I lived in Paris for most of the fall and winter, “writing a book”—the trusted rationalization that has enabled so much self-indulgence over the years. Paris is not hardship duty, once you realize that a second mortgage will be required if you want a sitdown cup of coffee in a café. (If you are willing to stand at the bar, a lien on your car will sometimes suffice.) A few days before Christmas, I stepped out onto the avenue de Suffren and turned toward the fruit stall about 20 yards away. I had been writing, in a desultory fashion; but my train of thought was repeatedly derailed by an eccentric but insistent impulse to go out and buy a pineapple. Only after a protracted struggle did I surrender to it. I had taken two strides toward the pineapples when I ran into a former Princeton student, now a Washington lawyer, accompanied by her parents. They had arrived the previous night to spend the holiday in Paris and were now walking straight toward me, down Suffren, in the mistaken belief that it would lead them to the Eiffel Tower.
That I immediately recalled her name was remarkable, but chance meetings with former students are so common that I have come half to expect one whenever I am in an interesting place. Just a few of the interesting places to date—excluding all New York venues, a dime a dozen—are the Santa Fe Opera, the Cleveland Art Museum, the Barcelona metro, an obscure trattoria in Siena, the Vinalhaven ferry in Maine, a hiking trail in Sonoma County, and a gas station in Heber Springs, Arkansas.
The persistence and frequency of these encounters might strike one as uncanny, but theoreticians of “synchronicity” (such as Arthur Koestler in The Roots of Coincidence) explain it away. Sociology and demography immediately reduce the odds from the billions to one to the mere hundreds of millions to one. After all, college graduates are more likely than some others to hang out in effete opera houses and art museums and Arkansas gas stations; most of the world never visits such places at all. Yet even if the supernatural status of these incidents is in doubt, I have nonetheless come to take an enormous pleasure in the manifestations of a highly selective celebrity that is among the spiritual rewards—the only ones worth talking about—of a long teaching career. Such encounters restore the merit to emeritus.
In Paris, I had the rare experience of recognizing my recognizer immediately. The usual experience is confrontation with a complete stranger uttering an unassailable truth: “Professor Fleming! You won’t remember me, but . . .”
Sometimes the incomprehension is mutual, as was the case in O’Hare Airport a decade ago. I was standing in one of those curious lanes of twoway traffic in which one lane is heading for the exit while the other, having passed security, is heading toward the departure gates. Across the great divide, moving south as I moved north, was a distinguished-looking fellow with a Gucci briefcase and an expensive overcoat. Upon seeing me, he had what appeared to be a myoclonic seizure. “Professor Uhh,” he shouted. “Professor Uhh . . . Uhh, Professor, I knew you at Princeton!”
I had no idea who this man was, yet I hesitated, awkwardly, aware of the possible menace to navigation. As in his enthusiasm he seemed to be threatening to vault over a Plexiglas security barrier, a few people in his lane, incipient rubberneckers, likewise paused to observe.
“You taught me ‘Money and Banking’! You changed my life . . .” he blurted out for all to hear.
Such an accolade must be music to any teacher’s ears, but eager as I was to accept the flattery, his statement seemed improbable to me for a simple reason: my field is medieval European literature. Still, when it comes to warm and fuzzy, you take what you can get.