Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Famous Last Words
Many years ago, more than forty, I had a bizarre and frightening experience that remains vivid in my memory. I was at that point, probably the mid-Seventies, a still youngish scholar of the sort ambiguously described as “promising”, and I took any opportunity offered me to participate in the larger discussion among medieval scholars in America and, when possible, abroad. That meant that I was frequently a guest speaker at institutions other than my own, and that I frequented and spoke at many scholarly conferences on various topics in Medieval Studies. In those years, the State University of New York at Binghamton had a very active Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS), and I several times participated in their annual conferences. The first of these I remember was devoted to the topic of “Courtly Love”. I was amused to find myself housed in a rather shabby motel in a place called Vestal—you know, as in Vestal Virgins.
A few years later there was a Chaucer conference. Entrepreneurial professors in the sciences, also known as STEM-winders, practically trip over the bundles of money people are eager to give them for research. We humanists have to make do. One of the ways the CEMERS folks were trying to make do for this particular conference was by finding free accommodation for speakers, thus considerably reducing the conference budget. A friend of mine on the Binghamton faculty wrote with the following proposal. His daughter had an apartment in town. If another of the invited speakers and I were willing, the daughter would return to the family hearth for a couple of nights and let me and this fellow use her digs as a free hotel. The proposed roommate was a friend who taught at the University of Illinois, and would be driving from Urbana. We were given elaborate instructions as to how to find the apartment, and to retrieve its key hidden beneath the statutory loose brick. I got there rather late, but first. In fact I was the only one who got there at all. I later learned that my Illinois friend had become lost in the maze of Interstate exits and, winding up in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson’s, had just gone with the flow.
As for me, I went to bed, and slept fine until about two-thirty or three, when I was wakened by a ringing telephone. I waited for the call to go to a message machine, but there was no message machine. I then waited for the ringing to stop, but it simply did not stop. After what I judged was a full five minutes of ringing, though it might have only been two, I made the giant mistake of answering the phone. “Hello,” I said.
Immediately I heard an enraged male voice, almost certainly chemically amplified, screaming at me. “Donna! I want to talk to Donna. Put that bitch on the line!...” etc., etc. I then made my next mistake. I stayed on the line and tried to explain. “Donna is not here,” I explained. “She, er, loaned me her apartment. I’m just sleeping here.” That didn’t sound convincing even to me. “Oh, yeah?” said the menacing voice, “you expect me to effing believe that, you effer? Give her the phone! I’m gonna kick her ass.” Unfortunately, I persisted. Remember, I was in a highly disorienting situation. I was in a strange place. It was the middle of the night. My interlocutor seemed to be from a social group with which I had had only literary experience. So I said the following stupid thing: “Look, this is a simple mistake. I am a speaker. I…”
Now the return voice took on a sudden spurious coherence. “Oh,” it said, “a speaker. Well, it just so happens that I am a speaker, too. In fact, I am speaking to you right now, and what I want to speak about it the thirty-eight that is in the glove compartment of my truck. So shall we have speaks?” “What I mean…” I started, but got nowhere. “Look,” said the voice, “I think I’ll just drive over now. I know where that little place is…” Finally I slammed the phone down, then picked it up immediately. I put a pillow over the receiver to try to silence the rapid bleepbleepbleep off-the-hook sound. Then I spent about three hours of sleepless, silent terror peeking out of the Venetian blinds imagining the approach of headlights on the dark, wet street.
Day dawned, I drove on to the conference site, drank coffee, attended several interesting talks, gave a talk of my own. At the end of the day there was a social hour. I am a medievalist, but before that a father. If there was an armed madman out there looking to kick my daughter’s ass, I’d want to know about it. Overcoming my embarrassment, I approached my friend, whom I shall call George. “George," I said, “This is rather embarrassing, but I need to tell you about…about a scary phone call. Some guy called for Donna, and…”
“Donna?” he said, puzzled. “Who’s Donna?”