Out of Tune with the Times

I’m rarely surprised by the people I see walking into Slim’s Tavern over on Armitage. Almost all of them are regulars and their faces are familiar. Imagine my surprise, then, when Professor Gardner walked in one summer evening while I was sitting alone at the bar, quietly sipping a beer. I hadn’t seen him in over two years. That was in the summer of 1940 when I moved out of the small apartment on Fremont where I lived down the hall from him.

When I knew Gardner he was a Professor of Ancient Greek History over at DePaul University and definitely not a drinking man. In fact, although he never made a derogatory remark, from the expression on his face I knew he disapproved of my regular visits to Slim’s. I made the mistake of giving him an honest answer, one evening, when I met him in the hall and he asked where I was going.

I always thought Professor Gardner was a decent, honest man, but a bit narrow minded and excessively strict in his habits. I was alone one Christmas Eve, for example, when I saw him in the hall and invited him to come to my apartment for a glass of Port in celebration of the season. From his reaction, you would’ve thought I’d asked him to commit a crime. But being full of holiday cheer, I dismissed it and later shared the bottle…and a bit more…with the trim blond who lived upstairs.

Professor Gardner was obviously not himself when he entered Slim’s. His tie was askew and a corner of his shirt was hanging out of his pants. Glancing around and seeing my face, he headed in my direction. At the time, I wished he hadn’t. I’d spent a long, hot day at work and gone to Slim’s to relax alone with a couple of cold ones straight from the tap.

But knowing he had seen me and I couldn’t avoid him, I decided to greet him with mild sarcasm.

“So what brings you into a disreputable place like this,” I said, displaying the surprise I naturally felt. “Don’t tell me you’ve taken up bar-hopping.”

He looked at me for a moment, trying to decide if I was angry or just annoyed. I was annoyed alright, not because he was necessarily difficult or obnoxious. He was simply no fun. And the last thing I wanted was no fun.

“I needed to talk to someone,” he said sheepishly, “but I didn’t know where to go. Then I remembered you telling me you went to Slim’s, so I decided to come here and look for you. I need to talk,” he said again, looking down. “You’re the only person I could think of. I hope you don’t mind.”

What could I say when he stated his need like that. “No, I don’t mind. Can I order you a beer or something?…You want some pretzels?”

“I’d like that. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”

Professor Gardner was a very short man and he climbed the bar stool clumsily like a child. When he appeared to be settled, I gave Slim the ‘high sign’.

Slim came over and I ordered a beer and pretzels. Without a word, Slim looked at me and grinned. He and I had played this scene before, only with a different third person.

“So what’s going on in your life, professor?” I asked. (Out of habit, I always called him professor.) “You still live over on Fremont?”

“Oh yes. I’ve had no reason to move.” He paused while Slim put a stein of beer and a bowl of pretzels on the bar in front of him. “I’m alone, and the university’s my whole life. I think you know I never married but devoted my life to learning and teaching Ancient Greek History.” He reached for the stein, took a sip and grimaced like he had just swallowed a tablespoonful of bitter medicine. He paused and his eyes widened while his stomach adjusted to the new experience. “One day,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “I plan to write a book on the subject. I’ve pages and pages of notes I‘ve gathered over the years. But now they’re all for nothing.” I could see tears forming in his eyes. “Now I…now I may lose everything.”

“Why? What’s happened?” I asked, taken aback.

“The dean called me into his office this morning and told me only two students have registered for my fall class. Last year I had twenty…twenty,” he repeated.

The war was the first thing that came into my mind. “Is it the war? Have a lot of students enlisted? I mean – there is a war on.”

“That’s partly it, I guess; but not all of it. The dean thinks students just aren’t interested in the subject I teach anymore.”

“Oh, that can’t be it. Why, you’ve been there for years. It must be something else.”

“What else can it be?” He paused. “I think they’ve lost their need for me.”

“No. It’s gotta be something else.”

“Like what? What other reason can there be?”

“Well, I don’t know” I said, wondering what to say next. “I don’t know anything about this sort of thing.” I paused to think while he gathered his courage to take another sip of beer. “Maybe the books you’re using are the problem,” I ventured. “I mean, what are they required to read for your course?”

“A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great by J. B. Bury,” he said proudly. “The Greeks and Greek Civilization by Jacob Burckhardt,” he added, “and miscellaneous writings of Gilbert Murray. They’re all top historians. They tell students just about everything they need to know about Ancient Greece.”

“No offense Professor; but do these writers talk about War. I mean, we are in a really big war right now. Maybe you need to – I don’t know – shift your focus or something.”

Professor Gardner was silent. I had no idea what he was thinking nor what I was talking about. After awhile, he turned and looked at me with a curious expression, but continued to say nothing.

“I mean, are there Greek writers who touched on the suffering and horrors of war?” I asked, pursuing the subject because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Are there ones who wrote about death in battle – that sort of thing?” I continued, hoping to learn if Professor Gardner’s course was relevant.

“Yes, there are,” he said thoughtfully, “Thucydides, Herodotus and Xenophon have a lot to say on these subjects. Thucydides is, of course, the best. Almost everything he wrote about is happening now,” he said, musing.

“Maybe that’s what you oughta try teaching,” I said. It was a shot in the dark.

Professor Gardner stared at the bar and slowly sipped his beer for the longest time. I noticed his face no longer registered his distaste. Sitting silent, I just watched. I could see he was deep in thought. Finally, he looked at me, smiled, and without a word, slid off the bar stool, turned and shuffled out the door.