I walked down Third Street to The Highlands to check out the pictures I had set up on easels in the lobby, displaying some old photos of the neighborhood, explaining the history of the landscape before the assisted living quarters were built. On the asphalt parking lot in front of the entrance, I saw Doctor Joe. He was puffing away at his pipe. I asked him what his favorite, fragrant tobacco was. I told him I used to smoke Briggs, with the tin that said, “When a Feller Needs a Friend.”
I don’t call my new friend “Joe.” I call him more properly, “Dr. Baruch.” I recognize him from a prior glimpse. He stands at the portal like a host, casual and smiling. I know the slight European accent. To me it says, he came from Budapest, Hungary. I have visited his native city and country in quest of information about the victims, rescuers and survivors of the Nazi occupation in World War II. I am eager to find out something about my neighbor who dwells behind my back yard.
Don’t ask too many questions, I warn myself. You may intrude too suddenly upon his inner memories. So, instead, I tell him about my friendships here on the East Side of Providence and drop some names. I show off my familiarity with the hero of Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg, who set up a house to serve as neutral Swedish headquarters for the production of papers that might protect Jewish, and other, citizens in danger of deportation to the death camps.
“Did you know or witness Wallenberg?” I made so bold as to inquire. “No, but I knew of him,” he answers, in a not-unfriendly, not wary, tone. And so, in short order, I get an outline. How he put in his time in a slave labor camp. How he hid out with a kindly family. That he made his way after liberation westward to Vienna, where he became acquainted with the Auschwitz survivor, Victor Frankl. “He wrote a book about his recovery,” Dr. Baruch said briefly. I answered, “I know his philosophy ... he called his therapy, ‘Meaning’.”
“In 1948, I succeeded in coming to America,” concluded Dr. Baruch, whose name means “Blessed.” He was saved perhaps, in part, by his inner serenity, the quality that attracted me the first time I saw him here among the automobiles, under a calm blue October sky. I was, for the moment, satisfied with this brief interlude, in hopes that, somehow, we might meet again, over a cup of tea. I found a treasure in my yard on a sunny Sunday.
As I climbed back upward on Third Street, a hillside of small bungalows that abuts the environment of The Highlands, I saw the fall flowers around the tree trunks at the sidewalk and felt the pleasure of being moved by those few moments in the aroma of the pipe – a sort of peace pipe – in the company of just the person I had been seeking.
Hasids claim that whoever crosses your path serves as a sort of angel or messenger. I found mine in Dr. Joe.
Mike Fink (email@example.com) teaches at RISD.