I was eight years old the first time I searched for truth. The man in the dark suit taught me how to do it.*
* Yes, I obviously love Paul Auster
The man in the dark suit was my father and the impeccable clothing was as much an integral part of his persona as was the uncompromising desire to not only know, but also speak up the truth at any cost. There are more favorable circumstances to yield to this desire than being a lead columnist in one of the biggest newspapers of a communist country, but that seemed to interest him as little as did the inevitable consequences.
As any child does, I thought a world of my father. And as any child does, I tried to be like him as much as I could, but quickly realized that wearing a neatly ironed suit or finding an audience – any audience – is not something an eight year old can easily accomplish. I didn’t even have enough strength in my fingers to type on his geezer codger Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter* when he was not at home. So if I wanted to be anything like him, the only thing left to do was to search for the truth myself.
* Typewriters were a huge part of my childhood. Besides the two that my parents had and that were on our kitchen table for most of the time when we were not eating, my sister had one, too, and that one was in a room we shared. My sister is eleven years older than me and I am still convinced that she is the fastest typist in the world. And the loudest. She financed her education by retyping documents for diverse companies and she would do that during evenings and nights, so I rarely went to sleep without the light of her desk lamp and the sound of her mechanical typewriter accompanying me. To this day I find it easier to fall asleep on a sailing boat in the middle of the Ocean storm than in a quiet and dark room.
My father would come home around five on most days. I would first hear the car parking in front of our building and then he would climb the 114 stairs leading to our fourth floor* apartment. To this day I am ashamed to admit that my excitement for his arrival had less to do with him and more with what he would bring home day after day. Newspapers. A whole lot of newspapers.
* We actually lived on the fifth and the final floor of the building. However, the law required an elevator be installed for every building of five or more floors, so our building had two ground floors. I am serious. We had a “Ground Level Floor” and a “Close to the Ground Floor” above it. First floor was already at the height of the third deck of Coliseum, or at least so it seamed when one was a small kid.
He had a dark brown leather bag with a shiny copper buckle and inside it all the evening editions of all the major newspapers in the country. It wasn’t heavy and my father was a strong man, yet it seemed that his strength would abandon him as soon as he crossed the threshold of our home and that it was exactly that bag that was robbing him of all his power. I was too little to understand the weight this bag had on him, to understand the implications and the danger of a dissenting thought and the power of its menacing echo. To me, that bag represented a window to the world and there was nothing greater anywhere to be found. Back in the late seventies, that resentfully thrown piece of leather was my internet.
So, thirty years ago, almost to a day, I took one of the newspapers out of it and marched into our living room, opened the sports page, called for my parents’ attention and started reading an article out loud. I don’t remember anymore what the article was about, but I do remember that my parents’ faces showed that they were equal parts amazed and freaked out. I was reading an article from a Serbian newspaper. I had learned Cyrillic all on my own.
My father always told me that only when you hear the other side of the story are you ready to start understanding where the truth might lay. Serbian papers were the other side of the story, pretty much any story, and especially when that story was one of a soccer match between ours and theirs. I knew the soccer league standings by heart, so I had little problem deciphering the single letters and soon I was able to read the words, then the sentences, then the whole game recaps.
All by myself I searched for my very first truth and discovered my very first other side of the story. My father didn’t say much that day, but I remember how, later that night, he came to my side, put his arm across my shoulder, pulled me closer to him and just silently nodded.
My parents never lived to see me write or publish anything. As most teenagers, I wanted to be anything but what my parents were and as most grown ups who realize they haven’t thought of saying “thank you” until there was no more chance to do so, I regret it deeply. In every praise I ever get for my writing there is a vinegar drop, a realization that they will never know just how much they influenced me and will never have a chance to be proud of it.
Every now and then somebody who knew them well will read something I wrote, tell me that they think it was a good piece, then breathe in as if they want to say something more, only to hold their breath and stare thoughtfully at the floor or at an imaginary point way behind my back. Then we’ll just nod, tap each other on the shoulder and walk away.
I still search for truth from time to time. Sometimes it is in the photons of the optical fiber, sometimes in the thin Colorado air and it never matters. It never matters because it’s more about the journey than actually reaching the truth and because the truths I pursue are rather meaningless in the big picture. Yet, I search and every one of these searches leads me back to the warm evenings of my childhood, to the smell of the leather bag, the sound of the typewriter and my lead-smeared fingers leafing through what would be the memory of my life.
I owe you four graphs.