Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Do tears not yet spilled wait in small lakes?"  ~ Pablo Neruda

On Wednesday two men I've never met died. One of them is known by most of the English-writing world. The other one was, I think, known by only one or two, and, maybe by no one at all.

William Zinsser wrote "On Writing Well," a book that is mandatory reading by anyone thinking about writing… even writing a good letter. He said things like:

       "Clutter is the disease of American writing."

       "We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon." 

        "Simplify, simplify!"

        "Few people realize how badly they write."

        "Clear thinking becomes clear writing. One can't exist without the other."

I read in his obituary that he "played show tunes on the piano while a friend played the sax." I'm not surprised. To be as good a writer as he was, he had to have a "wonderful ear - for music, for writing, and for life," as he was described in the newspaper obit. He was a soldier in World War II, a newspaper journalist, a member of the English faculty at Yale University, and, lately, he even authored a blog.

His book, "On Writing Well," has sold over 1,000,000 copies, and one of those is sitting in one of my bookcases right now. I think I have his book, "Writing to Learn," as well, but I'm sure I don't have another of his books, "Writing With a Word Processor." I'm using a MacBook, and I don't have to know much of anything to use this "machine!"

Your influence on writing in the English language is priceless, clear, and critically important, Mr. Zinsser. (Oops, I used an adverb!) I inferred from his writing, and taught my students, that if you pick the best noun, you don't need adjectives. If you pick the best verb, you need no adverb. Adjectives and adverbs are just sentence props because the author didn't choose potent nouns and verbs.

Thank you, Mr. Zinsser, for influencing so many 20th and 20-first century writers with your ideas, sir.

The other man who died on the same day was known by nearly no one, I think. He sat in a wheelchair staring at the traffic racing along a busy Southern California 6-lane street that travels the length of the snake-narrow city of Anaheim for nearly 12 miles. He had a dirty-white bandage around the top of his head. Part of it was always loose and snaked down his forehead, nearly to his nose.

He was always there, this tall, empty-eyed man in the wheelchair who spent his days watching the traffic go by. I saw him every week when I drove down there to meet a close friend for lunch. That is, until last Wednesday.

The traffic was frenzied and busier than usual. The red light was longer than usual, and I stopped behind two cars in front of me at that light on that street with the man in the wheelchair, waiting for the green. 

The wheelchair was there, but the man was doubled over. His full, uncombed, shaggy hair on the very top of his head was snarled in the grass on the ground by his feet. His forearms and hands were splayed on that ground on either side of his head. There was no sign that those hands had tried to break his fall. His limp fingers were so relaxed and still. 

I knew he was dead. I looked at his side to see if there was any movement, any sign of him breathing. There was none. The red light stubbornly refused to turn green.

How long had he been there, dead? Hundreds of cars passed him by, but there he lay. Wonder how long he'd been like that…  just a foot from the sidewalk, half of him still in his chair. 

Two cars behind me was a police car. They would see him and check on him and call for back-up, I supposed. They must have, because two hours later, when I drove back home from lunch, he was gone... no trace that he'd ever been there… no trace that he'd ever lived on this earth, this man I saw nearly every Wednesday for two years.

I remember him, and I will for a little while, but then I'll forget. And it makes me very sad that a person can be present, right there in front of me, but left out, even when he's dead.

1 comment:

  1. When I reread this piece, I'm afraid that readers might think it was terrible that I didn't call 911 or something, but I knew the police car back of me was coming there for him. Even though there was no siren blaring, they were there to see what had happened. No one could miss seeing a man in a wheelchair bent over so the top of his head rested on the ground in front of him with his upward palms facing towards the sky. It was a very sad, very haunting scene. Without even thinking, I looked for him again yesterday as I drove to my lunch date, before I realized he'd never guard that sidewalk again...