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July 26, 2000
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John Pierwiewski is all through with his retirement. It ended last Tuesday, when he died.
Even though he was a neighbor, I didn't know him at all in life, but I got intimately acquainted with him this Sunday. After church, I saw a sign that said "Estate Sale" pointing up the good side of the hill. I parked, mainly wanting to check out the house. ("And hey, what's it selling for?") Mr. P had 1400 splitlevel sq feet on the side of the hill, and a great view from Los Feliz all the way to the ocean, about ten miles, and with the Hollywood Hills on the right. The realtor noted that the street which Mr. P. looked directly down was Sunset--"perhaps the only house in LA that is perfectly in line with the straight strip of Sunset".
In the house, beyond the view, there was not much. The usual disregard for furnishings that accompanies a long illness (yeah, sigh, AIDS). Too old carpet, not 70's shag but the next thing, the stuff with the too thick pile. Avocado green appliances that never looked new.
With little incentive, I went downstairs. And there were the books.
Mr. P, it turns out, was once heading to be a classics scholar. I was able to read a lot about him, not just through his book collection, but in his high school and college yearbooks. In college (Catholic) he took honors in Latin and Greek, was head of the Classics Club, and won a year of post graduate study in Rome. The signatures in the yearbooks were full of optimism for a budding classics career.
The estate administrators told me that they were unaware of this. It figures. You can have friends over for years without disclosing a shred of your interior life. These late innings acquaintances, younger than he, really barely knew him.
There were in the bookcases dozens of books, all in immaculate condition, that I had been meaning to buy but never had. Ovid Metamorphosis in Latin, with English underneath. An Oxford Classical Dictionary. Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights, three volumed and boxed. Thrillingly, every incarnation of Mencken's The American Language, and all the supplements. Lots of Kierkegaard long out of print, lots of out of the way Sartre and Camus--for Mr. P., like for Gore Vidal (whose memoirs I recently picked up at yet another estate sale), "Philosophy" ended with Sartre and Camus. (I've never read The Transcendence of Ego, but just flicking through the first few pages it seems that this book is the springboard for all of Deleuze and Guattari and the anti-Oedipal stream of psychology). Cicero. Moses Hadas, A History of Greek Literature, wrapped in a mylar book cover. All these in immaculate condition.
Even though it was the final hour of the final day of the sale, none of these books had disappeared, despite hundreds of people walking through the house.
* * *
Now it is a scant two days later, and I have much of Mr. P's classic collection, and haven't had an idle moment, including lunch at the bank, in which I haven't perused something that used to belong to him. (Cicero's De Senectute, barely longer than ten Selena posts, came in very handy yesterday on the Tag Heuer board.) Summer reading? Some of this is stuff I've wanted to digest all my life, not merely this year. Some of it is terra cognita, and some of it is only vaguely familiar--I read the Metamorphosis over two nights in college about twenty-five years ago, and scarcely remember a word of it. Mencken I quote all the time and never read.
* * *
Of course, I can't summarize the experience or draw conclusions from this bounty, because it remains too open ended. Perhaps I'll read every book this summer, and perhaps I won't read a tenth of them. But it seemed appropriate to encounter De Senectute first, in honor of Mr. P, who died at the same age of Cicero--and both of them were at an age we consider the crespecule of retirement. Mr. Cicero is of the opinion that you plan best for old age by cultivating not a relationship to money, but by a relationship to arts and letters. Mr. P seemed to agree. The modern notion that most of your retirement planning should go to a 401k--or that you need to hoard money at all--for a grand old age would possibly have horrified the former. In fact, we seem only interested in denying that old age, or even a cooling off, exists, instead placing our faith in medical advances that can stave it off until some unfortunate and hideous last possible tube-dependent moment. Let Mr. Cicero take it from here:
Although, in spite of this general reverence for age, many old men are peevish and irritable, it is because they imagine themselves overlooked and neglected. Their very weakness makes them more touchy. Yet a remedy can be found in the training of the character, and a love for artistic pursuits. An old man should be grave, not bitter; above all, not avaricious: for avarice in old age is contemptible, nay, incomprehensible; it makes a man gather together an ever-increasing provision for a journey which is ever growing shorter.
Retirement planning? An estate sale can be a great place to start.
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