It is an oddly hot day in central London. An elderly man in a yellow short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts darts across the intersections of Piccadilly Circus, disregarding the double-decker red buses and black cabs that have the right of way. His once new, neon orange sneakers, are now scuffed with the dirt of London, yet still bright enough to act as a quasi signal to the motorists on Shaftsbury Avenue daring them to hit him and his little ducklings trailing behind him.
Trying to hail a cab with a gaggle of students standing around twiddling their thumbs, he looks like a belligerent and curmudgeon tourist who is unfamiliar with the unspoken language of the city. The cabbies haggling and honking at him probably would never guess that the man haphazardly crossing the streets of London is a three time Emmy award winning writer, Hall of Famer professor, and an acclaimed playwright, who knows more about London than any native could ever know.
Michael Olmert is tired, worn out, and worried if he will make it with his students to the newest production of the Oresteia.
“Get in the damn cab,” Olmert croaks at his students who are taking selfies instead of getting in the black car. “Pay attention and get in,” he says raising his voice to a level I had never heard him reach before. Finally, Olmert gets the last of his students into a black cab, and hands the smartest one in the group a dog-eared 20 pound note, hoping that it will be enough to make it to the northern end of the city.
His undesignated favorites end up riding in a cab with him. Frantically, he looks for the tickets to the supposedly sensational new production of the Greek tragedy in his messenger bag, not a cool, leather messenger bag that all of the posh men of London can be seen carrying around, but one that looks like his wife got at a raffle at a medical conference with some obscure drug name stitched on it. Practical and not flashy – much like its owner. Rifling through the bag he can’t find the tickets, having mini heart attacks that can’t be good for his recovery from his carotid artery surgery. He forgot, again, that he had given them to me, deeming my bag full of zippers and compartments filled with tissues and hand sanitizer safer than his. His once crisp, yellow shirt now has sweat stains under the sleeves, two of the bottom buttons are undone exposing part of his age and food induced potbelly, there is dried and crusty blood on his neck, and his right shoelace is untied.
Michael Olmert was unraveling, and in that cab, I was afraid of what would happen next.
I first met Olmert in his Modern British Drama class nine months before I went to London. I had heard of ‘Olmert kids’ in the English Department before, whispers and sometimes judgmental discussion about students who took multiple classes with him, being addressed by their surnames as Olmert liked to do with his favorites, some of them ending up as his teaching assistants, and with the crème de la crème of them going to their top choice of graduate schools. It was an alluring prospect: to be appreciated or to be friends with a professor, and it was something I wanted to experience.
On the first day of class, Olmert got up and walked around the classroom – something he rarely does, opting to remain more or less sedentary during class – and spoke about the importance of drama and of being writers. At the end of his amble he stopped next to my desk, pulled out a dollar bill from his wallet and tore it into quarters and yelled in the silent Tawes classroom: “This,” he said sprinkling the severed dollar bits on the floor, “this doesn’t matter. What matters are the stories we keep, the stories you will tell. At Thanksgiving this year tell that uncle who always asks what you’re going to do with an English degree, tell him that you will become a storyteller. Someone who preserves the past and creates for the future.”
In retrospect, his speech was a little “Oh captain, my captain,” but it made it easy to see why students flock to him, why educators respect him, and why I stealthily grabbed a piece of that dollar bill: because he’s a romantic. As if 75-years ago in Annapolis, time spit out a new version of John Keats to crusade for the stories of the past and the stories to come. The second coming of the Romantics. Soon after the defilement of the dollar bill, I became an Olmert kid: someone who went to his office hours dissecting the oddities and artifacts peppered throughout the small space; someone who performed in his script in hand readings of his original plays; someone who kept a separate notebook of every anecdote he said; someone who wanted to become a romantic like him.
Being an Olmert kid was like being friends with great writers of the past. You were connected to them through his passion and awe of their works, like the writers and their muses were bubbling out of him. “I don’t teach broccoli and Brussels sprouts, guys. I teach hot fudge sundaes,” he said one day after discussing Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” As he read the lines: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” I saw what I would later consider Olmert’s classic poem reading face: the corners of his mouth pulling up as the lines progress, revealing his oddly sharp looking canine teeth, forming a greedy smile, and coupled with his crows feet crinkling behind his rounded glasses. Moved by the words of the famous romantic, I think I saw Olmert well up. Maybe he was wiping some crud out of his eye, or rearranging his glasses, but I like to think he shed the smallest of tears because Keats compelled him to. Don’t tell him I said that.
“You’re coming on my London study abroad trip this summer right? You won’t be my TA next year if you don’t come,” Olmert asked rather bluntly one day in his office, after discussing the role of Aloysius’ in Brideshead Revisited. Without skipping a beat, and like a Pavlovian dog salivating over the prospect of being his TA and being in an Olmert class for three weeks straight in my favorite city, I said, “When and how much?”
One semester and a couple thousand dollars later, Olmert greeted me and the 10 other students at Heathrow, sporting his new, neon orange sneakers, for three weeks of cultural and literary immersion. I was under the impression that the plays we would see, the museums we would visit, the ruins that we would explore, would be the elements of the transcendent experience I had been looking for. I was wrong.
As the trip progressed along, it was difficult not to notice how slow Olmert walked, how we took cabs more often than the Tube, and how he would incessantly cough and wheeze during plays drawing unnecessary attention to our little coterie. I was worried, worried about him, and selfishly worried that he would die on the streets of London without having written my letter of recommendation to graduate school.
What unsettled me the most were Olmert’s sudden and spontaneous departures from being a jovial old man, to a crotchety jackass. One minute he’d be talking about the significance of Georgian architecture, and the next he’d be yelling at the group’s designated scapegoat for not paying intense attention to the differing column capitals outside a cathedral. Calling students out was not part of Olmert’s typical repertoire. Back in his classroom in the United States, he never seemed to blink an eye when there were always one or two students in his class who abused Olmert’s laissez-faire attitude toward college bureaucracy and checked out as soon as they walked through the door lost in the screen of their bumper stickered Macbooks. But there, in London, it seemed like you would lose every single Brownie point you had earned from Olmert if you weren’t devoting every ounce of your attention to the random building Olmert was sermonizing.
One evening we had tickets to see Measure for Measure at The Globe, and on a university budget we had to be groundlings. And Olmert, always being one to find a fire hydrant or lamp post to lean on, suggested that we arrive two hours early so that we would be able to lean on the stage instead of standing for three plus hours. Waiting for two hours just to be let through the door, we sat on a medieval street eating crappy prepackaged sandwiches, resting our drinks in the gully of the street that signified its medieval origins, “They stopped the shit from caking the streets,” Olmert shared in an oddly proud way during one his lessons, like it was his idea to redirect the medieval excrement. It was midway through our trip, cliques had been formed, boundaries broken, and we sat on an unusually sunny London afternoon with hundreds of years of London history surrounding us: St. Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames and The Globe Theatre at our fingertips. I think Keats would have written an ode to the moment if he were there.
But it couldn’t last. After two hours of waiting, and as the doors to the groundling section were opening, the one person in front of us, a Frenchman with a ridiculous handlebar mustache and horned glasses, had the rest of his group meet him at the front of the line – eliminating any hopes of us having stage front standing room. Angry that the past two hours were wasted, coupled with the fact that one of the students had yet to show up to the theatre, Olmert began to unravel. Instead of politely asking the group of people to go to the back of the line, like when your father asks to send his food back at a restaurant because of a waiter’s mistake, he decided to go up the Frenchman and yell and scream at him – a very un-English thing to do. Exclamations of “fuck you” and “go to hell” flew outside of one of the most culturally important sites of the world, while we just stood there pretending not to know the old man who was fighting for us. The fight was over as quickly as it began, and we even got spots on the stage after passive aggressive shoving, but no one saw Olmert’s face age 10 years as he slumped away from us toward the back of the crowd. His romantics had failed him.
I chalked his snappy behavior up to the fact that the 10 of us were the so-called ‘chosen ones’ – the ones who the great romantic chose to follow in his footsteps. He didn’t want us to become jaded, but instead linger a little longer on a 16th century side street instead of prioritizing where our next caffeine fix was going to come from. In his eyes we should have cared more that those tourists were inhibiting us from experiencing Shakespeare on our terms, even if those terms consisted of us being able to lean against a banister for comfort. Like him, he never wanted us to stop fighting for what we deserved.
But despite my egoistic fears and the embarrassment I felt for him and for us after the altercation outside of The Globe, there were moments with the Olmert I first met that weren’t tainted by his age or the side effects of his recent surgery. During a visit to the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, a gallery full of plaster copies of the most significant sculptures of our time, he lectured us, starry eyed, on Trajan’s Column, and how the Cast Courts bring years of culture and history to one place, while erasing the elitist inclusivity of art. The classic takeaway of a true romantic.
Sitting in the cab with him that hot London day, reassuring him that I had the tickets, I realized that I treated him unfairly. He was not an idol to be worshipped, not a muse to write an ode about, but a person of flesh and blood, who would one day be sadly forgotten. I had built Olmert up to be an intrepid and eternal force, an idea that would never cease to exist, like he was something out of a romantic’s poem. Looking at his disheveled state in the back of the cab, I was taken back to a memory of Olmert reciting the final lines of Sir Henry Newbolt’s “The Fighting Téméraire,” a poem about a British naval ship that fought in the Napoleonic Wars being replaced by steamboat technology: “Now the sunset’s breezes shiver, / And she’s fading down the river,/ But in England’s song for ever/ She’s the Fighting Téméraire.” With blood slowly bubbling out of his surgical wound, induced by the side effects of the blood-thinning medicine maintaining his mortality, Olmert embodied The Fighting Téméraire: pristine and authoritative above the surface with his wavy white hair resembling masts of a ship. But beneath the deteriorating water and armor of Keats and Tennyson, barnacles clung and will continue to cling to him, showing just how long he’s been submerged in life. He was no longer the professor that I venerated, but a friend to be admired.
The city was cooling down as the cabbie pulled up to the theater with the rest of Olmert’s students waiting outside, proof that the 20 pound note was enough. He hands me his belongings so he can pay for the fare, and manages to tell a joke to the cabbie – something about quirks of American students – eliciting a hearty laugh from him. Waiting for his instructions, the students huddle around Olmert probably sensing the undulating waves of his anxiety and frustration. They are quiet. We make it to the theater entrance and I gesture to the blood leaking from his neck. He wipes it with a tissue I hand him, and leads us inside.