The Ghosts of the City
Odds are that anyone reading this might not even know what a homburg hat is, they've become so scarce. It is certainly not the racy wide-brim, Aussie inspired, fedora that guys who fancy themselves bush pilots wear these days. Nor was the man's cigar the cigar of the usual hot young lawyer on the make, underneath that bush-pilot fedora, thumbing through a brief of major importance while smoking under the eaves outside the street door.
It wasn't a slim, dark, rich, and almost chocolate scented corona maduro, insanely expensive because it was grown in Nicaragua from hand-picked Cuban seed tobacco by venerable Cuban exiles. It was just a really big, blunt cigar, not cheap, not outlandishly expensive, the sort of cigar you could imagine Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, rolling in a cigar factory back in his skilled trade days in New York City.
He founded the AFL, by the way, just a few short blocks from where I was walking.
A homburg hat is a square, staid, hat with a single deep dent the length of the crown and a level or slightly upcurving brim, neither wide nor narrow and entirely bound with a discreet fabric ribbon, with an outer edge that curls up sharply around the entire circumference. It's exactly the hat that, before 1960, Presidents used to wear to their Inauguration. Even John Kennedy wore one, though I think it was the last hat he wore while in office, and most younger men stopped wearing them as well.
The gentleman I passed on the sidewalk could have easily dropped in from 1956, while on his way to a long lunch at Sam Paoletti's--dead across from the Ohio Statehouse and next door to the home of the Columbus Dispatch. The newspaper is still there, but the restaurant is now a wind-swept parking lot, and if any ghosts of genial legislators or buttonholing lobbyists remain, they must find it rather breezy on these, the coldest days of winter so far.
Perhaps the Johnny Walker Red and Sam's wonderful Prime Rib Au Jus keep them warm still, and perhaps the gentleman I passed was one of them. Perhaps not. But it is good to reflect on time, to think of myself and another precocious junior high school boy lunching on that Prime Rib ten years later, in 1966, under the same red neon sign towering over the Dispatch building that towers over it today.
The plaque marking the founding of the AFL still abides, though the shabby homes surrounding the great Central Market were all bulldozed down by urban "renewal" just about the time I was lunching at Paoletti's, as was the Market itself. And the shiny new Holiday Inn that was built on the site then is now as shabby and down at heel as the homes which it replaced.
I sometimes wonder, as we dig ever deeper into this new virtual world of ours, whether these layers of time present interpenetrating time past will survive in any fundamental way. I am writing this, to be input later, with a flat nibbed calligraphy pen in a personal hand somewhere between Irish half-uncial and Renaissance italic--but, without my telling you this, the input will strip all that away. And even then, will those layers mean much to you in any fundamental way? I don't know. Did anyone younger than me, that hot young lawyer, say, notice my ghost, if ghost he was? I gravely doubt it. Will any one yet unborn notice me if I return for a latte at Starbuck's? I don't think so. They'll all be too busy with whatever passes for being online then, where I, of course, will have left no trace.