For several years I’ve been a member of a San Francisco group called the Luncheon society. Every month or so, the organizer invites some notable person — an author, a scientist, a politician, an astronaut — to join the group for lunch at a local restaurant.
In all the years I’ve been attending these luncheons, things pretty much work the same way. The guest is introduced, he talks for a minute or two, and then we all sit down to have a good discussion over lunch. That’s been the format for everyone I’ve seen come to these luncheons.
Except Christopher Hitchens.
We were in a private, upstairs room at a downtown restaurant. Hitch was invited to sit, but he said he’d prefer to stand. He then opened a couple windows, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, stood behind his chair, repeatedly lifted a glass of scotch to his lips, and proceded to lecture on a variety of topics for about two hours, interrupted only by a waiter who hopelessly informed him that this was a non-smoking restaurant.
We had to expect that the lunch would be a little different with Hitchens as the guest. Everything about Christopher Hitchens was, after all, different. His timing, his humor, his positions on the topics of the day, and of course, the magnitude of his intellect.
We were, for those two hours, riveted. After lunch, a handful of us walked across the street to sit at some outdoor tables and continue the drinking. This was back in the earlier days of the Internet, before the age of follows and likes, and at the time Hitchens knew very little about topics like blogging and linking. So he asked me questions on human history’s only subject matter about which I knew more than him.
There we were, buzzed at an outdoor cafe on a sunny San Francisco afternoon, and for two minutes, I was explaining something to Christopher Hitchens who puffed and sipped in that beige linen suit he wore everywhere in those days. Those are two minutes I’ll never forget.
And I’ll never forget the urgency with which I would head to sites that featured Hitch’s essays anytime something really big happened in the world. I’d refresh the pages over and over until I could read some analysis by a guy with the firepower to back up his positions (whether you agreed with them or not, they were always well-argued).
Now that Hitch is gone, I find myself returning to those sites and to the pages of magazines where I used to find him. I keep refreshing the sites and turning the pages looking for that one article that would be smart and funny enough to put his passing into perspective. But it’s no use. The only guy who could write that article was Hitch himself. But his furiously prolific words have stopped, and the world’s IQ has dropped about ten percent because of that.
I’ve spent many moments next to people who make one feel awe. Great athletes, famous celebrities, charismatic politicians, leaders of companies. Those moments are always memorable. But the moment is different when the awe you feel is for a person’s mind. And so the moments were always a little different with Christopher Hitchens.
Looking back, I guess it all made pefect sense. In a situation where everyone else sat down, Hitch stood.