Little City Beat / Twain talks

It'd been six years by calendar since last I saw the old buzzard in the garish white suit and no, I'm not talking Tom Wolfe, an imposter. No one believed I'd met him downtown on Main Street, conversed idly, and wrote it down for posterity. But I can't blame you for doubting me. It ain't easy seeing an apparition in the flesh or as he told me then, "You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."

So, I swear on a stack of Bibles. I'm not lying. It was him ambling down the Post Road again. I'd never think he'd make a return visit to our lovely little hamlet in 100 years. That's when a comet whisked him away to some distant cosmic body with Captain (recommended) Stormfield, as rumor has it. When I caught up with him in reflection, he appeared both annoyed and amused to counter me so soon.

Knowing all kinds of revisions on him were being shown and written, I asked him what he thought of his demise a century ago. Naturally, he replied just as he did before, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." But he added, seeing that that would not do, "Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all-the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and unloved."

This was bothersome to a dull mortal like me. So, I changed talk to happiness, something he wrote of often. He said, "To be busy is man's only happiness." I enquired harder and he obliged, "Happiness ain't a thing in itself -- it's only a contrast with something that ain't pleasant." Not satisfied, I pushed more, which stiffened his resolve to end the issue. He asked, "Are you so observant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination?" That question answered my own with authority.

We moved on to current events which he studied with bushels of mirth and muse. Leading economic indicators baffled him, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." After crediting Disraeli with that, he offered this on an economy of words and numbers, "Sometimes half a dozen figures will reveal, as with lightning-flash, the importance of a subject which ten thousand labored words, with the same purpose in view, had left at last but dim and uncertain." I was left dumbfounded, but he made his point.

I was on firmer ground when we flipped poker chips from Greenwich to Wall Street. When asked of casino investing, he replied quick, "There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate: when he can't afford it, and when he can." He struck quicker on quantitative derivative strategies, "It is sound judgement to put on a bold face and play your hand for a hundred times what it is worth; 49 times out of 50 nobody dares to call, and soon you roll in the chips." And then he wrapped our financial titans in his own call, "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it."

Sam was on a roll and he knew it. He saw my eyes glaze over. He wouldn't let go, "Beautiful credit. The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises?" He nailed our economics with a big hammer, "The lack of money is the root of all evil." And summed up the whole of American enterprise, "The rich don't care for anybody but themselves: it's only the poor that have feeling for the poor and help them." I was stunned.

He stopped at that point. He could tell I couldn't keep up. After a moment interlude, he invited a question on politics so as to inject levity. He offered brevity instead when asked about our hallowed halls of congress, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." He followed with a classic rebuke of power, "The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pick-pocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two." He captured the irony of arrogance.

Still dazed and confused, I prodded henceforth. What of the viewers who watch too much Fox? My inquiry was met with disdain, "I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine myself to facts." I sallied forth. What of tea and parties? More derision met my acquaintance. Mr. Clemons resorted to Kipling, "Get your facts first, and then distort them as much as you please." He finished with a fine flurry of finality, "All large political doctrines are rich in difficult problems--problem's that are quite above the average citizen's reach. And that is not strange, since they are above the average reach of the ablest minds in the country; after all the fuss and talk, not one of those doctrines has been conclusively proven to be the right one and the best." I dropped to the sidewalk in despair.

Mr. Twain told me to get up. He was only kidding me. He said that it was jest to suggest that, "There are times when one would like to hang the whole of humanity and finish the farce." Sensing my delusion, he offered the greatest quote that every woman, man, child, or other biped should live by, "Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live." I knew he was right and expressed my gratitude for his insight.

Time is fleeting as you well know. I wanted more. But his walk accelerated, indicating a hurried purpose. I pushed on before he pushed off. Where was he headed? To mine Nevada or pilot the Mississip? To fish with Huck in Hannibal or rejoin the family in Hartford? To rest in Redding or tramp abroad? The literary giant was brief, "Likely", he said.

Finally, I sought an answer to the ultimate question I had to understand above all others. I wondered aloud if he was immortal. For the first time, he smiled, "I have long ago lost my belief in immortality-also my interest in it." The rock of ages moved a fraction in that moment.

Then he turned the corner and vanished into thin air. I haven't seen him since. And that is the honest truth whether you believe it or not.

Dan Vasone's column is published each month in the Fairfield Citizen.