Sunday, June 12, 2011

glasses & ghosts

It's that time of year again, and I've been doing my end-of-semester clearing of the office desk.  Mostly this involves trying to remember the questions and problems resulting in that book pile accumulating dust on the corner of said desk these last few months.

One of the books in question is a ratty old 1963 edition of Seymour Lipset's Political man: the social bases of politics.

I was flipping through the pages of this particular book recently (gently, trying not to dislodge any more than absolutely necessary from its frail dessicated binding) when a card fell out.  One of those doctor appointment cards.  For one Mr. Charles Tilly, dated Monday, Dec. 10, 1951, 4:15pm.  (You can tell it's authentic by the way the 195 are printed while the 1 is handwritten, and also by the old school telephone number and the yellowing edges.)

Charles Tilly died a couple years ago here in New York City at the age of 78, which would have made him a mere 22 at the time of that long-ago doctor's appointment with one William P. Beetham who, it turns out, was a rather renowned Boston-area ophthalmologist.

I started taking a class on social movements and "contentious politics" with Charles Tilly, who was on the Columbia faculty for the last decade or so of his life. I dropped out of school a few weeks in to that particular semester, and though I never got around to taking another class with him after I came back to New York, I never forgot how engaging he was, how dynamic and funny and compelling.

I don't remember him wearing glasses, though.  And I've been wondering at the improbability of this card turning up sixty years after the doctor's appointment in question.  Sixty years on, and there it's been in this book on my desk for the last few months.  Did someone -- a colleague, a spouse, a child -- finally go through his office and return all his library books last winter?  Did he keep it intentionally or was it just one of those things, those tidbits, that linger, tucked away in an old coat pocket or wallet?

It seems almost like fate, or a last faint haunting echo, though I don't really know how.

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