As we move from snow season to mud season to tree-trimming and roadwork season, I found myself stuck in traffic on Route 77 yesterday thinking about serendipity. When I attended college, the school’s President used to give a speech at the opening of the year in which he talked about the joys of serendipity. His favorite metaphoric exhortation was to tell us go to the library and instead of taking out the book we were looking for, count down the shelf a few more and take out that one. You would, he said, be surprised what that serendipity could bring you.
The fact that he gave the same speech all four years might have lessened the impact of his message, but there you are.
I drove up to Brunswick the other day to visit my old friend Gary Lawless, proprietor (with his wife Beth Leonard) of Gulf of Maine Books. I like to drop in occasionally, both to see what the two of them are up to (Gary’s soon off to a conference in Athens that will include an evening cocktail party in the Acropolis, not formal, I hope for his sake) and see what new poetry they’ve come up with. This visit was, however, a little more serendipitous than I’d expected.
As Gary and I caught up, a blocky white-haired chap in a light poplin jacket and a black T-shirt celebrating Portuguese wines walked in.
Gary says to me, “You need to talk to this guy. He comes from Boston, too.”
For reasons that will become obvious, I can’t keep the man’s anonymity. When he opened his mouth, I was pitched back decades to my years growing up in Boston by the most perfect rendition of the Boston Irish accent I’d heard in years. Pure as the Guinness at the Eire Pub in Mattapan. Pure as the mean streets of Charlestown.
We went back and forth a bit about neighborhoods, high schools, places and people we both knew and some only one of us knew. We graduated from high school the same year, during the bussing crisis and the time of Woodstock and Abbey Road and the first man on the moon, and though I toddled off to Maine and other far reaches, this fellow—call him Bobby—stayed home in Boston, starting out on the Fire Department and rising to a high position as an inspector. His knowledge of Boston was deep and broad, the way only a true insider could have it, and if you’ve read my books, you know that what I really wanted to do was mine his brain for all the anecdote and history I could steal. I did collect one story about a faintly risqué version of collecting money to buy toys for poor children at Christmas time that I assure you will find its way into another Elder Darrow story.
But the best story came halfway through our conversation. I like to think it was because by then I’d established my bonafides as a son of the Hub, if not of the Sod, that he felt he could confide in me about the night he was drinking in the Plough and Stars.
If you know Cambridge, you know the Plough and Stars as an Irish Pub on the corner of Mass. Ave and Hancock Street, not too far a walk down from Harvard Yard. My new friend Bobby was drinking at the bar there one afternoon, no doubt skiving off from some important Fire Department duty, and entered a conversation with a bulky man on the stool next to him. (Do I need to mention that Bobby could converse for the Irish Olympic team, if there was such a thing?)
“Bobby,” he says, putting his big hand across to shake the man’s beside him.
“Seamus,” the fellow said and pointed to the man on his left. “This is my friend Derek.”
The two men returned to their conversation about literature and the perils of teaching at Harvard as Bobby listened in.
If you infer from this that my new friend Bobby had just met Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, you’d be correct. What you wouldn’t know was that Bobby himself would develop a decades-long friendship with Heaney, eventually resulting in this lovely poem. And Bobby himself, in a sort of homage, took years of classes at Harvard with a view to becoming a poet himself and has published widely and well since then.
All of which only served to confirm what I already knew, which was that if you hold your eyes and ears and your heart open, serendipity will favor you. As it did with Bobby forty years ago in the Plough and Stars. As it did with me yesterday afternoon at Gulf of Maine Books. And the library may have nothing to do with it.