Tuesday, 10 May 2011

How Nehemiah Klein probably saved my life

"Our lives are immersed in a sea of chance. Everyone's existence is a meeting point of a multitude of accidents." So wrote J.P.M. de Sá in a book called Chance: The Life of Games and the Game of Life. To that bit of wisdom you can add: blessings come in all sorts of disguises; and all's well that ends well.

I met Nehemiah Klein in 1956-57 when we were freshmen at Cornell. We hit it off and had a lot in common. We were both Brooklyn kids who agreed about pretty much everything important in life: baseball, the Dodgers, politics, classical music, Gilbert & Sullivan. When June, 1957 rolled around, I assumed we'd be making plans to share an apartment sophomore year, as our limited budgets required. To my surprise, when I brought up the subject, Nehemiah told me he'd decided to room with Peter Dickerman, another freshman from Brooklyn. I didn't say so, but I was a bit hurt. Nehemiah explained his decision: he and I were too much alike. He wanted to room with someone with different interests; "someone I can learn from" was the way he put it. Left scrambling for a roommate, I chose Eric Compton, a decent, jovial fellow I barely knew, a math major who liked classical music and was curious about jazz.

As it turned out, poor Nehemiah had a semester from hell. He and Dickerman couldn't have been more of a disaster as apartment-mates. After a few weeks and several major fights, one of them physical, they stopped speaking to each other entirely -- for the rest of the school year. Meanwhile, Compton and I spent sophomore year co-existing quite nicely.

Nehemiah and I remained friends. The snub had been a trivial one, quickly forgiven and forgotten, with no lasting after-effects save one: all the good things that have happened in my life have flowed directly from his bad decision in 1957.

Jump-cut to 1962. Two years out of Cornell, I'm spending a Saturday evening sitting in the Figaro, a Greenwich Village coffee-house, with my friend Eric Compton (whom, you must remember, I would never have known had Nehemiah roomed with me sophomore year). In walk two college girls, one of whom turned out to be Brooklyn Girl. The other girl was an acquaintance of Compton's -- a perfect excuse for them to join us at our table. We spent the evening yakking, drinking coffee, and playing Password (still a good parlor game, with simple rules). Brooklyn Girl and I were teammates in every Password round, and we were unbeatable -- the first clue that we had a special chemistry.

The evening ended, we left the Figaro and the girls headed for their subway station. At the last possible moment before BG descended the steps to the underground station, I summoned the courage to call out to her and ask for her telephone number. The rest, as they say, is family history. Baseball may be a game of inches, but life too can be a chancy thing, a game of inches, moments, of opportunities seized and opportunities missed.

I was pondering all this last Sunday, Mother's Day, as Brooklyn Girl and I sat around a festive dinner table with Brooklyn Baby and her Atlanta Guy, and the three grandchildren. As we celebrated I said a silent thanks to Nehemiah for choosing the wrong Brooklyn kid as his apartment-mate in 1957.

If Nehemiah had chosen the right Brooklyn kid 54 years ago, today there would be no Brooklyn Baby, no three grandchildren. They would never have existed. What would have happened to BG and to me is anybody's guess. Maybe it's an exaggeration to say Nehemiah saved my life; maybe not. Maybe he saved BG's life, too. She and I have often speculated about possible life-scenarios for us had we never met. Many of these scenarios are not pretty. As for Atlanta Guy, he'd probably be driving aimlessly around Terre Haute today thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?"

Thinking about the whole chain of circumstances and accidents gives me that eerie It's a Wonderful Life feeling.

As far as I'm concerned, the misery Nehemiah endured with Dickerman sophomore year was a sacrifice made on my behalf, one that made my life's happiness possible. When you bunt with a base hit in mind (as Nehemiah did) and you're unsuccessful (as Nehemiah was) but you advance the baserunner (that would be me), you still get credit for a sacrifice. Ask any official scorer.

This story is told with the express permission of Nehemiah Klein, who went on to a distinguished academic career. He and I remain in contact via email. We have a MAD pact. (For those too young to remember the Cold War, that stands for Mutually Assured Destruction.) Our agreement is this: I won't tell any Cornell anecdotes about him without his consent. In return, he won't quote any of my undergraduate poetry.


  1. Obviously, this one's for N. Klein -- on the Square! Seriously, I agree that the most important events in our lives are governed by forces (eddies, currents, zephyrs) that we don't understand at the time and of course cannot control. I think of how the Beloved and I met; I think of the girl in the white dress that Mr. Bernstein remembers every day of his life, and on. The Irish writer Frank O'Connor wrote a lovely story about this -- apparently reduced to the dimensions of childhood (but not really) called THE STUDY OF HISTORY, where a precocious little boy searches out his father's old flame (now married and with her own children) and tries to imagine what life would have been like had Father married her. Beautiful, funny, and deep. And the theme of the story that O'Connor wrote in his notebook -- before writing the story, to keep it in mind -- was "Who would I be if I weren't me?" Profound indeed. Happy is the man or woman who can look around and have reason to be grateful -- and express it!

    Cheers to you and the extended family, Kid!

  2. My friend Vivian de St. Vrain has emailed the following:

    "A good story, but you're too forgiving. This Klein character was a precious jerk. By the way, whatever happened to Dickerman? He must have been a piece of work."

    Believe it or not, the boorish, obnoxious Dickerman eventually became a rabbi. Many years ago I read that he was involved in a big scandal; something about an adulterous relationship and congregation funds. I lost track of him after that, but recently I heard from a friend that he now runs a subscription website dispensing spiritual advice.

  3. "Terre Haute: come for a visit, stay for a lifetime." That is, unless the fates intervene.

  4. Thankfully, the fates DID intervene. Much obliged, Nehemiah Klein!