1971: The Author Meets Rene Benet
Cambridge Common: where sheep once safely grazed; where George Washington committed treason to his King and took command of the Continental Army; where a delicate Lincoln and a Stalinesque Somebody stood enshrined above bronze placards listing those fallen in battle to preserve the Union -- next to spray-painted proclamations of revolution and gay power; where the Best and the Brightest trod the same earth as the Venal and the Venereal. The Common: a flat six acres of tough city-park snaggle-grass, crisscrossed by shaded bench-lined macadam pathways, surrounded on all sides by traffic and then by the fenced yard of our beloved university, brick apartment houses and three churches, one bespotted with lead from English muskets.
In winter, Cambridge Common was a desolate turf I crossed directly and in haste between one heated space and some other. But in spring, the birds sang, the sun beamed warmly and, after months of overcoats, a bounty of braless breasts bobbled beautiful under T-shirt and muu-muu and proletarian denim. The shrill of flute, the rhythm of the Congo and bongo, the strum and plunk of stringed instruments lamenting unrequited Appalachian love from an all-PhD band filled the air along with smells of fresh grass, dog-fertilized earth and burning hemp. Transformed by the miracle of spring, Cambridge Common became the Hong Kong of New England, a crossroad, a confluence of energies, an exotic bazaar. Merchandise to delight the eye lay spread upon blankets beside the pathway: beads and leathercraft, painting and potterings, jewelry, incense, pipes, hats, sandals, candles, everything handmade for barter to the people of this plaisance: "O brave new world that has such people in't"; poets and scholars and priests with collars, frizzy-haired foot-bared face-painted adolescents from the suburbs, Chinese graduate students in pressed short-sleeved shirts; winos, dopers, trippers, sniffers, poppers and shooters; tall Afro'd bare-armed blacks, middle-aged balding bare-chested freaks, wild-haired genius Jewish frisbee-throwers, and even a few plain ordinary people looking a bit confused by this circus, this stronghold of the counterculture, this surge of refractory youth.
It was here, in 1971, that I first met Rene Benet. I was sunning myself on a bench, soaking a little June warmth into my bones like an old dog lying on a tar road, enjoying the passing parade and the luxury of nothing whatsoever to do, when I saw, coming onto the Common, a tall bearded man wearing a green windbreaker. Not the pale faded gray-green of the surgeon, but the rich vital green-green of the grasshopper. This grasshopper had not come to hop and play, however, for strapped over his shoulder was a box inscribed "SHINE 35¢." I was interested at once, shoeshine boys being so prominent in the literature of success. Yet he was certainly not a boy, closer to forty I guessed, the slight softness about his middle held in place by a broad leather belt with a peace-symbol buckle. Grasshopper eased onto the scene with the loping gait of a natural athlete, a loose-jointed progression of parts in subtle rhythms, a sort of sexy indolence. He selected the bench across from mine and laid his brushes and bottles along the pavement. Looking carefully one way and then the other, he pulled a green bottle from a paper bag and drank deeply. I was surprised to see it was Perrier water. He solicited a pair of Oxfords almost at once and I admired the professionalism with which he juggled his brushes and popped his rags.
I dirtied my impeccable British shoes and offered myself as a customer to have a closer look. Grasshopper was really quite handsome under his graying red beard. The little marks of a good nature around his eyes gave him a whimsical, bemused air.
I opened the conversation: "You must get a lot of business from the class reunions this time of year."
"Yes. It really is fun seeing old friends again," he answered.
"Sure," he said. "Rene Benet, class of '54." This without breaking the rhythm of his brushes.
The horror of it! A Harvard man, shining shoes! A stunning instance of a failed life! It took me some moments to gain composure. "Harvard myself," I said. "Lionel Goldfish, class of 1912."
He nodded. I could not resist a little probe: "Wouldn't you be, um, embarassed to attend a reunion when you, uh, have not . . ."
"Made a lot of money?"
"Well, I must admit I've given that some thought," he said, then fell silent, concentrating on his work.
Having my shoes shined felt good. How else does an old dog like me get any personal attention except by paying for it? The delicate massage of the instep as he applied the second coat of polish made me close my eyes, and I began to drift, as in the barber's chair. Delicious. But a tap on the bottom of my sole woke me. My feet yearned for more. Rene Benet rose from his knees, a bit stiffly, and sat on the bench beside me. I felt discomfited, as once before when a waiter in a restaurant sat down at my table after bringing me dessert. But that was in Dubrovnik, and the waiter was not Harvard.
"I suppose it would be fun to walk into one of those green and white striped reunion tents in the Yard looking like Scrooge McDuck," he said, "but that's not how things seem to have turned out." He stretched out his long legs and crossed them at the ankles.
"But shining shoes . . .! What would you tell your classmates?"
"Most likely, I'd tell them I shine shoes."
"Why on earth do you do such a thing?"
"I need the money."
"Ah. You're doing it on a bet?"
"Mr. Goldberg . . ."
"Mr. Goldfish, I shine shoes. I like to shine shoes. It's good outdoor work. Believe me, I'm very happy shining shoes."
I found that impossible to accept from a Harvard man. Fair Harvard. A billion dollars sheltering and nurturing the finest minds of our times. Harvard, so magnificent that the boasts of that inferior seminary down the coast and that yapping Nobel prize-crazed parvenu public school on the Pacific have less significance than the rapist ant on the elephant's leg. Harvard, whose legion of jealous detractors can do no more than jeer at the brave band of amateur sportsmen who gather to play football on fall afternoons, no more than cast vile aspersions upon the sexual preferences of the undergraduates. And now this impossible fellow was trying to tell me he was content to shine shoes. I pointed out to him, with some care, the discrepancy between his education and his employment. He sighed and took a long drink from his Perrier bottle, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Mr. Goldfish, no one gives a flying fig about Harvard any more," he said. "Shining shoes, however -- now that's useful work. For which, incidentally, you have not paid."
Did shining shoes mean he was above pride, beneath contempt, or was it evidence of desperate poverty -- a poverty that permits no pride? What a snob I was! The man did work. He certainly wasn't rolling in the gutter. He seemed happy, well fed, almost sleek. And there was an element of brazen courage in shining shoes where he was certain to run into old acquaintances. I gave him credit for style, character, even breeding: a failure who still managed to keep his dignity. After a lifetime of the adulation of success, I was beginning to recognize eminence in failure, that amour propre which separates the person who tosses himself like a lump off the Golden Gate Bridge and the person who executes a perfect swan dive all the way down. I was suddenly moved to compassion, desired to take some small portion of my own financial success and use it to ease the lot of one who had not just failed (God makes far too many of those for private charity to embrace), but one who had failed with distinction. Thus, the naissance of the Goldfish Fund for Notable Failures: I gave Rene five dollars for the shine and refused change.
"I hope you are putting aside a portion of everything you earn," I said. He was unmoved, the rascal; his thank-you was perfunctory.
"So what do you have to say to your classmates at your reunion?" he asked, while pocketing the bill. "Back when you did what you did, what did you do?"
I told him of my modest success as a writer of success books.
"Good Lord!" he said. "A Harvard graduate writing success books?"
"I beg your pardon, Sir!"
"No offense, Mr. Goldfish. I understand. We all do what we must. But success books . . .! However remunerative to the author . . ."
"I've never read any of your books, of course . . ."
". . . but I must say I have always looked upon success books as a sort of . . . sort of pornography of the human spirit."
I was flabbergasted! This washout, this wastrel, this derelict, this dud, this no-good, this nothing, this fizzle, this -- this failure -- was critical of me!
I took my hat off and mopped my forehead. "Mr. Benet, I'm not completely unsympathetic, mind you. I admit my books may have had a commercial flavor about them that was not always too savory, and I am fully aware that in the long run, as everyone knows, you really can't beat The System."
At this, Rene let out a chortle. He sat up straight and turned to face me with a big smile. "Of course you can beat The System, Mr. Goldfish. I've beaten The System."
"Sure. What's more, I can tell you how to beat The System, too."
"An absolutely amazing investment opportunity, I assume."
"No, no, no, Mr. Goldfish, that's your line of work. I mean what I said. I know how to beat The System." He looked so sincere, I was certain he was up to something.
I'm not sure what you mean," I said. "I was just making conversation. 'The System' is a, well, a figure of speech, is it not?"
"That's where you're very wrong. Believe me, I know all about The System -- from the inside."
This was preposterous. A superannuated shoeshine boy who claimed to know "how to beat The System." I wondered if he rowed with both oars in the water. How could a Harvard man have come to such a sorry state? Yet my curiosity was a-tingle. I sensed an interesting story here. Maybe it was just the words "how-to" making me prick up my ears like an old hound hearing a bugle sound the call to hunt. Perhaps it was his brass that intrigued me: that unmistakable quality of total self-confidence in the midst of what could only be adversity.
I decided to play along: "You, yourself, have actually beaten The System, have you? Impressive! You must tell me all about it."
He seemed delighted. He stood up and shook my hand warmly. "I would love to -- all about it. But right now, I have to run along and meet my wife. Why don't you come back here tomorrow for another shine and I'll begin?"
"Well, it's a long story. You wouldn't want me to rush into it, would you?"
"How long?" I had only meant to humor the man and now I was facing the possibility of endless shoeshines at five dollars a throw.
"My story -- the important part -- goes back almost two years, to the summer of 1969," he said. "See you tomorrow." And he loped away, whistling.
This is his story.
Copyright © 1987 by Denison Andrews