Commentary Magazine

My Friend Matt

My friend Matthew Shanahan, born in 1917, was 88 when I first met him in 2005. He was one of those handsome bald men, with delicate, rather aristocratic features, high-colored skin with few wrinkles, and bright blue eyes through which he could make out only the dimmest shades of grey or glints of the most glaring light.

Matt was blind, the victim of retinitis pigmentosa, which ran in his family. The disease began to affect him in his fifties, leaving him with scarcely any sight by his sixties and progressing to total blindness. Deaf in his right ear, he wore a hearing aid in his left. Slender, perhaps 5’10” or so before age had bent him forward, he nonetheless had a natural elegance, and wore clothes well; each day these were chosen for him by one of the attendants at Friedman Place, the Jewish home for the blind on the northside of Chicago into which he had moved a short while before I met him.

The meeting came about indirectly through my granddaughter, then a junior in high school, who was working as a volunteer at Friedman Place in connection with a course at her school. Matt Shanahan was the first person she visited. Her assignment was to help him with his braille, testing him on a deck of braille playing cards. When he had more vision, Matt derived much pleasure from the game of bridge. His main pleasure now, apart from the company of family, was listening to books on tape, and of these he had listened to a vast quantity. Not long after we met, in fact, he turned in my direction and asked, “Do you have any notion why Hannah Arendt wanted to sleep with a creep like Heidegger?” An interesting question coming from a man who never finished high school.

Because getting from her school to Friedman Place required three different buses, and because from her birth I have dedicated myself to spoiling her, I picked my granddaughter up at her school every Thursday afternoon and drove her to Friedman Place. I waited an hour for her in the lobby, where, sitting on a couch before an aviary filled with small charming birds, I read a book.

Not every resident at Friedman Place was entirely blind; some had serious vision impairments but could still see. The spread of ages ran from the youthful to the aged. Having been born blind, or become blind at an early age, it was apparent from my vantage point in the lobby, often resulted in strange, rather Aspergian tics of behavior. Among the arbitrary dirty tricks played upon them: Some of the blind residents talked very loudly, with no sense of modulation; a few others had psychological problems, evidenced by grimacing twitches or scowls; a small man named Stuart had the slightly alarming habit of staring at women at close range in a manner that was clearly not social-scientific.

Roz Katz, who organizes cultural field trips for Friedman Place residents and is in charge of volunteers and is a person of great energy and sweetness of character, after noticing me sitting in the lobby on a few Thursdays, asked if I would be willing to spend the hour reading to residents. Since Mrs. Katz is a woman who could sell a freezer on the installment plan to a man on his way to the gallows, saying no was not really a possibility. I started the following Thursday, reading to perhaps 12 people. I began with a Chekhov story, which cut my audience down to nine; a Turgenev story I read the following week brought it down to six; stories by Somerset Maugham and Saki and myself—and here I felt I was going down-market—left me with four, sometimes three, auditors. I was not, to put it gently, a great hit.

Matt Shanahan was at all my readings, sitting to my right, the better to hear out of his still good left ear. From his concentrated look I could tell that he was listening to the stories at a level of understanding and enjoyment higher than other people’s in the room. We would sometimes talk for a few minutes after the reading. Apart from his Hannah Arendt–Heidegger remark, I don’t recall his saying anything striking, yet he established himself in my mind as a serious man capable of subtlety and of its faithful companion, irony.

Not long after my granddaughter’s semester of volunteer work was over, I decided to stop my unpopular Thursday afternoon readings. I told Matt that I had chiefly continued the readings on his account and would much prefer to spend the time taking him to lunch every other Friday, when we could talk by ourselves uninterruptedly. He agreed. And so we did for the next six years, with occasional breaks for travel on my part and illness on his.

Each second Friday Matt would be waiting for me on a couch to the left of the aviary in the lobby of Friedman Place. I would touch him on the shoulder and take his hand. “Joe?” he would say, without bothering to look up. “The very same, sailor,” I would reply. As we walked out of the lobby, he would grasp my right arm with his left hand—he carried his white-and-red cane in his right hand—and we made our way to my car parked in the driveway. I always described the weather to him, including the quality of the day’s light. He had to negotiate a curb to get into the front seat of my car. Once he had his hand on the upper part of the open door, guiding by it, he was able to slide himself into the front passenger seat. The first time I said, “There you go” when he had done so, he replied, “What do you suppose that means? Where is ‘there’ and why ‘go’?” He was careful with language, and we often investigated the nonsense of stock phrases: food that “hit the spot,” “get a grip on yourself,” “oops a daisy,” “everything’s on the up and up,” and many more. His blindness made him especially thoughtful about language; he saw the words and their comical illogic perhaps more vividly than do people with sight.

At first we went to different restaurants on the northside of Chicago: Greek, Italian, German joints. (I paid the check one week, Matt the next, giving me his credit card and having me sign his name when the bill arrived.) Then we settled on a place called A Taste of Heaven on Clark Street, in the Andersonville neighborhood. I could usually get a parking space nearby, the food was fresh and good, and they served locally famous Petersen’s Ice Cream, notably a flavor called Mackinac Island Fudge, with which we often topped off our lunches. Usually we shared a large sandwich, served on sourdough baguette, but if Matt ordered pancakes or french toast, I would cut it up for him. A West Indian woman at Friedman Place used to do this for him, always saying, “I make pieces,” which he reported to me with his wry smile. At the beginning of the meal, I directed his hand to his coffee mug, and might report that on his plate the pasta salad was at three o’clock, the sandwich at six.

We generally made rather clattersome entrances and departures, Matt bent over, holding onto my arm, his white-and-red stick pointed outward, capturing perhaps too much attention in the restaurant’s narrow aisles. As we left, I would sometimes make dopey jokes. “This guy isn’t really blind,” I’d say, “he just uses the cane to pick up girls.” Or: “Excuse us, but his dog is on vacation in a condo he owns in Boca Raton, and the agency sent me to take him to lunch.” He went along with it beautifully, adding amusing comments of his own. “The dog has much better manners than this fellow,” he might say.

Matt had come into his full blindness too late to be adept at dealing with it. Not many moves came easily to him. Watching him try to establish himself in a restaurant chair could be a reminder of what a subtraction loss of sight was: He would feel the seat of the chair with his hand, place his cap atop it, his cane beneath it, then arrange to seat himself fully three feet from the table or, occasionally, facing the wrong way. Sometimes returning to my apartment after lunch with him, I would close my eyes, pretending to be blind, and for five minutes or so try to put myself through the simplest exercises: finding a light switch, opening the refrigerator and attempting to locate the orange-juice carton, making my way to the bathroom and finding the sink and toilet once there. I didn’t do well.

By rough count, we had 600 hours of uninterrupted conversation, Matt and I. Sometimes I would remind myself that he hadn’t the least idea of my appearance. The way I dressed, the color of my hair, my smile, my physical reactions to his jokes, whether I seemed old or young for my age, graceful or awkward in my movements. I could have closed my eyes while he was speaking, or yawned, or read a magazine through our lunches together, and he wouldn’t have known it. I bring this up because I myself am attentive, as are we all, to the least physical reactions on the part of people to whom I speak, to sense whether what I am saying is understood, agreed with, enjoyed, going down well. Owing to his blindness, Matt traveled without such a social compass, though it didn’t seem to bother him much, at least not in my company.

Neither Matt nor I were confessional, nor did we go in for instant intimacy. We did, though, have an immediate rapport—or, as I told him we Jews called it, rappaport. We never talked about sex, except as comedy, and agreed that everyone else’s sex was comical but our own. We rarely talked about money—he was a paying resident at Friedman Place—though he once told me that if he lived to one hundred, he figured to run out of his savings. On fundamental things we were in agreement: on what was amusing, on who was impressive, on what constituted decency.

He talked about his blindness matter-of-factly. He was without self-pity. I never once heard him complain about the mean trick of blindness that life had played on him. His only physical complaints were about his various hearing aids, which sometimes went on the fritz, tending to give off odd sounds. The hearing aid could also make the din in noisy restaurants unbearable.

Slowly, over the early months of our lunching together, Matt filled me in on his biography. He was the youngest of nine children of Irish immigrant parents. His father, who worked as a bricklayer, was illiterate; his mother, who ran their home on the northside as a boarding house, was the brains of the outfit. Details of life in another era came through: his mother’s economizing by buying day-old bread, the oddity of some of their male borders, their German neighbors, Kogen the Jewish pharmacist who treated most of the minor ailments among neighborhood residents. From time to time he would report an incident about one or another of his brothers or sisters, with none of whom, my sense was, he was particularly close and whose destinies varied from being briefly successful to being bust-outs with alcohol problems.

Matt went of course to Catholic school, and did well there, a favorite of the nuns for his quick mind. He dropped out before finishing, because he was offered a job working in a grocery store, which, with the Depression raging, seemed too good to pass up. He married young and fought in World War II with the Marines in the Pacific Theater. He never mentioned killing any of the enemy Japanese, but he did catch some shrapnel just below the clavicle, for which he was given a Purple Heart. He wrecked his hearing by being too near artillery fire, and suffered dizziness long after the war was over. He once recounted seeing piles of dead Japanese bodies on Guam, which shook him and, though he never said so directly, may have been in good part responsible for his having lost his religion.

Religion was one of the things about which we disagreed—never violently, never allowing it to distract us for long. I held that life’s mysteries were too abundant to make atheism even mildly persuasive. Truth is, religion wasn’t a subject that much interested him; he had closed the books on it. Sometimes, after lunch, back in his room at Friedman Place, as I shook his hand in a slightly lingering way before leaving, he’d say, in a perfectly pitched phony sanctimonious voice, “I’ll pray for you.”

We also disagreed about politics. Matt was a liberal of the old-fashioned kind, which meant he was always on the side of the underdog. I told him it wasn’t all that clear any more who exactly the underdog might be. I quoted to him Orwell’s line about when he saw a policeman beat up on a man, his, Orwell’s, not having to decide whose side he was on, but added that perhaps one did better to wait to see—the guy, these days, could be a rapist or a terrorist. His liberalism didn’t get in the way of his viewing all politicians, in the approved Chicago manner, as guilty until proven innocent.

Matt was never a rich man. But I learned from his son David that, during the years that he lived in retirement in South Haven, Michigan, when he would receive a tax refund of two or three hundred dollars, he would take the money to the local grocery store and ask the manager to give it to someone in true need. He was, in other words, a liberal who put his money where his mouth was—a phrase he would have enjoyed deconstructing.

He knew I wrote for conservative magazines, and sometimes made comments that assumed I had connections that stopped just short of the war room in the Republican administrations, an assumption of which I’m not sure I was ever able to disabuse him. He was himself much interested in, if not approving of, William F. Buckley Jr., a fellow Irishman, and every week read, or rather listened to, National Review, not because he approved of it—he didn’t—but because it was available on tape. In fact, we didn’t waste all that much time talking about politics, either.

Matt was lucky in his family, a son and two daughters, and lots of impressive grandchildren—one an attorney at City Hall, another an Olympic-quality speed skater until he decided to give up skating for a career in medicine—with a number of great-grandchildren added. His daughters live in Chicago, his son in Wisconsin, and they were devoted to him. One or another would pay him visits during the week, take him out for lunch or dinner on weekends; he was with them on all holidays. Often we would return from lunch to find a voicemail from one or another of them, David or Pat or Kitty, and sometimes from all three. They must have known that their father was an exceptional man, and none among them let him down.

Matt was grateful to the staff at Friedman Place, for their kindness and attentiveness to him. He did not complain about the food, with the exception of the turkey bacon (he preferred the real thing), which a Jewish institution was compelled to serve. What he missed was the company of fellow residents. “When I first moved in here,” he told me, “I expected all sorts of Jewish men of my own age with lots of stories and jokes to tell.” None, it turned out, were on the premises. He went to all of Roz Katz’s outings—to the classical music concerts, to plays, to boat rides on Lake Michigan—he took such classes as were offered (exercise, the history of popular music, opera, and others), and this provided diversion, but it wasn’t quite enough. What he was looking for was contemporaries with a high quality of schmooze. Which is, I suppose, where I came in.

Matthew Shanahan was as Irish as Joseph Epstein is Jewish. He had never finished high school, and I had taught (without advanced degrees of any kind) for 30 years at Northwestern University. He had grown up working-class and poor, I middle-class and comfortable. He was 20 years older than I, yet when with him, I felt in the company of a contemporary and a peer, and I think he felt close to the same about me. What we had in common was the city of Chicago, a certain bookishness, and amusement at human foibles, our own included, and a set of standards and values bred by the Depression and World War II that seemed to be on their way out.

From the moment he latched his seatbelt in my car around himself until the time nearly two hours later when I left him in his room at Friedman Place, Matt and I kept up a continuous flow of conversation. The conversation may have been more nonstop than normal because his blindness precluded all other distractions. Sometimes I would fill him in on a detail or two in the restaurant: a staggeringly beautiful young woman who just walked in, a new tattoo on the forearm of our waiter, an obese couple at a small table clearly nuts about each other. “Love,” I informed him a Romanian aphorist named E.M. Cioran wrote, “is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other.” He smiled. “That’s good,” he said.

Once he was safely seated in my car, I ceased to think of Matt as blind, with a few notable exceptions. On one occasion, as I was taking him back to Friedman Place after lunch, driving along the southernmost outer wall of Rosehill Cemetery headed toward Western Avenue, who should come jogging past from the opposite direction, in shorts, with his soft face, heavy white legs, and impossibly perfect hair, but our honorable and now jailed governor, Rod Blagojevich. In the company of anyone with eyesight, this would have been a conversation stopper, issuing in 15 minutes of talk about politics, corruption, the Blagojevich family political connections. But if you didn’t see it, as Matt didn’t, it didn’t really happen, and the event had no more significance than if a squirrel had crossed the path of the car.

The share of talk between us was roughly equal, though I believe Matt did a bit more of it than I, possibly because of his hearing-aid difficulties. His wife Arleane, who died 20 or so years before I met him, came up for fairly regular mention in his conversation, always with great respect. She was a serious, even a formidable, person and a true partner in his life. He would often bring up people he had worked with at Kraft Foods or the post office, from which he retired with a decent pension and excellent health insurance. He never told me this, but I later learned that after his wife’s death he had lived alone, in near and then total blindness, for 20 years in South Haven, doing his own shopping and cooking and arranging bridge games.

We talked a fair amount about words. He once asked me if every word in Yiddish was critical. I told him that I believe every one could at least be used ironically, including the prepositions. We used to fill each other in on the distinctions between such linguistic niceties as the difference between farther and further, each other and one anothernevertheless and nonetheless (of the latter, according to H.W. Fowler, there isn’t any). If either of us came upon an interesting or comical new word, he would report it to the other.

Matt never found passion in his work, or so I concluded. I once told him that he was missing the ambition gene, and he didn’t argue otherwise. Some of this may have derived from his missing out on a fuller education, which would have qualified him for more interesting work; some of it may have resulted from his coming of age in the heart of the Depression, when a job with security mattered more than challenging work. Yet as there was no self-pity in Matt, neither did I ever pick up the note of regret in him.

I wonder, though, if I wasn’t wrong. I have since come to think that, had he grown up in a different world, Matt might have been a writer. His powers of observation were strong. He was keen on analysis of character. He could distance himself nicely even from people he loved to scrutinize their weaknesses and strengths, their motives and illusions. His love of language and skill at manipulating it—he was very well-spoken—would have served him much better on the page than at the post office. Yet without formal education, and having to raise a family, and then with the intervention of the war, the very notion of work without a regular salary had to have been beyond conceiving to him.

We talked a fair amount about books. One week he listened to War and Peace being read by the old Shakespearean actor Alexander Scourby, and insisted that I hear a few paragraphs of Scourby’s magnificent performance. He was an amateur expert in the works of Marcia Davenport, whose memoir Too Strong for Fantasy he thought a fine book. We used to joke about his being the only man living who had read—years before, while he still had the use of his eyes—the autobiography of Loyal Davis, the neurosurgeon, locally (in Chicago) well-known anti-Semite, and father of Nancy Reagan.

He listened to serious books only, and when something reputed to be serious didn’t pass muster with him, he showed his dissatisfaction. With his natural highbrow taste, he wasn’t a fit member for the book-discussion groups he was sometimes asked to join. I always told him what I had been reading, and in some instances suggested he try to order it on tape. I put him on to reading Willa Cather, whom he came to admire. We never discussed what we read in any extended or analytical way. Our very last phone call—he was, alas, my call waiting, so our conversation was too brief—he told me that the library that supplied him with tapes had sent him the wrong ones, and he wanted me to suggest some titles to him for a quick reorder. I mentioned Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, a Love Story, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and then, alas, rang off.

Not long after we started going to lunch together, I began bringing him CDs. I brought him Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and Lee Wiley and Louis Prima and Blossom Dearie, which he enjoyed well enough. His true taste, though, ran to classical music, so I began to bring him Schubert sonatinas, Frescobaldi harpsichord pieces, Clementi piano works, the songs of Reynaldo Hahn, and others mildly off the war-horse beaten track. I would put these on the CD player in his room, and leave him listening to them. From my own selfish perspective, it felt better to me than leaving him alone in the silent dark.

Matt began to complain about his memory slipping from him. I found it still impressive to the last. Every so often he wouldn’t be able to call up the title of a book or movie or once famous athlete, yet not as frequently as all that; no more than was the case with me. Sometimes he left me with an assignment to check, on Google, a song lyric or the name of an old baseball player, and report back to him. The last item for which I did so was a Joni James song called “How Important Can It Be.” He wasn’t certain that the song really existed and, though the tune was playing in his head, if he wasn’t making it up.

During our last year together Matt told me that he had begun seeing, in his mind’s eye, cities of his own invention, entire urban landscapes filled in by his imagination. A sapient blind person would perforce live in his mind more than the same person with sight who has the visible world always before him for contemplation and distraction, but this creation of complete cities seemed to me a nice touch, and it gave him much pleasure. He told me he was also struck by observations that, he felt, should have occurred to him decades before. He mentioned in this connection a boy he grew up with who was able to beat him at all childish and boyhood games: marbles, mumbly-peg, sprinting, wrestling, everything. In recounting the story, Matt said that he didn’t mind losing to him in the least; he merely presumed the other’s superiority at games. (Competition, like strong ambition, apparently wasn’t in his nature.) Then much later in life, he met this fellow, now a middle-aged man, who showed no interest in him whatsoever. “I existed merely as someone for him to beat,” Matt said, “and when the games were over, so was any interest he had in me. But why did it take me more than eighty years to recognize this?” he asked.

What did we get out of each other? I had over Matt a somewhat wider experience of the world, but he had over me a deeper experience of the great events of our time. He had directly known the Depression and World War II, each of which had permanently marked him, while I lived only in their shadows, feeling chiefly their aftereffects.

He may have got from me authentication of a sort. He knew he was highly intelligent, but he hadn’t run into many people whom the world—that great ninny, as Henry James called it—agreed to certify as intelligent. As a former university teacher, the author of books, a contributor to intellectual magazines, I passed the certification test. And I always treated him as an intellectual equal, because he was.

What I got out of my lunches with Matt, along with much laughter, a nice feeling of comradeship, and bits of education about life in Chicago before my time, was a heightened sense of life’s possibilities, even when the odds are stacked against a man. Matt played on through blindness, near deafness, old age, felt life closing in on him, and kept his poise, humor, high spirits. The plain fact is that I admired him and was pleased to hear other people tell me that he looked forward to our lunches.

The last four months or so, we switched restaurants, leaving A Taste of Heaven, which had become too noisy on Fridays, for a place three blocks to the south on Clark Street called Svea, which specializes in thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce and the crisp bacon—spare the turkey—that was to Matt’s liking. Two doors and a double stoop had to be negotiated to enter, and the waitress, seeing us coming, held the second, inner door, open for us. I sensed Matt weakening physically. It was tougher for him to emerge from the front seat of my car; his always faltering walk became even slower. I sensed his already limited hearing was getting worse. His enthusiasm for talk, though, was undiminished. Toward the end he more than once said to me that he wasn’t sure how much longer we could count on going out to our lunches together. Nonsense, I told him. If need be, we would come to lunch in an ambulance.

Matt died at 2:30 a.m. in his sleep, I hope. The only thing he ever told me that he feared was a stroke, and he had avoided that. When I received a call about Matt’s death I was not shocked or even surprised—he was, after all, 94—but instead disappointed. We had more to tell each other. The other day I came across the word agnology, whose root is in the word agnostic, and whose meaning is the study of things that cannot be learned. Perfect item for Matt, I thought.

I think of myself about to leave his room. My hand is on the knob of the door; he is seated in his chair, facing a window out of which he sees nothing. Famous arias, or Mozart quartets, or Bach suites are playing on his CD machine. Matt Shanahan is alone in the dark, except that, with his mind, he was never alone, never in the dark, not really.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Essays in Biography, which will be published this autumn by Axios Press. His essay “Old Age & Other Laughs” appeared in the March issue.

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