Monday, May 18, 2009
All natural resources aren't vegetable or mineral. Isaac Asimov's business card read "Natural Resource."
Shortly after Isaac died, his widow Janet and I reminisced over lunch. We both acknowledged that thanks, or no thanks, to Isaac's encyclopedic brilliance, we'd forgotten how to look things up. She would walk into the next room, I would pick up the phone, to ask him anything. I think he knew everything.
The prolific author/genius didn't resemble his byline. He had a tenor voice, white muttonchops and always wore a bolo tie.
He called, excitement and laughter in his voice on this occasion, to tell me an incomparable tale. Isaac belonged to a group of intellects called "The Trap Door Spiders," who met once a month. He trapped me twice by taking me to a private dinner with them where they grilled the guest, who was me--initially, without warning--on a topic he was deemed expert on. The first time I was the Middle East expert; the second, knowing I was dessert, I was the lyric maven. To Isaac's delight (and my relief), I fared well.
When Isaac and his fellow scientists and savants emerged from one of their chambered dinners, they found Manhattan in the throes of a thunderous downpour. Finding an available taxi was impossible. In all his years in New York, Isaac had never once taken a subway or a public bus, and he refused to do so now. (Whenever we went anywhere together, he insisted on taking a taxi, and on paying for both of us.) After thirty minutes huddled in a doorway with no let-up in the rain, his cohorts insisted that he take the subway with them; there was no other way to get home.
So, Isaac descended a New York subway station with them and boarded his first underground train. Which he regretted immediately. A band of rough-looking, dark-skinned youths stood diagonal to Isaac's bearded brood of graying eggheads and longhairs and the biggest of them, the gang's leader, kept looking over at the men. Isaac grew more unnerved by the minute. When the train got to his station, he hated himself for having (and wanting) to get off, but the others insisted. What possible good could he do, these logical men reasoned, and ordered him to go. Isaac rushed the short distance from the subway exit to his building, then into his apartment and to his phone, dialing and redialing the number of the man whose stop was next. Relieved when the man finally picked up the phone, he wanted to know what ensued and how the others were.
"As soon as the subways doors closed behind you and the train started to move," the man told him, "'the leader' walked over to me. He said something to me, but I was so nervous I couldn't hear him. He spoke again, but the blood was throbbing in my ears and I didn't recognize a word he was saying! He was mumbling something, and my heart, Isaac, was pounding so! I was terrified of making him angry. Finally, I heard him! He was asking - 'Was that Isaac Asimov?'"