monthly trips back and forth in one of my infrequent phone conversations with him, and asked him if the timing was right whether or not we could meet him for a short while on our way back to New Hampshire some day.  In a rather formal and courtly way he simply said he would be pleased to spend time with us.  I frankly did not know what to expect, but, in for a dime, in for a dollar.

I told my wife, Mariellen, and our friend, Cindie, that we would stop to spend some time with a friend in Hartford, have a bit to eat and then continue home.  Cindie was delighted.  “I’d like to meet him, Peter,” I remember her saying, “He sounds very interesting.”  I had mentioned to her at the time that Peter had a deep knowledge of opera, was a kind of self-educated scholar of the form, could sing well and was a pretty good raconteur for a kid from a working class neighborhood in New York City.

I think this amazed a woman who grew up in New Hampshire, for whom New York was, as the re-make had it, a kind of OZ, and all its citizens urbane sophisticates, except, of course, me.  Mariellen had met him at our Fortieth high school reunion, briefly, and was charmed by the fellow; and just maybe a little bit scared, unsure what might be on Peter’s mind when we finally met, unsure what might he say.  He had an erratic reputation of long standing, a reputation for anger and outbursts of invective at authority, especially ecclesiastic authority.  And, he had not worked for years.

And so, on a chilly evening late in the year I pulled up to the curb in front of an old brownstone a few blocks from the state capitol.  It was one of the few buildings left standing in what must once have been a genteel neighborhood a hundred or so years ago.  I left the ladies in the car, entered the building and climbed the dimly lit stairs up to the third floor.  Peter lived there at the time at the suffrage of someone who must have been a friend, but it was hard to tell; a friend with whom he had a kind of Dickensian relationship, odd, dark and troubled, always hinting of disaster; filled with threats and murmurings of eviction, homelessness, abandonment to hear Peter tell the story.  I knocked on the door of his room, and he opened it, already dressed in a worn overcoat and a suit, wearing a white shirt that needed an iron’s attention, but that only after it had been thoroughly laundered. If seedy and run down described the house they well enough fit my old school mate who was wearing his Sunday best, and every other day’s I thought to myself.

My brief glimpse inside showed a room of irregular dimension dimly lit by a single bare bulb suspended from the high ceiling.  Piles of material, clothing or papers I could not tell, covered the walls and spilled about the floor creating dark spaces and wells of deep shadow.  On the landing outside, similar columns of matter, bundled papers and boxes of material stacked unsteadily atop each other threatened the unwary visitor.

It was about what I expected.  We greeted each other, walked down the stairs and out to the waiting car.  The ladies were in the back seat, and Peter joined me up in the front.  He gave directions to a neighborhood not too far away, a few turns and we were near our destination, a small restaurant across the street from the campus of Trinity College.  It was a haphazard place, something which one might have seen in the East Village in New York City back in the psychedelic ’60’s.  I thought of the places I had been in, there and then, and wondered how many “hits” of something it took to get back that feeling.  But, of course, I was here and now, and only Peter would have had any idea about that particular kind of time travel.

I tried to think why he had chosen the place.  Was it a kind of joke he thought he’d play on me?  I decided it was just some place cheap to eat, and settled down inside.  The ladies followed him down to the little counter, and he told the waitress we were there for supper.  She led us past the small and very messy and crowded kitchen into another room with some old kitchen tables and a melange of metal and wooden straight backed chairs haphazardly arranged.  I swear she had a mess of wiry hair piled on top of her head, a peasant skirt and wore something tie died, an old t-shirt maybe as a top.  If I had checked her feet I’d probably have found they were unshod and filthy.  I purposely did not.

She left us some menus, and as the ladies settled down to study them, Peter signaled me to follow him.  We excused ourselves and walked through the restaurant, retracing our steps past the kitchen to the door.  He explained that the place had no license, but at the liquor store next door a bottle or two of wine awaited us for purchase.  Inside, he chose two bottles of some Argentinian red, for about $2.00 each.  He said it was surprisingly good for the price; undiscovered was the term he used.  I had my wallet in my hand, but he paid and we returned to the restaurant and our meal.  I can say that if price is the yardstick it is well discovered since.

I can’t remember and won’t bore you with all the details of the meal we ate, except to say that I had some kind of Mediterranean thing which was quite good, and Peter made a show of ordering some blue(  I think that’s what they were called) potatoes from Peru, mashed, with garlic and herbs.  He commented that the restaurant only served organically grown foods, and the potatoes were especially good for his teeth.  Despite a couple of remarks about the condition of his mouth, he did justice to the steak he also ordered.

As I said, the wine was good, and Peter could tell a good story.  So I asked him to tell Mariellen and Cindie about John McCormack.  As if he and The Great Man had been lifelong friends, Peter spent most of the rest of our time together talking about him, his life, his influence on music, and his influence on Peter himself.  It was a delightful and instructional conversation.  I got hints of Peter’s intellect, wit and deep love for music which I appreciated.  He both enlightened and entertained us in a charming way.  More than once I found myself thinking, as he spoke, about what might have been, about what was hidden, covered by his current circumstance and how sad that was for him, and for the rest of us.

Questions followed, especially from our friend whose curiosity about someone like this was almost childlike, and Peter was very obliging, always courteous and illuminating, even to the few snatches of “leider” he sang for us as illustrations of one or another artist he was fond of, or some technique of operatic singing.

Well, we had miles to go, and it was with a little regret that I rang the bell bringing on the evening’s end after our coffee.  It was late when we drove Peter back to his place.  The streets were empty, the neighborhood deserted, a cold wind sweeping across the dried grasses in the empty lots of the once well populated neighborhood.  Street lights glared yellow pushing back midnight.  Peter and I got out of the car and said our good nights.  I thanked him for such a lovely time, and he, courtly and gentleman like, gave a nod, almost like a small bow.  We shook hands.  I asked him if he could use $20.00, saying I didn’t want to offend.  He accepted the bill and thanked me for the offer, turning to walk up the steps.

I never saw him again.

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Responses

  1. Peter, thank you for a good lesson in looking to the heart of a person, past everything else. And, as always, for your great writing style.

    • Thank you, Sister. Style? Hmmm. Is wearing two different patterned socks stylish?

  2. Peter: As always a good story. This one of course is particularly poignant due to the events of this past January. Your description of Peter, his domicile and the “Dickensian” relationship between he and the owner of that property, who suffered Peter’s residency are right on the mark, as Tommy Joe and I witnessed four years ago when moving Peter’s possessions prior to his being evicted from that same habitat. You also captured Peter well in his manner of speaking “rather formal and courtly” and in his ability to do “justice to the steak” despite the conditions of his mouth. I can visualize him perfectly, in his crumpled,tweedy jacket, un-ironed and greyish white shirt, giving a courtly nod while accepting your generous and welcome offer a $20 bill. Thanks for the memories of Peter, Peter! Toujours, Richie

    • Thank you, Richie

  3. Peter,
    Thank you for your memoir of Peter Dolan. Peter’s funeral was a nice act of charity and yet it was perfunctory. It was hard to be heartbroken about someone we hardly knew mostly because of geographical limitations and yet I wished it could have been something more.

    Your memoir of Peter suffices for the eulogy we did not know how to put together. I am going to frame it & hang it on a wall for a while.
    Tom Kelly

    • Thank you, Tom.


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