Sunday, October 07, 2018

'I Began to Taste Also of the Infused Bitter'

In 1986, when I was working as the court reporter for a newspaper in Albany, N.Y., I was assigned to escort a young reporter from Karachi named Hassan Jafri on my rounds. The paper had entered into an international exchange program for journalists. Hassan accompanied me to all the levels of the justice system we covered, from municipal police court to the New York State Court of Appeals (the highest in the state), and on to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District. He found Police Court most amusing (as did I) and reminiscent of what he knew of criminal justice in Pakistan. It was noisy and crowded. People – defendants, lawyers, family members, bail bondsmen, hangers-on – milled about, complaining, advising or crying. Anybody might show up. I met Mike Tyson there after one of his riotous nocturnal visits to Albany. Hassan was delighted to know Judge Keegan wore a revolver under his robe.

While seated in Police Court, Hassan told me he had made a sort of Hajj to Baltimore before flying to Albany. How come? This was his first visit to the United States. Wasn’t Baltimore our cultural capital? This was news to me, so he explained. Hassan had three sites to visit, three writers to honor. Mencken, of course. That was obvious. So was Poe, who died in Baltimore and is buried there. The third was a surprise. Hassan loved F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived in the city from 1932 to 1937, and while there finished writing Tender Is the Night. This kid from Karachi educated me about my own literature, while I still know nothing of his. Fitzgerald writes in his story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”:

“Never a party of any kind in the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and reproachful eyes.”

It all came back to me because this is Fleet Week in Baltimore, a city I still have never visited, except for the airport. My middle son is a plebe at the United State Naval Academy, and on Thursday he took a yard patrol boat from Annapolis to Baltimore, for his first extended liberty. He enjoyed the waterfront and toured ships from the U.S. and Canadian fleets, including his first submarine. He and a fellow plebe shared a hotel room. The streets of Baltimore at night, he said, are scary. Henry James visited the city during his return to the U.S. after twenty years in 1904-05. In Chap. 10 of The American Scene (1907), he writes:

“Baltimore put on for me, from the first glance, the form of the silver cup filled with the mildest, sweetest decoction; but I had no sooner begun to taste of it than I began to taste also of the infused bitter.”

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