A short but curious 1780 passage in Boswell reads, “Of a certain noble Lord, he [Samuel Johnson] said, ‘Respect him, you could not; for he had no mind of his own. Love him you could not; for that which you could do with him, everyone else could.’” No doubt, this lack of respect or love is regrettable for the reasons given. Even though our minds are capable of knowing all things, still we must take the effort to know them. Love, moreover, has the character of particularity, not universality. “The friend of everyone is the friend of no one.” What struck me about Johnson’s remarks, as I told a friend, was his acute awareness of things that could only happen once.
The morning I read this passage, I went to the dentist. After the appointment, I returned home via the Wisconsin Avenue bus at Friendship Heights. Six people, including myself, got on. I sat down. As the bus began to inch its way along (the speed of buses!), I noticed a little girl standing in the seat in front of me. She was looking backward but was being held a bit by an elderly lady (that is, we both qualified for senior citizens’ fares!). I was in Roman collar.
After sizing me up, the little girl asked, “What’s your name?” First of all, she was very cute. Figuring the shortest answer would be best, I replied, “Jim.” I hesitated to say “Father Jim,” as I was not just sure of her background. She had two heart-shaped stick-ons in red and blue on her right cheek and some blue writing on her left. I asked her what they were. She explained. I told her that I liked them. The elderly lady was not sure that I appreciated this conversation. I gestured that it was fine.
“How old are you?” I asked her. Holding up three fingers, she said, “Three.” Figuring she wasn’t, I asked her if she was in school. “Oh, yes,” she said. I quizzed, “You are not in kindergarten?” “NO!” she replied with some force. “I am in preschool.” “Do you go all day?” “No, only half a day,” she informed me.
About this time, she discovered the cord indicating a stop. The lady told her not to pull it. I repeated it. “How far are you going?” “Downtown,” she told me. “What are you going to do there?” I asked her. “See my mother.” Finally, I said to the lady, who had a very thick accent—Greek, as it turned out—”Are you her grandmother?” “Yes,” she replied, pleased. “She looks like you,” I told her.
“What’s your name?” she asked me again, as if she never asked it before. Again, I told her “Jim.” The whole front of the bus was listening to this conversation. I had an umbrella with me. She wanted to know what that was. “An umbrella, for the rain.” She pointed to the handle. “What’s that?” “The handle.” “Don’t you have an umbrella?” “Yes,” she answered, “but mine has a red handle.” “Don’t you have another umbrella with a blue handle?” “No, but my mother does.” Next she wanted to know why my umbrella was black. “To match my suit,” I soberly told her. Meantime, she was jiggling all over the seat and her grandmother.
She wanted to know where I was going. “Back to school.” “What school?” I told her, “Georgetown.” As we were about to pass the Anglican National Cathedral, I told her to look out for the big church. Her grandmother thought I meant the Greek Orthodox Cathedral just down on Massachusetts. This gave the grandmother a chance to ask if I am a Catholic priest. So we all now knew where we are.
I had asked the girl her name. She responded, “Alexis [maybe Alexy],” which would be about right from Greek heritage. Again she asked me, “What’s your name?” This time I told her, “Father Jim.” She asked, “Father Steve?” The grandmother told me that she knows Fr. Steve from church. I think she actually did call me “Father Jim” once or twice in distinguishing me from Fr. Steve.
The grandmother was very polite. I asked Alexy if she has a brother or sister. The grandmother told me that her daughter has only begotten the one. The “downtown” that grandmother and granddaughter were seeking was the big supermarket on Wisconsin Avenue. Alexy pulled the cord, very pleased. As she lifted her up to carry her out, the grandmother turned to me apologetically, “She talks a lot. I hope you did not mind.” I replied, “I was completely charmed.”
I recall Johnson—such a bus ride can happen only once. “What’s your name?” Actually, we give children names because each of them can only happen once.